SMI: How to manufacture 100-million square metres

From humble beginnings in 1993, SMI has evolved into India’s leading labelstock manufacturing company. Ajay Mehta spent time with the WhatPackaging? team at SMI's Ambernath factory version 2.0 on 31 January even as the who's who of the label industry were present.

Ajay Mehta and son, Rohit Mehta led delegations in groups of 10-15 through a show-and-tell of SMI's labelstock journey. During the two-hour walk-though, visitors saw the manufacturing process of more than 300 products with a choice of emulsion acrylic or hotmelt adhesives in permanent, peelable, semi-freeze, deep freeze and low migration variants.

09 Feb 2019 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Labels other than visual imagery and aesthetics is also about storing and transport. Your factory is impressive. How did you conceptualise the warehouse?
25 years is a long time to visualise and conceptualise things. We procure over 70 different types of raw materials. We produce over 300 products. All these come in over one-ton rolls. Handling such material can be a huge task due to the volume and size. Our commitment to the environment, by reducing wastage, paying heed to the safety requirements of our team and determination to provide good working conditions for our team, led us to explore all the possibilities. We were keen to get storage facilities which would help us identify and move material, efficiently, within the factory. This led us to deploy a moving rack system as well as tracks to move rolls on, along with clamp trucks, reach trucks, for lifts, stackers, electric pallet trolleys etc. 

You were able to expand the factory in Ambernath due to demonetisation? How?
Demonetisation led to a lot of changes in the manner in which business was conducted. Transparent business became the norm. We were offered an adjoining factory as a result of this new way of working. We grabbed the opportunity. This got us the extra space which was needed for a separate coating shopfloor and a separate finishing shopfloor. Now, we have space to grow in the future. 

From Andheri to Daman to Ambernath to siliconising, what's the key to your success?
Right from the very beginning, systems, quality control measures, constant training of our team and providing adequate space for the activities has been the key to our operations. 

Reducing grammages of face material, release liners as well as adhesive while improving the functionality of the label is the way forward.

More than 300 types of SMI products

Any examples that you can cite where a converter or brand has deployed a SMI label and reaped benefits?
The self-adhesive industry is in a growing phase. There have been a lot of changes and many more are needed. The most challenging thing is, to convince the customer the use of different grades of face material, release liners and adhesives as well as the gsm of these raw materials. There have been numerous instances where we have been able to convince the customer to use lower gsm of face material. For example, today, the use of 75 gsm Chromo is much more easily accepted than the 80 gsm Chromo or one-side coated papers. Edge lifting in small diameter labels was resolved by using lower gsm of face material. 

What about the liquor and hair oil labels?
There have been instances where 72 gsm release liner was used for the liquor industry, especially for embossed labels. We convinced the client the benefits of using 60 gsm release liner. In the case of a major hair oil label brand, the specs laid down were 27 gsm hotmelt adhesive. This would invariably result in edge bleeding of adhesive, especially since the face material was a film. Now, the specs have been changed to 18gsm hotmelt adhesive. ​

During the factory tour, you mentioned how you convinced the client to use a simple one-sided 75 gsm Chromo paper, instead of an 85 gsm cast coated paper. How so?
With the modern UV printing and high gloss UV varnish available, the finish remains the same, while the stiffness of the face helps in better anchorage of the label to the surface of the container. Recently we explained and demonstrated to some customers the effect of using PP film instead of PE films. This resulted in a change of specs.  The gsm of the PP film is about 46 gsm against the gsm of the 83 gsm PE film. At a number of places, the products are over-specified. There is a huge opportunity for correction as it will help reduce the carbon footprint. 

You are a specialist in self-adhesive labels. Some of the labels are deployed in food and beverage, personal care, chemical, automotive and industrial markets. This requires the scientific ability to understand these products. Your laboratory was impressive
Thank you.

One thing I noticed was the movement to thinner material like filmic release liners which has become the norm. How thin should thin be? Your view.
Thinner films are the need of the hour to contribute to the environment. It can go down to a level which the machines can handle. More importantly, the upkeep of the machines is critical to handle such types of thinner liners. 

During Labelexpo 2017, we saw 100 per cent recycled paper facestock manufactured without chlorine bleaching by two MNCs. Is SMI eyeing this space?
This is going to be a very interesting space. We are keenly observing this space and will be adding these products to our portfolio. 

