An expertise in inline innovation

Jenny Roper
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A creative approach to inline manufacturing has given this mailing house an edge


The company

Starting life 20 years ago as Graphic Inline, GI Solutions has in some ways come a long way from its roots as a direct mail printer. But the company has also stayed remarkably true to its original namesake. While it has diversified into transactional work, business-critical mailings and cross-media marketing, and grown significantly as a result, GI still runs many of its machines inline for maximum speed and cost-effectiveness.

The aim
The company’s aim has always been to offer services not found elsewhere, with the central ethos of ‘different and better’. For this reason, GI is open, explains business development director Alistair Ezzy, to customers and all members of the GI team suggesting new creative mail package formats. Also, because a substantial part of GI’s work comes from transactional mail for the financial services industry, speed and security are also key. Quick turnarounds are vital, explains Ezzy, for documentation like rate change notices and for last-minute charity appeal mailers.

Some companies would fulfil these criteria through a multitude of different kit and processes, while others would seek out machinery options that other companies do not know about. GI does neither of these things – instead it uses in-house engineering and electrical skills to create ever-changeable, bespoke production capabilities from a relatively small selection of standard machines.

The method
It is GI’s technique of running its two Zirkon 24pp litho web presses, two Scitex 6240 variable data systems, and finishing kit as two inline systems, which delivers speed and security, reports Ezzy. It is also the in-house expertise to adapt and repurpose machinery within that line to suit different applications that gives it the capability to be ‘different and better’.

Rather than printing stock stationery for mailing jobs and then personalising these pieces on a digital printer and folding or enclosing them at a later date when required, GI prints many jobs in one pass. This not only offers faster job processing, but eliminates the risk of stock stationery going out of date and so being wasted, and of sensitive data being sent to the wrong customer address.

"With supermarket loyalty vouchers, for instance, you’re effectively sending money out with people’s information on it so it’s good to be able to produce the voucher booklet and the letter and enclose the pieces in an addressed envelope all in one pass," says Ezzy.

This kind of job is done through an inline system, he explains, where the web is split into two, with the letter on one web and the envelope on the other. "The letter gets cut down the side so it’s shorter than the envelope and then the envelope wraps around it," says Ezzy. "That delivers a very cost-effective product as the machine can handle about 60,000 documents each hour."

But surely, many might point out, having the finishing equipment firmly attached to the end of your personalisation press limits the number of different formats this equipment can create. Whereas offline printers can take their print to any of their in-house finishing machines, inline printers surely have to work with what they’ve got already linked up.

Not so, says Ezzy. GI ensures it can still offer customers creative solutions – and deliver on its ‘different and better’ promise – by having the in-house engineering expertise to move equipment around within the inline set-up according to the requirements of individual jobs.

GI’s engineers significantly alter the positions of machinery within the two lines around three times a year reports Ezzy. And the team regularly makes slight alterations such as adding or moving gluers, varnish applicators and die-cutters.

The company makes this strategy work, says Ezzy, not just through the expertise of its electricians and engineers, but through the whole team getting involved.

"We have a meeting where people, including our sales team and those who are bringing ideas direct from customers, bring wish-lists of products they’d like to create to discuss with the guys who are responsible for the output on the presses," says Ezzy. "Then they’ll go away and do trials. That may involve the managers, press crews and the engineers and electricians, who will take a bit of kit, move it around the line or ask it to do something it wouldn’t normally do."

Whether a major overhaul of the kit’s current line-up is worthwhile depends, of course, on how profitable the new capability will be. Where a product will interest many customers, as the enclosed letter format did, significant restructuring of kit line-up will more than pay for itself in future work.

But the team is careful to weigh up whether the time and money spent on a reshuffle will be justified by product demand.

"Often we’ll just make very minor adaptations, such as moving a die-cutter further down the line, which takes six or seven hours to rebolt down and engineer," says Ezzy. "But obviously, even that relatively simple process won’t be worthwhile for a lot of jobs. With anything that takes a very long time to move around, we try and work out what position we can leave it in where it will be most useful to us."

"Of course, if someone came to us and said we want to do this 10m-item run and it really has to be like this, we’d do that," adds Ezzy.

