“TLC, that’s the way forward”

Andy Cook, managing director of FFEI tell Noel D’cunha and S Swarnangka, chief operating officer, digital imaging solutions at TechNova, who shed his corporate gear to wear a journo’s cap, that after implementing the TLC, “tender loving care” programme with Caslon customers, things are getting better.

27 Sep 2013 | By Noel D'Cunha

Noel D’cunha (ND): Graphium is a new machine. Please give us a low down on how it was conceived?
Andy Cook (AC): Graphium as a product is actually a concept of trying to create a visionof digitising things. The concept took shape soon after Drupa last year, Xaar, Edale and FFEI, decided to get together to create a product which can transform the industry. We wanted to make people think more creatively about using digital printing for different applications. We thought of North America as a good market, where people, for example were doing bumper stickers and decals-type stickers on windows, specialty printing, etc. Graphium is a ‘butter fly’ from South America. We wanted that our customers to become creative, free thinking, colourful and that’s why we chose that name, which is registered.

ND: So what were the first things you did which would define your first product?
AC: We created a product which has three unique competitive advantages for uniqueness. The first one is, creating a white ink which is high opacity, flexibility and high adhesion. White ink is important if you are doing packaging and labels. The second was the printing width. In the label industry, 330mm is a very common size, but for specialty applications you need a bit more width. Graphium has the widest print width in the market, 410mm or 16inch. The third concept was one of flexibility – use digital for a broader range of applications. So the transport system is very flexible in terms of the media you can transport.

ND: How is that and what about the transport system pre- and post-print?
AC: If you were a prospect looking at Graphium, we would say use your media you use today in your traditional. The transport system is designed to take a very broad range of media and the way the product is designed we have LED inter-colour pinning, which allows us to adjust the quality dependent on the substrate. None of the other products in the market gives that kind of ability and the reason is because we say to the customers: try and use different media, you don’t need pre-qualification. It’s not like liquid or solid toner-based where you have got the fuser and a drum and if you put a media which is not pre-qualified, it is going to damage the machine. We encourage people to try different media, and that gives them the ability to think creatively about new applications.

Edale, with its Dotrix background, developed the flexotransport design. If you are passing a very absorbent material like tissue, you need to do some sort of pre-coat. You can add a flexo unit and do a pre-coat. If you want to do something after print, you can put flexo stations for finishing, lamination, foiling, etc. Within the Graphium concept, one has the ability to do lots of different things.

The first machines which were sold in America are to specialty printers, who do lots of different types of applications. It’s ideal for labels, but also for signage and window stickers, gate-folds because ink is UV curable and its sticks to many things.

ND: Let me take you back to Drupa and Caslon and whatever happened to that?
AC: We had the Caslon at this show in 2007 as a digital unit for Nilpeter. We went to Drupa with a Caslon that had a new white station. We showed the ink and people said that the ink is fantastic but the total solution is too expensive at USD 1.1-mn. We learned from that and so the Graphium is integrated at a much lower cost solution, but the white ink technology is the same.

ND: So have you dumped Caslon?
AC: No. Caslon as a CMYK is sold by Nilpeter and they are still promoting it. Developments on Caslon still continue. That is a Nilpeter product but an FFEI press.

ND: So the genesis of Graphium lies in Caslon?
AC: Yes. It’s a similar technology with the same head, but Graphium is LED-based ink, which gives it more flexibility. There are some software changes. Graphium’s control and transport systems are different and more integrated. It’s a press that can produce many different applications.

ND: There is at least one digital press with two versions at the show, one a standard UV ink and the other for low-migration UV ink. Are they a step ahead of you?
AC: I suppose that is a marketing announcement. I think it’s an intention and the actual ink is still not commercially available.

ND: Do you have low-migration ink and if so would there be two versions?
AC:At present it does not, but we are working on that as a development, something you will see. And we will try to have it as a same engine, single version, though it’s too early to say what the final ink technology would be for us. It is always discussed as a subject.

S Swarnangka (SS): Andy, first of all congratulations on this transformation to being digital solutions company. Coming out of the analogue cocoon is the most painful experience. How are you seeing the consumers trying to go through their own process of transforming? As a manufacturer what are the challenges that you see your consumers facing, both in terms of commercial offset and in the label side of the business?
AC: The concept of digital brings lot of challenges. It means different people, people who can accept and be creative with it. Practical items like value of the jobs, run-length of the jobs. When value gets less the volumes go up. So the whole administration is turned upside down. In commercial, whether it is label or other segments, you have to be thinking about the administration. When you think about technology investment they have a very short life. A ten-year old life-cycle is no good as a technology investment. It’s a painful process, but you need to survive. You have to move forward and have an open mind. It’s same for our business as our customers.

