In 2018 Warners received planning permission for a new factory building on its site in the centre of Bourne, in Lincolnshire. The proviso was that work should start within three years. Two years after receiving its permission the building is up, two levels of industrial space with covered corridors linking the new unit to the not so new unit, and it is home to a new Manroland Lithoman press, the third of this type for the family owned printer.
The newest 32pp press from the German supplier arrived 13 years after the first press of this type was installed. At the time Warners ran three 16pp web presses and the larger machine was expected to handle longer jobs as well as provide a huge leap in productivity, leaving the 16pp machines to cope with the more complex publications and shorter print runs. It did not turn out quite like that: the larger press proved so much more adept at shorter runs, thanks to faster makereadies, that it swallowed more and more work.
Today Warners still has one of the 16pp machines, but history is likely to repeat itself. The new machine comes with a double parallel folder so is capable of delivering 16pp, 8pp and 4pp sections at high speed, at high quality and with even faster makeready. It is still early days, the machine starting up just as the country was closing down. Already, however, the impact has been sufficient to suggest that there is plenty yet to come.
The second Lithoman was the first to include closed loop colour control and a dynamic cutoff control system which eliminated any problems with variations through web splices by automatically altering the timing of the folder to compensate, so saving operator interventions. The new machine goes further with automated colour controls, register and folder controls that will reduce waste levels at start up.
“We will be effective at runs of 3,000 copies,” says marketing director Michael Warner, “and I believe that there is a bit of scope to go below that.” Web offset printers used to be comfortable with run up waste of 3,000 sections, not competing at the run lengths that sheetfed printers handle. The company’s two remaining sheetfed presses will handle the shortest run work and produce covers. The new Lithoman is capable of everything else. “What might have taken 40 minutes before will now take 25 minutes,” he says.
Warners was brought up with the Lithomans, serving time as a No2 on the first of the 32pp presses as he gained experience in each of the print company’s departments before promotion to the board at the start of this year. “Ink is in my veins,” he says. The company remains the family owned operation it was when it was started in 1926 as a newsagents business. In those days many newsagents started print businesses. Few have survived.
“When I worked there in the summer holidays from school, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. The feeling was right. Now I’m excited to be part of building one of the largest independent printers in the UK,” he says.
Warners prints some 500 different magazine publications, specialising in the short to medium run titles that are proving resilient in the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Plenty has been written about the appeal of magazines during this period, the physical compared to the digital, the focused content compared to the random scope of the internet, the direct relationship between publisher and reader compared to the anonymity of online. “Everyone likes a magazine,” says Warner. “It may not look it from the outside, but the magazine market is very dynamic.” As publishers wrestle with the impact of Covid-19, it is likely to become even more dynamic.
His role is now very much about working with publishers to understand their strategic thinking and to ensure that Warners can continue to meet these expectations. It tends to work with independent publishers rather than the major groups which have gravitated towards Walstead or YM. A major contract to supply one of the international publishing groups could easily affect the company’s flexibility and move it away from the core customer base.
This is about producing a diverse and eclectic portfolio of publications from local interest, hobby titles, business publications, member magazines and a spread of titles for the group’s publishing arm. The company claims it is “the best short to medium run printer in the UK”.
The magazines are balanced by commercial web printing requiring perfect binding or stitching after print, catalogues and brochures. The fit between publisher and printer is more important than the size of the customer’s business. “Some of the publishers we work with like the family feel; for some the appeal is the modern kit that we have; for some it’s the environmental considerations that are top – it’s a collection of different things,” Warner explains.
“If a job is suitable for us and we can do it well, we will compete for it. We are focused on short to medium run sectors: that’s where we are very very strong.” It is in the strength of its relationships with customers that helps too, he adds. It works.
Even before this investment Warners has been increasing sales, if only marginally, to £32.88 million in the year to the end of September (£31.88m) with static operating profits. As the company comments this performance is one that “generally exceeded that of other companies in a similar market sector”. The investment programme is intended to lower unit costs “in the face of deteriorating market conditions”.
The development has been planned meticulously, giving both capacity to meet future as well as current needs. The new factory includes an upper floor which has the floor loading strength to cope with stored pallets of work in progress and to install binding lines should these become necessary. The space is occupied by an additional platesetter to feed the new press and accessed from the lower floor by lift.
While the company already has a brace of Lithomans, there were other suppliers to consider, though a switch away from Manroland Goss, as it now is, was always unlikely. The company still had plenty to consider, not least the configuration of the folder and level of automation included. This involved visits to printers in mainland Europe to check machines of similar specifications. There were conversations with customers over their likely needs. “There is a surprising amount of choice out there,” says Warner.
In the end it was a logical choice to buy a further Lithoman. “Over the years, we have become very familiar with the press, how it works and performs. The new press is familiar, with all round incremental improvements. This is more energy efficient, reduces spoilage figures, and is faster to make ready. It is about constant improvement in very fine margins, saving just a few seconds at each makeready will have an impact,” he says.
The second and third presses share a common plate size, making it easy to move jobs from one machine to the other. The printer will also try to standardise on paper where possible. This is where the short print runs become possible. As sheetfed magazine printers have found, restricting a makeready to a change of plates minimises start up waste. The web printer has the advantage of delivering folded sections – removing a process that a sheetfed company has – and sections, once printed, are dry and bindery ready.
The press needs a three-man crew, no different to the first Lithoman. Greater levels of automation and improvements to the operator interface have removed some of the stress factors involved in running these beasts. “We have yet to see the full benefit of having this press,” says Warner. “Already though we have been blown away by how good this press is. It is really exciting for the operators. Those running the press have first to learn to trust it and then to push it to find out what can be done with it. These presses like to run and each press has its own characteristics in how to get the best from it. It will be nice to see when this press comes into its own.”
Contiweb reel stands and highly efficient oven contribute to the ongoing drive to reduce environmental impact. In five years to 2019, the company cut its carbon footprint in half, fitted solar panels, changed lighting for energy efficient LEDs, switched electricity supplier for renewable generation and minimised waste to landfill. The carbon footprint per section will come down further with the new press.
The company will be able to measure the production impact far faster than with previous machines. The data fed back to the MIS means the company will be able to track performance in real time. This compares to the first machine where the data was gathered and looked at every month to identify issues to be dealt with and where improvements might be made. Time has moved on.
The print business has also moved on. It has had to. The nature of the industry today is very different to that of a previous generation, even to when Michael Warner first started working in it. “What wasn’t viable 20 years ago is now almost standard,” he says.
“We don’t give ourselves enough credit in the printing industry, we can stand back a little too much. We are doing a lot more than people generally know. Whenever we bring customers in here, they are blown away.”
The lockdown put plans for customer visits on hold, though there was an opening for the local community staged shortly before the start of the lockdown period. The pandemic has also affected investment plans, though not severely. Warners will be taking delivery of a paperwrap machine in early 2021, installation being delayed because of the current situation. As much as this is the right thing for the business and because customers are looking to improve their environmental impacts, Warners has wanted to make this investment. It has needed to in order to stand by the claim to be the best short to medium run magazine printer in the country.
The Lithoman press occupies a new press hall with a reinforced floor above to hold work in progress and perhaps new finishing equipment at a later date.
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