It’s now exactly 20 years since Graham Harris found a better way to crease paper, although at first he wasn’t sure how to actually make it.
Once he did work it out he built on the results to launch the Tri-Creaser rotary tool system and a range of related products. Today his twin companies Tech-ni-Fold and CreaseStream are successful businesses that sell worldwide. Last year’s turnover was £2m, with a healthy profit and the companies employ eight people in Lutterworth, close to the M1 between Rugby and Leicester. Harris also had to fight in the courts to protect his patents, winning six out of seven cases to date. Last year he also co-wrote and published a book, Against the Grain, telling his story warts and all, “to encourage other inventors”, as he puts it.
In the late 1990s Harris was working in the print finishing department of Streamline Press near Leicester, where he saw the limitations of current systems and decided he could come up with something better.
The challenge was how to fold heavy weight cover stocks without cracking them. At that time the nature of digital printer toners meant that cracking even on lighter papers was also a real problem if print went across the fold.
“Having worked for print finishing companies for 20 years I knew exactly what dilemmas faced those dealing with production issues,” Harris says.
“I knew that production managers and owners would be caught out if a cover stock material would crack, and how they would panic because they hadn’t factored in pre-creasing on a cylinder or some other offline solution. This meant that it was often left with me to try and come up with ideas to somehow get the steel version to work a miracle, but mostly it was impossible and jobs would be processed with some cracking issues. Of course this would sometimes lead to reprints, resulting in lost money or even lost business.”
Platen or flatbed-cylinder creasing presses did the job, but setting up dies was a hassle for everyday print. Scoring wheels cost less and were already available for some Heidelberg and MBO folders, but they were made from metal, with either metal or polyurethane counter wheels. They weren’t particularly sympathetic to the paper or toner and gave sharp V-shaped creases.
An understanding boss gave Harris permission to experiment after hours, as a result of which he discovered that using rubber o-rings for the male scoring wheel and grooved steps on the steel counter wheel gave perfect u-shaped crease channels, just like platen or roller creasers. Working with a rubber supplier he found that oval-section rings gave the best results. Harris’ wife Sue came up with the name Tri-Creaser because of the three settings that the device used.
“I then developed my device so it could crease all materials from 100 to 350gsm, that meant me creating o-ring shapes and grooving sets for them to run into,” Harris says. “It was a bit rough and ready, print workers used to laugh when they saw me fixing it to their machines, but, as the marketing saying goes, the laughing stopped when they saw the results.”
Local engineering works were sceptical too, but he persevered. “It took me eight attempts to find the right company to manufacture our Tri-Creaser,” he recalls. “Seven told me that what I was asking for was impossible, so I kept going until I found someone with an innovative approach. Rather than saying, ‘it can’t be done,’ they said, ‘it shouldn’t be possible but we will help you find a way.’ That’s the kind of company we like working with.” Today the company assembles its devices itself or outsources to local companies.
He approached Polestar Watmoughs, whose print manager Vic Furness was so impressed with a demonstration of a pair of prototype Tri-Creasers that he signed a £715 cheque to buy them on the spot, as he’d been about to pay £10,000 for a platen press instead. A news story written by PrintWeek’s Gordon Carson soon followed and Tech-ni-Fold was on the map.
At the very beginning of his invention cycle Harris had assumed he would sell the invention to a big manufacturer, make a bit of money and carry on doing other things. An early approach to Heidelberg got the brush-off, and it took two more approaches before the company got interested, Harris says. At the time he was working out of his refurbished garage, but when Heidelberg asked to visit him he decided it was time to move to something more business-like in Lutterworth.
“Heidelberg was very professional, but they wanted to manufacture it and pay me a licence fee,” he says. “I didn’t want that and rejected them three times. By then I’d sold 200 in the first year. Maybe if they’d come to me at the start I’d have licensed it! However, after I got a £100,000 profit order from Heidelberg I gave up my other full-time job.
“We have been supplying Heidelberg for 19 years, and a few more we can’t name. In the last 12 months we have been working with Konica Minolta Europe and other digital print manufacturers who like our CreaseStream machines.”
Harris says that often finishing suppliers come to Tech-ni-Fold after their customers have problems. “No manufacturing company likes to admit that their machines are flawed because they still fit steel scoring devices on their machines,” he says. “Imagine this, their customer buys a £100,000 machine only for the scoring devices to rip the cover in half. So we get these scenarios: either the manufacturer ignores us but points their customer in our direction; or the manufacturer ‘secretly’ buys from us to solve the problem. You could say that we are print’s best kept secret!”
Today, Tech-ni-Fold develops, sells and distributes retro-fit creasing, cutting and micro-perforating devices for all types of folding machines, saddle-stitchers, binders and various other equipment. It has more than 500 solutions, Harris reckons. Customers are mostly in the offset, web offset and digital print sectors. “All areas of print where sheets are printed, and to some extent the packaging industry,” Harris days. “We are often approached with bespoke projects.”
In 2008 Harris decided to branch out into making standalone finishers based on the Tri-Creaser system, launching the result as the CreaseStream range in 2012. These machines are pitched as single-pass alternatives to simple knife-type lever or pedal-operated matrix creasers, which can only perform one crease at a time and may need several passes for z-folds or if perforations are also needed.
CreaseStreams can take multiple crease, microperf and cutting wheels and can do the lot in one pass, including up- and down-facing creases.
The CreaseStream Mini base model is rotary handle-driven and hand-fed a sheet at a time, with potential for up to 1,000sph. There’s also a Mini Quick-Feed, which has a modified feeder that can handle several sheets at a time, making feeding and throughput much more efficient and so 3,000sph is achievable. Mini Auto-Feed has a motor and automatic stack feeder, and can handle up to 4,000sph. All can take sheets from 65 to 350gsm, in widths from 80 to 520mm.
A newer addition is the base level Card Creaser, a smaller device for sheets up to 520mm wide, that can take two creasing/perf tool sets.
Operating alongside Tech-ni-Fold in the same building, CreaseStream now develops, distributes and sells standalone digital finishing solutions. Graham Harris’ son Jack is the managing director of that part of the business.
“We work closely in order to grow the business in the global digital print sector,” Graham says. “Our products output several times faster than conventional methods and we tend to stay at entry level, an area we see as open.”
Who runs the company?
“I am the managing director, my wife Sue is the financial director,” Harris says. “Sue doesn’t touch development and sales and I don’t get involved in the finances, but she holds the purse strings. We are a great team together!”
When looking for staff, he looks back to his own experiences. “I go for passion and potential over qualifications, every time. So many people don’t get the breaks in business because they haven’t got the right credentials or qualifications. We look beyond that. Many people have such enormous potential and we nurture that. I think this all stems from how I was treated in my days in the factory, there weren’t many opportunities open for personal growth.
“You could say that on paper some of us, no one more so than me, would once have been overlooked in the areas of skills where we operate, but now I would pitch us against any team. Giving employees the responsibility to develop and progress is very empowering, and it works for us.”
The original Tri-Creaser is still the best seller, though it has evolved since its early days in Harris’ garage. “We have sold around 100,000,” he says.
CreaseStream is also doing well with the Mini range selling strongly, especially the entry-level models.