Building on a long legacy of imaging expertise

By Simon Eccles, Monday 01 April 2019

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When PrintWeek writes the word ‘phoenix’, it’s usually code for a company that has risen out of failure with a shiny new legal identity, miraculously escaping pesky encumbrances like debts and liabilities.

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FFEI’s high-end tech is employed by a number of other manufacturers

However, phoenix can be applied in an entirely positive sense to FFEI, a company that rose from the rubble of the largest explosion (and the loudest bang) in the UK since the second world war. 

This was the Buncefield oil depot near Hemel Hempstead, which blew up spectacularly in the early hours of Sunday 11 December, 2005. FFEI’s metal framed building was next to the depot boundary and was literally flattened by the shockwave. Fortunately there were no casualties. 

FFEI was back up and running within weeks. After a management buyout from its owner Fujifilm less than a year later in 2006 it took on its current identity as a privately owned independent company with three principal owner-directors. These are CEO Andy Cook, CFO Julian Payne and R&D director Bob Wilson. 

In January, FFEI recruited Paul Watson as COO, which was when the American-style job titles were adopted. 

After moving to a rented factory for a few years, the company now owns a three-storey 3,350m² building only a few hundred yards from its original demolished site. Here it builds inkjet systems including its Graphium inkjet label press, a joint venture with Edale that was a PrintWeek Star Product in August 2013. Another inkjet is the specialist Edge Band printer for strips that go on the edges of laminated furniture and kitchen tops.

It also works on high-tech development for other companies, of which the publicly revealed names include Canon, Edale, and Nilpeter. FFEI (together with Edale) builds Canon’s Océ LabelStream 4000 inkjet, which is essentially an upgraded Graphium and was a PrintWeek Star Product in July 2018. It continues to develop the XMF workflow software for Fujifilm. The Graphium Print Bar for integrators is also made by FFEI.

Outside the print sector, about a third of turnover comes from FFEI’s pioneering life sciences operation that builds medical slide scanners including patented high-resolution imaging and colour calibration gleaned from print. 

Today FFEI employs 80 full-time staff plus contract staff for special projects. It expects to show a turnover of about £12m in its year to the end of March, split as about £7.5m from graphics systems and £4.5m from life sciences.

The Crosfield connection

The name FFEI seems a bit anonymous – officially the initials don’t stand for anything. Cook admits that marketing takes a low priority, with the company getting most of its business from referrals. “If you look at our organisation, we’re quite light on sales and marketing, but very heavy on our design engineers, PhDs and graduates.” 

Yet to people who have been around the printing industry for the past few decades, FFEI is known as the direct descendent of Crosfield Electronics, a pioneer of press controls and digital pre-press for 50 years since the 1940s. 

In 1947 John Crosfield set up Crosfield Electronics to develop electronic printing press controls. The company moved into electronic film scanners and ultimately digital pre-press film exposure hardware and computerised page assembly systems between the 1950s and 1990s. These were highly regarded and sold globally. Many people still active in high-tech systems today got their start at Crosfield. 

By the late 1980s Crosfield had been owned by De La Rue for many years, but a profits dip saw De la Rue sell it in 1989. The buyer was a joint venture of DuPont and Fujifilm called DuPont Fujifilm Electronic Imaging (DFEI). This put in development money and kept the Crosfield brand and Hemel Hempstead premises until 1997, when DuPont pulled out and Fujifilm acquired all the assets. 

The development and manufacturing operation was renamed Fujifilm Electronic Imaging, or FFEI, with the products sold by Fujifilm Graphics Systems. FFEI continued to develop flatbed film scanners, laser platesetters (the Sumo range) and an advanced workflow called XMF. 

Today Fujifilm Graphic Systems still supplies XMF to drive its platesetters and its growing range of inkjet digital presses and wide-format printers, although scanners have long gone and the platesetter hardware is bought in from Dainippon Screen. 

Going it alone

The operation that was to become today’s FFEI was originally Crosfield’s R&D department, which occupied an anonymous giant metal shed next door to the main Crosfield HQ building. By 2005 Fujifilm Graphic Systems ran its UK operations and showroom in Bedford and the original Crosfield HQ building was occupied by an unrelated insurance company. The rather more robust ex-HQ survived the Buncefield explosion, but all its windows were blown out. The imager assembly factory was miles away and not affected. 

