Business inspection: Get a flying start in a new direction

The ability to adapt to a changing market can be vital to ongoing success, as Alphaset found.

The challenge

Imagine the scene: you’re in a plane, on the runway, all ready for a summer jaunt to Malaga, when a sheepish announcement comes over the tannoy. To your dismay the plane won’t in fact be taking off any time soon. 

Not due to adverse weather conditions or a technical fault, but something in theory much easier to get right. The printer producing the charts needed for navigation has had some issues and the print hasn’t arrived on time. For a seemingly easy to get right bit of paper, this particular print job is about to cause untold woe.

Hopefully this won’t ever happen. Or at least the issue would be picked up long before you were sat in your socks and sandals, slurping G&T, ready for takeoff. But it does illustrate just how vital timely and accurate printing of aviation charts is.

It gives you an idea of how valuable printers who can deliver this kind of job with unfailing reliability have always been to airlines. 

Unfortunately for print companies who pride themselves on doing exactly this, such as Surbiton’s Alphaset, it also demonstrates why airlines might be keen to branch into other technologies. 

Co-director of Alphaset Tony Eason explains that pilots increasingly use digital navigation technology and chart documents on iPads where once they used print. “Many of the airlines are now fitting out their planes with electronic charting on iPads. Although it is unlikely paper charts will completely stop, quantities, in my opinion, are likely to be vastly reduced,” says Eason, explaining that, legally, certain documents still have to be present in paper form in case of technology malfunctions, but that because the charts are no longer the central means of navigating, these are being updated less

“We were updating those charts on a fortnightly basis and that’s expensive for them, so now they’re doing that much less regularly,” he says. “So whereas last year we were printing 90m sheets of charts, now that’s down to 50m and I reckon it’ll be 30m next year. 90m sheets is a hell of a lot of expense, so that was never going to last forever.”

The challenge facing Alphaset, then, was how to bolster profits in the face of such dramatic decline in the kind of work the company had specialised in for over a decade.

The method

The solution, the team decided, was to apply Alphaset’s USPs as a business to those kinds of other jobs where these would be most valued. That and readopting the kind of work the company had been doing before getting into flight charts in a big way back in 2003.

The firm was in fact established as a general printer, as well as graphic designer, artworker and typesetter, when founded in 1987. The company was established in Thames Ditton, Surrey and then relocated to 190sqm premises in Surbiton in 1993, adding repographics and film separations to its service list. Continuing to thrive, the firm moved to larger premises again in 2001, still in Surbiton but 470sqm this time, and then again to a 2,000sqm space in 2008.

Over the past year the company has, taken on much more commercial work, being sure to market its background producing extremely time- and detail-critical jobs. 

“As much as our clients are looking for the most economical ways of production, they are also looking for a supplier that understands our industry and that’s where we score highly. Our staff have hundreds of years of experience between them and we know our trade inside out. We are regularly monitored for our ISO accreditations  and have an error rate of less than 0.05%; not bad when you consider we printed well over 120m sheets last year,” says Eason. 

“Many of our clients, such as local councils, airline authorities, insurance companies, etc, really value our track record for accuracy. That’s the sort of thing they look for,” he adds. “It’s because of our background that we win many of our tenders.”

Although initially one might not seem to naturally lead to the other, Alphaset has also been using its expertise in precision to branch into book work for travel and educational publishers. 

“I think with the book work even more perhaps than with other types of work, you need that precise approach,” says Eason. “It’s no good just getting a sheet of paper and running it through the machine, you’ve got to know about grains, and for the PURs what sort of glues to use and things like that.”

“And you’ve got to have the right staff. We’ve got people who are ex-machine minders from the litho world and even as far back as letterpress, so we do really know what we’re doing,” he adds. 

What was slightly new, was touting for book publishing business. For this, getting in a sales director experienced in this area was key.

New starter sales director Carl Joice takes over the story to explain how the company is making book jobs – the arguably trickier part of the diversification – work.

Key has been the installation of a new Horizon BQ-470 PUR binder and HT-30 three-side trimmer in September last year. “The firm had a perfect binder they were using for their airline books. The quality was great, but it was just a bit too slow,” says Joice. “The new PUR binder has trebled if not quadrupled the speed we can get through work. It can bind something like 700 or 800 books an hour, rather than 150 or 200 an hour.”

Then it’s been a case of working out the most profitable book work to go on the company’s new Xerox Nuvera, three Xerox DocuColor 8080 presses and Xerox Color 1000. This knowledge of how to make the pagination of book work stack up to competitive pricing is what Joice has brought to the table.

