"I live in Carlisle, but I work in Lockerbie, so I commute across the border each day to Scotland," he explains. "It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, it only takes about 25 minutes!"
Harkins has been doing the commute for the past eight years, since DS Smith shifted its carton production north of the border. In that time, much has changed for the company, and while it may not be the most headline-grabbing of developments, switching its coating blanket manufacturer has had one of the biggest impacts.
The company was using Birkan’s Super Strip 3 and Super Strip 4 blankets, but Harkins explains that while the performance of the blankets was excellent, they were becoming increasingly difficult to source. For a company relying on the ready availability of consumables to keep production at the optimum level, this was not ideal. Luckily, Stehlin Hostag came up with an alternate suggestion: TyreF.
"We have found TyreF to be a very innovative and reliable supplier for the past five years in the arena of coating blankets and plates," says Stehlin Hostag UK blanket technical sales manager Jon Hutchins "TyreF has developed an extensive range of coating blankets to suit all application needs – plastic-back, fabric-back and sticky-back products in all the industry standard gauges are available."
This reliability of supply, along with the blanket meeting the company’s requirements, made the switch a sensible decision, says Harkins.
"For us, the most important thing we need from our blanket is for the gloss level to be maintained throughout the run. We need the blanket to have a decent release on to the sheet and we need the blanket to be flexible as well, so that we can run both UV and water-based," he explains. "The TyreF meets these requirements."
The firm runs two KBA presses, a 162 and 142, for its carton work and so the blankets come pre-cut to fit those presses. But getting the blankets the right size is just the first of the changes to be made when switching blanket supplier, says Harkins.
"When you shift to a new coating blanket, it can be quite an upheaval," he says. "You cut them all on CAD these days to get the shape you want for the varnish and when you switch your blanket, the cutting depth can be ever-so-slightly different. This was the case when we switched to TyreF, and so we had to change our cutting depth so we were going just into the plastic base."
After the cutting, the next step is peeling back from the cut areas to leave the impression area for the varnish. How well the blanket strips is a crucial factor in the end product quality of the coating. Another factor for quality is how well the blanket transfers the gloss. In both areas, Harkins says the TyreF impresses.
"This blanket strips very well," he explains. "When you put them on the CADs, they strip very quickly so you are ready to go very quickly. You could get a blanket that might transfer the coating better than the TyreF, but it might not strip as well. In terms of quality, though, it matches the Super Strip. If we want a 60-point gloss or a 50-point gloss, it certainly achieves that. What we find with the TyreF is that it does all things relatively well – it is a great all-rounder."
He explains that running blankets with UV chemistry can sometimes lead to issues, with the image area of the blanket peeling off, but that TyreF has managed to find a way of preventing this without making the non-image area more difficult to strip away. He adds that the blanket is also extremely stable, so the company has had no issues with the blanket "taking a bash" and grinding the presses to a halt.
The robustness is important in terms of the lifespan of the blankets. Harkins says he wouldn’t like to even guess at the exact run lengths they get out of the blankets, as "it is almost impossible to put a single figure on it". This is mainly because the company tends to print on demand, completing multiple short-runs of around 6,000 of each carton design (though runs can hit 50,000) on an as-needed basis. Each time the same blanket will be used, with it being rolled up and stored between use.
"When you finish the run, you wipe them down and roll them up, label them and store them in a tube," he says. "We rarely replace them. What damages the blankets is taking them off and putting them back on the presses, so in terms of lifespan, it obviously depends on how often we do that."
Stehlin Hostag’s Hutchins says that customers have reported in excess of 800,000 impressions coating with UV varnish, and that the plastic-back products are capable of more than 12 repeats.
"We have yet to meet a customer who has worn one out," he adds. "Customers only make new stencils when replacing press damaged blankets or the design becomes obsolete."
DS Smith uses the blankets for various coating types, including matt, satin and UV high gloss. As the blanket is capable of complex shapes, Harkins says the blankets are used on 98% of the company’s work. Occasionally, he admits that more complex work requires a Cyrel plate at two or three times the cost of the TyreF, but this is a rare occurrence.
"You will always have times when you need a specialist blanket or plate so this is not to the blanket’s detriment," says Harkins.
As for price, Harkins says there will always be cheaper options available, but that in terms of the quality blankets out there, the TyreF is priced very competitively. Besides, it is foolish, he argues, to be wooed by seemingly more economical alternatives.
"I think that if you are tempted by cheaper options from abroad or the like, you really have to have a long think about it because –in my opinion – it will be a false economy," he explains. "You get what you pay for ultimately, and how much do you want to take the risk of not getting the life out of the blanket?"
Another thing to consider is the service you get with the product. With something as crucial as a printing blanket, Harkins says you need to have a high level of service as well as a high-quality product. Fortunately, he says he gets this with Stehlin Hostag.
"I don’t want to blow their trumpet too much, but the support is excellent and the technical assistance in particular has been very good indeed," he reveals. "They sort things out very promptly. We had a problem where we were not cutting the blanket properly, and they showed us that we had to go deeper and score the plastic slightly as well."
For Harkins, then, the TyreF has proved itself to be a real asset to the DS Smith operation. It’s also a great example of how something that may not always gain the spotlight is still an integral part of the print process.
Gauge 1.15, 1.35, 1.45 & 1.95
Stencil depth Minimum of 0.8 up to 1.65mm
Additional info 1.95 can be supplied plastic-backed or with rubber compressible layer bonded to the reverse of the blanket; suitable for older presses suffering from shock-marking or vibration. The blanket is suitable for commercial sheetfed printing and packaging and can be used with UV & emulsion varnishes with anilox or roller coater units.
Price On application
Contact Stehlin Hostag 0115 986 0477 www.stehlinhostag.com
With a turnover of £2.5bn and with more than 12,000 staff, DS Smith is an international supplier of recycled packaging for consumer goods. The Lockerbie plant is part of the DS Smith Speciality Packaging arm of the business, producing cartons for multiple markets.
Why they were bought…
DS Smith was using Birkan’s Super Strip 3 and Super Strip 4 blankets, but getting hold of them was increasingly difficult. A chat with Stehlin Hostag brought TyreF blankets to the attention of print manager Steve Harkins. He found them to be a perfect fit for the company’s coating needs.
How they have performed…
Harkins says the blankets have been a great success, providing an all-round high-quality and reliable service. "This blanket strips very well," he explains. "You could get a blanket that might transfer the coating better than the TyreF, but it might not strip as well. In terms of quality, though, it matches the Super Strip. What we find with the TyreF is that it does all things relatively well – it is a great all–rounder."