19 November 2018 Print Companies

A new era opens up at Bluetree as it pioneers inkjet technology

The UK’s fastest growing print company is Bluetree. It has been a pioneer of online printing. Now it is a pioneer in its application of inkjet technology to improve offset litho printing.

Bluetree has surprised pretty much everyone in print this year. First it surprised many in the industry when announcing investment in a Screen Truepress 520HD, a continuous feed inkjet press that would replace a good chunk of litho printing when coupled with a Tecnau inline sheeter and stacker. Then, when the press was in place and operational, Bluetree surprised even these suppliers by ordering a second inkjet print production line.

The two lines are now in place and running alongside three long perfecting litho presses, four Xerox iGens, a Fuji Jetpress and HP Indigo 12000. The line up is unique. No other company anywhere is using a webfed inkjet press to handle what has had to be printed litho until now. However, for Bluetree the logic of the move is impeccable, backed by the quality that is possible with the Screen press.

Bluetree burst onto the scene four years ago with the merger between a former screen printing business and Instantprint, a start up that had discovered that people want to buy simple print online and also want next day delivery. From an office above a car dealership in Newcastle lifelong friends Adam Carnell and James Kinsella had been pumping out flyers, business cards and the like, all sold through a website.

In Rotherham, Bryan Shirley, owner of the Bluetree display print business, had been pondering how to do online printing, but had limited his horizons to the display graphics market he understood. When the two sides met up to discuss colour management and consistency problems that the younger business needed to solve, the conversation jumped to how the two could help each other expand. “My thinking was too limited,” says Shirley. “For me and for them, it seemed an obvious fit. Culturally we were very similar.”

The union was the spark that ignited one of the fastest growing print businesses in Europe at a time when overall demand for print on paper has been declining. Bluetree achieved the Sunday Times list of the fastest growing companies in the UK three years on the turn and only missed out on the recognition this last year because the threshold was 48% growth and it fell 2% short.

Constant investment has been necessary to provide the platform to achieve this growth. The company has spent £5 million last year and close to that this year, more than £30 million since 2012.

This has brought a vast new factory on the edge of Rotherham; the continual investment in the printing technology above, plus the finishing equipment to match; there is investment in its internally developed workflow and other software; in its people and data analytics to continually refine how Bluetree pitches the service to customers and there is investment in the production solutions to achieve the slickest most efficient process possible. If people are wasted pulling a pallet of finished work to the dispatch area, then Bluetree has replaced people power with a conveyor system.

It is a lean management approach that few others have attempted. The idea is that as much as possible nobody touches the orders from the time they are placed to despatch. “Reducing the labour and waste and squeezing what we can from each job is vital for us,” says Shirley, who stepped down from the board a few months ago.

Bluetree works through different brands supported by customer teams that understand the knowledge (or lack of it) that customers have.

Instantprint serves irregular customers with simple flyers and business cards. They may not understand the intricacies of the printing process so can need more guidance than customers of Bluetree's second brand Route1. These are the trade buyers, printers and agencies who have understood the advantages of working with a business able to consolidate similar job and so achieve economies of scale. Now Route1 Connect targets more regular customers, print management businesses that are demanding more complex products, multi-section brochures and books for example.

These types of work are channelled to separate production cells that are finessed for the most effective way of producing print. The B2 Indigo 10000 press is linked inline to a Horizon SmartStacker that spits out stacks of single page print jobs that are checked, wrapped and sent off to dispatch.

The B2 Jetpress 720S is dedicated to business cards. Sheets can be sent through a Harris and Bruno coater or Autobond laminator before being loaded to a purpose built Rollem cutter slitter that slices and dices the cards into boxes for the same dispatch area. A Scodix in the same glass panelled room can add a touch of embellishment to cards now and to brochures and books in the future.

The iGen room has four of the Xerox machines, one with a Tecnau reel sheeter fitted that allows the press to print 80,000 sheets without any need to refill its feed trays. It means that the digital press can run uninterrupted for several hours rather than needing the paper bins filling every few minutes. Costs are minimised through the application of technology.

Tecnau is also instrumental in the latest development. Through UK dealer IFS, it has supplied unwind unit, sheeter and stacker to both Screen lines. In the start up phase earlier in the summer, the press ran to a rewind unit though only as a temporary step. Now the sheeter and stacker change on the fly according to information about each job retrieved through barcodes.

This technology is well established as Tecnau is worldwide market leader in paper handling systems for continuous feed digital presses. What is new at Bluetree is the stacker which introduces soft touch grippers to lift and pull each sheet into the stack, avoiding any marking on what can be sheets with a heavy ink coverage.

It is an approach which has worked for generations in litho printing but has been unnecessary in the digital world while mono printing has dominated. The stacker had previously used belts to control each sheet, raising the risk of marking.

The development means that Bluetree can print with heavy ink coverage without concern that the sheet will mark because the sheet is being dragged across the surface of another sheet or in contact with belts. The ink should be dry, but may not be fully hardened at this point.

The ink is the Screen SC ink, a rapidly coagulating formulation that will sit on the surface of a standard offset paper without a protective coating. This feature was crucial to Bluetree selecting the Screen inkjet press and to its confidence that inkjet would be able to match litho for quality and that this would give inkjet the edge that the company is now exploiting.

