Coimbatore, the art of press making

Today, (24 April, 2015), Autoprint based in Coimbatore, will commemorate the milestone of 10,000 installations by honouring the proud owner at Hotel Residency in Coimbatore. This is the humble Dion 450+, which has been sold to a printer in Lekhimpur in UP. A face-to-face with C N Ashok

10 Apr 2014 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Autoprint was established on 6 December, 1992. Today the manufacturer of offset print and allied machines have three manufacturing factories, two in Coimbatore and one in Himachal Pradesh. Apart from these, there is a customer care centre and head office
Ramu Ramanathan (RR): How was 2013 for you?
C N Ashok (CA): Compared to 2012, the financial year of 2013 saw a good number of order bookings. But when printers approached financial institutions for funding, the funding has not been so encouraging. As a result, the clearances for the machines has been slow. So we are trying to get more orders and work our way towards the probability of having more orders towards clearances. But the total orders placed in 2013 have been good as compared to 2012.
RR: The strategic planning of your company has been modified. Shed light on the restructuring  ...
CA: Earlier the company used to take decisions made by the management team, and after considering their output, the products were built. But now we have changed our decision-making policy throughout.
RR: How so?
CA: The calls are taken mainly by the sales team who provide the management and the R&D department with the details of what kind of products are to be manufactured for the next three years. The R&D team will come back with details on whether it is possible to manufacture them within the time frame and at the quoted price. And so slowly and steadily, gut-call decisions are being replaced with much more professionalism. Plus there is a more ‘informed from the market’ type decision.
RR: In the absence of any qualitative data and customer usage data, how do you foresee the future?
CA: We have been periodically doing market research both in terms of structured market research, which is outsourced, and regular group discussions with customers. Apart from these, when we decide to enter into a new space, we do in-depth research by taking opinions from ten existing customers. The research is based on if a machine would be useful for them and what features and technologies should be incorporated to satisfy their need. Based on all the collective data, we develop a product.
RR: Autoprint has been successful in identifying their customers. How has that been possible on a constant basis?
CA: We are clear in identifying the blue ocean for our products. The blue ocean is based on the formula ‘R’ x ‘R’ x ‘C’ x ‘E’. The two ‘R’s stand for "raising" the current level of the product for the customer, and "reducing" what we want to reduce (it may be cost or the make-ready time). ‘C’ stands for that which we are going to "create" newly, and ‘E’ is for that which we are going to "eliminate". For every product we manufacture, we put this RRCE formula. After which we scientifically evaluate where our product stands in the market, and only then is the project cleared for manufacturing.
RR: How long did this process take?
CA: Initially it took us six months to interview our customers and capture the data.
RR: What are the products that come under the blue ocean strategy?
CA: Non-woven bags, the Checkmate inspection system, and the Repetto die punching machine.
RR: When did you start identifying non-woven as a market for you? How has your machine been received by the sector?
CA: There was a demand from the market/customers insisting that we modify our existing machines to print on paper as well as on non-woven bags. It was a big challenge for us, manufacturing one machine, which can do both, and this we considered as a blue ocean. That is because everyone has built machines exclusively for paper or exclusively for non-woven bags. But the blue ocean strategy that we focused on was to manufacture a single machine that could do both and also reduce the make-ready time. After the R&D, we have raised the technology of our offset machine to print on not only paper but also on non-woven bags. The machine is capable of giving offset quality along with quick CAD/CAM systems in place, which prepares the machine for production in no time.
RR: This machine was launched during Pamex 2013 ...
CA: And post-launch, the machine bagged 15 orders in a matter of a month.
RR: Has it been a slow start for Autoprint in the non-woven space? There are Taiwanese machines and Indian players in this slot. Do you consider Autoprint as a late-entrant?
CA: We were a bit slow and a late entrant. Despite being slow, we decided to go with both paper/non-woven and reduce the make-ready times. That was the mandate given to the R&D department. In our case, the focus was on the numbers in terms of speed, stacking and changeover.
RR: How difficult it is to manufacture this machine? How many machines do you manufacture in a month?
CA: It is quite quick as compared to the other machines we manufacture. The base machine is the lathe machine; it’s only the additional electronic and electrical parts that make up the machine. Considering this, we can manufacture about 10 to 12 a month.
RR: What made Autoprint to come upw with the idea of developing Repetto even when there are many die-punching machines available in the market?
