Set up a portal to new worlds of opportunity

By Jez Abbott, Monday 19 June 2017

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This March Octink successfully targeted a host of the UK’s biggest-name construction companies with a new web-to-print service.


Freely: “It’s about adding value”

Print Guardian, according to managing director Mike Freely, promised to improve ordering efficiency by allowing many of the leading national housebuilders and commercial developers to set up bespoke portals they could tap into 24/7 from their smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers for delivery within a few hours or a few weeks. 

It was a “defining moment” for the large-format specialist in graphics and signage based in Brentford, adds Freely. Print Guardian has helped speed up and hone efficiency of projects for the construction sector. But it took several months of testing and trials, research and development.

The challenge

That background work took 18 painstaking months and a “significant” investment to reach market. In some ways however the origins of Print Guardian go back further; at least a decade when pre-press and workflow automation began to take off.

Octink, which started as a traditional sign-writing shop in the 1960s, joined the digital revolution 20 years ago, becoming an early adopter of large-format technology. But it was the ISO 9001 quality-management culture and uptake of workflow systems that crystalised the potential of efficient, super-fast, error-free processes, explains Freely.

“Once we started to embed quality management to an ISO standard, we focused our minds inwards on everything we did process-wise,” he says. “On the back of that we brought more and more technology into our business to create intricate process workflows and streamline our print process.

“In in the intervening years we have continued to build a strong line of work for construction and property companies. Many of those companies have a national presence with multiple business units across the country and standard signage and banner needs as well as demand for bespoke one-offs and tailor-made marketing suites.” 

Construction now accounts for well over half of Octink’s business, with the rest including branding for retail, exhibitions and outdoor events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Freely says there was “nothing necessarily wrong” with the way the company previously did work for construction firms. But they tended to have standardised signage and graphics that traditionally can be laborious to order and deliver,

“It increasingly struck us there must be a better way to help them. Our offer to construction firms has always been to provide quality and value alongside the best in customer service, but over a period of time we started to focus on those items that could be standardised and in turn manufactured more efficiently providing a faster route to market for many standard signs.

“This was especially relevant for those companies with many business units or projects spread right across the country. We wanted to offer them an ordering service that cut out the endless trail of time-sapping emails and all that kind of bureaucracy. We also wanted to improve production throughput and increase capacity.”

The method

Prime Minister Theresa May recently visited Octink in west London as part of her election campaign to try and woo business votes. But it was the government tax credits for R&D that really wooed Freely’s team, helped speed the project along and encouraged Freely and chief executive Will Tyler to give hefty financial backing to the project, then hone the idea for an easy-to-use portal for clients.

The company also took advice from a manufacturing experts on how best to create a customer-friendly portal while delivering the internal efficiencies to boot. It also had young blood on tap – a crucial need for any company. Freely insists grasping much of today’s technology is becoming “more and more a generational thing” and businesses must recruit youthful professionals who are bang up to date on cutting-edge technology such as databases, coding and workflow. 

“As such the company is continuing its policy of bringing through apprentices to assist this side of the business as it continues to develop and grow,” he says.

There were lots of “versions and renditions” to get Print Guardian right, Freely recalls: not too much information, not too fussy, but robust enough to deliver the clients’ needs.

Many of the early adopters are huge civil engineering construction businesses hungry to both streamline and make easy a traditionally “clunky” process around ordering safety-compliance signage and site branding, and also to delve into the data and analytics that on-line ordering can provide.

The finished web interfaces are always client branded and host sign templates that can be personalised with site names, contact details and office telephone numbers. For businesses with high-volume demands and comprehensive infrastructure, the service is a “no-brainer”, insists Freely, enabling everyone from remote management teams to group procurement to drill down on orders, product information and crucial print-spend details.

Print Guardian was officially launched in the first week of April and, according to Freely, it is “really fast to get up and running... A client with an existing signage catalogue in place is virtually ready to go and can be up and running within a matter of weeks. A period of user training follows but so far we have found that most find the portals very familiar and intuitive to use.”

The result

Print Guardian offers various levels of complexity, from an entry-level portal with customisable fields and proofing features to highly bespoke versions targeting all those large multi-site organisations. Customers can also tap into detailed reporting and analytics on print spend, most popular types of signage being used and details on sign messaging.

Leading housebuilder Taylor Wimpey has just signed up to the latter while Octink is due announce uptake of the service by several other blue-chip construction firms in the coming months. Customers have been surprised just how quickly they can have “something that looks like a website up and running and allowing them to place orders”, says Freely, who is looking at further adaptations to focus on other markets such as retail. 

He adds: “It’s easy from a day-to-day operational point of view and seeks to mirror the ease of online ordering prevalent on most retail websites, with drop-down menus and a shopping basket to fill. And as soon as we get an order alert project managers are jumping on the presses to ensure everything is delivered on time.”

Freely insists Print Guardian is not merely about printing signs: “It’s about adding value: if we can do that well, we can create a greater level of long-term interest and build on client relationships – a key objective to growing the business.”

Currently Octink’s two large-format Durst Rho P10s run a day and late shift. But if Freely’s team can get the marketing right to convince more clients to come on board, Print Guardian could max out kit capacity, enabling the machines to run throughout the night, he reckons. “This service could fill those machines 24 hours a day, and that’s our operational goal”.

He adds: “It took a long time and plenty of brain-storming to reach this point – we wanted to do this very well and to fit it seamlessly into the operational process we have created over the years. With Print Guardian we have found a route to further enhance productivity and automation.” 



Location Brentford, London

Inspection host Managing director Mike Freely

Size Turnover: around £17m; Staff: 105 

Products Signage, events graphics, display and interior graphics, POS and building wraps for major blue-chip clients such as Barratt Homes, Berkeley Group, Taylor Wimpey, Superdry and Red Bull 

Kit Two Durst Rho P10 wide-format machines: a 250 and 160, a Seiko Colour Painter H2-74s, a Kongsberg XP digital finishing table and Mimaki CG 160FX plotters

Inspection focus Developing a targeted webstore to improve efficiency


Do the research Background work is vital to ensure the new web-to-print service is “not just needed but wanted by your target market”, says Freely, who adds research is often time consuming and benefits from the input of specialist advisers or consultants. 

Identify key staff Modern technology is a “generational thing”, says Freely, so young, highly skilled staff will foster a culture of innovation and creativity and ensure your web-to-print service remains up to date and in line with customer needs. 

Don’t rush Web-to-print is more than simply taking an order and shipping a product, says Freely, it’s a process that demands a fair amount of trial and error to hit on which techniques work, and printers must be prepared to spend time improving and adjusting the service

Think about customer adoption Communicate thoroughly with your client and look for ways to embed the web-to-print service into the customer’s business processes. Print directors should have a vision for how they want to engage with their customers.

Support the service in the longer term To keep customers using the system, support has to be extensive and far reaching; by listening to what they have to say and responding to that feedback, you are more likely to get customer buy-in to the web-to-print service. 

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