“It’s about taking the least profitable work from litho and putting it on the inkjet press, which in turn frees up capacity on the litho presses and so helps margins,” says Shirley. This work is short run multi-section brochures and perfect bound books, fewer than 1,000 copies but with an average of 500-600. On the litho press this will mean multiple plate changes and makereadies.

Even with the 35 sheets used before good colour, a four-section book can add substantially to the percentage of sheets in a short run job. Moving this to a digital press with no loss of quality will release the offset press for longer runs and reduce the amount of folding, pallets of work in progress waiting for the job to finish printing and the stitching as the final step. “We were spending more time setting up our Muller Martini than running the job,” says Carnell.

Now an inkjet press can feed flat sheets to a Horizon StitchLiner MkIII or to a BQ480 perfect binder even before the job has finished printing. Jobs can be printed faster, with less disruption and everyone benefits in a sector which is one of the fastest growing for Bluetree.

If this is the logic, it only works if Bluetree can be confident in the technology to meet quality considerations and printing on the same papers. And with the Screen TruepressJet 520HD, Bluetree has found that press. What has delivered the solution is a new type of ink seen in an early version at Drupa in 2016 and perfected since then with the announcement of the press and commercial availability of the ink the next year.

The first samples were distributed at the Hunkeler Innovation Days in 2017. Carnell picked up a copy of the calendar used as a sample to demonstrate the print quality. “This was the first time we had seen inkjet technology applicable to our own markets. We saw the potential there was for it to really change how we worked and to let us transfer a big chunk of production to inkjet printing. And we had to understand the connection with other equipment.

“Another element is in the software because a digital solution is the combination of hardware and software to deliver the results we need. This was a brand new area of technology for us, so one of the key considerations was to work with suppliers we already rely on.”

The company has three Screen-made platesetters. It has existing technology from Horizon via IFS, which also supplies Tecnau in the UK. “We were confident because Tecnau is world leader in handling systems,” he adds. Tecnau was as eager to work with Bluetree. “Companies like Bluetree are our customers of the future,” says Harm Jan Hulleman, sales director covering central Europe, the UK and middle east.

Bluetree had watched other inkjet providers, but the Screen was the first continuous feed inkjet press able to print litho quality on coated offset papers. Previously there has been compromises, in quality, in speed or in the paper options. Inkjet optimised papers are expensive and do not match the feel and look of coated papers.

Bluetree is keeping control on the papers that it will run on the Screen presses, just as it limits the choice of papers that its litho presses use. Its business model is built on a limited selection of papers and maintaining a standardised approach to printing.

The two inkjet lines meet this criteria. One is set up to print sections for saddle stitched brochures, the other for perfect bound products. Each prints in collated order, the stacks of sheets being taken across the aisle to either a Horizon StitchLiner MkIII or a Horizon BQ480 perfect binder. The StitchLiner is capable of running at 6,000 copies an hour and of switching between formats in seconds; the BQ480 is equally swift to set up, a four-clamp binder able to produce run of one books and brochures.

Once the decision had been taken on the technology, the work began on getting the workflow in place that would allow as much automation as possible.

At this point covers are printed separately, but they need to be the same size and to be printed at the right time and delivered to the finishing lines ready for completion of a job. Next year these will be printed on the UK’s first Landa S10P. Bluetree has built its own automated workflow and the new production unit needed to be integrated into the workflow, making it simple for an operator to call up a job knowing that all the profiles are part of the workflow.

“It has not been an easy process,” says Carnell, “though we believe that inline production will pay off in the long term.”

The challenge for Bluetree now is to manage the flow of covers to these machines. And that will be solved next year with the installation of the UK’s first Landa S10P nano graphic press. “We knew it would take a period of time. There are internal complexities to the workflow that needed to be sorted out, making sure covers were correct took fine tuning but we could immediately see clear benefits.

“The second press went in immediately because of this. We had expected to run the first for six to 12 months before buying the second, but the benefits were so clear.”

The inkjet technology has proved highly reliable, something that is needed for the professionals who buy through Route1. “They need to trust our reliability and quality. Their expectations are that quality from Route1 will be high and,” says Carnell, “there have been very few adverse comments.”

The company runs the presses at 50m/min at a resolution of 1200x1200dpi. They will run at 120m/min though at a lower resolution and reduced ink coverage. New Adphos near infra red dryers are waiting to be installed on the presses. This will raise throughput to 75m/min, though not the 120m/min because says Carnell at the 600x600dpi, the difference in quality becomes noticeable. And while that may not matter to the bulk of clients, to switch between quality levels adds a decision that operators will need to take rather than run with the standard settings.

Work is also needed to better understand the economics of ink coverage and costs to ensure that the company’s workflow directs jobs to the inkjet when that is best and to litho when that is better. Inkjet fills the need for the shorter run jobs. Longer runs will stay litho. “The cost of paper per page is why litho will always be part of the business for a very very long time to come even as economics will continue to shift the balance with changes in the cost of ink for example,” he continues.

There is also an environmental argument for inkjet. The only chemistry needed to run the press is a little cleaning fluid. In contrast the litho process needs chemistry to process plates, chemistry in the fount and to clean down the press Carnell points out. Then where the inkjet press is one or two person operated, the litho workflow needs someone in the plate room, two people on the press, others to operate a guillotine then a folder. All are cost factors both in terms of labour and waste levels.

Gareth Ward

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