22 July 2019 Digital Printing Technologies

It’s bracing in Southend for Solopress

Solopress has a new face at the helm. Simon Cooper, though, has been involved in print all his life and as managing director of Solopress says he is having the time of his life.

Simon Cooper lives just a 35-minute drive from his job as managing director of Solopress, one of the largest online print companies in the UK. This is almost next door compared to previous jobs calling for him to be in Dundee during the week, to travel to Spain, France and Italy on a regular basis when heading Exaprint and prior to that commuting to Uckfield.

While Stansted Airport is handy for most of these trips and to reach Nuremburg, close to where Onlineprinters has its head office, the relatively short commute is very welcome. “It’s enough time to shift into work mode and think about the day ahead,” he says.

It is a trip he has been making for the last six months, a period that has been as frenetic as any honeymoon, since joining the business when Aron Priest, Solopress founder, took up a less hands on role. Two Agfa H2500i hybrid large format inkjet presses were installed at the start of the year; two Indigo 10000s arrived at the end of April and an MGI Jetvarnish 3D S is due in the next few weeks. The decorators have been in to create a new office area while Cooper mulls over the possibility of finding space for staff to come together socially.

This is part of a change in company culture which is next on the agenda. In a company that is continuing to grow and recruit and is spread across three sites this is a challenge. Bright blue T-shirts, three for each of the 270 staff, are on order, the blue matching the company’s logo, now firmly affixed to the recently painted grey walls of the various buildings that Solopress occupies. “Changing the culture is always the biggest challenge,” says Cooper, “and can take months and years.”

The business is currently spread over three sites within half-a-mile of each other on the edge of Southend on Sea. While this provides some logistical problems as finishing for example is a few hundred metres up the road, the workarounds have been very effective. There is a site to site team that scans every stack of work collected from a press and scans it again as it arrives at the finishing unit. There is no space for work in progress, everything is picked up within 20 minutes for further processing.

This includes work from the two HP Indigo 10000s. Solopress also has a line up of eight Xerox iGens, which continue to work well, but Cooper wanted to be able to offer something different. The B2 Indigos sit between the B2 Speedmasters, taking on shorter runs, and the iGens with a smaller sheet size. The original thought process had been to invest in a ten-unit perfecting XL75, and the factory was built with the idea of running two alongside each other.

The first XL75 went in, but there are two digital machines alongside, not another litho press. “With the growth we were getting we kept asking ourselves how can we produce this more effectively. The original plan therefore was to install a ten-colour XL75. That would have given us more capacity but would not change our cost structures and how we produce work.”

The Indigos can also handle thicker stock than the Xerox machines. “The business model for B2 digital was based on taking some work from the litho presses and some from the iGens,” says Cooper, “and producing that in a more efficient way and so achieve much better margins while hitting customer requirements in terms of quality and speed. But the model doesn’t work if you have technology that’s not reliable and productive from day one. The savings only happen if you get the volume through the equipment.”

The company researched into all B2 digital presses available and despite Cooper’s long experience of the HP machine, others were considered seriously. These were principally the KM-1 and Fujifilm Jetpress 750. Both are B2 inkjet presses, the first using a UV cured ink, the second a water based ink. The problem was with the ink, in that Cooper could not cost it into the calculations for the actual price of a job.

“The challenge was how do I control my margins if I don’t know what the product will be,” he says. As the price cannot exceed the advertised price on the Solopress website, and Cooper has no control of the jobs coming in, either he prices low and loses money on high coverage jobs or prices high to dissuade customers from placing orders.

The Indigo in contrast was a known quantity and the pricing risk is carried by HP because of the click charge used. “And the Indigo is a very tried and tested machine in the market place. I was involved as part of Indigo’s advisory customer panel used to guide development of the 10000. And since I have been involved with Precision, Pureprint and through Exaprint, with Falkland Press, all of which have the press. I have watched the technology develop and evolve from the first betas.

“It is now a very reliable and productive machine and as a result, I felt very confident about taking the step. The other technologies have a limited install base which makes it difficult to make this sort of judgement.”

There are other Indigos across the group, two Indigo 12000s, two 10000s and five 7xxx series machines in Germany and two 12000s in Denmark. The relationship with HP is therefore strong, another pointer to this decision.

The presses arrived accompanied by a team of 14 engineers eager to get the presses signed off before the end of the first six months of HP’s year.

It worked. In the first weeks, Solopress became one of the leading companies with the B2 digital press according to the Printbeat tool in PrintOS. This was followed by a bump and a steady climb upwards. Today Solopress can be producing more than a million impressions a week across both machines.

Until their arrival, jobs up to 250 copies would be digital, above 251 litho. Now the cross over point is 500 sheets and the iGens handle more specialist and shorter run work.

Currently there are five operators trained to use the machines, giving a two-shift coverage for five days a week. Anything else is overtime. Another four will be fully trained this month, extending the hours that can be covered and helping to make Saturday a standard production day as Cooper wants.

“It will mean we can take orders on Saturday and deliver on Monday, the next working day. It will also mean there is back up to cover illness and holidays,” he says.

The arrival of the B2 machines has meant a small adjustment to the workflow. Partly because the eight iGens seem to be scattered throughout the building and partly because three of the older models cannot easily be tied into the network, the operators must pick their jobs, rather than having them assigned to a press by the operating software. This is not the case for the larger press.

Solopress uses a basic grid template to batch jobs, and create the impositions in Metrix. Currently if there is a bottleneck it is in the preproduction area where the algorithms get to work ganging jobs to best effect and moving them to the digital presses or to one of the five Kodak Magnus platesetters that between them can be called on to produce 35,000 Sonora processless plates a month.

