The rat race seems to have passed the Dorset town of Dorchester by and that’s the way that Mark Downey likes it. The managing director of Epic Print moved out of London to raise his growing family away from the expense of the capital where he had been working for forms printer Moore Corporation.
He first joined a company in Bournemouth then took up the challenge of buying a bankrupt printer a few miles further down the road in Dorchester. It ran a Kord and a GTO, standard fare for the time.
That is now Epic Print, a printer, which at the turn of the century was little different to another 10,000 or so UK printing companies then in business. Since then, and accelerating since 2008, industry-wide consolidation has been the order of the day and there are now far fewer printers than at the industry’s peak.
And there is more to come. The challenge today is about how to survive in these conditions and how, under continual commoditisation, to carve an identity that allows a business to stand apart. To achieve a margin.
When Downey first arrived in Dorchester, there was a prepress department with drum scanners and a customer base that accepted, marked up and required changes before making plates, and passing a job on press. It was craft skill that was widely respected. The printer was the expert.
That all changed with the advent of desktop publishing. Customers who might argue about the changes needed to a close up of a face, could now buy a cheap scanner and produce their own films. Suddenly the bar of quality was removed in favour of convenience.
“In the first five years of running the business,” he says, “the conversations were all about quality. We did a job for London Fashion Week, a wire bound 252pp A6 guide to all the events and venues, the facilities and restaurants. The scanning and proofing process took weeks. Then the agency went to DTP and the files could go to press without any proofing. It was quite scary.”
Epic survived that and the price erosion from computer to plate as printers handed over the cost advantages to customers. Epic might have become a victim of commoditisation had it not changed course over the last decade. At the point Downey decided to focus on higher margin, value added work over volume.
“We are trying to take the focus away from the printing engines and put the focus on what more we could add value to the sheet. We wanted to move away from the commodity market into an area where we felt there was growth and we could provide more value,” says Downey. The company had at that point just a six-colour B2 litho press and seven-colour Indigo digital press. It would need more to offer more than than volume focused printers can.
That has led to investment in finishing technology, and led five years ago to Epic becoming one of the first UK companies to buy a Scodix. Last year it continued the value added options with investment in the Kama 76, and this year became the first in the UK with the foiling option and its associated stripping and blanking unit.
At the same time it added LED UV to its six-colour Mistubishi Diamond 1000 B2 press. This has combination rollers to run either the UV inks or conventional. “LED is fantastic for certain jobs and has moved the litho press closer to the speed of digital because of the speed of drying and materials it can print,” he says. But the cost of metallics, neons and spot colours in LED inks is prohibitive, hence it has retained the ability to print with conventional inks.
The search is also on for the types of customer that appreciate what Epic can do. It has led to packaging work, not really cartons (though it does produce cartons) but the sleeves, tags and other items that are needed. It produces millions of tags for one of the most environmentally aware retailers in the country, each one needing to be cut and holed, strung and packed.
Other packaging work needs to die cut, foiled and varnished, and like printers everywhere, runs are becoming shorter and production windows tighter. This is the type of work that the company seeks out, the stuff that many will find too difficult and which larger printers would sniff at because runs are too short.
For a business that does not have a large natural catchment area – “there are not many chimney pots around here”, Downey will say – Epic cannot afford to be a commodity printer. It means too that using trade services is not practical. On the other hand higher value work makes sense. A commodity job, say 10,000 copies of an eight-page brochure, will need to be printed as fast as possible to generate a profit. Half the money goes out the window to the paper supplier for example, and more goes on plates, inks and other consumables, leaving meagre pickings for the printer.
But the economics for a value added job are very different. The cost for 500 intricate cartons may be similar to the commodity job, with far less for the substrate, inks and so on. There is less pressure to run the press at its maximum and stress can be placed on the skills and design to maximise impact of the print.
Epic aims at the clients that want this level of print and service and which do not always attract the agencies and print managers that drive down the price of print. These are not necessarily the largest brands, though installation of the Scodix did result in an approach from one of the major luxury car companies saying ‘we need to have that’. His company, says Downey has produced 200 jobs for the client since, only six of which used Scodix. It had done the sales job that Downey wanted. “Scodix has been our best salesman, the jewel in our crown,” he says.
“When we bought it we were putting £10,000 a year in varnishing out and the investment was equivalent to a new sales executive for three years.”
To get the best from it, Epic has had to push the technology to show the tactile effects, screened images as well as the more commonplace spot varnishes that other use on greetings cards and book covers for example.
