Best of British: No end to finishing creativity

Simon Eccles
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

At the lively LabelExpo show in Brussels, held at the end of September, AB Graphic International’s stand was buzzing.

The manufacturer had 22 machines on display, making LabelExpo its largest event to date. As well as its own stand AB Graphics’ kit was also running on the HP and Domino stands, three machines each, in fact. 

Now celebrating its 65th year of business, this British manufacturer competes on the world stage in finishing equipment, mostly for narrow-web label production, but including machines to handle wider webs for labels and flexible packaging up to the 500mm printed on Xeikon digital label presses, or 762mm on the HP Indigo 20000. It sells worldwide, with 85% of production being exported. “In addition to the UK we have offices in France, Spain, Germany, Holland and the US,” says sales director Matt Burton. “We then work closely with distributors across the globe. You can find ABG machinery in nearly every country in the world.”

Matt Burton is the nephew of managing director Mike Burton, who is the third generation of Burtons to work there, Matt being the fourth.

The company has 353 employees worldwide, with more than 200 employed in the UK. “Skill sets vary tremendously depending on the job function, but we place a huge emphasis on loyalty and longevity,” says Burton. 

Where are they built?

“Everything is built in-house and most of the major lines are modular, meaning everything is built to order and can be modified and adapted throughout its lifetime,” says Burton. The purpose-built main factory and head office are on the Carnaby Industrial Estate in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. “We believe the two should be firmly linked,” says Burton. “We also have a factory in Middleton on the Wolds which works very closely with our Carnaby site, as it’s only 30 minutes away.” 

There’s also a German manufacturing site in Baesweiler, close to the Dutch border a little north of Aachen. “In our two UK factories in East Yorkshire we make the Vectra range, Digicons, Digilase, and TI 200. At our German site we make booklet label production and fleyeVision camera inspection equipment,” says Burton. In total it has more than 9,000sqm of manufacturing space. 

AB Graphic was founded in 1954, originally concentrating on making tag and ticketing machinery. In 1988 it moved into label finishing with the introduction of the Omega inspection slitter rewinders. The company calculates that over the years it has installed 11,000 machines worldwide for 2,500 customers.

Many of the early machines are still around, says Burton. “Because they’re ABG made, some are still in use. Inspection slitter rewinders are the most widely seen. What’s interesting is the number of times these machines have been resold after being traded in, so they continue giving value” 

Earlier this year, in partnership with cutting tool maker Kocher & Beck UK, AB Graphic International acquired Enprom Solutions, a Spanish manufacturer of labelling, converting and packaging equipment. Its range includes equipment for shrink sleeve converting, slitting and rewinding, label finishing, coating and lamination and hybrid converting. 

What does it make?

ABG’s current range includes modular digital finishers, a laser label cutting line, modular conventional converters, turret rewinders, inspection slitter rewinders, a camera inspection system called fleyeVision and several specialist systems for RFID insertion and conversion, booklet label finishing and security/clinical trials labels. Some of the modular systems can incorporate flexo, litho or inkjet print and cold foil units. 

Its flagship is the modular Digicon range introduced more than 20 years ago and now in its Series 3 incarnation. More than 1,000 have been sold worldwide. This system takes web widths up to 350mm and runs at up to 150m/min which is enough to keep up with the fastest current digital label presses. It offers rotary or semi-rotary die-cutting with waste removal and rewinding, plus automatic flexible die removal and replacement between jobs. A rail mounting system can be configured with modules for hot-foil stamping and embossing, lamination and screen printing.

A very compact model, Digicon Lite 3, is for smaller label lines and places with restricted space. It can run inline or nearline at up to 80m/min, with functions including semi-rotary die-cutting with waste removal and winding, cold foiling, high gloss varnish, autoslitting, autoscoring and sheeting.

