Geoff Neal looks to the future after automation spend


Geoff Neal Group rounded off a circa £800,000 automation investment push just prior to the lockdown and is now looking to the future and how to pivot to the opportunities ahead.

Croucher (right) with head of repro & integration Steve Anderson
Croucher (right) with head of repro & integration Steve Anderson

The lion’s share of the recent spend was in the complete automation of its platemaking set-up, which created a “zero touchpoint” plate operation and enabled four members of the formerly six strong pre-press team to switch to other parts of the business to support future growth.

“The plan is to get us in a position where we have the best and most up-to-date automation in the industry,” said Mark Croucher, group manufacturing director.

“We have the best people already, and moving to automation enables us to re-allocate them and their expertise to places in the business where they can add most value.”

At the centre of the automation push was a Kodak Magnus Q800 platesetter with Multi-Pallet Loader, the first ‘W’ speed machine in the UK when it was installed last November. The family-owned firm reconfigured its Feltham factory to accommodate the line, bringing platemaking down to the press hall following the decommissioning of the firms B3 Heidelberg Anicolor.

The Magnus, which runs Kodak Electra XD thermal plates, was configured with a Nela automatic inline plate bending and transport line installed by Direct-to-Plate, which Croucher described as “the real step forward”.

Nela lines are typically used in high-volume packaging and trade print environments, but there is growing traction in the commercial sector.

Croucher said, prior to the coronavirus crisis, the ROI on the plate line had been calculated at 18-months.

Following the removal of the Anicolor, the firm now runs two Heidelberg XL 106’s, a six-colour and five-colour, both with coaters.

To support the award-winning business in its streamlining and standardisation efforts it had been using Heidelberg’s Analyze Point press room reporting tool for a number of years, but added Prinect Production Manager (ProMan) subscription-based elements to raise the level of detail in its reporting earlier this year, adding modules including digital scheduling, Smart BI bespoke reporting, and Postpress Manager.

“It’s all about natural extensions to give us more detailed analytics on what we’re doing really,” said Croucher.

“It’s based on enabling us to offer best in class products, service and automation and all helps us evaluate what the next steps are for the business.”

The £800,000 spend started last year, with an upgrade to Tharstern’s fully JDF MIS in a three month roll out, which was followed by an additional Polar guillotine with Flowline last summer and then a Stahlfolder KH82-P high-speed folder in the autumn.

Now that its pre- and post-press offering has been revamped, Croucher said inkjet could be next on the horizon once the business had navigated the Covid-19 situation.

“We’ve got best in class output with the litho and Indigo digital, and it’s really now about looking at what gives us a market edge and quality advantage. And we’ll continue to do that,” he said.

During the lockdown, the 80-staff top-end commercial printer continues to operate a skeleton crew at its factory, with some staff furloughed.

“But ultimately, we’re in there working and we’ve got a good level of worked booked in for May and June, so we’re just waiting and watching,” said Croucher.

“No single business will be the same coming out of this, the challenges are unprecedented, but if I had to think of a positive, it would be that it gives us an opportunity to take stock of where we want the business to go in the future.”

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