The window cleaners are just finishing as I arrive at the Qualvis Print & Packaging factory on the edge of Leicester. They have been at work on the double-height windows at the front of the carton printer, a modern addition to what is otherwise standard looking industrial building. Green cladding has the company’s name and a sign pledging allegiance to Leicester City Football Club is fading.
The heights that that team reached last year have no direct impact on the print company, save that this year Qualvis is on course to top the league of digital carton printers in the UK. A dedicated room houses two Xerox iGen lines, both with Tresu double coaters, and feeding a Kama DC76 platen. This is the first twin digital press installation for carton production in the UK and the first for Xerox worldwide.
Litho is not neglected. Commissioning of a seven-colour double-coater KBA Rapida 106 is also underway, a replacement for what was the last Manroland R700 to be sold in the UK before the manufacturer went into administration.
While that company has been revived by Langley Holdings, the experience left Qualvis tainted. It could not conceive of another Roland. “The printers have no faith in the Roland,” says chairman Jason Short. This is despite the company coming to terms with the press and achieving “relatively good performance figures from it”.
In stark comparison there is a B1 Heidelberg, now ten years old which, says Short, continues to produce excellent quality and to be faithfully reliable in operation. And when it came to investment in a new litho press, Heidelberg was on the list. Qualvis wanted a highly productive machine “that could put out the volume” in Short's words.
It ran the tests on Heidelberg and Komori before settling on KBA, signing the contract at Drupa last year. “We knew that Simply Cartons had put a press in and that Beamglow had put a press in and both spoke well of KBA. We all know each other.” He placed an order with Heidelberg for a new platesetter as part compensation.
The press will deliver the capacity for the 20-25% growth that the business is looking for that it hopes to fill with confectionery and cosmetics jobs an area that Qualvis is targeting for sales. If all goes well with the Rapida, the company will be back for a second as a replacement for the Speedmaster within the next two years.
It also runs three platens from Iberica, the company that KBA acquired last year. KBA plans to add its sheet feeders and delivery technology to these machines, at which point Qualvis will begin to replace the current machines.
“In the next three years we could well become a showcase for KBA,” says Short. Before then it will have become a showcase for Xerox, and that is a further link to KBA as the two press companies announced a collaboration to build a hybrid offset-inkjet press at Drupa.
The KBA deal has ended a long term association with the Roland press. Qualvis started life as a trade printer for the Leicester area with a Roland Ultra. It was a small operation owned by Bob Lonsdale and his wife. Meanwhile David Short was building a reputation as a company doctor, going into plants on a relatively short term basis to shake up the business and put it back on its feet.
He had been an apprentice on the books of Chelsea in the 1950s. In those days footballers needed a trade to fall back on once their playing days had ended. Many took to the hospitality trade while individual clubs had affiliations with certain trades. For Chelsea it happened to be print.
As the youngster’s career developed he was loaned to clubs in the US and Canada which continued to provide training in print alongside training in free kicks. At a book printer in Canada he learned the art of estimating which proved the entry into a full time print job in London. At the interview he was asked how long it would take to cost a book job. He said it would take four hours rather than the four days that business had been used to. Short got the job.
Over the years he came to specialise in packaging and grew a strong contacts book and reputation for helping businesses. Lonsdale was one of these. The company had a good name, but could not expand. “And my father was at the point where he needed to settle and put down roots,” says Qualvis. In 1982, Qualvis Print & Packaging was born.
“At the time we did everything we could on two Roland Ultras,” he recalls. A platen for cutting and creasing and folder gluer line was installed. And sales climbed to £1 million after a couple of years. “The breakthrough came when the business won the contract for Memory Lane cakes in Cardiff, which we had for ten years.”
Short himself had no plans to join the business. But after acquiring debt when travelling, working in the factory seemed the easiest way to eliminate that debt. He did his apprenticeship on the presses, attending Notts College of Printing and as son of the owner spent his early career on permanent nights.
A move into sales meant a drop in pay and the opportunity to rise to become sales and commercial director and acquiring day to day responsibility for the business as his father stepped away. He retired fully five years ago.
