Alex Evans walks quickly. He has to. He is managing director of Precision Colour Printing which sprawls over several buildings on a 14-acre site close to Telford. His office overlooks the visitors car park near the entrance to the plant. It is quite a hike to reach the perfect binding hall at the far end of the site and being able to stride there using a rapid gait has distinct advantages. Evans has no need to check if each day he has achieved the recommended 10,000 steps.
The business is the magazine printing arm of a group that publishes and prints newspapers, which develops software and which also owns the Guiton Group, publisher of the Jersey Evening Post, and operator of the largest inkjet newspaper printing operation in the world.
Precision Colour Printing was once vital to the newspaper publishing side, printing four-colour images and ads ahead of deadlines and re-reeling these ready for the news to be overprinted on conventional newspaper presses.
On a tour around the site Evans will point to the huge ceiling height in one of the press halls. It is where the Wifag newspaper press used to stand, he says.
Today Precision Colour Printing is operating in the magazine and catalogue sector, from consumer titles printed on its web presses to business to business magazines to specialist and niche publications. This is a sector that is at the forefront of the Canute-like struggle with declining circulations, vanishing publications and closing printers.
But Evans is not dismayed. While acknowledging the consolidation, he says: “This is still a big cake and we can still grow over the next few years. Consolidation has played out to our favour because the number of companies that have closed or changed is substantial.
“We have 440 different contracts, a Barretts Liquorice Allsorts of a bunch, if you like. If B2B magazines are the core market, we are also producing catalogues. Event programmes for football and rugby, some customer magazines, specialist niche titles, where subscriptions mean circulations are fairly robust, and there’s good growth on children’s magazines aimed at the up to nine-year-old bracket. This is encouraging as it means that children are hands on with print rather than using a tablet.”
But PCP has not escaped the ravages of the declining magazine market. The spot commercial market cannot fill all the gaps and the pressure led to a restructuring of the business in 2015. It was a painful time, with changes to the benefits that employees of the business had enjoyed in the past. Signs of that restructuring and new emphasis on eliminating waste are all over the factory. While Evans says that the process is ongoing, the company has made sufficient progress to justify further investment in what remains a tough market.
Even with consolidation, few other UK magazine printers have the breadth of fire power that PCP can offer. Warners Midlands springs to mind with web and sheetfed printing on a single site; Wyndeham has web and sheetfed on different sites while others are focused on one area or the other. PCP runs Komori and Manroland Rotoman web presses, Heidelberg and Mitsubishi on the sheetfed side. These are backed by Muller Martini stitching lines and by binding which combines Muller Martini and Kolbus.
It is a line up that can cope with the sorts of turnarounds that all publishers require and the shorter runs that are increasingly commonplace.
Last year as a consequence of the restructuring process, it became apparent that PCP needed to make a decision whether and how to invest in new print capacity. Its 17-year-old Mitsubishi was beginning to show its age. “It had been a very hard working press for us, and only began to struggle in the last year or so, more on the software than the mechanical side,” says Evans. “But we knew we would have to replace it.” It has now been sold.
A consultant was commissioned to look at the future of the printing industry, coming up with the finding that while commercial print and publication print would decline, packaging was in a stronger position, particularly with a growth in short run cartons expected to serve a flourishing of smaller companies in food, personal care and drinks in particular.
In terms of the bigger picture, Claverley needed to think beyond the edges of its existing business. Says Evans: “Packaging was identified as a growth market and that was something that both PCP and the group should look at.”
It guided the company to look at options in H-UV, LED UV and more traditional UV printing. Carton printing is dominated by UV and to gain even a toe hold, the company would have to be printing with UV. In the shorter term UV would give the magazine printer another service it could sell, but adding value to the covers a new press would print.
“We would be able to provide UV coatings on covers more cost effectively and faster than having to send this out, would have control over the quality and would have something that few competitors might offer,” he explains. It is already printing spot UV for publishers using the new press.
That research resulted in a list of features to define what Evans wanted. “We also discounted the German manufacturers,” he says, costs and experience having guided that decision. “And we wanted to reduce the number of manufacturers we have to deal with.” Komori was the natural choice. “I really thought we would go with Komori; it’s a great machine and would do the job, but we chose the Mitsubishi.” Most print runs average out at 6,500 copies.
