If the future of printing is about added value special effects, the future of printing can be found in Foots Cray. It is an historic village on the fast flowing river Cray, once home to numerous paper mills along its banks, now swallowed up in South London’s sprawl where the Lefa Business Park is over shadowed by a vast highly automated bottling plant for Coca-Cola. Yet on the industrial estate is a trade finisher as adept at creating inspiring effects as Willy Wonka was a devising sweets to fire a child’s imagination.
This is Reflections, a company now celebrating 25 years in business and one that has changed and developed through the decades as what printers look for in trade supplier has evolved. Managing director Luke Hastings does not reference Roald Dahl’s character, but does mention Harry Potter. One arm of the business is repairing and rebinding ancient books from the Law Courts of London that would not look out of place in the Hogwarts library, he says.
“There are texts from the 1600s and that law still exists,” he says. “And it’s something that will never be digitised. Every week we receive volumes to be repaired, reclothed and rebound.”
This falls under the J Muir Bookbinders operation. Muir has an even longer pedigree than Reflections, and had been one of London’s leading book binders. It operated from a factory in Blackheath that the landlord thought would look splendid redeveloped for residential use. The trade binder had struggled in recent years and this seemed the last straw.
“We had always sent them our PUR and sewn bound work; they sent use foiling, laminating and embossing,” says Hastings. It was less of a marriage made in heaven than one from either end of the A20. Around 18 months ago, J Muir moved into the 3,300m² factory along with a Kolbus binder, Muller Martini sewers and 15 staff skilled in the arts of book creation and preservation.
It has worked well, coinciding with a growth in the value of the printed word between two pieces of greybeard, enhanced with foil or a laminated film.
Lamination is where the Reflections story began. Hastings' father, having served an apprenticeship in print, and then having worked for Ultrachem, spotted an opportunity with the then new thermal laminating technology.
At that time, lamination was either solvent based or required vast machines to perform aqueous lamination. Thermal seemed to offer a more responsive, cleaner and more affordable alternative. Reflections was a swift success, adding spot UV varnishing before expanding to six sites across south east England. Luke Hastings and his brother Paul had built careers in the City, but when their father fell ill, came to look after the business and then were swallowed up by it.
“We wanted to spend more time with our father, and to support whatever decision he needed to make about the business,” says Luke. “After a few months wondering whether to sell it, we came to realise we quite liked it, and if we took it on that we could do something with it. Dad was very proud of that.”
During the first decade of the century, Reflections had become a big business, employing 200 and running trucks around the region to pick up and drop off work. Then came 2008 crash and the slow years that followed. The industry has contracted from 10,000 printers to what Hastings says is around 4,000 now. The overheads had to be trimmed. Sites closed and people left, but the business remained. “We just about held it together,” he says.
It was a shock and prompted the realisation that Reflections would have to diversify to survive. Printers were starting to invest in thermal lamination for at least some of their work, digital thinking has meant shorter runs and the fast turnarounds that suit in house applications.
Fortunately now digital thinking also means more value added processes and applications. Foil can be any colour you like, including silver and gold; laminating foils can be soft to touch or rough to handle as well as gloss, silk or matt. Many are the sorts of films that few printers will stock. A half-finished roll after a job is delivered is money tied up in a material that might not be used for some months or more.
Dies for foiling need to be sent out for most printers: Reflections has a digitally controlled CNC machine to cut magnesium or brass dies and can instantly respond if one breaks. It has the UK’s only Heidelberg Speedmaster Duo, a litho press adapted into a coating machine that can also emboss and die cut at 14,000sph. There are laminating lines, including a water based machine that runs with an adhesive that the company developed internally and which is sold into Germany.
There are Sakurai screen presses to create the high gloss all over varnish or spot varnish and effects that are possible using litho consumables and dryers. There are guillotines, B1 die cutting platen for carton work and a Vega folder gluer line.
Carton printers like to run volumes of standard cartons on their own glueing lines and will send out four and six corner crash lock boxes which are complicated to produce. Needless to say a high value perfume bottle container will carry embellishment using foils and varnishes to produce the sought after shelf appeal, all possible under the Foots Cray roof.
“We really focus on three key areas: the customers, who when they tell us to jump, we say ‘how high?’; the staff we have and who share the vision of the business and are prepared to turn their hand to anything; and the suppliers because having suppliers that understand what we need to achieve for our customers and react the way that we have to. This has been the secret for our little bit of success.”
The company does not yet have digital embellishment. It has unsurprisingly been approached by Scodix and MGI and has so far been able to resist their arguments. The quality is appealing but Hastings says that it is not possible to calculate an ROI.
Scodix further needs target registration marks to be printed on the sheet, something that suits a printer who can have full control over origination as well as printing, but not a trade house that has to work with what comes off the pallet.
“We have watched developments in this area for a long time,” he says. “These are very expensive machines and getting the ROI is difficult. We might spend £500,000 and find it’s worth £50,000 in five years’ time when everyone wants the new version.”
Currently, the digital aspect aside, Reflections can achieve the effects from a digital embellishment machine through screen printing.
The varnishes it can apply include glitters, textures, soft touch, pearlescent as well as applying more unusual fluids for thermochromic response, opaque white or fluorescent inks, latex scratch off and reseal glue, scratch and sniff and glow in the dark effects that are currently beyond the reach of digital print or embellishment technologies.
It adds up to a palette of creative effects and finishes that can create the impact designers are increasingly seeking. It is also a marketing challenge for Reflections. It cannot go over the head of its direct customers to appeal to their clients “That’s always very difficult,” Hastings says. Instead there are samples in the post to help the printer sell on to his customer base. “We can do so many combinations of weird and wonderful effects and will send out samples to show good ideas of what can be done with print.
“We want to be the inspirational trade finisher, working on special projects and bespoke jobs,” he says. Some have come following the acquisition of J Muir, producing the hand finished history of every thoroughbred racecourse in the country for example. Spending similar amounts of money on a yacht, apartment or car will result in a high quality printed and embellished brochure.
These are not the sorts of luxury items that are sold through websites. Even a piece of foiling for a carton on a supermarket shelf creates an impression of luxury he points out.
The focus on speciality and high value jobs has ensured the survival of the business while many trade finishers that focused on high volume but low margin fold stitch trim work have been squeezed out by vanishing margins and by printers bringing the work in house. They continue to do so for short run laminating or digital foiling, says Hastings, “where it makes no sense to carry the set up costs we have.
“We will invest hundreds of thousands of pounds on a big laminator that can run for 24 hours a day. And as a trade house, we will always get the complicated stuff that people do not want to tackle."
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Just one arm of the Reflections business, ancient books arrive from the Law Courts into the company's Foots Cray factory for rebinding each week.
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The focus on speciality and high value jobs has ensured Reflections' survival while many trade finishers that focused on high volume but low margin fold stitch trim work have been squeezed out by vanishing margins and by printers bringing the work in house.
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