CA: When we spoke to our customers about the idea of manufacturing die-punching machines, two machines came up for consideration; it was the Bobst, which is a higher end punching machine, and the other was a manual hand-fed machine which had no safety features embedded in it. We thought, why not manufacture a machine which is between these two spaces and which any printer could easily embark on in terms of cost and also safety. That’s when we opted for the idea to build the Repetto die-punching machine.
RR: What are the technical specifications of the machine?
CA: The machine can hold a sheet of up to a maximum of 19 x 26 inches, and is capable of speeds of 4000 sheets an hour.
RR: What are the developments with the four-colour presses and VDP? Are these spaces getting consolidated?
CA: Digital players are becoming more serious about acquiring four-colour presses. There are instances in which the digital players have gone in for a small four-colour offset in place of a second digital press. This can be attributed to three things – space, power and manpower – as advantages. A single operator can run the machine and the machine requires only a 100 sq/ft floor area and power of around 7.5 hp. This can be easily accommodated in an existing setup of a digital unit. So this is really picking up and we are eyeing this space more. Another big reason would be the click charges. Because, when the digital players have jobs of a much higher quantity they are hit hard for margins.
RR: Who are your customers in terms of geographies?
CA: This would basically be a mix of top cities and tier-2 and tier-3 cities. We have machines in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Guwahati too.
RR: For young entrepreneurs who have entered the digital space, is offset a deterrent technology?
CA: Post CTP, things are changing. It has become simpler.  It’s only a single skilled manpower that they require, to operate the machine. There are some printers who prefer the small offset machines rather than a digital machine. 
RR: What are your views on the labour shortages across different cities and how has your training programme helped in sufficing the shortages?
CA: The training setup has been with us for the past 15 years. We provide three types of training. One is when a new service engineer joins and he is given induction training; then there is a refresher training which is given to upgrade the knowledge of the person in the field, and the third one is the customer training before installation.And out of this training we find that whichever customer has taken the training, our post-installation period has been a success for them.
RR: What would be your setup for the training?
CA: Our investment for training, with machines, infrastructure and manpower put together, is Rs 40 lakh.
RR: What does the training module comprise of?
CA: For the customers, on the first day we give them the theory of what the machine does; show them a video tutorial for better understanding of settings and paper handling. Probably the first two days is focused on paper feeding on the machine. On third and fourth days, we focus on ink settings etc. By the end of the fourth day there is a review and a test, to check whether they require an extensive training or not.
RR: Suddenly for Autoprint there is a boom in the requirement for single-colour presses in north and north-eastern regions. So what is happening?  Is there a shift from the traditional letterpress machines?
CA: My reading is, initially the whole market share was divided by the Chinese and other competitors from north and west of India. People have slowly lost confidence in these machines, as longevity of the machine is an issue. Also there are very few players in this segment, hence whatever orders there are, they are repeatedly coming to us.
RR: What about your buy back scheme?
CA: Secondly, we incorporated a genuine buy-back scheme policy on all single-colour presses of any brand. This policy fetched us about 150 machines in the last year alone, which is about 33.13% of the total sales of single-colour presses. And according to me, this buy-back boom would continue for another two to three years as there are several second-hand single-colour presses in the country that had come to India during the peak times and have lived out its life. But print jobs are still available. This is the reason why orders are continuing to flow.
RR: Schemes seem to be a big trump card for Autoprint, be it the buy-back scheme or the Diwali discounts which you provide. How does it work?
CA: Why these are popular is, during that period we are genuine with the discounts. We produce machines in volumes. It is not a marketing gimmick. In the rest of the year we maintain a single price, but during the scheme we genuinely offer lower rates. This is attracting the customers.  
RR: Because of these schemes, does your revenue take a hit?
CA: Because of the volumes in orders, we are better off.
RR: How low can you go? Have your prices been stagnant, like the other players in the industry?
CA: We have not kept our prices stagnant. There are customers who have three to four of our machines. Like how among manufacturers of offset machines, where there were once 30 to 40 people and now there are only four or five, in the same way, consolidation is happening among the printers. Many printers, I believe, are becoming quality conscious along with on-time delivery and creativity. And most of these printers are Autoprint users. Such printers, who tend to expand, come back to Autoprint asking for their third or fourth machine, either a variable data printing or some such machine. In this way, Autoprint’s brand equity has risen in the market.
RR: Your customers accept that Autoprint is good brand. So how have you been successful in creating this brand name?
CA: I would say, this is because of the reliability and the after-sales service. A lot of investments have been made on the after-sales services and I would say our commitment to the after-sales service has grown in the past 20 years. In fact, our entire sales and spare parts management goes through CRM and ERP systems, and this is the backbone of the company. The CRM takes control of all requirements throughout the country quickly obviating the need for us.