The Digicon 3000 introduced in 2013 was a joint development with press maker Edale, the subject of a Best of British story earlier this year. This is an inline finishing system for mid-width digitally printed flexible packaging and labels. It’s said to be the only inline finisher that can take the 762mm web widths of the web-fed HP Indigo 20000 simplex press, though it will accept widths down to 400mm. It can run inline with the press at up to 100m/min. It offers rotary and semi-rotary printing and die-cutting plus laminating, slitting, decoration and perforation. Optional electron beam curing is offered as an alternative to UV inks for food packaging.

For inline applications and wider webs the ILC760 is a dedicated UV or aqueous top-coating unit for the same 760mm width as the Digicon 3000. It’s intended for unsupported film applications such as sleeves, in-mould labels (IML), wrap-around labels and various flexible packaging top-coated applications.

AB Graphic was also an early pioneer in laser cutting for label lines more than 10 years ago. Its current Digilase 4.0 model runs at up to 60m/min and has a powerful 400W laser with narrow 190micron beam width for scorch-free edges. It can run near-line to a roll-to-roll press, taking web widths up to 330mm. Printing and finishing options from the Digicon Series 3 can be fitted (including barcode reader, flexo varnisher, overlaminator, back-scoring and automatically adjusted slitters), making this a very versatile system that can run mixed jobs side by side because there’s no need for metal dies. 

At LabelExpo it was demonstrated with a JetFX embellishment module that combines inkjet spot varnishing with cold foil for raised embossed effects.

It can integrate with an MIS with JDF/JMF job handling and changeovers take just 5 milliseconds. 

The company develops its own software and offers a centralised server to run multiple ABG machines in the same workshop. This includes data collection for analysis that can be passed to an MIS if needed. 

Smaller equipment items include the Vectra series of turret rewinders for labels, which can run at the end of a press or can be paired with an unwinder for offline equipment. 

ABG still makes the Omega range of slitter-rewinders that are descended from its first label machines in the 1980s. There are four main models ranging from the compact 150 bi-directional rewinder for pharmaceutical and security labels with optional fleyeVision camera inspection, up to the big Omega 510 for webs up to 530mm wide, that handles turret rewinding, converting, inspecting and numbering, including foil, blister material and booklets.

For ‘conventional’ label creation, ABG makes the Converter Series 3 for 330mm, 430mm and 530mm widths. It can be used to cut, perforate and slit blank labels rolls, or can incorporate printing (including inkjet), varnishing and lamination units. 

The range is rounded off with a number of specialist systems to handle work such as RFID tag insertion under labels, booklet labels (for pharmaceutical or cooking instructions and the like) and a specialist digital inkjet labeller for pharma and security labels. 

Integration evolution

Many of the ABG lines can run inline with printing systems. Burton says: “We’re seeing a recent trend towards inline operation, whereas in the early years offline was favoured.” ABG can integrate its lines with compatible label and packaging print lines. “Integration has evolved over many years of development with key print engine vendors so our machines work seamlessly,” Burton adds. “They are bought together at the customer’s site, so we can ensure that everything is running smoothly for the customers with minimal disruption.”

The in-house developed and built fleyeVision system offers line scan colour or greyscale cameras from 1k up to 8k pixels and can cover web widths up to 1,200mm at speeds up to 350m/min. 

The system has a touchscreen controller and error-highlighting display. The cameras can be fitted to a range of ABG or third-party machinery, from small inspection rewinders up to the full-blown finishing lines. It can run as a standalone system that compares reference images with the real thing, or it can be integrated in other ABG machinery. The LED illumination works even with high gloss and foil substrates. 

What’s next?

“ABG is constantly innovating and on a drive to improve efficiencies and workflow for our customers,” says Burton. “We think the next five years will bring some big changes in the industry and we intend to be at forefront with systems to handle these!” 


STAR PRODUCT

Digicon Series 3 has been a big seller, with more than 1,000 shipped since the Digicon family was introduced more than 15 years ago. “The modular approach lets customers build the machine they need allowing them the flexibility for future expansion,” says Burton. “However, we’ve also sold more than 1,600 Vectra rewinders and countless unwinders too!”

© MA Business Limited 2019. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .