Demand for printed sponsorship decals “that didn’t disappear at speed” on racing cars was the original impetus for the company that today is called City & County Graphics.
Originally it was called Alphabet and its base close to Abingdon was handy for nearby motorsports builders, notably Williams Grand Prix Engineering in Wantage. Today however the company has moved mainly into interior and exterior graphics for the housing trade, taking in hoardings, banners, fabric lightboxes and other signage.
Handling the print work is a battery of large-format inkjet printers, including a couple of Mimaki JV300 solvent ink machines and a fairly new Canon Océ Arizona 6170 XTS UV flatbed with a 2.5x3.05m working area.
This summer, City & County Graphics became the first UK user of the Mimaki UJV55-320, a 3.2m-wide LED-UV rollfed superwide printer with a superkeen price: just under £60,000. There’s nothing else of that size on today’s market for less than double that price.
Paul Edwards, works director of City & County Graphics, says that purchase started with a need for a new roll-to-roll printer. “We’re are looking to diversify. About 80% of what we do is in new home building work. The new Mimaki gives us scope to diversify a bit more into event and retail work,” he says.
“We can also bring banners in-house. You can outsource banners cheaply, but it’s more the turnaround time that benefits from doing it in-house.”
Confidence to invest
The Mimaki UJV55-320 was announced at the Fespa show in Amsterdam in March. “Before we got the flatbeds we ran a couple of Mimaki JV33s, which are absolutely superb machines,” says Edwards. “That’s why we have to the confidence to invest in the new one without properly seeing it tested. It’s just based on how good the JV33s are. When we looked at flatbed technology the first we looked at was Mimaki, but they weren’t quite ready with their offering at the time.”
The UJV55-320 offers a lot of machine for the money, Edwards agrees: “We were half looking at replacements for the JV33, which would have been narrower machines. We’d always been on the lookout for a wider roll-to-roll, but not aggressively looking.
“Seeing this new one just made sense. It is in its own price bracket. You can look at very expensive Vuteks, or less-known makes that are 150 grand machines. InkTec had something of that width at the same show, but it was £120,000.
“It’s kind of a luxury buy, in that we had the budget to replace a smaller machine, but this was such a good price that we could afford to invest in a wider format without spending ridiculous money.”
The UJV55-320 is the latest and largest in a recent series of Mimaki inkjets that use LED-UV curing lamps instead of mercury vapour lamps. It has been the subject of a PrintWeek Star Product feature in the 20 June issue.
The LUS-120 flexible inkset lets it deliver instant dry full-colour print onto a wide range of substrates, including textile, banner and other display graphics substrates. “It’s really flexible,” says Edwards. “When you’re printing on fabric you can scrunch it into a ball and stretch it and we’ve had no issues with cracking.”
An unusual feature of this printer is the ‘proofing lightbox’, a full-width illuminated panel positioned underneath the media as it emerges from the UV-shielding covers.
“It’s really useful for when you do backlit stuff,” Edwards says. “You can see it as it’s coming off, so you don’t have to wait until the whole thing is printed on the roll and then maybe find that it’s not quite right.”
The company makes up lightboxes with LEDs, making the stretch fabric to measure. “They used to be done on dye-sub a lot, but to me the UV ink is better,” says Edwards. “Rather than sinking into the fabric it sits on top and you get better colour and sharper text than dye-sub.”
The lightbox fabric is given silicon rubber edges that simply push into channels in the box frames. This keeps them flat and means the graphics can easily be replaced. “We got a sewing machine to be able to do these edges,” says Edwards. “We’ve put quite a few into retail stores and they are really effective.”
At present the two solvent JV33s are still there, but Edwards says: “We use them less and less but we’ve still got them. We’re going to get rid of one and just have the other as a back-up.”
Mimaki’s main distributor in the UK is Hybrid Services but City & County Graphics’ printer was supplied by dealer CMYUK, a large-format specialist that’s also the UK distributor for EFI’s Vutek range of superwide and grand-format UV inkjets.
Robin East, managing director, says the two ranges are complementary. “Vuteks are a higher-value product with bigger investment,” he says.
“Historically a superwide 3.2m machine is £250,000 and upwards in terms of investment. So if someone could buy a machine for £60,000, would that convince them to take that work in-house? Having been selling these machines since the Sign & Digital Show, the answer is ‘yes’!
“The other type of customers are existing Vutek and Durst users with hybrids of 2.5m or 3.2m. They use them for printing rigid sheets and roll-to-roll. They get to a point where they think ‘for £60,000 I could take all my roll work off my hybrid, giving more capacity from a rigid sheet printer plus a dedicated roll-to-roll.’ It’s those two types of customers that have really invested in this new Mimaki.”
This was the first UJV55-320 in the UK. “It took longer than it would usually because they were training the engineers who were installing,” says Edwards. “It took about four days but I’m sure they’d do it a lot quicker for others.
“Once that was done it was straight up and running. There was a bit of training for our operators, but I wouldn’t call it retraining. We know about the JV33s already and this is almost just a bigger version.”
The company did not encounter any significant snags, says Edwards. “We found we did get a bit of crinkling on some of our old vinyl that has a paper backing. We’ve had to change some of our standard vinyls. A plastic backed vinyl works better and we’ve had no issues with that.
“CMYUK offers a lot of materials for it and I can’t think of one of those we’ve struggled with.”
The rolls are big and heavy of course, though the use of cool-running LEDs means that thinner and therefore lighter media can be run, as it doesn’t have to resist so much heat distortion. East says the LEDs run 60˚C lower than mercury lamps.
Handling the rolls isn’t an issue, says Edwards. “We thought we might need a trolley, but really it’s a two-man lift. There’s a bit of a knack to loading media that wide though. You’ve just got to set aside a bit more time and tension the media rather than just chucking a roll on.”
Overall, Edwards is very happy: “I can’t fault it at all – speed, colour, solids are all fantastic. I’d buy another one, and wouldn’t be surprised if we do at some point, if we get a bit more coming through for it.”
Max print width 3,200mm
Printheads Piezo (four heads in two staggered arrays)
Ink drop size Min: 7pl; max 36pl
Resolutions 300, 600, 900, 1,200dpi
Speed Typically 30-60m2/hr (CMYK commercial on banner), or 15-30m2/hr (seven-colour or white on banner). Vinyl speeds are a third slower
Inks Mimaki LUS-120, four-colour (CMYK) or seven-colour (CMYK, light cyan, light magenta and white)
Price List price is £65,995
The company was founded 25 years ago as Alphabet. Since then it has moved four times to larger units within the same trading estate in Abingdon. It has occupied its current main site for the past seven years.
Production equipment includes the new 3.2m Mimaki UJV55-320 LED-UV and a couple of older JV33 solvent printers, though one is about to be retired. There’s also a Canon Océ Arizona 6170 XTS flatbed UV printer used for direct-to-substrate work such as exterior hoardings. Other recent purchases have included a Zünd XY cutting table, an AXYZ router and a sewing machine to attach silicon rubber edges to lightbox fabrics. The Mimaki, Océ Arizona ad Zünd comprised a £500,000 investment completed this summer.
Starting in motorsports graphics, today the firm mostly handles graphics for builders and retailers. Turnover earlier this year was up 26% on the same time last year.
Why it was bought...
The UJV55-320 will help the firm diversify into event and retail work and also to allow banner work to be brought in-house for faster turnrounds.
How it has performed...
Works director Paul Edwards can’t fault the machine on value for money, and after adapting substrate choices has no issues with performance. He is particularly pleased with the ‘proofing lightbox’ that enables the user to check backlit prints as they come of the printer.