There is no mistaking the Windles factory. On the edge of Thame, it is the last building before farmland begins and it has the company’s name and logo emblazoned on the front.
The company moved here little more than three years ago from an industrial estate in Long Crendon, where the operation was split either side of a yard, presses in one building, finishing housed in another building and wrapping of greetings cards on a mezzanine level. Managing director Bruce Podmore says he is glad that the business moved. That is an understatement. “It is the best thing we have ever done – no question!” he adds.
The factory began with a blank sheet of paper, Podmore being able to decide where to position different pieces of production equipment and the services. All the power and pneumatics were positioned for maximum flexibility. Underfloor tubing whips waste paper away from guillotines and blanking areas; the company’s logo is engraved into the metal plates on the doors between the upstairs offices and stairwell. Podmore specified polished concrete floors as easier to clean while looking good.
The move began on 16 December 2016 and 320 trips later and by Easter and with just three days off, everything was in place. The move was planned meticulously, every step envisaged in a process that Podmore enjoyed for the precision with which everything fell into place. “It was just a question of bringing machines in and picking up again, even with 160 tonnes of Heidelberg to move. We have done this so many times before, we know how to move machines.”
The reward is a plant which goes well beyond any environmental standards in terms of energy efficacy and which delivers in terms of the existing machinery. “We are getting 30% more of the existing kit,” he says. “This comes simply by having a better organised layout. We have bought a bit of new equipment, but the same equipment we had before is giving us 30% more through the efficiency of the workflow. I didn’t foresee the extent of these production efficiencies.
“It is not a question of us being able to afford the building, but a question of not being able to afford not to have it.”
There is a logical flow of materials from the arrival of paper, past presses, die cutting folding and wrap and pack steps. The three B1 Heidelberg Speedmasters are now together, for example, instead of being split across different buildings. One of these presses, currently fitted with the world’s first inline cold foiling unit, will be replaced this year, but Podmore is giving nothing away about its replacement. All he says is that it will have LED UV because of the much reduced energy consumption over conventional UV.
At that point the foiling equipment will be moved to the XL105. Alongside this is a press that is used for the latest Windles development project. It is currently configured to run a cast and cure system, which adds a further level of enhancement and value to the greetings cards that the company specialises in.
Previously, the company has expanded organically into adjacent units when it needed to grow, leading to a series of modules as operations occupying the space that they could. Moving material from one unit to another would never be an efficient process.
The clean sheet opportunity that Podmore seized has led to a shift in company culture as much as it has been about creating a logical flow of materials and jobs. This has meant being as transparent with information as possible, gathering data about jobs and people and pushing the MIS hard. There are flat panel screens around the factory to relay information about job schedules and progress. As one task ends details of the next job are brought up. There is a monster 80in flat panel display in the boardroom for the daily production meetings and for weekly meetings of all the departments, in charge of 22 possible processes.
Each team by rotation makes a technical presentation to the rest of the businesses. This might be an update about a new foil that is being trialled or an update on the implementation of indexing to make better use of foil and reduce waste. It might involve an update from the customer services department. “The account handlers are always asking questions,” says Podmore. “They need to relay information and updates to customers and designers.
“The customer services department has endured more change than any other. There are changes in the way they receive jobs and orders from different clients. Some might be by phone, some by email, some automatically from an Epos system.” This can mean that instead of waiting until a batch of one design of cards needs to be reordered, orders are can come through in different ways, combining 25-30 sheets of cards comprising ten or more cards on a sheet, says Podmore. “The old model of print buying has gone.”
He likens the stress that this involves to the George Clooney film A Perfect Storm where the effects of a combination of weather systems combine to devastating effect. The key to navigating through is by good communication and the systems that Windles has in place. The structured approach applies to the yard, kept spotless by a yardman employed for the job of managing the segregation of all waste into streams that can be reused or recycled. As this earns the business around £100,000, the cost of having someone do this every day is more than covered.
Environmental measures inside the factory are equally impressive. The building maximises thermal gain from outside and the heat coming from the machinery. Daylight accounts for 25% of the lighting requirements well in advance of the 8% stipulated by Breem. “The old building ran with mercury halide lighting costing us £22,500 in light bills alone,” he says. “This building has just three light switches and costs us £6,200 a year to run.” And this is without using LEDs. Podmore had tried LEDs but these suffered too great a failure rate. Instead, frequency controlled fluorescent lighting is used, with sensors to switch them off and on only when necessary.
Heating comes courtesy of a biomass boiler fed from pallets. The wood from the pallets from paper delivered is ideal as the moisture level has to be low to avoid damage to the paper and board. An LPG gas bill of £25,000 is now a heating bill of £3,100. And breaking up old pallets has delivered 1.8 tonnes of nails which can be recovered as scrap metal.
There are also waste streams for plastic films, though not as much as previously because card publishers have moved sharply away from single use plastics used to wrap individual cards. Plastic containers that are used to ship IPA, solvents and other cleaning agents, are now crushed before collection, minimising space needed on the trailer that removes all waste from the site as what used to need 17 creates is held in one. The amount that ends up in landfill is scarcely enough to fill one lorry.