The result
Offering two inline set-ups, and having the expertise to re-jig them now and again, has allowed GI to offer a high level of flexibility to customers, reports Ezzy.

He cites an instance last year, where being able to change the mailing carrier indicia on a client’s envelopes last minute meant saving the customer a great deal of time and money.

"We were processing a rate change mail-out for a client, but the depot that they would normally use was snowed in," reports Ezzy. "If we’d been printing in the conventional way, using envelopes pre-printed perhaps weeks before and inserting the personalised letters last minute, we’d have had to reprint the envelopes at extra expense to the customer.

"But all we had to do was change the printing plate to print another mail carrier’s indicia, and because it was all inline that was a much quicker last-minute process than printing the envelope and letter as two separate processes." 

Meanwhile, being able to adapt machinery to customers’ needs also brings flexibility on timescales and price. Ezzy cites another instance, around two years ago, when the team discovered that, by doctoring their machines, they could quickly and cheaply produce a card and letter in one rather than several passes.

"We worked out how we could create a double thickness card, put a bit of UV varnish on to personalise it, kiss-cut the card on the letter and extract the waste," explains Ezzy. "Our customers were very happy with the cost-saving and quick turnaround that gave."

The verdict
This flexible and creative approach to print has, says Ezzy, been central to GI Solutions’ growth over the last 20 years to become a company with a £40m turnover target for 2014.

One downside anyone considering instigating a similar set-up might want to take into account, however, is the increased makeready time and waste that going inline entails.

"Makeready for inline printing has quite a lot of waste attached to it, because you’re trying to prepare every aspect of the line all at the same time," says Ezzy.

This means, he explains, that inline can be a less cost-effective option than offline for short-run jobs. But where high volumes are concerned, the set-up’s high speeds and the cost-saving implications once the job is underway, more than compensate for the extra inline make-ready expense.

Although GI can adapt its kit to rise to the majority of creative challenges, another downside to an inline set-up is not having quite the same degree of flexibility as offline in terms of the end-product.

"If you take a lot of the guys who finish jobs offline, they have a wider range of special finishing options at their disposal," admits Ezzy. "Even though we can move finishing kit around, there are limitations as to what finishing we can incorporate inline. That’s because the presses have to run at certain speeds, which aren’t necessarily compatible with certain finishing processes."

Offline finishing also allows more flexibility in folding, says Ezzy. Whereas offline finishing can fold pieces across the web using buckle folders, inline folding must always follow the direction of the web.

But sacrificing some creative possibilities to increase speeds and offer highly competitive prices is a very worthwhile trade-off for GI, says Ezzy. And with a significant chunk of GI’s average yearly kit spend of £1m going to enhancing the company’s inline offering, GI is confident that inline printing will be a feature of the business for a long time to come.


When was the last time that you were able to sit outside in the sun, with a glass of something refreshing, and clear your mind of the seemingly endless amount of noise that is generated from day-to-day life? Leonardo da Vinci stated that "Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication’’, so why is it that an increasingly sophisticated world is becoming more and more complicated, to the extent that even this simple act of relaxing has become so elusive?

An example of this trend can be seen in markets that encourage ever-more complicated ways of generating wealth, in spite of recent experience, which has shown us that all this has succeeded in creating is a right mess.

There are, undoubtedly, a lot of very clever people out there who would take great pleasure in explaining the intricacies of how this is the way forward, but to be honest, you have to ask yourself ‘what is wrong with simple?’

Common consensus at the moment suggests that the market is changing from an industry-based one to a more knowledge-based format and, as hard as knowledge is to assign a value, it does not mean that it has to be complicated, even if some of the tools and skills employed are. Essentially, value has to be added to a product that the customer in turn will be prepared to pay for. As a result, at the end of the process, you wind up with more money.

GI Solutions has identified what its customers really value: a fast, responsive service delivered with accuracy and consistency.

By simplifying its processes and, ultimately, its offering, the company has acknowledged its limitations, but also, more importantly, clarified its strengths.

Simplification is not always an easy option, but clarification and delivery of a high level of service to customers seems like all the sophistication needed in this increasingly complicated world. 

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