At a roundtable event in London FlexoTech spoke to a group of flexo print professionals about how they balance producing high quality work with the day to day low margin jobs. By Michal Lodej
We often hear about how quality within the flexo industry is at an unprecedented level, usually from those selling equipment. But on the shop floor how is this quality achieved in reality. Those in attendance were Darren Charlton from Saica Flex, Paul Larkin and Seb Bolingbroke of Hamilton Adhesive Labels, Vince Hughes from Interket, Paul Horton, from brandprintcolour™, Scott Robinson of MCC Label, Andy Wilson from Coveris and Alan Rogers, from Harper Corporation, the event sponsor.
First off, participants discussed the very meaning of the word quality. Mr Larkin began with, ‘People talk about quality but they don’t really understand quality. However, from a customer’s point of view, quality is always key, even if they say that it is not.
Mr Horton added, ‘Without a measurement or standard of some sort, then quality is really an empty promise, it’s meaningless.’
So what do your customers really want then? Mr Bolingbroke said, ‘In a word its repeatability. Repeatability is really what they want. They need the print to look the same each and every time they make an order.’ Mr Horton agreed, ‘I would say that to be able to create the same results on the same jobs but running weeks apart is a world-class level of printing.’Mr Wilson agreed too, ‘When a customer gets that order in, they want to know that it is going to be repeatable, not just on like for like jobs. It has to look the same on different substrates too for some brands. Mr Larkin added, ‘Going back to the question of quality, there is a lot of talk about HD printing or whatever but most customers don’t actually know what that means. Unless you deliver a predictive system, you’ll never be able to get any level of quality, never mind repeating that result. If it’s not predictable then it is a waste of time, for everyone. Everyone in the room had examples of times that the customer can show explicitly that repeatability is more important than high quality. But there was also an example of customer asking for quality to be lowered. Mr Hughes told, ‘We once produced a design for a supermarket chain, and we were actually asked if we were able to match the work of a competitor, which couldn’t hit the quality we were producing, by dumbing down the quality of our own print.’
Getting the numbers right
Back on the print shop floor, human errors can lead to irregular print if the data available is not used correctly. Mr Robinson explained, ‘Sometimes operators will set up the press but won’t go by their match system, they use whichever anilox they want to use, because they will rely on their instinct rather than looking at the measurements and calculation.’ Mr Larkin, added, ‘This will happen if there is a big gap between management and the printers. These [scientific] approaches need to start from the top and permeate all the way down through the business to the operator level. ‘It’s about measurement control and getting this right can take a year or so, but once done it takes the black art out of the process. We are still realistic, there’s no such thing as perfection because conditions do change. But it means we examine every part of the process individually and also as a collective.’
Invest for the best?
So how do printers make sure they can deliver these high quality attributes to the customer? Does it cost you money to provide these qualities or are the costs already made when you invest in the equipment? Mr Wilson answered, ‘There is no point in buying stuff in if you don’t understand how it will effect production. The main thing is that it makes a difference and that you can measure that change.’ Mr Larkin said, ‘There is a big difference between price and value. Experts and suppliers will say that their product is the best, which is fine but then it’s up to you say to them, “ok prove it”.’ Mr Hughes agreed, ‘The trouble is that you need the time to test and look into it all. This takes a lot of time and that is hard to find.’
Mr Horton pointed out that changes to production should be made carefully, ‘Stability is very important to printers. Operators don’t want to be chopping and changing their way of working so sticking with a provider helps as long as they can provide you with what you need.’ Mr Robinson experienced a situation just like that, ‘We once changed our ink provider, and where we used to be at an ink rejection rate of 2%, after the change the printers were rejecting up to 5% of the inks for being off colour. We had to stick with the ink system and learn how printers at a different site were using it. Is it all about increasing the volume if you are going to increase your margin? Mr Hughes said, ‘In the line of work we are in, we have to get volume though our press if we are to make a larger margin. Our customers are not giving anything away, it is a low margin market. But we are trying to build teams around the press, to make job change overs efficient and fast. As long as everyone knows their role and what’s expected of them then they’re happy to do what is needed. ‘Investing in efficiency is crucial, measurement and control is a foundation all printers need to build on when you are in a market as competitive as the one we work in. You know that 95% of the market can do the same thing as you, so you balance between knocking out the lower margin stuff as fast as you can and then the better quality jobs can take a bit longer. But you can’t stand still, we have to attack and if you don’t bring everything all together you can’t improve the margin.’ Mr Larkin, said, ‘If everything in a company is run in silos, and the changes implemented are not connected then the process won’t work. Change needs to start at the top and be connected all the way down. The whole company needs to work as a team. If in a company the ink supplier is changed and no one else is told about it, then the whole system would fall apart.’
The roundtable established two clear positions. When it comes to quality, it needs to be established by the printer and the customer. The table was unanimous in saying that that doesn’t matter how high quality the work is, if when the next time the customer orders the same job, the two don’t compare. Secondly, when the time comes that a decision is made to make a change to improve the business, this change needs to be embraced from the top of the business all the way down, if it is to have a meaningful impact.