13 March 2013 Printing/Print Companies

The Master of Speed

ESP Colour is well known for being fast and broke print records last November. But exactly how does managing director Anthony Thirlby do it?

When ESP achieved the feat of 2,070,000 impressions , 498 makereadies and a net average speed of 17,108 sheets an hour from its Speedmaster XL105 in one week last November, eyes turned to the Swindon company to wonder how.

In many ways this was just the latest staggering statistic to emerge from the business owned and managed by Anthony Thirlby. Previous production records had been set for its XL75s and the company reckons to run at 140% capacity on average.
Not surprisingly the company has become the centre of speculation and amazement, not just for printers in the UK, but across Europe and the world. The response is always the same mixture of awe and disbelief. Surely there must be something that is not being disclosed, some kind of witchcraft, a Faustian pact that means that ESP is a one-off, working in a way that is irrelevant to other print businesses.

Anthony Thirlby is bemused. As far as he is concerned ESP is doing nothing that others cannot replicate. It is the supreme pursuit of clear thinking and absolute attention to detail applied to manufacturing print and maximising throughput with minimal touch points to slow production and increase costs. If many printers today still do not understand their overall costs, Thirlby knows precisely where every penny is spent and what the impact of any change will be.

There are three Heidelberg XL series presses, two B2 machines and the newest the XL105. All bristle with automation, for plate changing, for blanket washing and especially Inpress Control for colour control. And there is now a digital print room with Nexpress, flatbed Arizona and Duplo finishing kit. If that seems odd for a business built on the ruthless drive to high speed production and efficiency where litho can compete with digital on very short run lengths, it fits with the rebranding this as the Colour Hub to serve agencies.

It has a software development team working on its own web to print front end as none was found to meet the exacting requirements ESP was seeking. The company stopped short of creating its own workflow, integrating this project instead with the Tharstern MIS and Kodak Prinergy workflow. There is also a Pageflex engine to handle the creation of variable content PDFs, for point of sale posters for example and changing marketing collateral for customers that are hooked into the web to print store.

Everything is recorded, everything is measured, everything is counted. This is how Thirlby identifies where improvements need to be made and how variables are spotted before they become a problem. This was first applied in the development of the prepress workflow using JDF to link Prinergy and a rules based approach to automation integrated with the Tharstern MIS for costing and production control. Jobs are grouped together according to paper, format and delivery.

The company controls these aspects tightly. If customers were free to specify formats or demand different papers, the system would not work. “We need to print at 15,000cph or 18,000cph, so do not allow substrates outside our range. If the customer asks for other types of paper we will not quote the job,” says Thirlby.

Keeping to standard formats for jobs also simplifies the workflow as there are no decisions necessary on gutters, grips or lay of the sheet, which has benefits in the finishing department. The plan is now to add barcodes to the sheet to be read by equipment in the finishing department and so save a few seconds at makeready.

The idea is to keep the condition of the presses as stable as possible. Switching from one format of paper to another would take 20 minutes or more. ESP in contrast knows that a makeready takes three minutes 50 seconds from the XL75 stopping to the restart. Another 35 sheets and the press is in good colour and the production run starts. That it sells make ready at 16 minutes a time provides the incentive to run as many makereadies as possible to build as much production time as possible. “I’m always staggered by the amount of non productive time that many printers have,” he adds.

“In January and to the beginning of February, we processed 3,500 orders. This is why we have to work on the inks and blankets we use, why plates are pre-bent when they arrive at the press and why colour control is so important.”

The company works with Mellow Colour's Printspec system and measures itself every day using the charts and tools that Mellow Colour developed to help printers achieve the ISO 12647-2 colour printing standard. If there are suspicions that any company operating at ESP’s pace must be cutting corners on quality this is the answer. ESP regularly scores 98 on Mellow Colour’s scale, it is a member of the 100 Club and it does this on all jobs. As a consequence spoilage rates are microscopic. “Around 0.002% or £13,000 last year,” says Thirlby.

