05 February 2018 Print Companies

Printed Easy takes the harder road to online success

Online print is about standard sizes and fixed numbers. Not for Printed Easy it isn’t. As Falkland Press transforms into its online identity, the ability to deliver the formats that buyers want sets it apart.

At the start of 2017 Falkland Press was one of the country’s most versatile print businesses. It could turn its hand to cartons, to brochures, to online ordered leaflets. It had taken delivery of a six-colour plus coater Drupa specification Speedmaster XL106, the ‘push to stop’ press. This was equipped with both LE-UV and more conventional UV lamps capability and would be able to run standard inks, underlining that versatility.

The B1 press replaced an XL75 and joined a new Kolbus binding line that now runs up the middle of the 4,000m2 plant in Letchworth. Together with both B3 and B2 Indigos, a four-colour Speedmaster SX52, a Heidelberg Varimatrix die cutter, Stitchmaster saddle stitcher, Horizon bookmakers and Cylinders for foiling, laminator and platens, Falkland was able to take on pretty much any project it could attract. DVD cases sat alongside books brochures and leaflets generated through Printed Easy, its online print identity.

The business had expanded rapidly since moving into the Letchworth factory three years previously. What was once a gaping 4,000m2 cavern was now it seemed a thriving print business. However, Printed Easy was collecting payments up front through credit cards which was giving a false impression of cash movements in the business. Something had to change.

Jonathan Lancaster, the managing director who had pushed the family-owned business to this point, says: “We were trying to be everything to everyone but it’s impossible.” That policy had stood the company in good stead in the rapid growth phase as it had for many businesses previously, but with sales reaching £6 million from around 40 staff, Lancaster realised a different approach was necessary.

Paul Duffy had joined the company in September the year before at the point sales were growing fast. Falkland's overall revenues grew from £4.4 million to £6 million while online sales through Printed Easy rose to £2.7 million in 2017 from £400,000 in 2015.

Duffy became a shareholder and director of the company, quitting a business that he had been with for 16 years, helping it grow, but without earning an equity stake. He explains he was looking for an opportunity to participate in the growth of a business, particularly on the online print side. Falkland Press was that opportunity.

At that point its Printed Easy website was little different from many others, with a similar selection of products and an interface crowded with options. But nevertheless online print buying was growing and increasing its share of the revenue earned.

This is where the most visible changes have occurred. “I brought a different ethos to the business,” says Duffy. That has involved the company becoming much more aware of what customers want and much more focused on these needs.

“We changed the model for the business,” says Lancaster. “What was based previously on making what we thought we could sell, is now about producing what customers want. Paul comes up with a product and we model the best way to produce that with our presses.”

It is not just about products. The company needed to sharpen up on delivery and other details. This it has done.

The website has now taken centre stage. At the end of last year it acquired a new look and the business became Printed Easy rather than Falkland Press. Relationships with long standing customers will continue as before, but the future is about jobs coming through the website and in moving away from low margin jobs, some of which have been produced in their millions at the factory.

But the approach is not around delivering the leaflets, banners or business cards that have been the mainstay of online printing, produced by ganging up standard size jobs on the press, and which are the online equivalent of low margin work.

There is no ganging at Letchworth, says Lancaster. It wants to work with a more professional print buyer who will be buying from other online sites, but has to come to Printed Easy for brochures in quantities and sizes they cannot get elsewhere.

Consequently the focus is on producing these stitched or glued brochures, printed litho or digital, in whatever pagination, whatever quantity and whatever format the customer wants.

Lancaster had developed a dynamic pricing algorithm as part of the IT to run the operation. This is central to the Printed Easy website, delivering instant prices based on the criteria supplied by the client. As the buyer adjusts quantities, the price changes immediately.

Subsequent to Duffy arriving, this software has been expanded to cover all aspects of production, tracking jobs through the plant, assigning them to different workflows and equipment as best suits the loading and to earn the highest possible margin. This work took much of 2017, part of what was a hard year for the business, but essential for its future.

