Business inspection: Old tech, new opportunity

Hannah Jordan
Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Carving out a USP as a trade print finisher might not be the simplest of tasks but Edinburgh-based Taskforce inadvertently managed to do just that by having the open-mindedness to choose old engineering, 1970s to be precise, over new technology.

Porteous: “I can get hold of another one fairly easily if need be”
Porteous: “I can get hold of another one fairly easily if need be”

The 28-staff business, founded in 1990, offers machine and hand-finishing services as well as handling and distribution across the UK. It provides an array of specialist machine and hand services from stitching, stringing, binding and folding printed items such as booklets and leaflets and packaging items to collating, packing, wrapping and kit assembly. 

The challenge 

Moving into the packaging market around eight years ago, the business has slowly grown adding an extra eight staff over the period and boosting turnover to around £1.4m, under the leadership of managing director Alex Porteous. 

“Our packaging work for one particular client was predominantly whiskey cartons and it included some tag stringing work,” he explains. “We could only ever produce small amounts though because it needed to be done by hand as we didn’t have the machinery for it.”

Porteous says that when his client was let down by its existing stringing supplier it approached Taskforce to see if they could fulfil the whole job instead. 

“If you are late supplying boxes and tags to a whiskey bottling plant and the bottling is held up, there are high financial penalties,” he explains.

“I knew we couldn’t do it for them as we were, so we started the hunt for a stringing machine,” says Porteous, who joined Taskforce in 1997 and bought the firm when its former owner retired in 2013.

The method 

The search for a machine began back in early 2019 with Porteous contacting various manufacturers around the world and honing in on two companies in China. 

He explains that the nature of the company’s stringing work is extremely varied, with different string materials and tags in various sizes and thicknesses, necessitating a device that could handle a broad range of applications. 

“We sent some of the more challenging items to China to let them try but every time they came back saying they couldn’t do it – for example, one item was a small booklet, which they couldn’t punch and another was too small to fit in their machine,” he states. So, it was back to the drawing board. 

A device that repeatedly came up during his searches, says Porteous, was the Graeber Whirlwind 185 hang tag stringing machine, a now obsolete machine that had its heyday back in the 70s and 80s. 

“I had originally seen it at the start of my search but because it’s not manufactured any more, I shied away from it,” he states. “I’ve had problems before with secondhand, older kit, and I didn’t want to be buying someone else’s problems this time.”

But, he says, the more he looked into it, the more he and his team felt it could be the right machine for Taskforce. He selected one in the US, at Edwards Label in Ventura, California and sent out machine operator Kryzstof Golebiowska armed with numerous samples for testing. 

Porteous believes that the decision to put his faith in his employee to make the trip was key to getting buy-in on investing in such a device. “I could have gone myself, but there was no point because it wasn’t me that was going to be operating it. I think because of that he felt engaged, involved and bought into the project.”

The main thing for Porteous, given that the device was manufactured in 1977, he explains, was for them to be able to see the moving parts of the machine and make sure it really was in full working order. 

“It had been fully reconditioned and was absolutely spotless inside. It had no problem with any of the samples. The guys in California couldn’t have been more helpful, they gave Kryzstof a couple of days training and he came back raving about it,” says Porteous. 

“We have a lot of kit here. We are supported locally by a few engineering companies and if we have any issues with parts we can take them down to one of these guys and they will basically remanufacture them. 

“I was fairly confident this would be the case with the Graeber as well.” 

Porteous says that while investment in new technology is very much the industry norm, part of the beauty of the Graeber Whirlwind is that because of its age, it’s “a big chunk of metal”. 

“It means that if it breaks you can see what’s broken and you know what to fix, whereas with a lot of the new kit if something goes wrong, someone has to come and plug it into a laptop and they will tell you what’s wrong. You have no control. So, this was actually a selling point for us.”

