Mimtec used to do virtually everything but print. The thermoforming specialist, based in Fareham, near Portsmouth, is just that, a specialist in the hyper-niche market of vacuum and pressure forming, twin-sheet moulding and acrylic fabrication for sectors as diverse as aerospace, science, transport and retail.
You name it; components for aircraft seats, parts for industrial enclosures, covers for medical kit, managing director Mark Waring is your man. And until recently the closest he came to printers were the screen guys whose pre-printed plastic sheets his team moulded into sleek, curvilinear 3D forms.
That was before Fujifilm unveiled its Uvijet KV this spring. The thermoforming UV-cured inkjet ink for light industrial applications is aimed at businesses that want shorter run lengths than are viable with screen printing, faster turnarounds and pin-sharp image quality. Mimtec saw an opening.
Waring, whose background is in credit cards, has worked with screen printers for a long time, and kept a “watching brief” on the sector, but never wanted to launch into screen printing: “I’ve worked on the edges of the print industry and have a reasonable awareness of what’s possible and what’s not.
“But print is a difficult business; not one I’d want to undertake in the conventional sense. We like things that are niche and don’t want to be fighting in the trenches with all the others in the sector doing the same thing. I’d rather take the commercial risk of being an early adopter.”
Because the trouble with screen printing in his line of work is that the ink can stretch only so far when heating to mould plastic. And then it cracks. And then there’s the costly faffing around sending work back and forth from screen printer to Mimtec to hone origination and smooth out image distortion – a process that can take weeks from start to finish.
Waring wanted to bring more work in house to streamline the process and speed up turnaround times. The higher resolution graphics meanwhile could open up a shorter-run market rich in potential such as a far wider range of point-of-sale work. The game changer was the Uvijet KV ink.
This can stretch to withstand the kind of surface temperatures Waring’s team subjects its plastics, about 190˚C. And being a digital ink means users not only roll out those shorter runs, but the end results boast just the kind of crisper, photographic-quality imagery he dearly wanted.
“With screen you can only really print items in the hundreds, with digital you can trim this down to the tens depending on the client’s budget. Meanwhile bringing more of the process in house gives us greater control of the workflow and makes us much more responsive to what the customer wants.”
Mimtec is not just an early adopter, it is the first UK customer for the Uvijet KV thermoforming UV-cured ink, which is manufactured at the Fujifilm facility in Broadstairs, Kent. The new CMYK inks are specifically designed for its flatbed Acuity Advance Select devices.
And it was the launch of the inks that “triggered” Waring into action. He spent around £200,000 on a machine, Apple computers and Quadraxis Thermo 3D software to blitz that achingly long, very costly origination process – a process Waring describes as “lumpy”.
The company, which was based in two industrial units on the J Ten trade park, took on a third to house the Acuity Advance Select machine and the company’s new short-run service. The kit, with six heads, prints four-colour process plus two whites, and up to 2.3m by 1.3m in size.
But the buck didn’t stop at £200,000. Being an early adopter comes with its risks and one of them is new technology. Waring’s team moulds plastics. Booting up image-correction software, preparing artwork, keying in Photoshop commands and tackling other pre-press arts are another thing.
Mimtec needed expert help: enter Andrew Ewens, who joined as a full-time salaried pre-press employee after the machine went into the Fareham site in late April. It was up and running by May, just enough time for Ewens to train up a couple of his new colleagues at Mimtec.
“Because we weren’t a printer we didn’t have people with the relevant skills,” says Waring. “We had to find someone with technical competence. Image distortion is tricky, highly demanding, so we hired Andrew to project manage the whole thing and train a couple of our operators.”
The “very, very specialist” nature of this kind of print gives Waring’s company a unique edge, he reckons: “Part of what made me invest was that so few people are likely to follow suit. Two or three companies in Europe are looking at this technology but none in the UK.
“If you are a trade printer, why would you buy a machine geared up for this work? You can’t print on paper, it is dedicated to printing on plastic. If you are are a thermoforming company, it’s unlikely to be your core business and why would you want to take on the extra costs such as employing a pre-press person? We made the jump because we didn’t think anyone else would.”
Results were as fast as the learning curve. As soon as the machine went in at Fareham, Mimtec picked up work: an existing client called on the company to print and form several plastic sheets to produce a large filmset. This, says Waring, was a big project and a fantastic learning curve.
“It meant our pre-press recruit really got stuck in from day one, learning the distortion software on live work. The project went very well and for the first two to three weeks we were flat out on that job. We have maintained momentum by producing marketing collateral such as samples and video. Meanwhile Fujifilm – keen to push the new inks – has worked with us on cross promotions.”
Waring has high hopes for his entry into the digital arena but is not blinded by its potential: “I would never suggest digital can do everything, but the new technology allows us to do things that screen can’t offer. If you want a big, strong block of colour, screen is hard to beat. But if you want complex or photo-quality images, digital is much better.”
Speed depends on the type of work as different quality and layering modes are used. For a four-colour job on top of white, it will run at 12m2/hr, but if the job involves two whites or reversing print on colour, the process takes longer. Yet the quality and texture of the finished plastic is already catching the eye of product designers keen on producing cost-effective, high-quality prototypes.
As a pioneering early adopter, however, Waring is reluctant to play the numbers game on the size of a market so fresh and how much he can realistically corner. But within 18 months, he hopes to add £1m to the current £3m turnover – “a significant amount of that from this new work”, he says.
“In terms of return on investment, I suspect in the first year we will not be generating much above the bottom line, but as we roll into the early part of next year I hope it starts to take off. So within three years we aim to have recovered the amount of our investment, by which time the market could go anywhere.”
Location Fareham, Hampshire
Inspection host Mark Waring
Size Turnover: £3m; staff: 36
Products Digital and screen-printed plastic sheets for point-of-sale displays, vending machine graphics, 3D backdrops and branded cladding, vacuum forming, pressure forming, twin-sheet moulding
Kit Acuity Advance Select printer with Uvijet KV inks from Fujifilm, Quadraxis Thermo 3D software, plastic pressure-moulding kit and tool-making equipment
Inspection focus Breaking into print for the first time
Go with your instinct Being an early adopter can be risky and you have to make the numbers add up, “but if you spend your life working out those numbers to the fifth decimal point you’ll never make the leap,” says Mimtec managing director Mark Waring. “Have faith in your instinct.”
Hire the right people “I’m no pre-press person, I don’t know the market and I don’t want to go there, but there are people in the business who are very bright. Find them, recruit them and treat them well. It will pay remarkable dividends and is worth the cost of the salary.”
Search for a niche It helps to find a USP, but don’t be overambitious: roll out new technologies in stages and invest in customised training early in the process - appointing one person as a project manager can give added focus to the project.
Stake your claim Use the pioneering nature of your new service to take advantage of the virgin market: “even if the market develops and other companies buy machines, as an early adopter you are in a strong position to build on your early start.”
Keep an eye on your business strategy Invest in technology that fits your business strategy. Don’t invest just because something looks flash, it must meet defined goals: a desire to speed up turnarounds, improve quality and win shorter-run work, for example.
Be bold “There’s an element of risk in everything but having invested time and money on a new project, you must not be reticent: one of the ways the company differentiates itself is by adopting new technologies ahead of the competition.”