“At that time the company was not doing as well as it might,” he says. “Tough decisions needed to be made about how the business was set up. It had started as a family business and was run for the family’s benefit.
“It had not taken on new working practices and there were no new ideas coming through.”
Short, however, had been chairman of the promotions and marketing special interest group within the BPIF which opened the door to how other businesses were organised. “I could see the results of the investments that they had made into equipment, workflow processes and staff. I felt that we had to join that or we would not survive.”
He signed up for a management degree at Cranfield and took on board the red-ocean-blue-ocean philosophy. “We had to get out of the red ocean infested with sharks and into the blue ocean where we would have no competition,” he says.
That approach has underpinned the investment in technology. It has informed the approach to workflow and it has led to Qualvis spending £100,000 a year on staff training, sending managers to drink from the same pool at Cranfield. Consequently the company has adopted modern management practices; there are clearly understood KPIs and the culture has changed. “It was not easy. People says yes to change, but the reality is that they are terrified to change,” he says. “Being able to change the culture was the biggest hurdle. I was faced with comments like ‘this is not how your father did things’.”
Recruitment brought in a new finance director and creative director as well as a few that proved not suitable and moved on. Even these people had good ideas that the company could call upon. “They could come with good intentions, but might have had a large corporate background and did not stay long. However, you never employ people for the wrong reasons and we try to get something out of them,” he explains.
His younger brother Marcus has joined as general manager, taking an operations role, and a good commercial director has enabled Short to look at the strategic direction for the future of the business.
That is now going to be as a strong provider of digital printing. The twin Xerox iGen line is just the start. The presses are housed in a cocooned room built in a corner of the company’s warehouse. The logic of digital means that less warehousing will be needed in future – at least for finished cartons. The investment comprises an iGen4 and iGen5 with the full complement of existing additional colours. They were supplied by Xerox concessionaire Advanced UK which also put together the solution for Alexir. Both machines have Tresu Pinta coaters. After printing the sheets are cut and creased on a Kama DC76. Oris is used for colour management and to control consistency, matching litho as needed, something that Advanced has been instrumental with.
There is no dedicated carton gluer at present, Short explaining that a new design machine is being built and that Qualvis will be the first user. It will be installed on the mezzanine that the digital room conveniently creates. This area could also be used for fulfilment as one aspect of fast turnaround digital printing is that the packaging printer is likely to be involved in some co-packing.
Infigo web to print technology will link to customers or to consumers and feed orders to the Xerox FreeFlow Core workflow. “We are launching the first website for a customer in the next month or so,” says Short. “It is currently being built. We will quickly be operating 20 websites”.
Some will be for consumers to go online to a brand and add text to a box or product to personalise it. The likes of Nutella, Marmite and most recently KitKat have shown that there is an appetite for creating personalised packaging. “Fulfilment will be needed to work with the websites,” he adds.
The changes since 2008 have lifted turnover from £8 million to the brink of £12 million and moved the bottom line from a loss to a profit margin of 4.5%. “That has been down to everybody in the business,” says Short. People have been retrained so that they can run multiple pieces of machinery, perhaps the window patcher and a carton gluer, while digital will naturally be a multi-skilled environment.
Short says that digital has been on the radar for some time. He has watched Alexir Packaging, the first company to install an iGen to produce cartons, and been in close contact with its chairman Robert Davison, not least as chairman and deputy of the BPIF Cartons special interest group. “When Robert went into digital, it was a bit of a surprise. I had been looking at it for some time,” Short says. “But I don’t like to be the world’s first, but to learn from the experience of others.”
That has applied to the world of offset as much as to digital. With the installation of the Rapida 106, he says he spoke with Craig Mather, chief executive at Simply Cartons, and has taken on board the lessons that that company has gained from running a carton press at 18,000sph, learning how to minimise ink fly, the logistics and so on.
Qualvis had already committed to Huber inks, installing a computer controlled mixing station last year, and working to adopt all low migration products. These will be used on the new press.