To be precise Precision Colour Printing has now installed a nine-unit RGMT 10 tandem perfector configured as four-colours then five on the reverse and a coating unit. The tandem configuration means that the sheet is not turned and because there is a single gripped edge, the sheet can be smaller.
It also avoids tumbling the sheet, something that has proved troublesome for the printer. Nevertheless Evans has decided to extend the lease on its ten-unit Heidelberg Speedmaster for a further 18 months while the UV press settles in. The specification of its replacement will depend on the performance of the new press.
The RGMT machine was shipped over the summer and was in place in time to welcome guests of the Japanese company to see the machine during Ipex. As the largest and most modern of the presses in Europe, PCP effectively becomes the regional showroom for the manufacturer.
It is helped by the extension that has been necessary to accommodate the machine. This pushes the wall out some 5 metres and is glazed to show off the delivery end of the press to its best effect.
A Flexiwall installation separates the new press from the old and prevents cross contamination of the different inks and processes, preventing spray powder, for example, from the older machine reaching the UV press. Steel plate flooring around the press is a further detail towards creating the clearer and more efficient working environment that Evans is looking for.
This adds up to a proper showcase installation that visitors must be impressed by. PCP has also provided a meeting room for the use of RMGT and for those guests.
Precision Colour Printing now has to get to grips with the new way of printing and to drive the press to the productivity that it has planned for. There is a parallel learning curve, one for the new machine and its operating systems and second because UV printing is different to standard litho.
It is the first in the UK to have a Technotrans ink pumping unit for UV inks. These cannot normally be pumped without causing problems due to the viscosity of the inks. A reverse osmosis unit keeps water in the fount consistent.
There were teething issues, Evans admits, running Huber inks and trials of different combinations of fount and ink and the varnish. This was not a lengthy process and with a settled combination, results are living up to expectations.
“Gloss levels we are achieving are spectacular,” he says. There will be testing of different combinations of varnish to deliver a wide range of effects. “For us this is a potential game changer,” he adds
It certainly fits in a business where magazines and catalogues are definitely at the heart of production. Most files will arrive through an XMF portal, loading into an EFI MIS combining prepress and estimating tasks. PCP's MIS journey began with Logic Covalent and via acquisitions is now one of a very few EFI Monarch sites in Europe, the majority being in the US.
It is a powerful system and needs to be, handling the scheduling of different presses with the options for production that are possible. The Printflow scheduling application is crucial, taking information flowing back from data collected at the most of the production equipment, guillotines and folders excepted.
A full JDF implementation is a project for next year, says Evans. Another project for next year will be a conversion to thermal plate imaging. The company currently uses Fujifilm’s violet imaged plates which offer the run length needed by the web presses and resilience for UV printing. Advances in the more environmentally friendly technology are making it viable to switch to thermal.
A choice of Komori would have cut the number of suppliers that PCP deals with as it runs two Komori web set ups. A System 38 was installed in August 2000 and still runs 24/7. Its second web press was acquired from Italian printer LEGO where it had been configured as a ten-unit press running two webs into a single folder to deliver 32pp sections. “If we have a tight turnaround weekly we can run as 32s,” says Evans.
However, for much of the time, the press has become two four-unit 16pp machines. For much of the time jobs run to separate folders, but can be webbed up as a tandem 32pp machine. Rebuilding the folder has increased productivity by allowing the press to run faster. The action means that the press can deliver two up A5 sections. The surplus print units are available for spare parts.
The Komori webs are dwarfed by the Man Roland machine. It is a stacked twin web press with a 620mm cut off and able to print five colours behind its acoustic screening. Sections are delivered to log stackers.
This press halls sits between the stitching hall where there are four Muller Martini stitching lines and a Polar guillotine and two MBO folders. Another guillotine is in Site 4, its binding hall. One of the Primera binders has clocked up 200 million products in four years, says Evans. “We’re told that this is the highest volume for this machine in the world.” A Swiss cowbell presented by Muller Martini commemorates this level of productivity.
