Best of British: A focus on innovation


Garage start-ups leading to greater things are legendary in the US tech sector – Hewlett-Packard in 1938 and Apple in 1976 are genuine examples – but tend to be rarer in the UK. However, one example of it happening for real is Focus Label Machinery, though maybe not with the same highs and lows as the US giants.

Focus does as much manufacturing in-house as possible
Focus does as much manufacturing in-house as possible

Its founder Brian Lee really did start in a garage in 1981, equipped with a saw, milling machine and centre lathe. Initially he designed and built machines to print small wash-care labels for garments.

Sales took off and Lee was able to move into a proper factory and start employing people. Focus became a global leader in textile label technology and still serves this sector today. “All the major businesses in this industry continue to use and buy Focus machines,” says James Barnes, technical sales manager.

Within a few years of starting, Focus developed its first flexo printer, which enabled it to grow and become established in narrow-web presses which are sold in the UK and around the world.

Today the company makes a surprisingly large range of print and finishing machinery and ancillaries. It’s one of very few successfully surviving UK press makers, offering both narrow-web flexo and digital printers and selling into the paper labels, security and packaging markets as well as the original textile/garment labels sectors. It’s a successful exporter too. “We export over 70% of our machines all around the world,” says Barnes. “There are hotspots as textile production moves from country to country, but South East Asia remains a key market.”

A couple of expansion moves took Focus into its current location in Bingham, just east of Nottingham, where 35 people work. “This covers 6,000sqm over two sites,” says Barnes. “We have the main site with all the offices and where manufacturing is done. We also have a showroom on an adjacent industrial park where we have many of our machines available for demos, training and trials.”

“The whole process is covered from our Bingham headquarters. All R&D and design work is carried out on-site, with continual improvement in mind. We constantly evolve our machines with the customer in mind to offer exceptionally user-friendly equipment.

“As we have such a wealth of design and engineering experience, we are often approached for niche applications requiring bespoke machinery. The same engineering expertise is used in every project, keeping the customer front of mind, ensuring we employ the latest technologies.”

What does Focus make?

“We have two inline flexo presses, Proflex and eFlex, a CI flexo press called Centraflex, and a digital hybrid press, the dFlex. We also supply finishing equipment, Reflex, and a range of rewinders with various options. Ancillary equipment is also manufactured, as our customers do like the fact they can purchase all necessary machinery from one place. So we began to offer platemakers, video plate mounters and anilox cleaners, to mention a few.”

Proflex is a modular narrow-web flexo press range, available with servo drive technology (Se version) or line shaft (e version). It can have two to 10 colour units and a choice of web widths. New drop-in cylinders allow fast setup and consistent quality. There’s a range of options for specialised production applications from unsupported films through to small cartons.

The newer eFlex platform provides a common base and rail system for a family of servo technology presses, starting from the 330mm-wide eFlex 330-1 with wider webs available, plus a choice of drying systems, roll-to-roll or sheeting operations. All machines have twin servo drives for full independent control of the substrate and printed image. They feature one-touch setup and pre-register. Target applications for Proflex and eFlex are labels, security labels, films, packaging, tickets and cartons.

The Centraflex presses are compact due to the central impression configuration, with a choice of web widths and IR or UV drying. They can run roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet. Applications are listed as labels, meat casings, films, packaging and tickets.

Focus was quite an early entrant into the digital labels market, launching the dFlex in 2012. “We work with Industrial Inkjet and Konica Minolta print engines,” says Barnes. “Whilst a relatively small proportion it is probably our fastest growing sector and where we get the most enquiries.”

The dFlex press offers four colours plus white on 255 or 330mm webs. The standard version offers either 360x360dpi or 360x720dpi, running at 20-70m/minute. The HIQ version can run at 600x600 or 600x1,200dpi, at speeds from 55 to 80m/min. The ink is LED-UV cured and the press can run a single-colour rotary flexo unit inline for colour/white printing, overvarnish or coating. Other inline options include cold foiling, lamination, rotary die-cutting. The digital front-end and RIP is from Global Imaging Systems of Cambridge. Options include corona treatment, web cleaners, anti-static systems and video inspection.

Another version, dPack, can handle heavier weights and larger-diameter rolls in a choice of 330 or 510mm. The standard and HIQ options give the same speeds and resolutions as dFlex. Mercury UV lamps are offered as alternatives to LEDs.

Reflex is a finishing machine for digital narrow-web printers (not just its own dFlex). It can also handle standalone production if needed. It offers spot colours, coating, cold foiling, laminating and die-cutting.

“On the textile side we have the LX range for printed labels and the Tagtrans range for producing heat transfer labels,” says Barnes. “Again we manufacture our own ancillary equipment, such as ultrasonic cutting machines and curing ovens.”

There’s a digital textile label printer too, called dTex, said to be the first “practical industrial” system designed specifically for producing short-run digitally printed garment and apparel labels, from “10 to 10,000” runs. Alternatives are either desktop thermal transfer printers or high-end clean-room digital solutions. The dTex uses similar HIQ inkjet technology to dFlex, but on 150mm roll widths running at 30 to 6m/min. There are two- and four-colour versions (black and red or black, red, cyan and yellow), with white ink planned for the future.

Manufacturing is all done in-house with the exception of specialist items such as the Konica Minolta-based digital print engine, however, much of this comes from Industrial Inkjet in Cambridge, UK.

“We proudly manufacture over 80% of our machines, only buying in specialised parts we cannot produce,” says Barnes. “We only work with selected suppliers to maintain our high standards. These are locally based where possible in order to reduce our carbon footprint and reduce lead times. Nottingham has a rich engineering heritage. By manufacturing the components in-house, we not only guarantee the highest quality but are in control of lead times for spare parts.”

Who is in charge?

Brian Lee is still involved with Focus and his sons David, Robert and Philip are directors of the business. The third generation of the family is now entering the business as engineers.

“We are very much a team effort, using individual skills in each area of the business. This seems to work for us,” says Barnes. “As we have an engineering bias we tend to recruit technical people, even for sales and marketing. It is key that we understand our products in order to get a message across and understand customer demands.”

Future plans

So, what happens next? “As the industry demand changes, Focus is continuing to innovate within textiles, heat transfers, hybrid digital printing and finishing solutions, to meet the demand for on-demand printing applications,” says Barnes. The company attends all the major label exhibitions and most recently had a stand at LabelExpo in Brussels last September. It will be at Drupa in Düsseldorf in June this year.

There’s a new product in the pipeline too, says Barnes. “We are developing a new digital printing line for our textile and garment label market. The dTex takes a lot of our knowledge gained from our partnership with Konica Minolta in the packaging market. Printing on textiles has its challenges but we expect that 2020 will be a breakthrough year for the project.”


STAR PRODUCT

The Proflex SE is consistently the biggest seller for Focus, says Barnes. “It has undergone a lot of changes and competes with any press on the market. It is very flexible, and also easy to set up and run for large- or small-volume production. Reliability is the key and many clients have several of these machines for their production needs.

“It is nice to see that we can help to grow clients’ businesses with a clear roadway for advanced equipment and new technology.”

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