"It was just him, in a van, with a paintbrush," explains Smith.
Forty years later and things are decidedly more large-scale. Smith’s father retired 10 years ago and, since then, his son has expanded the company’s screen presses and vinyl cutting kit to include the more modern sign-writing accompaniments of digital wide-format presses, as well as expanding the warehouse workshop that the company moved into 18 years ago. His first press purchase after taking ownership in 2001, however, was not a massively successful start.
"The first press I bought was an EcoJet, but that didn’t last five minutes," he admits. "We didn’t have anything like the service we needed and it was a bad experience."
He was more successful in his second purchase, a Roland VersaCamm. Bought eight years ago, the machine was everything Smith was after in quality and speed, and the service matched the press performance. But at the start of last year, Smith realised that this old stager would soon be reaching the end of its warranty agreements and lifecycle, so he would need a second press to reduce the pressure. He wasn’t interested in just buying the same again, however, he wanted something newer and better. So he did what he does every year: he went to the Sign & Digital exhibition.
"I go to Sign & Digital every year and even if I come home with nothing, I’m still happy. But every now and then, you know there is something you have to get," he explains. "I looked at both the Roland and the Mimaki machines and settled on the Roland LEJ-640, as – in my view – it was a superior machine to the Mimaki rival. If I want a guitar, I want a Gibson, and likewise when I went for a new press, I wanted a Roland. The Mimaki doesn’t have a name yet and although it was £10,000 cheaper, price isn’t everything. I’m looking for a 10-year life-span from the machine, so £10,000 over 10 years is nothing, really."
Smith bought the machine off the back of what he saw at the show, in addition to his own comparison of the specs and brochures of rival machines. He also took into consideration his past experience with Roland and, as a printer surrounded by sea, miles from the UK mainland, service was a massive factor in his decision.
"I have a good track history with Roland, which did make a difference," he says. "Since we bought the VersaCamm, they have been really, really great. Roland proved to us that they could back us up. We need a company like that, because we are annexed on an island. You can’t have a supplier that has to think twice when you have trouble with a machine, or that is delayed in coming to help, because of where we are. We need someone who just says ‘yep, we’ll be there as soon as we can’. Roland really does deliver on that."
The machine was bought from Roland supplier Printmax. Managing director Michael Bolton says that the machine was a great fit for Smith Signs.
"The LEJ-640 is the perfect fit for the company, with its flexibility to print directly onto rigid substrates as well as roll-to-roll," he explains. "The white/clear varnish can provide a unique advantage, which has opened up many more design options and application possibilities for Smith Signs."
The company’s install is the first in the UK for the LEJ-640, but Smith says he had no concerns about being ahead of the rest when the machine was unloaded off the ferry at the beginning of last September.
A team of Printmax and Roland engineers unpacked and assembled the machine into the area Smith had prepared in the company’s warehouse. Smith then put two of his staff forward to receive the training, which they passed on to the rest of the workforce. There were teething problems to begin with, but Smith says these were as much a result of the staff’s unfamiliarity with the LEJ-640 as the machine itself, and that many of the issues could be solved by using the extensive guidance and solutions on online forums.
"There were teething problems, but it works both ways," he says. "Sometimes, we have a crowd of wallies here who’d never used it and were ready to make every mistake possible, which they then blamed on the machine. There was unsettled period, but I expected that, so it didn’t worry me."
The only mechanical problem the machine has had was a motherboard issue, which Roland flew out to fix straight away. The service contract on the machine enrols a mix of Printmax and Roland assistance.
"We provide the first-line support, so telephone, application, RIP, etc," says Bolton. "But if a call is placed with us and we identify it as a hardware failure, we engage Roland, who are ready to provide onsite technical resource."
Smith has fortunately only needed to call on this assistance once. Overall, he says the machine has been a fantastic purchase that he finds very difficult to fault. He says the quality, for example, is extremely good. The company’s client base is almost 100% Guernsey-based, though the occasional job from Jersey will be accepted, and the new machine has had a good reaction.
"The customers have noticed the difference," says Smith. "The quality is extraordinary and the UV technology really makes a difference. It is flawless and I find it very difficult to pick fault with it. The VersaCamm is great and we still use it every day, but it does not lay down any real volume of ink. It is a very thin image, where the UV image is thick, so it is a completely different animal."
As to which work goes on which press, Smith says he makes the judgement on a job-by-job basis about which press he thinks is more suited to the end product. He admits, though, that work schedules play a part in the decision, too.
As well as quality advances, Smith says the new press is also much faster than the VersaCamm, without any sacrifice in quality. And speed is the name of the game in this market, according to Smith.
"The new press is much faster and that is exactly what we need in today’s climate," he explains. "I made a conscious decision to make this business self-sufficient. We don’t have to pick the phone up to anyone for work, because we have all the gear in-house. It has to be a one-stop shop, since we are cut off from the mainland, and with the speed of turnaround that people expect, we just don’t have the time to outsource anything."
Smith is almost 100% happy with the machine, but says he would give it four out of five because of one minor point.
"It loses a star only because the ink compartment is small. It’s not a problem as such, because you can just refill it, and that is my only moan," he reveals.
As for the firm’s next move, a new press investment is not on the cards yet. Smith’s got this press scheduled in for the next 10 years or so. He does think a new laminator will be bought in 2012, though, and that he will tinker a little with his staff’s job titles.
"We have 11 guys here and everyone has a set job description, but I want everyone to scratch each other’s back if we need them to," he explains. "I want everyone to be able to do every job, which will ensure that we are a more flexible unit."
The company may have moved from a van to a warehouse, and from a paint brush to the latest in wide-format technology, but that concentration on getting the job done right has remained throughout its forty years. With the introduction of the LEJ-640, though, the job is perhaps a little easier than in 1970.
Max speed 12.4m2/hr in CMYK mode
Max print resolution 1,440dpi
Max print width 1,615mm
Max substrate thickness Roll media: 1mm with liner / Rigid media, cut media: 13mm
Contact Printmax 0800 567 7676 www.printmax.co.uk
Smith Signs was set up in 1970 by current owner Dan Smith’s father, as a one-man business operating out of a van. Today, Smith employs 11 staff and serves clients across the island of Guernsey, with the occasional job from Jersey. The company does all processes in-house, as Smith says outsourcing services would mean travelling too far to the mainland to meet clients’ deadlines. Smith Signs’ new Roland LEJ-640 works alongside an eight-year-old Roland VersaCamm.
Why it was bought...
The company’s existing Roland machine was nearing the end of warranty agreements and Smith decided to take on a second press to share the load. He opted for the Roland because of his positive previous experiences with the company, and because he had watched a successful Sign & Digital show demo.
How it has performed...
Smith says the quality and speed of the machine is unrivalled, and a marked improvement on the VersaCamm. "The quality is extraordinary; the UV technology really makes a difference. It is flawless and I find the machine very difficult to pick fault with," he reveals.