“It’s not a crusade, but if we can do this we feel we must. And if, as a result, waste becomes a revenue stream that makes it that much sweeter. It is not just about the environment and sustainability, but is also for the competitiveness of the business. Even the polyester that is used as backing for the cold foil has a calorific value and is used to generate heat for making cement.”
The move, however, was not only about improvements to environmental performance. It has been about shaping the company for the next generation, both in terms of efficiency and its people. This has meant building on the skills learned in greetings cards, printing on Iggesund Incarta boards (this is produced at Iggesund’s mill in Workington, with a market leading environmental story from sourcing of fibre, renewable energy and helping flood prevention though planting willow trees), foiling, varnishing, flitter and tactile finishing, as well high quality embossing.
“We have built this enormous level of added value in high end finishing for greetings cards,” he explains. “We are now having success in packaging, adding staff from ASG in Slough with packaging experience.” There are samples of work that Windles is producing on a trade basis, so is not being advertised, and samples of spirits cartons using all these techniques that are in high demand as packaging is a key differentiator as the number of gins, vodkas, rums and whiskies on the market proliferates.
“We are using both hot and cold foil, printing on cold foil and using spot varnish to great effect. And now we plan to install a folder gluer.”
The almost unique combination of skills and possible effects has been used for high impact magazine covers for the quality end of the market. There is also a Horizon BQ470 perfect binder and near line HT10000V three-knife trimmer to produce short runs of perfect bound notebooks for its stationery publisher customers. There is a pair of Duplo DC745 multifinishers and Petratto folder gluer, all adding to the variety of work the business can take on.
Podmore has worked out a way to index its cold foiling process to improve the efficiency of how the cold foil is used, for cost and environmental gain. It is the sort of project that helps set Windles apart as a print producer.
It is not afraid to carry out the development and testing itself. One of the big benefits of the move is that there is a corner of the factory with a full metal bashing workshop. This goes well beyond the production of its own dies and is a full workshop with lathes and drills that allows Podmore to turn his ideas into products and to work on new developments.
Despite the focus on high end work, Windles is not immune from price competition and the investment in a new press will include all the closed loop colour monitoring and makeready aides needed to bring a press into colour with minimal waste and effort. Anyone can acquire this kind of technology.
“Our biggest investment, apart for the building, is in our people and in the supporting technology. We have screens around the company for the staff to look at performance, check makeready times and recovery times for labour and how fast we could recover, which allows us to do the calculations for gross profits and analysis of each job in the process.”
This is done through data entry screens with information about each job flowing from the MIS to each work area. While it would be possible to take information from the production equipment, Windles has decided to run its own system. And it allows the company to identify where training is needed by comparing one operator against another across the 22 process lines in the business.
As this is open and transparent to staff, it leads to self improvement or at least sharing of best practice and suggestions among teams. “Now they can see, they understand how many sheets per hour they have achieved and how that might react to change,” he says. Where the numbers show that one operator is having difficulties, colleagues will step in to help out. Everyone understands the importance of efficiency, cutting waste and the need to be profitable.
There is a proactive apprenticeship programme with six youngsters undergoing training across the business in different departments: Amber-Nicole in customer service and Jay in preparing the dies for the Bobst platens, for example. All are enthusiastic and none had prior knowledge or experience of print.
That came through three years of outreach work that Windles has undertaken with schools in Thame. It has made presentations at school assemblies, inviting six form students to visit and work on business projects involving print, and generally raising the profile of the company as good employer to work for. In turn that has rubbed off on the culture of the business.
“The biggest investment in this business is in people,” says Podmore. “The apprenticeship programme is about succession planning for staff who will be retiring.”
The programme has resulted in high scores for its apprentices on the BPIF scheme. And training extends beyond the raw recruits.
“Participation in the technical update sessions is part of the appraisal process. Over the course of a year they are expected to attend at least four technical updates.” It has helped foster the corporate culture as managers who are making the presentations for the first time ask for help from their colleagues. They have to communicate the technology and what they do to the sales and service teams who are talking to the customers. A designer is part of the team, not to work on new designs, but to communicate with designers about what is possible at Windles and help them bring a concept to fruition.
And recently this has meant reducing their environmental impact and increasing sustainability of greetings cards through eliminating the use of single use plastics, films and so on. Windles had anticipated this change, developing the Card Clip as a small tab to close a card and hold an envelope in place.
The clip itself had to be developed with a suitable shape and adhesive that would allow the tab to be printed on a small inkjet label press and then applied automatically on a system that had been installed to wrap cards in plastic. Now around 50% of production uses the clip. A further tranche of production is supplied without film in a card box. And where film is needed, Windles has tested vegetable based materials for supply to independent stores, complete with Eurohook hanger.
“We started developing naked before Attenborough’s Blue Planet was aired,” says Podmore. That ignited the demand and what was developed for one major customer has been rolled out to others.
Windles was ready. The factory is the expression of how far the company has moved forward and can continue to progress. Podmore has always been ready to shake the status quo by thinking of how to improve production processes. He has now improved the whole process in one go.