The rise and rise of artisan food shops, craft breweries and other niches in food and drink sectors sends out growth opportunities not only for the home-spun businesses and micro distillers that create this exotic fare but also suppliers of digital technologies that can help them get to market.
Folding carton supplier the Alexir Partnership identified a need to add a digital workflow to its existing litho operation when it faced demand from emerging small food businesses, including farms that wanted to sell into specialist niches or local markets. And this was the first risk.
“Before we invested in digital capabilities we would get requests for runs of perhaps 500 cartons, but our litho-printing operation was simply too costly for their needs,” said chairman Robert Davison. “Making plates and going through the repro process had high up-front costs. There was lots of hype about digital but even this had its risks for a SME like us. It’s not cheap technology.”
Davison started his offset litho business in 1989 with a tiny foretaste of what was to come; rolling out cartonboard as an alternative to less sustainable plastics for everything from ready-meal trays, sandwich packs and noodle containers – a box waiting to be ticked by all those cottage- industry businesses he was now beginning to focus on with mounting interest.
“I’ve kept a close eye on digital technology, trying to see when we could be in a position to take the plunge,” adds Davison, whose biggest challenge to date had been basic survival: a devastating fire in 2010 forced his company from its original Crawley site in West Sussex to Edenbridge, Kent.
Three trends sharpened his focus: “Existing customers, brand owners and retailers were wanting to reduce their commitment levels – everything is about smaller runs. Second, the market suggests people want to get closer to their customers, hence the need for personalisation and to make every design different. And third, all those small businesses – brewers, confectionery manufacturers etc – represent a market, if not booming, then at least with lots of potential growth.”
After 12 months of detailed study, Alexir Partnership decided “to give it a go” because “digital printing was no longer simply about cost, but the added value it could bring to the brand owner”. Davison’s team built a mezzanine floor and clean room and then went about buying equipment – all of it, including the building work, costing around £1m.
The digital sheetfed printing, coating and finishing workflow installed last May included a Xerox iGen4 printer with a Tresu Pinta coater integrated inline, a Kama ProFold 74 folder-gluer and a Kongsberg cutter. Alexir paid for the equipment with a mixture of its own cash and that from a funding package over a five-year period.
With its high speed – the line can run at 110 sheets per minute – minimal setup times, automated features and variable data capability, the single-pass printing-coating line enabled Alexir to enter short-run printing markets, offer samples on-demand and produce personalised packaging.
“We did a full marketplace assessment and looked at rival kit, the closest to our needs being HP equipment. But the system we chose seemed a closer fit to the requirements of our SME customers. What also swung it was that Xerox works closely with Tresu and Kama and offered the complete solution in one go on the table.”
The four-colour iGen4 press meets exacting quality targets with little manual intervention, he says. It includes an inline spectrophotometer that automates colour adjustments and calibration, automatic density control and high-definition linearisation that eliminates the need for grey-scale calibration. And it took three weeks to crane in, then install the whole kit and digital caboodle.
Training was undertaken in batches over several weeks, but Davison says much of the learning curve – and it was steep – was through trial and error: “We must be one of the UK’s first packaging converters to install this line-up of digital printing and coating workflow, so all of this is relatively new technology, especially for the folded-carton market. There will always be something to learn or a customer wanting a new shape, size or material. You just have to get on with it.”
The kit was installed last May, production started to roll in July and, even now, Davison’s team is learning. Digital, he explains, may have been around in general print for some time but the thicker materials used in cartons throws in added complexity in terms of coatings and the need for varnish-free areas for overprinting.
Alexir specified the print and coating line to handle substrates up to 610 microns thick to meet specialist demands. Hence the need for the Tresu’s Pinta inline flexo coater.
The post-print coating operation provided by the kit offers a layer of protection and gives aesthetic appeal. A wide range of UV- or water-based finishes offer identical results to that of analogue print including full-surface, spot or fine-line effects as well as matte and gloss.
It uses patented sleeve technology for stable, precise coverage at up to 5,000 sheets per hour on paper stocks including coated, uncoated, textured, smooth, and speciality materials up to 364x660mm.
Alexir Partnership is running the operation as a separate, independent business unit run by four people. One of these was an existing member of staff and the remaining three were newly recruited because of their specialist skills. With kit this new, Davison points out, “there aren’t many people out there, so we had to go and find them”.
Clients number not just arts-and-craftsy farm shops, but luxury brands. Life Shot 200 for example is a natural, highly concentrated coconut kefir health drink, sold in glass bottles that are packed in a carton.
Other customers want exhibition samples or promotional products so they can show an out-of-the-case product to a retailer. Typical runs are about 50 to 60 and the biggest problem now is not so much technical but cultural: “It’s about educating customers on capability; we can turn something around in under 12 hours, which would not have been possible without the digital technology.”
With the well-calibrated Xerox and Tresu production line and minimised set-up times, Alexir can give these producers the fast supplies of high-impact packaging they need to promote their brands.
“We are not expecting big things in our first year,” concludes Davison. “In fact when the year is up we probably won’t have made additional profit, but we have had positive responses and work is continuing grow because more people want healthier images, better products and something that appears to be made not in a high-speed factory.
“We still have plenty of capacity and with the new line able to operate a double shift, it will contribute to the bottom line. I would like to think that by the end of the second year we might be able to take on a second production line. The appetite for artisanal food does not appear to be waning.”