Few print companies know that millions of people will be looking at their work on television, or that well know celebrities are going to running their fingers over the ink and coatings that they have applied. Few companies are also in the loop as to the introduction of new products or flavours of existing drinks, snacks, cereals or toothpaste before they reach the shops.
Welcome to Opus 21 Digital a small business in Cramlington, Northumberland, whose customers are design agencies, many from London, or the giant brands, for example yoghurt producing Muller.
It produces sample packs of different types of packaging using an HP WS6000 and a host of intricate manual skills. These can be used for pitches to retailers, tested in focus groups, may star in photoshoots for an advertising campaign or can wind up as part of a television commercial.
The work takes in presentation cases where several pieces of film must be applied to a corrugated box; it might be a new design carefully applied over an existing toothpaste tube, one-off shrink sleeves for individual snack bars which must be carefully scalpelled off and hand crimped or wrapping film to apply to trays of 2 litre bottles of Coca-Cola.
Mark Hunter-Purvis, who started the business along with Adrian Howe ten years ago, says that the bottles are carefully sourced from a local store in batches that do not result in a sudden shortage of Coke in the area.
There are dozens of bottles are lined up across the floor waiting to be grouped, wrapped and heated to ensure that the wrap is applied in the way specified. The bottles are then carefully packaged to ensure that they are not damaged en route to their final destination in mainland Europe.
“We also produced the presentation packs for VIP recipients of the Share a Coke campaign, amounting to 4,000 different names,” Hunter-Purvis says. One handmade box contained two bottles, one for Victoria and one for David, and was presented to the Beckhams. At least one box also ended up at Buckingham, rather than Beckingham, Palace.
It is a specialist business which noticed no adverse effects from the 2008 recession. “Brands kept on launching new products and designs,” he says. “We work for pretty much every blue chip company, though usually via agencies.”
Another bench has a line up of beer cans being prepared for another job. The existing print is removed by a combination of paint remover, wire wool and elbow grease. The finishing touch is application of T-Cut to bring out a gleaming finish. The outer can will then be transformed into a completely new brand, which requires the gold colour of the ring pull top that the existing product uses.
Here are the remaining samples of 800 bottles of whisky for a rebrand of the Scotch which had to be applied to all formats the spirit comes in from the duty free bottle down to the single measure bottles.
Hunter-Purvis has had a 30-year career in print, starting at Waddington Labels, first on the presses and latterly being part of the team taking part in client meetings. After a spell at nearby Reproflex3 which had installed one of the first Indigos, he left to start his own business. “We started working for customers that we had worked with over 20 years,” he says.
There is no intention of embarking on longer run print, nor of starting to produce plates as Reproflex3 does. Its position means it retains good relations with the next links in the packaging production chain. If it has to correct the incoming artwork files because inexperienced designers do not understand the need for a white channel, for example,
those it supplies to platemaking ought to be correct.
If Opus 21 does not produce plates, or wet proofs, almost everything else is produced in-house. The exception is any die making work where it continues to make sense to buy in this specialised service. It coats substrates if needed to render them suitable for Indigo printing and can then laminate inline on what is probably the only Karlsville laminator in the country.
Hunter-Purvis spotted it at a Labelexpo and realised its value. It slashes the time needed for lamination while saving vast amounts of film: with a conventional laminator 40 metres of material would be needed just to start the machine.
For Opus 21 Digital, any 40 metre job is a substantial order. A production run may only take a few seconds or minutes. If the job requires only ten or so laminated samples, it will be finished by hand; if the requirement is 300-500 samples, the laminator proves its worth.
It has a hand operated screen machine where heavier spot varnishes or tactile effects are needed. Brands increasingly want to add tactile interest to a label or box. A recent job used a shrink label to decorate a spirits brand aimed at a young and trendy audience. Each bottle features the image of a DJ famous in the destination country and with a raised image tactile outline of the map of that country.
There is a Pantone mixing station to create special inks for the Indigo, including a mix for Coca-Cola red that has been approved by the company. “We can achieve 92% of PMS colours out of four-colour process on the Indigo,” he says. Samples are regularly checked to ensure that the one-off labels that Opus 21 creates remain on brand.
There is a significant expansion in the number of shrink sleeve labels that the company delivers. For the brand there is an increase in the area that can be used to display both marketing and regulatory information. He hands over a spray bottle that is using a shrink sleeve, but which still retains the space left flat for a printed label.
“Brands can get so much more information on a sleeve and they are a lot faster to apply,” Hunter-Purvis says. “A lot of the companies that used to use labels now want shrinks.”
The company is also handling an increasing number of stand up pouches, adding the gusset by hand and stuffing the pouch to make it lifelike for photography. And he believes that pouches have a strong future given the number or jobs that are passing through the business, even for cereal brands. “We are still doing a lot of cartons,” he adds quickly.
Flowline packaging where the flexible packaging seals the product inside a protective decorated pocket, is also on the increase. This might also have an impact on volumes of printed cartons in future. These jobs are ideal for digital. There is no wet proofer that can produce proofs from flexo plates even if it were economically viable to do so. Cartons can still be proofed from plates.
The films that Opus 21 uses are stored next to the HP press and can be switched over four times a day, with the company trying to batch jobs that need metallised foils, glossy, matt or other finishes. Likewise the six-colour press is always loaded with CMYK and white, leaving space for a Pantone special that can be mixed to order.
The W6000 is the company’s second Indigo. The first was a Series 1 W2000 which had to be retired after HP withdrew contract of service support for it. Spares and help continued to be available on an à la carte principal, but the tight turnarounds that are a regular feature for the business mean that it cannot wait for an exploratory visit.
The newer machine is linked online to the HP Barcelona service centre for online diagnosis and repair. It is also faster running and quicker to set up. It handles all the output. Even samples of FBB cartons or corrugated boxes are produced from films and then laminated into place. Any for a large corrugated box must first be carefully worked out to create the separate pieces for each box.
At the other extreme is a lipstick sample where the task of applying the new graphics is intricate and requires a steady hand and attention to detail. This highlights one of the recurring issues for Hunter-Purvis. “Getting the right people is the most difficult thing. It is all about getting people with the right attitude. You can’t just advertise for a print finisher on the one hand or a mock-up person. We get Mac operators who do not understand what is needed for packaging but because they can use Photoshop believe they are suitable. This is a very specialised business.”
Any recruit is given a three-month trial as much to check their attitude as their skills. Opus 21 Digital is, Hunter-Purvis points out, a small business. “We can’t afford to be stuck with anybody. This is a very hands on company. Our customers will pay good money for a mock up, but we cannot give them four perfect packs and then a fifth which is not quite as good.”
Provided the company continues to deliver perfect packs, there will be a continuing demand for its services. Brands will continue to want to relaunch their products and marketing is becoming as important to a package as protection and identity. This alone means that work should continue to flow north along the A1.
Opus21 switched to the Indigo WS6000 after HP ceased to offer full contract service for the earlier WS2000 that the company had had. The change has only been beneficial Mark Hunter-Purvis explains with many issues solved through online contact with HP in Barcelona.