RR: How much of the data that you capture and the stringent tests that you do, are shared with your vendors?
CA: We share the entire data. We make a checklist for our vendors regarding their product and share with them the improvements that they can do. Once in three months, we send our quality person to their facility and check their process, if they have done it correctly. With due support, they are quite willing to improve the industry standards.
RR: We have heard that Autoprint does investment casting on a large scale. Can you shed some light on this? Will this have any effect on the manner in which Autoprint will construct the machines?
CA: We learnt this process as we were doing spares for many companies. Investment casting is done to reduce machining in heavy volumes. Any material can be investment casted, be it aluminium, alloy, stainless steel etc. It is only the application; and ultimately we find that application in investment casting is a better one. Based on the application we have standardised each material for the printing press. Any shaft less than 25mm in Autoprint will be of stainless steel and hard chrome plating, where hand touches the machine. Investment casting is mainly for levers and small components. The dimension that we get outside of casting there is a variance compared to investment casting which is hardly +/- 0.2mm.
RR: Are there any other printing machine manufacturers that do investment casting?
CA: There are many companies which do it. Autoprint does prototyping and R&D with the help of Solid Edge software. 
RR: Please explain how this software helps the end users?
CA: We develop the machine with the help of the software instead of doing it physically. This helps us identify if a particular mechanism is working properly. Apart from this, the entire bill of materials is available at our disposal. Also, we can have a check on the critical parts, on how much the deflection is, of a particular part, from its permissible value.
RR: When was Solid Edge included in the workflow?
CA: We started using Solid Edge six years back as a testing module. And in the past year, we have been using it at full capacity. The software has helped us a lot and the learning from the software has been good.
RR: The Indian Government has recognised Autoprint as an in-house R&D unit. What does this policy include?
CA: We got this recognition in the month of May, 2013. Under this recognition the Government has offered us a weighted deduction of 200% on all capital good expenditure for R&D, other than land. Autoprint approached the government, and made a presentation wherein we showed them what improvements we made and what technology and systems we have brought in at our manufacturing facility. 
RR: Tell me about what happened to your Puducherry plant and what are the activities in Himachal Pradesh?
CA: We put up our plant in Puducherry mainly for the tax benefits. Puducherry plant was extensively a sales office apart from a manufacturing plant. Then, we shifted this plant to Nalagadh, Himachal Pradesh, when there were issues in tax benefits. The Himachal plant is purely a manufacturing unit and caters to single-colour press manufacturing.
RR: How difficult is it to set up a facility in Himachal?
CA: Earlier there was a concession for setting up a plant but now the concession has been withdrawn. No more manufacturing plants can be setup at Himachal. The plants which are already present can avail a concession of 10 years.
RR: What is your concession?
CA: We have a residual concession of three years ...
RR: Manufacturers across India are on the radar for a JV or a technology transfer. Autoprint is “hot property” in the market. Anything happening on that front?
CA: We are open to such practices and discussing it with some people. And we are looking forward to it.  We are currently looking at the packaging sector because that is likely to have a sustained growth in the days to come.  Internally we have tied up with few companies but that is for components. 
RR: Would scaling up be one of the things?
CA: Scaling is there. We have to probably see, how much the industry can take. We thought there would be much competition from the Chinese, but as a company we could withstand that. Our products are being well accepted.  The African and Far Eastern markets have been doing well for us.
RR: Exports is strong with 20 machines to Indonesia ...
CA: It is. There is Indonesia. And in Thailand we have seven Repetto die-punching machines. There is one company in Zimbabwe where we have installed two VDP machines with huge configuration. Cellular scratch cards for all of Zimbabwe is manufactured using our machine. In Mongolia there is an establishment by the Government of India by the name of Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic College, where we have installed one UV machine, a single-colour and a four-colour machine in their premises. In Tanzania, there’s a setup where we have got our three four-colour presses, three die punching machines and three UV machines. That firm produces approximately 400,000 soap cartons per day.
RR: What does the variable data imaging and verification machine do?
CA: The VDP imaging machine which we are developing will read the variable data and identify the image. The image could be a variable barcode. The reading is done by the camera. On verification, you will download a security feature onto the carton thereby making it a unique product.
RR: What’s next for Autoprint in the future?
CA: We are into variable data imaging and verification now. We are eyeing the packaging market and want to consolidate our position in these sectors.

This interview was conducted in April 2014.