A sale price of $30,000 was agreed through US-based dealer, Styers Equipment, and shipping, at a cost of £5,000, was arranged through Edinburgh-based shipping specialist T Ward Shipping, Porteous explains. 

The 1.75-tonne Graeber arrived in June 2020, during England’s first Covid lockdown, but rather than prove a challenge, the timing was perfect for Taskforce, he says. Not only was the business still open due to its work for the NHS, but it was quieter than usual so the team had time to create space and strengthen the mezzanine floor of its 1,400sqm facility. 

“It was a seamless process,” says Porteous. “A local engineer came and wired it in and it was all done in half a day.”

The result

Jobs for the Graeber have steadily increased since it went in, with more than £100,000 of work added to the business since it really started to take off in 2021, says Porteous. The firm is now able to produce swing tags around 10 times faster, he adds.

“The client is absolutely delighted with the results and has given us a lot more work for it. It was a slow burn to start with but 2021 was a really decent year,” he adds.

The device, operated mainly by Golebiowska as well as two other staff members who’ve been trained on it, is running most days, according to Porteous, with more work steadily coming in.

It can handle all sorts of string types, including elastic, and different string lengths for various bottle necks and containers, inserting them into a variety of items including swing tags, cards or booklets, such as the small pharmaceutical booklets, up to 5mm thick, that are stitched and folded at Taskforce. 

Porteous says that if demand continues to grow, especially with expanding markets such as jute string tags, he would consider buying another Whirlwind. 

“The machine is capable of working with all sorts of materials so as long as it can do it, we are happy to give it a try. It gives us the ability offer our clients a full package,” says Porteous. 

“I still speak to the guys in the States that we dealt with and I can get hold of another one fairly easily if need be. If the volume of work increases to that extent, then for a $30,000 machine it is absolutely worth it.” 

Porteous says that the key focus now is to publicise the new asset and show clients what it can do and that, crucially, old doesn’t mean defunct. 

“When it comes to marketing, the difficulty we have as print finishers is that we sell to printers and so we rely on them going out to get this kind of work. So, for us it’s about getting the message out there, letting them know what we can do with the Graeber, so they can go and sell the service to their clients. 

“We’ve predominantly done most of our business in Scotland until recently, but there will be companies around the UK that need this service and don’t know about us, so our focus now is on reaching them.” 


Taskforce

Location Edinburgh

Inspection host Managing director Alex Porteous

Size 28 staff; £1.4m turnover

Established April 1990

Products and services Print finishing, assembly, handwork, distribution and rigid box making

Kit Muller Martini Pantera binding line with PUR. Muller Martini Presto saddle-stitching line. Muller Martini Amigo Plus perfect binding machine. Three MBO and two Stahl folding machines. Herzog & Heymann pharmaceutical folding machines. Autobond B1 laminator. Heidelberg cylinders. Moll Vantage 720 gluing line with crash lock and four-corner glue capability; Bograma BS Multi 450 servo cutting machine; James Burn automatic wire-binding machinery; Setmaster collators; Aster 160 thread sewing machine; Graeber Whirlwind 185 tag stringing machine


TOP TIPS

Porteous says that were he to go through the process again, he would keep a more open-mind regarding secondhand and ‘obsolete’ kit, which would have saved him time and money in this instance. 

Research is absolutely key, he stresses, so do whatever is necessary to understand, and possibly eliminate, options no matter how much effort you need to put in. 

“We’d had our fingers burned before on secondhand kit, so it was really important to get buy-in from the staff on a piece like this. Involve your staff right from the outset because there will always be great things they can bring to the table that you’ve not thought of. We have daily meetings and when we first looked at this we made sure the guys were informed every step of the way,” Porteous explains. 

Porteous says that marketing of any new service is something that needs proper attention. He says the team was reticent at first as they wanted to make sure it was running smoothly, so could have got the message out sooner, but that its efforts have now incorporated videos on social media, print publicity and of course face-to-face conversations. 

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