These are all displayed in sample books and presenters that Epic has created in collaboration with a Leeds design agency to show what can be done. The presentation folders include samples of real jobs that Epic has produced. “We talk about the techniques we have used and the numbers that were produced and what was involved, but we never leave these with the prospect. Instead we leave behind a decent quality notebook that will be used for a few weeks.
“We are trying to create the impression that we are very different to your incumbent supplier. We do not want to be printing 55,000 8pp leaflets every month, but if we ask them if they have prospects that they want to become customers, then we can help them convert prospects to customers.”
This will be enhanced by the arrival of the Kama. Epic will be able to step up the offering to include more sophisticated die cutting and foiling. As with the Scodix, a telemarketing campaign can set up the meetings that start the client journey.
But Kama is about more than value add. It brings huge production efficiencies, which Downey reckons will save the business thousands of man hours in a year. This comes through stripping away waste removing the small cardboard plug filling the hole of a tied label. On the Kama this is blown out rather than needing to be picked out by hand.
The machine sits in the middle of the production floor taking up rather less space than any equivalent. The sheets are loaded from the side rather than the end. This helps with the footprint, but also with productivity and quality as the sheet is registered in the side lay along is longer edge for greater precision. It then travels in at right angles into the platen. A camera is used to check registration further, something not available on its Cylinder or Kluge which have handled die cutting and embossing tasks.
“At that point we were buying hot foiling from the trade,” says Downey. “Because of our location we like to have things in-house.” There was also the question of the business miles to consider, for Epic and for key customers, sustainability is crucially important.
“We had been reviewing die cutting on the market for five years, looking at Highcon and LasX options as well as other digital options. But none were able to satisfy all our requirements, including product quality and productivity and to improve our ability to enhance the sheet.
“We went to visit Kama in Dresden to see if it was for us. We found we could use our existing cutting dies and that we could continue to use wood rather than having to switch to metal, which when we are producing short runs and multiple versions of a product is a big consideration.”
The Kama is equally at home with litho and digitally printed work using the same registration. “And the three-point camera on the Kama gives us the confidence that we would be able to make ready and produce more effectively than we were able to at the time.”
The stripping and blanket unit was key to this. It removes the waste around the carton blanks which have none of the nicks and marks associated with its previous ways of die cutting. And it can remove the ‘eyes’ which are needed for the millions of tags it produces each year. This will save 6,000 man hours a year Downey reckons.
There is Kama’s CPX station which is a unit to set up the job outside the machine itself, slightly reminiscent of an optical plate punch for registering printing plates in the days before CTP. It both saves time and keeps the die cutting running.
The company has been able to retain its library of cut out patterns, mounting them quickly. On a hot foiling job, only a portion of the bed is heated to action the transfer of the foil to substrate. This saves on energy, but more importantly means that there is no lengthy cooling period before anyone dare remove it. When only a small zone on the bed is heated, there is also a faster response.
A conveyor unit is wheeled away for better access when not needed. When in place, the carton blanks are delivered as single items or as a shingled stream for collection and stacking for a further process step.
The L shaped configuration saves on the footprint and enables it to be a one-man operation if needs be. It runs comfortably at 3,500sph, twice the productivity of the Cylinder and delivering a better job.
The company is now turning its attention to the foiling aspect, nine months after the Kama was first installed. It will take the marketing lessons learned from the early days of the Scodix and apply them to the new service.
The Kama is another jewel he says and will have a similar impact says Downey.
“All our investments have been about wanting to improve our efficiently, though it’s more about being effective.”
Those investments have led the company to pivot towards packaging, though Epic is not a carton printer. There is no folder gluer for example. But it does produce boxes, wraps and tags by the million.
“It’s a different model to the business, we are trying to do what we should have been doing for the last 50 years. All too often we have been order takers and did not find opportunities to apply our knowledge and expertise.
“We ought to have been asking our customers what is is they are trying to achieve. It’s easier to do that if you have customers that are willing to listen to that advice. We try to build the cases studies to show that the ROI from our way of doing business works.”
It remains an ongoing journey. Five years ago 35% of turnover was accounted for by higher value work, 65% would be classed as commodity. Today that has reversed, Downey says.
It is a long journey. It can take 18 months of effort to win over a customer to this way of thinking and to trust a printer that is tucked away in Dorset, but once convinced, that customer will be around for life, or at least five years.
“It’s always been reliability, integrity and credibility that wins the business,” he says. It is also about thinking what best works for the customer, because that will always work best for Epic.
By Gareth Ward
Managing director Mark Downey has focused on higher margin, value added work rather than volume.
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Epic is starting to use the foiling option on what is the first Kama of its type in the UK.
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