One-time print finishing apprentice Eric Keane has had 13 years in the tech sector, completing the sale of a second business at the start of this year. And while there is a consultancy aspect to the deal, Keane cannot launch another business in the same area of business.
Instead he has returned to a business he first knew almost 40 years ago. In those days it was Graphic Arts Equipment: today it is IFS. At heart it is the same business with Horizon as the core supplier.
“We sold the first Horizon collator to a company in Herne Bay 37 years ago,” he says. That machine has recently retired and like Keane is returning to the business that sold it. “I have followed the fortunes of this business over the years and with the sale of the tech venture, I have been able to come along and help take this business to the next level.”
IFS chairman Tony Hards stepped back from the frontline of the business at the end of 2016, leaving managing director Bryan Godwyn and Jason Seaber to run the business. Keane will be a welcome investor adding experience from the tech world that print is rapidly evolving into.
The arrival of the Internet of Things, or Industry 4.0, makes every piece of production equipment a node on an information network, feeding performance and maintenance data to a company like IFS to offer support packages to ensure that the printer does not miss a beat because of a preventable break down. Of course the unforeseeable will happen, hopefully rarely.
This is the ethos of the telecoms systems that Keane’s previous business had been involved with. “We had 2,000 companies buying telecoms and managed services from us, including many printing companies,” he says. “Finishing equipment is increasingly about electronics, maintenance contracts which is not so different from the sector I have stepped away from. The challenge is how do we make print part of the tech sector.”
IFS will not be offering telecoms systems. And Keane is emphatic that it will not offer any kind of litho press as GAE once did. For Godwyn the mission statement is simply “Finishing, finishing, finishing” and that means “Horizon, Horizon, Horizon.”
Hards brought the Japanese manufacturer on board, courting the supplier to start a relationship that endures. There are other products sold through IFS, Foliant laminators, Petratto folder creasers and Tecnau handling systems, but Horizon will remain the heart of the business which is increasingly beating to a digital rhythm.
The growth of digital printing technology has brought with it a requirement for equally advanced equipment to finish what has been printed. At the outset, digital was confined to short runs, limited formats and relatively undemanding products. That is changing with inkjet printing reels and sheets, larger format and more productive toner presses.
And where litho printing prevails, it is becoming more digital like thanks to quasi autonomous press operation, instant drying through UV and almost instant makeready. This is driving demand for the sort of rapid set up and easy to operate technology that Horizon specialises in, robust enough for litho printing and automated and easy to operate enough for a semi skilled digitally aware operator.
Says Godwyn: “We can see the connection coming between finishing and digital. That possibility is a huge game changer.” Tecnau equipment is connected in line with inkjet web presses for book and journal production with a Horizon perfect binder and trimmer to complete a book.
The BQ480 introduced last year opens the way to shorter run and book of one production with book blocks fed automatically into the binder’s clamps. Adjustments for thickness and format are made on the fly delivering a machine that is capable of inline operation and connection onwards to a self adjusting HT10000V three-knife trimmer.
The set up is more intuitive than on the BQ470, says Seaber. “It fits directly with the Horizon philosophy. Anything developed has to be faster, better, offer improved quality and be easier to operate over was has gone before. The BQ480 fulfils this.”
So much so he explains that a customer with the BQ480 alongside a number of BQ470s has requested that the quality be turned down a notch so that all machines deliver the same output. As it migrates more machines to the new model, the higher quality will be restored, Seaber explains.
The StitchLiner MkIII is an even more impressive demonstration of this approach in action. The StitchLiner 5500 which is now replaced by the new model has been a popular workhorse for many printers, and continues to be so. One machine that has recently been replaced was so much in demand by secondhand dealers that the printer was able to demand sealed bids and received far more than the trade in price IFS was able to offer.
The machine was introduced last year to immediate acclaim, triggering a demand worldwide that caught Horizon by surprise. It is easier to set up, handles smallest format work at the same 6,000 sheets an hour it processes standard SRA3 sheets. It can be linked to a digital sheet feeder or collating towers so is adept at both litho and digital work, provides access to all areas, and crucially produces an A4 landscape product.
In less than a year IFS has installed eight of the machines and is selling all it can get its hands on. This only amounts to two machines a month. “If we were able to sell four a month, we could have problems on the logistics side of installing and training,” says Keane, his business hat firmly in place.
The Horizon folders are proving themselves with the likes of Clinical Print Finishers a customer. It has shaken off the lightweight built in Japan tag that advocates of German engineering have deployed. Horizon is more than merely competitive in terms of automation and fast set up if not on throughput speeds.
But Horizon is not looking at the long run litho market. Keane flew to Japan to seek the blessing of Ejiro Hori before committing to join the business. There he was impressed with the continuing expansion of the factory. “A company has to be massively innovative to be expanding like this. The company is constantly thinking three years ahead.,” he says.
IFS is also keeping a close ear on its 50 dealers around the world, particularly to those in key countries, Germany, the US, Australia and of course the UK. Soundings are fed back into the next phase of development. Hori’s son Hideharu who is being prepared to take over when his father steps down, has spent time in Europe, picking up an understanding of the culture of the print industry on this continent.
While none of those projects is named, even if IFS were privy to developments of this nature, the ability to add end papers to allow the BQ480 to be used for case bound books is definitely on the stocks.
In the meantime IFS is starting to promote its sheetfed rotary die cutter. These uses magnetic dies for fast set up and quick changeover in line with the direction of its thinking.
Another indication is the SmartStacker, a fully automatic slitter cutter creaser that takes B2 sheets and delivers stacked four-sided products. It has a full interface to the HP Indigo B2 presses through the SmartStream workflow. For Horizon this is just the beginning.
In a number of book printers a Tecnau paper handling line creates the book blocks in line with an inkjet press feeding these to the four clamp binder and then to a trimmer for a finished book. The company has also linked a folder to the StitchLiner at the behest of one of the German online print companies and this is being made more widely available.
Such automation is the future. And it will provide a strong future for IFS. “I have come along to get involved in helping to take the business to the next level,” says Keane. “It has been fascinating to come back to the sector because so much of what we are doing is putting equipment inline or alongside digital presses. It doesn’t feel as if I have left the tech sector.”
He will be introducing facets of what tech customers expect. The company has strengthened its engineering team, paying attention to coverage in the north. It will be adding youth to the sales team and developing offerings on the service side which are increasingly important.
When Keane left GAE to set up his own consumables business and then moved away from print altogether, a printer installing a new piece of equipment would be happy to fiddle with it to both understand the machine and have it running to his satisfaction. That is no longer the case.
“The age profile of a lot of the customers we are dealing with is coming down. This new generation do not consider themselves to be printers, but rather designers and facilitators,” says Godwyn. “They are not harking back to the past. That’s very refreshing.”
“It means that as in the tech sector they expect diagnostics and fixes to be done remotely,” Keane adds. That is the opportunity that IFS will be developing. It is moving with print into the tech sector, perhaps even modifying its profile among the younger generation who are agnostic towards print.
There has been a shift towards more business thinking among printers and more willingness to network and share thoughts and ideas. The company has been running trips to the Horizon showroom in Germany for around 20 customers a time and no longer has a problem finding candidates. It is about the networking as well as the equipment, says Godwyn.
The kit continues to draw the crowds. Again Keane has stepped back into the flow. “It was a very good Ipex for us. Like the old days, we couldn’t get off the stand,” he says. “That said, the best years are ahead.”
Eric Keane: “The challenge is how do we make print part of the tech sector.”