There aren't many printers who would send the heir-apparent to their print business to rival operations for a print education, but Andrew Miller's stepfather did just that. Miller, now managing director of Superfast Labels - the label printing company set up by his step-father in the mid-1980s - was sent to the big wide world of print to "go out and see what it was all about". He ended up at St Ives printing one of the greatest magazines ever to be created.
"I used to print PrintWeek," reveals Miller, "so I would get the latest print news before everyone else!"
Miller then did some time in the production control and financial environments before heading home to Superfast in 1989. This experience paid off: after his step-father retired 10 years ago, Miller got the top job, but still has some experienced hands at his side.
"My sister Julie is the financial manager, then the production manager and the sales manager are sisters, and they have been here since the start pretty much," he says. "So all of us have been together for 20 years or more; we know the business and our sector extremely well."
That sector is the labels business, printing for media companies ("I can’t name them specifically", says Miller) producing labels for CDs, books and other items. The company also produces labels for food companies and other assorted markets. The work from these clients had become increasingly short-run and complex over the past few years and so Miller had begun to outsource to digital printers work that he could not do, or which was not economical to do, on his flexo machines. By the time LabelExpo came around last year, the amount he was outsourcing had grown so much he was pondering the purchase of a digital press to bring all that work back inhouse.
"The requirement to move to digital was multiple – shorter runs, more variable label runs and also more complicated art work," explains Miller. "Designers have been let loose and so labels are getting trickier. The flexo press can do a good job on these, but with the digital press, you get an entirely different – and better – job."
Hence, walking around LabelExpo, Miller was running his eye over the myriad of digital options on offer. Size was a big concern as if the press was too big it would have meant the removal of a flexo press and he was clear that digital would be a complement to flexo, not a replacement. He was also concerned about the finish certain machines offered.
"EFI has a very good label press that prints a very good label but I really do not like the UV surface texture; Xeikon also has a good machine, but I didn’t want to have to UV varnish everything as you get that flat toner base surface; then another option was the HP Indigo, but that was really beyond what we needed at that time," reveals Miller.
Thankfully, he soon spotted the perfect fit for his company. "When we saw the Epson SurePress, with the ability to print straight onto paper with no pre-treatment and its small footprint, we knew it was perfect. It was the best quality and the least hassle," he explains.
The model Miller had laid eyes on was the L-4033a, which was installed in November. The machine is a six-colour (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, orange and green), industrial-quality, water-based inkjet machine, and there is no pre-treatment or top coating required for substrates, meaning a variety of standard off-the-shelf substrates can be used at variable web widths up to 13in wide. The press measures a compact 3,722x1,451x1,878mm, with the rewinder adding just 1,310x900x1,000mm. This left room for Superfast to add an inline GMDC33U-mini label converter from Holtby Williams International, which complemented the press.
Installation of the press and finishing line was, says Miller, interesting. The machine was to be housed in an adjoining unit to the main factory that was being used as a paper store, so the 12 Superfast employees had to shift piles of paper across the road to another unit the company owned – "a very tiring experience," says Miller. They then had to prepare the unit for the new addition, which included resurfacing the floor. The press was fitted into place, and a stud wall was put up to enclose it ready for the air conditioning system to make the space suitable for the digital work.
"If you see it now, you will be looking at the door wondering how the press had got in there!" he reveals. "Everything went smoothly, though. We were testing on the machine within a day."
He says training was not extensive, as the machine is very straightforward to use, though operators did get a walk through the controls and processes.
"We can get it running and then leave it alone, which is the beauty of it, really," he explains. "We can monitor it through a webcam and get instant data out of the machine into our MIS. So the operator can be doing something else and check on it with a quick glance on a computer."
Miller’s webcam is separate to the remote diagnostics that come as standard with the SurePress. This has not been utilised thus far, however. The machine came with a dedicated engineer, as it was the first to be installed in the UK, but this has also turned out be unnecessary.
"In the six months we have had the machine," reveals Miller, "we have only had to call on his services twice and both times it was for extremely minor things. It is contactless printing so there isn’t really too much it can do to itself."
Miller says that he was not worried about being the first company in the UK to install the machine, as Epson had made him feel very at ease in the discussions prior to the purchase. He adds that at the live demo at LabelExpo the quality was clear to see – though he acknowledges that show demos are often a highly-practiced showcase.
"On the day of the show, they were running a very high quality job on an eight-pass job, and then they put a four pass job on running at twice the speed and you could still see the quality was great," he says.
Thankfully for Miller, the machine has matched that performance since installation. He says the quality is exceptional and the versatility a real bonus.
"The machine is superb – we can put a job on there and it can be done in 15 minutes, whereas in 15 minutes on a flexo press you have only just got the plates mounted," he reveals. "In terms of quality, I think it beats the competitors. With rival machines, you get a fringe around your areas of half tone, but on this, you get sharp, crisp edges. We are also able to give faster turnaround and have not had to go back to ask anyone about a design, as we’ve been able to print even the most ambitious designs first time."
But it may not be suitable for everyone – Miller concedes that the machine is slower than some rivals’. For him, though, this is not a concern.
"The print speed we have is slower than the Indigo and the Xeikon, but we’re doing lots of small labels, so to go any faster would be paying for a speed we do not need," he explains.
The machine, then, is a perfect fit for Superfast Labels, but that does not mean Miller hasn’t kept his eye on the market. At Drupa, he took a long hard look at the previewed SurePress X technology.
"The SurePress X was very, very nice indeed," he says. "If it were to progress to the launch stage and come out for around 18 months’ time, we would be ready to upgrade and we would definitely be looking at that as the best machine to upgrade to."
At present, it is unclear whether the X launch will hit Miller’s deadline. "The SurePress X is a future technology, which showed high-speed, single-pass, web-fed label printing using UV ink. As yet, the launch and final specifications are not confirmed," reveals Marc Tinkler, senior business development manager of commercial and industrial printing at Epson Europe.
Miller is not worried, however, as he is happy with the press he’s got. It meets all of his needs in terms of speed and produces, in his view, the best quality on the market. For a first move into digital labelling, Miller and his team consider it to be a resounding success.
Max resolution 1,440x720dpi
Ink Epson SurePress AQ ink (water-based, pigment ink system)
Colours L-4033A: CMYK, plus orange and green L-4033 AW: CMYK, plus
orange, green and white
Print speed Up to 5m/min
Web width 80-330mm adjustable
Image size 315.2x914.4mm (maximum repeat lengths)
Substrate support Standard self-adhesive label stock and film
Substrate thickness 0.1-0.32mm
Price L-4033A: £190,000; L-4033AW: £215,000
Contact Epson 01442 898023 www.epson.co.uk
Superfast Labels was established in the mid-1980s and produces label products for the media industry, as well as other sectors including food packaging. The Kent business is a family affair, with managing director Andrew Miller taking over from his stepfather to run the company, Miller’s sister Julie running the finance side of the business and a pair of sisters heading up the sales and production teams. The company runs both digital and flexo kit.
Why it was bought…
"The requirement to move to digital was multiple – shorter runs, more variable label runs and also more complicated art work," explains Miller. "Designers have been let loose and so labels are getting trickier. The flexo press can do a good job on these, but with the digital press you get an entirely different – and better – job."
How it has performed…
Miller says the press is "superb" and was easy to use from day one. He opted for the press for its superior quality and he explains that since installation it has not let him down. He adds that the small footprint of the press is a major bonus.