What Nitecrest needed was a more flexible friend in a printroom that produces 5 million credit, gift, loyalty and membership cards every day. The firm spends big on technology because it cannot afford not to, says group chairman Ronnie Hart.
“We have more machinery than you can swing a stick at,” he explains. “Ours is a fast-changing business and investment is an ongoing process. In terms of capital spend, you can be looking at £1m annually and in a good year we can produce a billion-plus cards. Firms like ours therefore frequently have to update and change to faster, better kit to satisfy top-tier retailers and banks.”
This April his company did just that, spending about £350,000 on one of Europe’s first Sakurai MS 80 SD screen printing presses for special finishes – in other words anything that “flickers or glitters” such as the gold and other metallic touches that make gift cards in particular stand out in a busy retail environment. Many companies reckon screen printing is a backwater, he says.
But not companies like Nitecrest: “Screen printing is seen as a bit of a cottage or dying industry and for this reason suppliers are more lower key than they used to be. But for markets such as ours – plastic cards or scratch lottery tickets – it still has a place. The problem is alignment: overprinting screen-printed finishes, such as varnish, can cause distortion and registration issues.”
And Hart can really do without the labour-intensive manual lining up of sheets to smooth out those issues, caused by the heat and pressure of laminating four pieces of plastic up to 750 micron. His 220-staff powerhouse across 12,000m² near Preston is a Visa- and MasterCard-secure site running KBA and HP Indigo presses, personalisation gear, Kern inserter and Otto Künnecke punching kit.
To keep this £20m-turnover high-tech hub spinning, Nitecrest invests massively on R&D. It had already spent heavily trying – and failing – to come up with a system to solve the distortion problems. Then Hart heard that one of the group’s joint-venture companies, based in Andorra, had solved similar problems with a new machine. He picked up the phone to Sakurai.
After seeing the kit at a card show in Cannes, Hart ordered the MS 80 SD screen press, with a 10-week delivery programme – enough time to sink new power supplies and install a ventilation system on one of the three buildings Nitecrest uses across the industrial estate. The kit was ordered along with a Natgraph instant dryer, arriving this April to replace a Svecia machine. But what really interested Hart was neither the printing nor drying spec. The camera is unique; an industry first.
“The camera system lines up the registration marks on the sheet whereas before we had to pre-guillotine sheet edges and then manually line up the sheets. This camera is very new technology and not previously available. Most presses don’t have auto lining, so this is a big change for us: where we used to run 500 sheets an hour, now we can do four times that amount, 2,000.”
Easy does it
That is not to say the machine is fast. It is not. And it isn’t therefore perhaps as “exciting” to run as a litho press shooting out 18,000 sheets an hour or a conventional card line that can fire off 250,000 cards in the same time, he says. But not only does the Sakurai make easy work of special finishes, its Natgraph drier, long and looming in the printroom, actually saves floor area.
“With the old driers you had to remove the sheets, put them on racks, and leave them to dry for 24 hours, so you could have a dozen or so racks across the floor taking up valuable space. With this new technology, we can dry the sheet fully in one pass. When it comes off the machine all we do is put the sheets on a pallet and send them straight to the cutting department.”
If the print and drying processes were fast and simple, installation proved more complex and time-consuming. It was divided into two different processes. The MS 80 SD took three weeks to build on site and then Sakurai technicians had to return with the camera system and install and train staff for a final week. That training also threw a few curve balls at Hart’s machine operators.
“Our team adapted well to the new technology especially as it saved staff laborious work such as hand feeding sheets. But switching from manual process to more computer-oriented work was a bit more challenging for some in terms of IT and software. But the training was good and the equipment intuitive. So after two to three weeks and a further week for the camera we were done.”
This month, Hart’s tech-savvy team worked on a Next gift card with logo. Staff took stacks of printed, laminated sheets to the Sakurai screen printer to add spot UV enhancements. After pumping ink into the machine the operator hit the ‘on’ button to add varnish and the tinted spot colour. The sheets passed along the UV dryer before emerging bearing flickering, glittering high-end cards.
Hart is made up with his Sakurai MS 80 SD and will buy another one if customer demand keeps rising. Now the device is signed off and approved, he is looking at wider uses, such as speciality packaging and other products Nitecrest currently offers. It’s not so much the printing technology that is the draw, he insists. After all, you can achieve similar results with other screen technology.
But the camera makes this machine so much easier to use and takes out swathes of manual operation, from the pre-cutting of sheets to all that faffing around with registration changes. As a result the print and camera technology dovetails almost perfectly to speed up delivery and offer better and more consistent quality than is currently available on the market, he says.
But it is not perfect. Using the camera slows down the machine and Hart would dearly like it to keep up with the printer’s full capability. The Sakurai auto feed also goes up to B2, but not B1 size, which might put off some, though not him. And although installation and training went well, if a little longer than Hart would have liked, the camera was so new, it appeared at times as if the engineers weren’t always ahead of those technical curve balls.
That apart: “I would recommend the machine and buy another one. If the volumes we are currently doing continue and customers keep demanding enhanced cards we could find ourselves in a position where we need another one running by the side of it.
“It may not be as fast as a litho press but for our sophisticated processes, it’s hard to find another screen printer that does the job with such ease.”
Max speed 2,000sph
Max sheet size 800x550mm
Min sheet size 350x270mm
Max print area 720x500mm
Max screen frame 880x880mm
Printable thickness 0.05mm-0.8mm
Power consumption 13kW
Price Around £350,000
Contact Sakurai UK
020 8577 5672 www.sakuraiuk.co.uk
Nitecrest is a second-generation family business formed in 1996 and now run by group chairman and chief executive Ronnie Hart and his uncle, group technical director John Hart. The 220-staff business near Preston, Lancashire, manufactures cards for gift, loyalty and banking and exports to 140 countries worldwide. The business makes over £20m turnover and produces 5 million cards a day, using KBA, HP, Sakurai machines and a host of finishing kit such as folders and die-cutters.
Why it was bought…
Nitecrest wanted to smooth out alignment issues when overprinting screen-printed finishes and automate labour-intensive work such as registration. Hart said: “We move card stock around different machines but this machine lets us do it all in one. We used to produce 500 sheets and hour. Now its 2,000.”
How it has performed…
“The new system is up and running the results are phenomenal,” says John Hart. “We can achieve results on this new press that were previously unheard of.
“To say this is one of our best investments is an understatement. It is a game-changer in card finishing and takes our card plant to a level above our competitors.”