And while the new litho press will have advantages in faster makeready and reduced waste levels over the press being replaced, runs are reducing even faster. The future is going to need digital production. “I saw the Landa when the project first started then at Drupa and have kept an eye on how it is developing. We had also looked at Xeikon, Xerox and HP. I did a lot of travelling and ground work before deciding that Xerox would be best for us at the moment.
“To some extent we think of it like learning to drive. Your first car after passing your test should not be a high powered sports car. You need something to gain confidence.
“Xerox has the best solution to let us do that. They had just launched the iGen5 which means that with the extra colour we can produce 95% of the PMS spectrum which helps enormously with packaging.”
The press has the carton set up to cope with board to 610 microns, though the range Qualvis handles in generally between 450-550 microns. “It can’t yet print a white or on metallic boards, which HP can, so Xerox is a step behind but is rapidly catching up,” says Short.
The learning curve for Qualvis has obviously taken in Alexir. The two businesses will work closely with each other, providing the resilience that customers need for reassurance that digital printing will be able to fulfil their orders.
Short has taken advice from other less obvious sources. One is David Amor from direct mail printer First Move. He has strong views on how personalised marketing will develop to include images as well as names and packaging can pick up lessons from trends in marketing. First Move, for example, is using social media to drive business, while Qualvis’ exposure to the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn is currently rudimentary.
“We need to learn from the advice we get and in turn we need to educate our customers,” says Short. “It is about being able to sell a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Otherwise we will always be fighting on price
“First Move and others can handle thousands of orders a day. We don’t expect to get to that level, but the packaging industry can learn a lot from commercial printing. We have to identify where the new revenue streams will be.”
One is clearly from the millennial generation who are looking for deeper engagement with brands and have a different set of priorities to the previous. Qualvis recognises that decisions are also going to be taken by people in their 20s and 30s, somewhat younger than the average employee in the printing and packaging industries. It has taken on people in this age group in order to do this and bring that attitude into the business.
It also talks too an even younger generation though frequent visits by schools in the area. Groups are welcomed around the factory, which will print Christmas cards designs the children have come up with. Schools are also the destination for millions of reading cards that that are produced each year and distributed free of charge by one large customer. A Coltec collator is a recent investment to handle this job. And on order is a new window patcher to reduce a bottleneck that can build up around the one machine it has for this task.
Qualvis is also working with Peter Lancaster’s Documobi technology to add value to the printed box by enabling a link to additional content, either an offer or perhaps a video of a recipe using the product in hand.
Short sees an opportunity in joining Lancaster on presentations to marketing people, something that a pure carton converter will find difficult to achieve. It is working. “Some of the conversations that have started in this way have reached the NDA stage,” he says. “And with some very large groups.”
Digital will also be about supply chain efficiency. The traditional model is that a customer will be quoted for a certain number of boxes a year and these will be printed and stored in the warehouse. At the end of the year there can be substantial stock, perhaps 20% of the total, that has been paid for and now has to be thrown away.
Short is now able to go to the customer, make a pitch based on a lower initial volume but with the ability to top up the stock levels using digital printing should the need arise.
‘It’s a different way of thinking,” Short explains. “At the moment our space is split 50:50 between warehouse and production space. We would like that to become 70% production focused. We could even supply stock for our customers on a through the wall basis. We don’t have to have it here.”
Other customers across the industry are showing strong interest in digital production. Ian Schofield at Iceland has declared that within two years all own brand produce in the store will be printed digitally. “
“There will come a point when digital has caught up with offset,” says Short. Its Heidelberg Speedmaster has served the company well for a decade. Another litho press may not last as long. “We can see that within ten years there will be more digital printing than litho.” When that point comes, Qualvis will be at the head of the league.
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“We can see that within ten years there will be more digital printing than litho.” When that point comes, Qualvis will be at the head of the league.
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A dedicated room houses two Xerox iGen lines, both with Tresu double coaters, and feeding a Kama DC76 platen. This is the first twin digital press installation for carton production in the UK and the first for Xerox worldwide.
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