SMI Coatings -  The factory facts

Ambernath factory: Ambernath is a town which is close to Mumbai. It has close proximity to the Nhava Sheva port.  70% of SMI's raw materials are imported and 50% of SMI's goods are exported. Close proximity to the port is an advantage as it can save on ground transportation time and cost. It has easy access by local trains for SMI's team members.
Total capacity production: SMI has a total of 25,000 square metres of land available. With the current infrastructure, its installed capacity is 190 million square metres. The company has the capacity to grow to more than 600 million square metres by building more infrastructure and adding more coating machines. 

Factory strength: SMI has balanced its capacities of silicon coating, adhesive coating and finishing. The machines are robust and are delivering quality products consistently. Most of the machines have designed by the team at SMI as per its needs, and so, the reliability is indeed very high. 

Safety standards: The Ambernath factory adheres to ISO norms. Quality control measures are seamless. It starts with raw materials and percolates to production. All the coated rolls are quality checked and approved before the finishing process. Every product has specific machine parameters to aid the experienced machine operators in the production of the goods. 

Handling of raw materials: Raw material handling has been made easy with the aid of moving racks to access every roll easily as well as clamp trucks, reach trucks, electric pallet trolleys, stackers. The recently laid tracks have helped facilitate easy and effortless movement of material through the coating work shop. SMI has aimed to make the Ambernath factory as friendly as possible for its team members. All the data is fed as it received, produced, quality-checked and dispatched. The back-end team at SMI ensures, there is no gap in the data. 

R&D at SMI: Whenever a new product has to be developed, there is total coordination by the team, right from identifying the right raw material to the fit with the machine parameters. Samples are produced, quality is checked on all fronts and then offered to 2-3 clients for trials. It is monitored for two months by handing over the material to the same clients, repeatedly. If it is found satisfactory, it is launched and made available to the industry. 

Partnership with suppliers:  SMI considers all vendors and suppliers as an extension of the SMI family. The relationships are deep-rooted and professional. This heady mix of personal and professional relationships has reflected in active participation of most of the key partners who are considered to be a part of the extended SMI family. 
One from Ajay Mehta lesson about building a factory: "One lesson learned is that if you work diligently towards quality and consistency, growth is inevitable and you will always fall short of space as you grow." 

Label usage in India: Per capita consumption of the self-adhesive label is estimated to be 0.37 square metre. 

How do you add to your portfolio? How does the R&D team at SMI work?
Our team studies all the parameters, starting with the chemical composition of the container or substrate. This means whether the container is flat or curved if curved, what is the curved diameter, application temperature, service temperature, finish required by the client and so on. Based on the parameters, products are shortlisted. The route is the same as we have provided in the SMI app. Taking a step further, we make plain labels of the same size and apply the labels on the containers and try to simulate the environment of the product in our laboratory. Once the team is convinced about the technical feasibility, the sales team offers these products to the customers for their end use. It is so satisfying to see the product function as envisaged. 

Can you suggest a few GMPs undertaken by you in the past 25 years to serve your customer better?
We have an ERP in place for recording all our processes in the purchase, quality check from raw material to finished goods, and production to dispatch. This helps us to maintain a track record of each and every batch which can be used to manufacture a product. All quality parameters are maintained as per the standard of a particular product. Our suppliers support us by giving us quality reports for all their supplies. Material with deviations is labelled and kept in separate areas.  This allows us to provide consistency in our products, repeatedly. 

You and your family unveiled the machine it all began with - the hotmelt adhesive coater laminator – and then you showed us the latest Tandem machine.
The hotmelt machine which I unveiled, was SMI's way of acknowledging our beginnings. We have learnt a lot from the past 25 years – and each and every learning has paved the way forward. Every machine was designed as per new learnings and provided inputs for the future. All the machines which the WhatPackaging? team saw on the shopfloor at our Ambernath factory reflect these changes. The latest Tandem coating machine is a reflection of our dedication, understanding and willingness to grow. The first hotmelt machine was a mere two metres in length and very basic controls as I had demonstrated. Whereas, the Tandem is 60 metres in length and is equipped with sophisticated controls.

What is your wishlist for the label industry?
The label industry has been poised for growth for some time. Growth is inevitable. Depending on the company, growth can be an opportunity or a challenge.  During a number of our presentations, we have highlighted the importance of ISO, team building, systems, procedures, profitability and so on. I recall talking to one of my cousins, who had completed his engineering. I asked him what is the benefit of engineering? He said, "We have been taught for five years to work in a systematic manner, note down things analyse and the results will be in front of us". All the setting up of systems, procedures have to be followed with the sole intention to help the team to produce consistently. ISO norms are to be followed diligently if you want to help produce, consistently.