The presses simply are not allowed to vary and are measured constantly to ensure that they do not. There is no adjustment for colour at makeready because none is necessary. The colour profile for each press and substrate is recorded by Kodak’s Colorflow software which linearises each device to a point without colour management turned on. A standard colour chart is produced and measured with absolutely no attempt to optimise output.

This becomes the base reference point on to which the colour curves for the platesetter, or for that matter the Nexpress or Arizona flatbed inkjet, are built. The result is that colour from the different presses will always be identical, provided nothing else is changed.

On press Heidelberg's Inpres Control on board spectrophotometer makes the small on the fly adjustments needed to keep colour within the tight tolerances needed for the ISO standard. “The press becomes a by product of the prepress process,” Thirlby explains. “We are trying to produce as many plates and to do as many makereadies as we can. We have taken the profiling away from the press and by having no makeready on the run, it removes a process step.

“We run a Fogra 39 colour strip for the Inpress Colour control and let Colorflow process these measurements from the 324 different patches on the colour chart and that resets the press. The aim has been to get it all talking to each other on the fly so that we never have to stop and reprofile everything.”

As a result ESP knows exactly how long a make ready will take, and it does so without the press operator having to rush at anything. The press hits the target number of sheets, a marker is placed in the stack because with an average of 4,000 sheets in each job there is little point in changing the stack at every make ready. While the plates are lifted and replaced, the blankets are washed if needed. Thirlby pushed Heidelberg to shave 20 seconds off the blanket wash time.

The company is the only one in the UK with Inpress Control on all its presses. It is also the only UK printer with the full Heidelberg maintenance contract which provides weekly check ups and properly planned servicing to keep the machines in optimum condition. The idea is that every machine will print exactly the same and will use exactly the same consumables at all times.

The effect is that Thirlby can claim “we understand colour than anybody else”, not because there is adjustment on press to get the perfect result, but because there is absolutely no need for this sort of adjustment. The company can trust the process to deliver high quality colour because all variable elements have been driven out.

On press consumables are crucial to this and inks, the IPA free fount and coatings come from Stehlin Hostag. It has involved a lengthy development process to achieve exactly the right formulation for the ink. It needed to be stable under all conditions, it had to be a high pigment ink and it had to tolerate the stresses of rapid make ready and running at 18,000sph without ink fly. The safety covers on the XL105 are testament that the last aspect has been achieved, while the running figures show that ink, fount and press are in tune.

The company has been running with the ink set for 11 months and Stehlin Hostag is now starting to market the ink as the Mozaic HSD set for high speed sheetfed presses. David Ward, managing director of Stehlin Hostag UK, says: “We have worked with ESP for a few years and Anthony Thirlby knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. In this case it was an ink that would work over an extended period and would be robust in an aggressive production environment. It has been running at speed and getting into colour very quickly with a lot of change overs between jobs which puts a lot of stress on an ink from a stability point of view.

“The real challenge was about getting the ink into balance very quickly.” Thirlby concurs: “The transition time at start up is absolutely everything for us.”

The concept took a while for Stehlin's directors to fully understand, but has now been fully adopted by the Swiss company which sends personnel to Swindon. Thirlby welcomes the visits. “If there are six or seven experts from Stehlin in Munich looking at the machine there will always be some idea that I have not thought of,” he explains.

The ink also had to be fast drying because with only straight presses, a job can be turned and put back through the press almost immediately. Last month this is exactly what was happening on one of the XL75s while producing the EMAS brochure for Stehlin Hostag. No sooner had one section been printed at the 15,000sph of the XL75 than the plates were off, new plates on and 3’50” later the next section was printing. Nobody rushed around, a quick check on the control desk and the operator can get on with preparing the next job. There was no need to sit at the end of the press adjusting colour or water balance.