SS: These are my personal views. Going through the show, I am seeing traditional press manufacturers on one side and manufacturers of inkjet heads, diodes etc for digital press manufacturing on the other. Are we seeing an over-simplification of manufacturing that is happening? For example, if someone has a drive, he can then take a head and create a label press. If that’s the case, then what are the challenges for pure technology companies like FFEI? Are you entering into a very crowded space?

AC: There are two approaches at creating a product. There’s the buy off-the-shelf components and assemble it together or a system design. It’s the Apple versus Microsoft approach. Apple says, we want to design the system so that we can ensure the user experience, Microsoft, Dell type of approach who want to make a cost-effective choice in terms of flexibility by bolting components together. With digital print manufacturing the problem is the link between the fluids, the heads and the applications is too tight. You have no choice but to design it as a system.

Imagine you are firing a billion droplet of ink, six pico litre ink onto a substrate, which is running at 50 meters a minutes and you are trying to get those tiny droplets to stick to your substrates and your substrates has many different characteristic. It is impossible to get an ink for everything or a head for everything. In the Graphium for example, we have to control the temperature of the ink within half a degree, we have to keep the pressure at a certain level, to take the air out, and a lot of things to get print on substrate. We need to understand the technology to ensure the right formulation. When you inject a droplet, you have a complicated electrical signal that goes to the head and that is a wave form, where we have spent a huge effort to get it right.

Yes, you see companies come and buy heads, fluids and assemble a print machine. But what about image quality, substrate, and maintenance, which is a very important subject? We learnt a lot with Caslon. We now have many customers running Caslon presses, two shifts seven days a week. It took a long time to get the stability and reliability of the heads, alignment of transport systems and control the ink.

SS: Since you mentioned about the maintenance part, there are over 300 customers who can vouch for reliability of an FFEI technology that runs their CTPs. And a couple of things that they like about FFEI products, are the simplicity and the robustness of the systems. Are we going to see the same kind of traits in Graphium?

AC: Completely.  Graphium is surely a complex system, but whole philosophy is our design is its simplicity. The more the components, the more is the chance for failure and more cost for maintenance. Our design are innovative, but as simple as possible. We measure things like components count; the number of screws, washers, nuts that we use, monitor that and set our target to achieve simplicity which gives us robustness.

ND: And, what about production flexibility for manufacturing labels?
AC: When you are switching jobs, there are several issues. One is media. How long does it take to spot the media, and that’s what Edale has also thought in terms of how we turn, mount and then splice the media. That’s the key when you are doing digital, because you are doing lots of different jobs. That’s one of the difference with Caslon and Graphium. Caslon was designed inherently for long jobs so the change overtime is long, and that’s nothing wrong with that. But for the Graphium, we needed a quick changer, the F1 model of a pitstop, doing everything in a minute. It’s been an important consideration for us.

SS: Let’s say that I am an Indian customer and the frugal cost-efficient smartness is what defines me. I give you two minutes to charm me what will be your sales pitch for the Graphium?
AC: I don’t think that it’s just the Indian market that is concerned about costs. And I should also say that over the next three four years, I think the design and functionality of the products will be a concern as time evolves.

To answer your questions, we have quick change-over and minimal wastage of media. Most importantly, we don’t need a pre-coat. So if you are using a media that you use in your operation, you have probably over the last ten years, found a good value supplier that you have negotiated a great price on rather than paying a premium on a top coat? So I will take you all the way back to the Graphium concept – we say to our customer: use the media you are familiar with and we will give you the levers to make it work, there lies 30% of the cost of the label.

ND: We know of few label players who have burnt their fingers when adopting digital technology. How do you ensure that you are not the one to burn the printers fingers, particularly with the click-charges, maintenance and so on?
AC: That’s a bit of a concern. The technology is still evolving and there will be clients that will get their fingers burnt.

I think it’s about technical ability and readiness for digital. We first talk to clients we make sure that they understand digital technology and the partners that work with the clients in those countries need to understand digital, which means they need to understand electronics, colour management, frontends; you need to get that right. They may have too much money but not the readiness. You got to prepare the client and make sure that they are ready. We would not want to put our eggs in the basket who does not have digital awareness and does not understand pre-press challenges. And I think that’s the starting point.

But once they are ready, we would protect them with a maintenance visit every three months from a service application person, as part of the education, spend few hours finding what jobs they have had problems, issue an sort that out.

We have what is called the TLC programme, tender loving care, where someone will visit you every quarter, maybe just chat and that’s the journey. We did that with Caslon and we know things are getting better. TLC, that’s the way forward.