Recovering from Buncefield was only one of the triggers for FFEI’s management buyout in 2006, Cook explains. By then he had been managing director of FFEI for several years and he and his colleagues felt that the directions they wanted to go in didn’t fit with Fuji’s other activities. 

“We wanted to be a pure integrator, meaning the ability to cross different markets. We were already working in life sciences, with our line scanners for digital pathology. Fuji struggled to understand that, as they had their digital cameras on microscopes, which they felt was adequate for that market. 

“We were also doing a lot of fundamental work on single-pass inkjet printing together with Xaar and Xennia. It wasn’t skunkworks, but it was all funded by British government sponsorship rather than Fuji headquarters. The Xaar technology that came out of that became the 1001 and 1002 printheads.” These in turn led to today’s 2001 heads that are used on the LabelStream 4000. 

Another issue was Fujifilm’s separate acquisitions, says Cook. “We’d had the explosion in December 2005 and then, I think in January 2006, while we were still trying to work out what to do, Fuji acquired Dimatix.” This was a US-based manufacturer of piezo inkjet heads. “That left us in a bit of a tricky situation with Xaar. We were also working with SunJet for inks, but Fuji also around that time acquired Sericol.” This is now Fujifilm Speciality Inks, based in Broadstairs. 

“We were faced with the prospect of having limited choices on technologies, which is the most frustrating thing you can do to an integrator. Suddenly we had a limitation for heads and ink, and we’d spent the last two years doing all this work for four-colour single-pass printing. So I presented a plan to Fuji about the potential for an MBO and they were pleased ¬ very, very pleased actually! By October we’d closed the agreement on what was a very friendly MBO.”

The friendliness continues as FFEI continues to work with Fujifilm, Cook says: “We still do bits of software development and hardware development and supply the Graphium Print Bar. It turned into a very good arrangement and it left us with the freedom to continue working with any technology that we deem suitable for a solution, without all the restrictions of being within a corporate.”

After 2001 FFEI developed its own range of violet laser platesetters, mostly for export to China and India – at one time it was the world’s biggest exporter of platesetters into China. Sales eventually declined, with the last units sold in 2017. 

The inkjet work soon paid off, Cook says. “We did an arrangement with Nilpeter that became the Caslon hybrid single-pass inkjet label press, which we showed at LabelExpo 2007.” In 2013 FFEI launched the Graphium, which was a partnership with Edale for the hybrid chassis and Fujifilm for UV inks. “Graphium led to the programme with Canon Océ. LabelStream 4000 represents effectively a fifth generation of our single-pass engine.”

FFEI’s decades of scanner and colour expertise explains its success in today’s medical slide scanners. “We won about a million pounds of grant money from the government and developed a very sophisticated colour management tool for digital slide scanners,” Cook says. “Why that’s so exciting is that artificial intelligence needs calibrated images to learn to recognise things like cancerous cells. We are doing a grant-funded program with Leeds University on this subject.”

So FFEI can be thought of as Continuity Crosfield. Has Cook considered reviving the famous name instead of the rather baffling FFEI? “We did think of it, but it turned out that there are still some liabilities, so we didn’t want to draw that link.”

Cook and his colleagues kept in touch with John Crosfield throughout his long retirement until he died in 2012. The Crosfield Foundation, a charity run by former deputy managing director Lars Janneryd, was finally wound up in 2013 and its funds transferred to the Printing Charity. FFEI recently inherited a few last mementoes, says Cook: “Lars came to see me a few weeks ago and he handed over Crosfield’s Queen’s Awards and a golf trophy. They’re in our reception now.” 


Star products

FFEI still makes the Graphium inkjet press, though the Canon Océ LabelStream 4000 is its big project, helped by Canon’s worldwide sales, marketing and distribution clout. 

“We’ve got print bars in all sorts of different applications,” says Cook. “A lot of them are in trials, customers are commercialising them. Embellishment is the main theme, meaning high laydown varnish or high opacity white. It’s also used for cold foiling where a varnish is jetted and then it goes into a foiler for various effects.”

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