There’s so much uncertainty about plastics and labels - as to what is recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. Your view.
There are many possibilities and opportunities. The important thing is to convert these possibilities and opportunities into actual use. These are all the tiny, small steps towards recycling. Once the process moves ahead and actual recycling takes place the differentiation will start showing up as to what is recyclable and what is recycled.  

Your father, Om Prakash Mehta started his enterprise SM Plastic Industries, named after his wife Shakuntala Mehta, at a rented premise in Nargis Compound, JB Nagar, Andheri. He continued the print lamination business that he had begun in Kolkata. One of the first deals was when he got a  lead through Ajanta Print Arts. Any memory?
We came to Mumbai from Kolkata and continued the business of print lamination, which was pioneered by my parents in 1961. It was tough as the concept was new, packaging was not given much importance. The cost of lamination versus varnishing was much higher. When my father went to Ajanta Print Arts, he was given a lead. He was advised to go to a competitor of Ajanta Print Arts and tell them that Ajanta was our client and was getting work done a big way. The trick worked as the competition did not want to be left behind. This led to increased sales and the business picked up over a period of time. Ajanta Print Arts also became one of our major clients and always remain close to our hearts. Our cherished relationship with the Khanna family is more than 40 years old. It will always hold a special place in our hearts. 

Our industry plays a vital role in both industry growth and employment generation...
True. Our industry is not as glamorous as compared to the newer options. The remuneration at times is also not very attractive due to the size and competition. The print and packaging industry has been largely a medium and small scale industry. The industry is poised for double-digit growth. This will lead to a more organised working environment. There will be a huge requirement of skilled and trained team members and the future is bright for all who will work in this industry.

Mehta: Per capita consumption of self adhesive label is 0.37 square metre – and growing

What is the one thing that our industry needs to do in order to explain the power of print to young people and their parents?
Highlighting the expected growth and good working conditions will help us attract new talent to the industry. Actually, it is akin to the chicken-and-the-egg story. When our industry starts to offer better remuneration and working standards, it will attract more talent. Also, when the industry grows, it will be affordable and can start to offer better remuneration and attract the best of talent. 

A narrow web flexo press has 10-units - and is equipped for the rotary screen, cold foil, film package, full chill system, LED curing, and has a rail for the turn bar and unwind/rewind units. What are the things one has to keep in mind when one looks at such a kit?
The focus has to be on what kind of labels one has planned to produce. It should be always a machine capable of doing a few different kinds of jobs not all kind. Having all the features does not make commercial sense. By the end of it, mobile phones today have a lot of features, we may not end up using all the features and one does not mind it as the cost implications are not much.  These machines can become expensive with all features built into it. One should refrain from getting excited about all the features as we may not use all of them for major time. 

Changing lifestyles and consumer preferences are expected to propel the growth of the labels in India. I recall your survey findings at a LMAI conference, a few years ago. Have those numbers crystallised?
I think those numbers are in place. The fact is, the installations of machines are happening at a pace faster than required. Due to this, the Indian label industry is not reaping the benefits which it should. 

Recycling and Reuse and Reduce? In what way can we improve standards for the three Rs in India? Especially the debate on landfill or incineration?
Recycling, Reuse and Reduce are very dear to us in SMI. These three Rs have to be in isolation from commercial benefits. However, all these have become effective in any part of the world only after the government takes a clear stand and rules are passed and implemented. In recent time we have seen the Maharashtra government implement the rules on plastic recycling, re-use and reduce. The industry will not be able to do things alone since there are commercial implications. 

Where do you see in the next 25 years?
When we started, we did 3,00,000 square metres in the first year. Now we are manufacturing 100 million square metres. SMI will continue on its path to provide Consistently Relevant Solutions to the industry. We will be happy if our suppliers, clients and team members continue to be delighted and proud to be associated with us.

The Ajay Mehta family during the 25th anniversary celebrations

Ajay Mehta - at a glance

Unwind: Meditation and yoga is a part of my life on a daily basis. 

Favourite film: 3 Idiots 

Favourite destination: Switzerland 

Favourite song: I love to listen to my daughter Nikita Mehta’s song Honesty

Favourite snack: Sev Puri