“Because at the moment we’re printing on sheetfed presses, SRA3, if we get A5 books we can print them 4-up on a press. They’re the kind of books I’ve been targeting more than anything because when I get four on a sheet I can generally beat litho prices up to probably about 1,200-1,300 copies,” says Joice. “A4’s okay as well, I can generally beat litho maybe up to 600-700 copies.”

For this reason, pocket-sized travel books are a good sector to tap up. “Pocket books are brilliant, for an A6 book I can probably beat litho possibly up to 3,000 copies,” says Joice.

“It’s just research,” he adds. “If I’m researching a whole list of travel publishers, I’ll be spending hours on their website trying to see what sizes they do. If I see an educational publisher and all their books are 234x156mm currently, I’ll probably leave it alone.” 

A key tweak in making a success of book work, has been in the delivery.

“We had to get to grips with delivering into proper warehouses,” reports Joice. “A lot of the work we were doing before would go straight to marketing offices, etc, so you could just turn up with the delivery. But with warehouses you’ve got to put the jobs on the right pallets. You’ve got to book them in 24, 48, maybe even 72 hours in advance.”

“Some of these warehouses have got delivery specifications that run to 10-15 pages,” he adds. “We have to look through and make sure everything like ISBN numbers is filled out right.” 

The result

Reacting quickly to bolster a declining sector has meant Alphaset has not only maintained profits but continued to grow. With only 5% of its work aviation charts now and 55% commercial and 40% book work, the company has grown its turnover over the past few years to around £4.5m mark, sustaining a consistent year-on-year growth of 15%.

Short-run book work will grow even more strongly over the next year, with Eason predicting 100% book printing growth come this time next year.

Key to this growth will be further equipment investments, explains Joice. “We’ve got a brilliant set-up – the guys own all the premises and have no debt. We’re in a really good position, we’ve got lots of space,” he says.

He adds: “Certainly within the next month we’re going to get another black and white press, we’re looking at lots of continuous digital web options. Now we’re doing a lot more book work we need more options on the black and white printing.”

Such investments will hopefully start to allow Joice and Alphaset to offer competitive prices not just on smaller books, but on other book formats too. 

The moral of the Alphaset story, then: be quick in moving with the times and don’t admit defeat. Yes, new digital technology may be replacing some forms of print. But it’s also, in the form of high-quality, short-run, digital printing, opening up new opportunities too.  


Vital statistics 

Location Surbiton, Surrey

Inspection hosts Co-director Tony Eason and sales director Carl Joice

Size £4.5m turnover; 30 staff 

Established 1987 in Thames Ditton, Surrey

Products Historically navigational charts and a document management service for major airlines have made up the bulk of Alphaset’s workload. But the company has recently branched into more general commercial work and book work for travel and educational publishers, and gone back to offering an in-house design service

Kit Xerox 1000 colour press, three Xerox 8080 colour presses, three Xerox Nuvera mono presses, Epson Pro Stylus wide-format press, two guillotines, Horizon CRF-362 creaser-folder, Horizon BQ-470 PUR binder, Horizon HT-30 three-side trimmer, Horizon SPF-20A bookletmaker, Kempner auto shrinkwrapper, Gemini C400A laminator, Renz DTP-340A punch and Renz ECL-360 binder  

Inspection focus

Branching from being a specialist aviation chart printer into book work for publishers and general commercial work


Following suit

Printers shouldn’t write off new areas when looking to diversify, but maximising core competencies and going back to previous areas of expertise can be a good shout. “Our background was typesetting and commercial print so it’s just full circle,” says Eason. “We could see a few years ago the commercial market was on the decline. Now we can see it going the other way. We do a lot of artwork now which had started to die. When the Macs came on the scene all the years of skill and typography went out the window, but that’s coming back now.”

Joice adds that making a success of book work for publishers is about being alert to market trends: “There are some people who do lots of big runs and that’s not going to go away in the near future. But most publishers just want to order what they need as and when they need it. There are some publishers who do that at the moment, but certainly there’ll be more in the next year or so.”

Potential pitfalls

A crucial challenge for Alphaset has been gearing itself up for the different delivery demands of publishers. Scheduling warehouse delivery slots and filling out extensive delivery note documents have been the key things to get to grips with.

Top tips

  • Think carefully about what your current expertise lends itself to doing.
  • Be sure to market this expertise to new sectors. Alphaset is always sure to quote its impressively low 0.05% error rate working for airline companies.
  • Bring in personnel with plenty of experience in the new sector you’re targeting.
  • Think carefully about what sorts of work in this new sector will marry best with current kit. In Alphaset’s case this is smaller rather than larger books, to suit the printing widths of its kit.

Eason’s top tip

Don’t be afraid to go back to existing expertise: “A lot of the work we’re doing now is nothing new to us. It’s just something we put on the back burner for a period of time.” 

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