Previously the company had a dispatch list of all the jobs scheduled to go out that day, but no visibility on the jobs before they were completed. Otherwise it was management by walking about. While this is possible with a dozen or so jobs in the factory per day, as the velocity of each job increases, as the sheer number of jobs explodes, this is no longer possible. The company needed to understand where every job was at all times.

“When a customer emails an order, it takes another 24 hours to key in and schedule the job, to get it ready for production through a team of six CSRs,” says Lancaster describing how it used to be. “And what looked like high margin work has that margin destroyed by constant handling.” The company could cope with 50 core clients.

If it were to expand to cope with hundreds of jobs a day that other online print businesses have learned to cope with, Printed Easy needed to automate every step. The average order value through the portal is now £242, bolstered by orders that can reach £2,000 in value as customers gain confidence in the online print buying process.

The development work called on Duffy's experience, Lancaster’s computer mind and the skills of the sort of coder who works when he wants and is motivated by the challenge rather than the mountains of cash he might earn in a more corporate environment. The loss to the likes of Amazon or Google has been Printed Easy’s gain, resulting in Chronos, an IT engine that now underpins the business, making decisions that were previously in the hands of production and estimating experts.

A job can be loaded by the CSR team, now reduced to four, or through the website. The engine takes account of all costs of production, clicks for the Indigos, ink and plates for the Heidelbergs, and works out the most effective production method.

There is no distinction between litho and digital on the website, nor as far as production is concerned. At times a longer run job will be sent to the HP Indigos and a short run job to the Speedmaster XL106. It is not as simple as ‘up to 500 copies on digital, more than that on litho’.

The finishing process required is instrumental, setting the imposition and the size of paper to be used. When Lancaster interrogates Chronos there is a list of production possibilities with resources and times needed and the margin that results. All this is delivered so quickly that a customer on the website can make adjustments and see prices moving instantly.

There is no ganging, which simplifies the process to some extent, and with the company looking for multi-section brochures rather than leaflets makes sense. It will produce leaflets and if these are specified in multiple versions, this might be spread across a sheet.

In this case Chronos will calculate the imposition to allow work and turn, perhaps with part of the sheet left empty. If it had been filled, an extra set of plates would have been necessary.

Any saving on paper will be lost in the additional plates and handling needed. Sometimes what results seems counterintuitive, but it is always supported by the numbers. Lancaster trusts the numbers.

Today a job arriving via the Printed Easy web portal is automatically split from its artwork into the prepress production workflow which employs Enfocus Switch to drive the job to platemaking or to the Rips for 10000 printing.

Once there the operator has nothing to do, especially if paper is preloaded, other than set the job in motion. All data entry has been taken care of.

If headed down the litho route, a single sheet is produced by a local laser printer carrying job instructions, more to help identify the job and avoid production accidents than because an operator needs to load production details.

The sheet will have a pictogram to identify how it will be finished as well as barcode to scan and identify to the server where the job is in the process, and image of the job to avoid confusion for operators.

Likewise plates are output and loaded into the home designed rack ready for litho printing. Set up information is sent directly to the press so that when the plates are loaded, so too is the set up data for the press.

A top sheet is printed out to show how many sheets the job will comprise, how many overs are present for setting up the finishing equipment, with barcode to identify the job where the equipment is not part of the data network and a pictograms shows how the job will be handled at the next stage.

Jobs for the Indigo will print out the sheet at the end of the job ready for whatever finishing task follows.

As everything is short run, the printers sheets are placed on large work benches where the stacks are at a comfortable working height rather than needing to be lifted from a pallet. These benches have also been built in-house and are wheeled between production steps.

While the jobs are moving around the different production stages, their progress is logged and monitored on the system and compared to the anticipated schedule. A warning will flash up if the job is running late.

This alone has had a huge impact since it went live in September. Before then around 14% of jobs might be late; minimal numbers subsequently. Waste is also tracked, coming in at 1.4% now the IT is up and running with well below 0.8% as net wastage on materials, outwork and carriage.

In another sign of maturity Lee Harding is in charge of the production floor, removing this task from Lancaster and allowing him to focus on optimising the IT that runs the business.

The system was under development for much of last year, going live from September and having an immediate impact. The statistics that Lancaster could gather previously from the MIS showed that up to 14% of jobs might have been delivered late, but only after the event. Once a job was logged in, it was invisible until arriving in the delivery area.

That has all but been eliminated simply because the business now knows where every job is at every stage in relation to its dispatch date. Problems in one area were not relayed to managers in a structured way. Now an alert appears as a highlighted yellow message on the screen for one of the nominated managers to address.

This information is retained with the job file. Now if a client is late delivering artwork, the company knows immediately and can alert the customer, can reflow the day’s production or both. It is handled before becoming a painful problem.

“We have full visibility of the jobs that have not been printed, instead of waiting until the dispatch list,” says Lancaster. “We are looking at the jobs in progress to see if plates have been made, if the job is at the Indigo’s Rip, how many sheets are scheduled to print on the digital and the litho presses, how much set up waste has been built in for finishing processes.”

This alone has slashed paper waste. Lancaster reckons that thanks to the visibility the company now has far less than 1% of turnover is accounted for by waste paper, well below industry norms.

Lancaster explains how Chronos has the sophistication to compare the real production data achieved in the way that the business currently operates with a different range of equipment or purchasing policy in place. Six months of real data is copied into a ring fenced development environment and the configurations of different machines tested.

Could the company be better off with an Indigo 12000rather than its Indigo 7800? The calculations show that there would be better loading on the B2 digital press as this absorbs some work from the XL106 and as a consequence additional capacity is created on the litho machine to be sold at a better margin. Whether this is enough to justify such an investment is left to a board meeting, but one armed with real data rather than suppositions.

He also describes running a trial with purchasing just SRA1 paper rather than a mix of SRA1 and B1 sheets for the litho press.

While this would mean buying more paper for the digital press and additional plates made, there is a substantial saving because only one format is bought, less paper is wasted, less time lost on press and better terms can be agreed with the merchant.

“It is the ultimate tool to support an investment,” Lancaster says. It will also help in negotiations, particularly for digital equipment suppliers who can be shown the number of clicks they can be expect from an installation, he adds.

This is invisible to the customer coming to the Printed Easy website. The order is placed and paid for, the artwork uploaded and approved to release the job into the workflow. “It is the customer who is doing the work for you,” says Lancaster. This eliminates the data handling that introduces errors.

At this point the focus is on delivering those brochures and making the process as smooth as possible.

There is no attempt to upsell or cross sell other products to increase the spend. “They have come to buy a brochure. We do not want to distract them,” says Duffy.

The only intervention is advice that above a certain pagination with that paper, a job will be better perfect bound than saddle stitched.

It is not always heeded. On a walk around, one client has clearly ignored this advice and the finished stitched product does not lie as flat as Lancaster would want. He wants to know why, what happened and what can be done before the job goes out.

His attention to detail is crucial, but it is the ability to price and handle bespoke sizes that will achieve the stand out from other online print websites.

Printed Easy is about specialisation rather than the broadest possible selection of products – FlyerAlarm, for example, boasts that it offers 3 million products and variations.

Customers buying online have been pushed to buy standard sizes, compromising design in order to get the price and convenience of buying online. This sets Printed Easy apart and its success will be indicative of a growing maturity in the sector, that designers and professional buyers are happy to commit their higher value work to online printing.

Printed Easy will never be a supermarket of printed products where a buyer picks off the shelf print. It is more akin to a delicatessen with a limited choice of products, but these are of the best quality and presented in the way the customer wants. For now the focus is on the single product type.

“It is not a business to consumer retail site,” says Duffy. These tend to be busy with the array of possible products. Printed Easy in contrast is “as clean as possible” he continues. Templates are out.

Before Duffy’s arrival, and the relaunch as Printed Easy, the revenue attributed to the website had been flat for two years. In November 70% of revenue came through the portal, ahead of its relaunch. In December, there was a 50:50 split, but the direction of travel is clear. Online is the future.

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Jonathan Lancaster and Paul Duffy have clearly defined complementary skills and the business is all the better for it.Lancaster drives the efficiency introduction, Duffy is responsible for the Printed Easy website.

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