Neil Wass turned his back on the family farm in Yorkshire for a print company in St Albans. When starting his career, a life in print seemed more attractive than feeding or milking livestock, ploughing fields and being outside in all weathers.
He liked the idea of being a sales rep in print in the days when print reigned supreme. He got his start as a colour planner in the days pre CTP, when assembling four-colour film separations into a single page and single pages into an imposed plate was a skilled job, let alone adjusting exposure to achieve the colour needed. “I could spend hours retouching the veneers on a piece of furniture using only a contact frame,” he says.
When Wass saw a desktop scanner he realised that this game was up. He took a Mac laptop to clients to show them how they could produce a decent quality PDF, in compliance with the PPA’s ground breaking Pass4press standard. “There was a purple patch when customers wanted that value. Now there are very few queries about the way that files are supplied,” he says.
Now those files are supplied to Manson Group, the company where the agricultural refusenik is managing director.
“I always wanted to go on the road, but at the company I joined I had to go through every department backwards, spending three to four months in each. It was about learning how each section wanted their work presented. By the time I got to prepress I was a bundle of paranoia, but I was the only one in the factory who understood every process.”
Wass took his interest in print a step further, marrying into the magazine printer. Today Manson is a family owned business seeking a sustainable future with suitable costings and aiming at long term relationships with customers. “It’s about multisection work, not solely magazines, though they are a very important part of the mix,” he says.
Last year it replaced a ten-unit long perfecting Speedmaster SM102 with an eight-colour XL106 of the same configuration. It is linked to a CutStar system and has Heidelberg's Push to Stop software. This has become Manson's workhorse press alongside a long perfecting XL105 which has been bought new from Heidelberg UK.
The presses are supported by folding, stitching and perfect binding, all with the Heidelberg name, and by an Autobond laminator which uses the same Heidelberg feeder. All are housed in a factory on an industrial estate in St Albans, a short drive from the M25 and M1 and 20 minutes from St Pancras station.
The long perfectors deliver efficiencies for this type of section work, particularly on the new press fitted with Heidelberg's Push to Stop technologies for ultra short makeready. It amounts to a lifting of one set of plates and restarting the press when switching from section to section. “It doesn’t run by itself, but has a huge amount of automation compared to what was available 20 years ago,” says Wass.
“With the long perfector there are economies of scale and flying section changes. We are looking for the sweet spots where we have an advantage that we can pass on to the customer, perhaps by suggesting a type of paper that runs particularly well on our press and which will save for them in the longer term. We can gang up lots of work with no compromise on quality.”
The company has always aimed at independent publishers rather than trying to become a key supplier to a major magazine publisher where there is a margin to pay for a huge volume of work. This is also risky: “The giants of magazine publishing 15 years ago are now barely recognisable,” he says. “We have never had a client accounting for more than 5-10% of turnover. Today the strategy is to have a limit of 5%. In that way the giants are not relevant to us. We don’t want big clients that can bully us.”
This does not make the company immune from price pressures nor from the structural changes that have affected the whole industry. “There is an increasing on demand culture with publishers accustomed to behaving like spot buyers. It is why customer relationships are key and why we try to we make life easier for customers using technology.”
That remains a challenge. Customers have become comfortable and confident at uploading files and approving these through the Agfa Apogee portal.
However, even with this approach and 16pp A4 sections on a limited selection of papers, not all jobs are equal. “There’s a huge difference between the most profitable and least profitable jobs even if they nominally look the same. It’s about working out which jobs we need to loose, which we want to win. That’s the never ending question.
“It’s about finding out where the money is won or lost. That can be client dependent. And we know that today, things are complex, but we can find ourselves waiting by the screens for files to turn up.
“Knowing how to communicate with people is a big issue for us. Many customers are micro businesses, frequently life style businesses where working on the publication fits between school runs.
“When the files are late, do we email someone who is not there? Do we ring them? But many younger people do not use voice or work with the phone face down to avoid interruptions.”
“It’s understanding the priorities of the publishers: is their focus on distribution, production, design or elsewhere? Most will take the actual construction of the job for granted. But it is what happens before and after production that can make the difference.”
And Manson is able to provide much more, an audit trail for each job and dashboards for each customer, for example, through extracting data from its Tharstern MIS. Customers can track progress of their jobs through APIs that can link into their business systems. There are no takers to date, but it is going to happen.
“We are constantly looking for areas where we can find an edge with technology,” he explains. “We could lay things out for thing on a portal and offer all sorts of APIs to link to the MIS.”
Along with this kind of technology “we are constantly re evaluating our operation, looking for areas where we can find an advantage through technology,” he adds.
That included an investigation of the suitability of HP Indigo technology when it was talking about B1 printing. HP chose instead to focus development on the B2 Indigo, though with the webfed Indigo 50000 and new Indigo 90k, B1 printing is possible, as it is on the carton model Indigo 30000 when feeding on the short edge. The project came to nothing. “B2 wan’t big enough for us,” he says.
Nor was an out of the crate new XL106 suitable. “Heidelberg was trying to sell the full service package, which was another reason to be attracted to the XL106, but we didn’t think the new Heidelberg cost model would have suited us,” he explains.
Instead Manson found a low mileage model with the latest software through Exel Machinery, the UK dealer which has establishing a reputation for installation of long perfecting Speedmasters. The opportunity to acquire the new press came up.
Wass continues: “We had a machine that we knew would not last forever, but in order to change the right thing had to come along and it did with a combination of circumstances that worked for us. It was the first major purchase of used machinery the business has made and it has been a good experience on the whole. It was built as an LED UV press so has water cooled rollers, which is beneficial.”
The machine has two units fewer than the ten-colour it replaces. At the time Manson had expected growth in so called boutique magazines where an ability to add a special colour would be useful, but that market did not expand as anticipated.
The new press technology has been embraced by Manson's press operators, from the relative youngster still in his 20s to the highly experienced veteran minder who started out printing millions of 35mm yellow film boxes for Kodak. The closed loop controls and autonomous operation of the XL106 make this a very different press to what was an East German Planeta and also to the previous generation of Speedmasters.
“The installation of this machine has brought a sense of optimism to the business, ending any uncertainty about the family’s commitment. There’s a genuine optimism for new technology and how productive this equipment is. People are still enthusiastic about coming into work and operating the new machinery,” says Wass.
It is not just about the press. The company has an anniversary edition Stahl folder installed to accelerate the finishing process to keep up with the press. And it is using Slack messaging technology to keep in touch with staff who are outside the office and to keep in touch with customers more effectively than by email.
As the pressure on turnaround times increases, keeping track of what is going on with individual clients is a challenge. Without visibility on whether the job is coming in on time, scheduling can be difficult.
“The question is how best to use technology to make life easier for our clients? But it’s fascinating just how little use people make of it, just sending a few lines of email to confirm what is happening would make a difference. Knowing how to communicate with people is a big issue for us.”
Many short term customers, says Wass, are behaving like spot buyers. “That’s what we have to cope with,” he says. It is still preferable to lambing in the middle of the night or wading around in mud as a farmer, though.