The Site 4 building houses a 12-station gathering line feeding a Kolbus Ratiobinder. A carousel drying tower reduces space and provides the dwell time needed before trimming. Muller Martini Bolero is equipped with a splitting saw for two-up production. The former runs at 15,000sph, the latter at 6,500cph. Both will be fed from sections presented as logs.
Finished publications can be sent to the mailing hall where Buhrs lines supplied by UK agent Friedheim International wrap and insert if necessary. A hand finishing bench takes care of speciality tasks that cannot reasonable be mechanised. Otherwise finished publications are handled in an increasingly diverse number of ways: perhaps boxed in cartons, perhaps bundled and shrink wrapped. “Packing requirements are becoming more bespoke,” Evans says.
The company accedes to these wishes wherever possible as part of a full service approach that now also includes wide format printing for banners. “It’s about services around the magazine that publishers need. We are looking for added value opportunities to grow with them and we’ll do it provided there’s a return and we have the volume we need to keep the overheads under control.”
Out in the factory each production control area has a large white board for team leaders to mark observations and problems in marker pen. It is simple and it is fast and because of this, minor as well as major issues are noted down.
Two 12-hour slots are set aside for maintenance each month when all the issues can be dealt with. The slots can be split in two if scheduling issues dictate, and if problems that have been identified are serious, the maintenance periods can be brought forward from their allocated slot.
Managers walking around the production areas can immediately see what has been written on the whiteboards and can decide if attention is needed immediately or can wait. Noting everything down immediately means that everything is recorded and can spark the conversation between managers and the operators.
It is starting to change the attitude of the people in the business, says Evans. He oversees a plant employing more than 250 people and says that the message about the need to think about their job as part of the overall business is getting through.
“We are trying to get more and more engagement with the staff and their initial reaction is ‘why?’. But we have persevered and spend a lot of time trying to get people to understand the impact of their role.”
The idea is minimise waste, the waste that can be generated at makeready and the waste of time that will occur if a team of engineers have to discover the problems that need fixing when their arrive at the equipment. “We started to change the operating workflow two-and-a-half years ago,” he explains, “adopting a total production management approach looking at all our processes.”
Simple measures have also addressed the loss of time that can occur if parts are not labelled clearly. Rollers are now in racks on the wall in colour coded sections. End boards for the finishing lines are also painted in differed colours to show the format and destination of each log of folded signatures. It reduces errors and communicates what goes where.
“These measures save a huge amount of time,” says Evans. It is working. There has been a 1.3% saving in paper waste in the last quarter, he says. “We are making inroads there, now we need to get the market up a bit.”
That is unlikely to happen. In the background, however, is the idea of spreading into carton printing. The tandem RGMT press, while printing board weights using UV ink and inline coating, is not going to be ideal for volume carton printing.
It will be enough for Precision Colour Printing to start to test ideas around the proliferation of smaller companies that needed to source packaging print. “At some point in the future we like to think we can get into packaging at the lower volume end,” he says. It will involve recruitment of experienced teams for the sector. It may also involve acquisitions.
The muscle of the Cleverly Group is also in the background should it be needed. The group itself is aware that it has a lot of eggs spread across publishing. Its immediate newspapers, the Express and Star dailies and a host of weeklies, have lost a lot of circulation since their heyday. At that time the dailies sold 340,000 copies a day and the enterprise was world leading in terms of colour printing and computerised page make up. Today the equivalent circulation stands at around 75,000 copies.
The group can trace its history to the late nineteenth century. If it is going to thrive for another 100 years or more, it is going to need to expand its interests beyond publishing. The software side is doing this with applications for marketing. Precision Colour Printing decides is going to be just as important.
The nine-unit B1 tandem perfector RGMT at PCP has already become the showcase for Europe. It enables the telford company to print UV vanishes and effects for covers as well as standard sections.
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Precision Colour Printing has extensive stitching and binding on site.This has been enhanced by installation of a Kolbus alongside Muller Martini in the bindery and a new Primera MC in the stitching hall.
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A new folder on its twin web Komori System 38 web press has helped productivity by allowing the machine to run faster than previously.
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Colour coding is used to identify rollers and save time, part of a project to reduce waste across the business. By clearly identifying items like rollers, or which logs are to be perfect bound by using colour coded end boards, mistakes are avoided. The challenge is to build the elimination of waste into the culture of the business.
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