To date the Indigos are performing to expectations. Each is two and a half times more productive than a single iGen. This factor will be increased a further 25% when Solopress implements EPM, running three colours and saving the time and cost of printing black. The analysis on the jobs handled, and Solopress copes with 2,500 a day, will show where the benefits of EPM reside. Even at this stage Cooper is confident that at least 40% of jobs coming through the factory will be suitable. “But we think it will possibly cope with more,” he adds.

The company will be soon getting to grips with its MGI digital embellishment press. This is going into a space vacated by two Jetrix roll printers that are now too old and slow to be competitive as volumes grow.

The hybrid Agfas, installed in another part of the plant, have taken on larger format duties along with an HP PageWide printer for producing single copy posters. A Kongsberg handles non standard cutting duties for rigid materials.

Previously the business focused on banners and if there was call for rigid materials like Dibond or Foamex, it would buy these in. “The opportunity was there to insource,” says Cooper, “with the ability to offer shorter lead times and competitive products. This is an area where there is 30% year on year growth and the Agfas provide the headroom for further growth.”

Again analysis of work loads and versatility pointed to the MGI rather than say Scodix, though Cooper does not rule out this investment in future. The embellishment unit will also house a couple of iGens, guillotines and a new laminator that the company is installing.

“We should have it up and running in mid July,” he says. “It will give us faster speed for straight UV varnishing while there is the possibility of lifting the finish with 3D effects on high lift varnish for tactile effects. It’s something that will be very popular with our customers.” The press also foils in line for further value add effects. It may not be of the pin sharp quality that a Kurz digital foiler would provide, but for the market that Solopress serves, it is ideal in terms of quality, versatility, speed and cost.

A further consideration is how to sell the value added effects via a web interface. Doing this with a single-colour foil is relatively straightforward. Effects achieved by overprinting four colours on a silver or gold, as the Xerox Iridesse can do, are not yet possible to show, and making this easy to understand is crucial. “With foil, people have seen it, they understand it and it creates quite a dramatic impact,” he adds.

It will be ready for the seasonal uplift in greetings cards as well as being used for business cards, covers and so on, each sheet being an individual job. “Where we have the volume for a product type, it makes more sense to use the more efficient production platform, the Indigos,” says Cooper.

This makes sense too for the extended deadlines that have been introduced. As well as thoughts of making Saturday a working day so jobs can be shipped on a Sunday evening for Monday delivery, Cooper has pushed the rush deadline to 5pm. Orders for some products placed by this time will be away and in the delivery process for the next day. There is a premium to pay and it has proved a hit.

“The two things that lift sales are either lowering the price of products or charging a higher price for fast delivery,” he says. The client base is drawn from individuals, small design and ad agencies through buyers from the trade placing work at prices that they cannot touch and either shedding capacity or using it for higher value work.

The key to the success of online print is in the simplicity of ordering and in the transparency of pricing that is offered. From the outset the customer knows what he or she is buying and what they are paying. “It is not about the online interface,” says Cooper. “It’s the transparency of interacting with the business, knowing at the outset what it will cost, how long it will take and what it’s going to look like. And then once the order is placed, being able to track progress and knowing when it will arrive.

“That is what people are really interested in. And then you can add elements like really fast turnaround and promotional prices. Being able to place the order online is something that may or may not be valued by customers, but they will certainly appreciate all the other factors.”

Naturally the business keeps track of its customers, quizzing them about satisfaction levels asking ‘how likely are you to recommend us to someone else?’. “Customer satisfaction is always in the late 90s,” says Cooper.

Not all come through the website. The company is happy to discuss work on the phone and to quote for bespoke jobs. Once the digital file is received, that job will join those coming in via the website in the production flow, tracked by barcodes through the company’s own technology.

This is an area where the influence of the parent company is being felt with a convergence of this sort of workflow. It makes no sense to maintain different systems in the different locations. Likewise some product is shared between the plants. The Solopress range of promotional gifts, for example, is produced in Germany.

Accommodating these investments in the maze of production cells that Solopress has is something of a children’s block puzzle, everything has to be moved around in order to get the equipment in the right place.

Not surprisingly the business is on the look out for a single purpose built premises that can accommodate the business and all its needs. There are a couple that Cooper has found not too far from the current site. The former Anton plant would have suited in terms of size, but is too far away to be convenient for many of the staff.

Further automation is also on the cards, but Cooper is not a supporter of automation for automation’s sake. He decided against the SmartStacker for the Indigos. This would cut and trim and deliver stacked and finished products without intervention. But for Cooper it would reduce the flexibility and adaptability that human operators offer.

“And we have no space here to do everything inline,” he says. “There are still massive gains to be had in terms of productivity through improvements to the workflow, a lot of low hanging fruit to go after and to improve the cost structure here.”

New premises might also introduce different thinking to the litho side of the business. “We have obvious limitations in these buildings because we can’t easily accommodate larger litho presses. SRA1 or B1 offset would be a logical next step for us, certainly less of a risk than taking technology that is not fully tried and tested and that might not achieve what we want,” he explains. “We knew the Indigos would work.”

Six months in Cooper says he has accomplished the first parts of the mission. “The first is to be accepted by the employees and that has gone well; the second is how can we achieve revenue growth and we have made big strides as the year has gone on; third is how to achieve the Ebitda, and a lot of that is being helped by the investments we have made; and then there is the change to the company culture.

“It is the mix of people that make a company unique. We want to make sure this is a business our employees feel enthusiastic about being a part of. And there is still more to be done.”

By Gareth Ward

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