As the company prints to ISO 12647-2 HSD is a high density ink which would be more expensive per kilo than some others. But in the great scheme of things, the greater cost comes when the press is stopped or when intervention is needed to bring it into colour because the ink is a variable.

And the same ink stays on press regardless of the material being printed. “I cannot understand why people run different inks for silks or uncoated papers,” he says.

ESP runs with ink optimisation, using the algorithm for each image to make best use of the high density black ink and reduce the amount of the three colours. It is highly unusual to run ink optimisation on each image, more common is to run ink optimisation across the plate. But there can be savings through working image by image as well as delivering a higher quality result. It is a level of detail that ESP is prepared to consider. Ink optimisation also helps in drying as ink coverage is cut down. While the ink is more expensive, the effect is that per 1,000 sheets ink cost is 6% lower than another ink would be.

The coating is another joint development between Stehlin Hostag and ESP, taking several months to get this right and to balance with the IR dryers that Heidelberg fits to the XL105. When the dryers were off by just 1-2ºC, the company spotted it immediately in the extra tackiness on the sheet in the delivery.

“The coating works out as 30% more expensive which most printers will baulk at and they will keep an existing coating but run the press at 14,000sph instead of 18,000sph. The coating that allows us to run at full speed is the better value,” says Thirlby.
In a lesson from packaging, the coating ensure that when feeding back through the press, there is no slippage at the feeder. Likewise the company runs a blanket designed to run on packaging presses and while more expensive initially, is more durable and means fewer blanket changes.

“We have a very simple supply chain,” he explains. “We don’t want to waste time forming new partnerships. The challenge is not to stand still but to do everything we can to drive waste out of the process.”

He is planning to ease out of the use of special colours. More than 90% of Pantone colours can be matched from four-colour print and the financial advantages of printing out of the standard ink set as well as growth of four-colour-only digital printing means that the pressure to print with specials is easing. In short ESP will shortly be removing another variable from the process.

What it has done is tamed the litho process to the extent that litho can be treated exactly the same as a digital. In prepress there are just two members of staff to produce an average of 2,800 plates a week. The rules system set up automates the choice of press and production flow that each job will take. This is now viewable in a single graphics dominated dashboard view that has been created by Tharstern to include Stehlin’s iCheck system and the Inpress Control for each job. Thirlby can also dial in via an app to see that the presses are running as they should.

But he has not finished. There will be more pressure on Heidelberg to make improvements on the presses. The XL105 is already running makeready a 41 seconds faster than the XL75, making a 100 sheet job on the B1 press viable, for example.

“Heidelberg wanted to sell me an Anicolor 75, but why would I want to do that I already have all the advantages of an Anicolor without the disadvantages,” he says. An XL162 might be a different matter, but the time for that machine in the UK has probably passed. There will be no let up in seeking improvements, working with suppliers to refine the process, to shave a few seconds from each job and improve margins as a result.

“I know I’m a bit like Marmite,” he says. “But I know I still have the ability to improve what we are doing.” There are records to be broken.

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Anthony Thirlby

Anthony Thirlby

The response to ESP's working practices is always the same mixture of awe and disbelief. Surely there must be something that is not being disclosed, some kind of witchcraft, a Faustian pact that means that ESP is a one-off, working in a way that is irrelevant to other print businesses.

It is the supreme pursuit of clear thinking and absolute attention to detail applied to manufacturing print and maximising throughput with minimal touch points to slow production and increase costs.

If many printers today still do not understand their overall costs, Thirlby knows precisely where every penny is spent and what the impact of any change will be.


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When ESP achieved the feat of 2,070,000 impressions, 498 makereadies and a net average speed of 17,108 sheets an hour from its Speedmaster XL105 in one week last November, eyes turned to the Swindon company to wonder how.

In many ways this was just the latest staggering statistic to emerge from the business owned and managed by Anthony Thirlby. Previous production records had been set for its XL75s and the company reckons to run at 140% capacity on average.


Explore more...

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