Fast response breeds success
Finding a recipe for survival in the independent flexible packaging business in Europe is no easy task. But, with a healthy balance sheet and a record of continuing investment – £6.6M in the last five years, Northampton, UK, based FFP Packaging Solutions can certainly claim to have taken a proven route to success.
On company philosophy, managing director Robin Chudley said: “We decided on flexo printing and lamination and to major on materials technology in the food market. And we want to be a good supplier to the retailers through their suppliers.”
Real strengths are extremely rapid response, innovation in materials and flexo quality, although, as Robin Chudley says, “quality is a given these days”. Flexibility and short runs are the order of the day. Average run length is around 75,000-100,000 packaging units. “It is pointless trying to compete with Turkey and Poland, for example. Just to be a flexible packaging converter is not enough now – people can do that for far less elsewhere. ” On the production front he expects 80 per cent press utilization. The company runs a three-shift, five days a week operation.
Lamination features strongly at FFP. These materials account for 90 per cent of the company’s turnover. Its machinery armoury includes four Nordmeccanica laminators – three Super Combi machines capable of running solvent or solventless installed six years, three years and two years ago and the latest acquisition – a Super Simplex solventless line with World Mixer, which was installed in 2004. Widths are 1,500mm for the Simplex with the Combis ranging from 1,300 to 1,400mm. The mixer allows the right ratios of components to be mixed and pumped just in time to the laminator. FFP also operates an older DCM laminator.
Production manager Tom Bewley said: “We are very pleased with the Nordmeccanicas. The operators like them as they are easy to operate and change-over is quick at between five and 10 minutes.
“Laminates allow us to produce structures to provide different barriers, to be high or low temperature resistant or to be breathable, for example,” said Robin Chudley. Some materials are micro-perforated by the company. Its branded Esterpeel lidding/printed top web materials represent some 50 per cent of turnover and the brand comprises 20 to 30 products. “Here it is all about tailoring a specification for the application. And we have some great partners with the packaging machinery people as well as materials suppliers.” The company has a development area that houses a Packaging Automation lidder, for example, where it can test various materials specifications as well as equipment to measure oxygen and MVTR. Decay of laminates is also measured here.
Response is clearly a USP for the company. “For an existing customer, turnaround from the approval of a new design to delivery of finished lamination may be 10 days. And bear in mind that the laminate can spend two to three days being cured within that time,” he said.
Critical to customer service is the in-house prepress. The system is based on an Esko Graphics workflow, with Barco Cyrel Digital Imager (CDI) plate making. There is a large on-going investment in people – 16 work in the department and, significantly, FFP has developed its own digital workflow. “We put this in three years ago,” said Robin Chudley. It will interface with any outside repro company. Sixty per cent of the repro is done by outside companies with about 40 per cent in house. There used to be a fairly stressful relationship with some repro houses, but with the new workflow that’s all changed.
“What it means is that we can give a simple specification for approval. We get a digital file; we test it to know we can match it for colour. It doesn’t have to have the printer’s requirements applied. We can add all that in half a day after approval – the micromarks, the control strips, the step and repeats. After all every press, every ink, every material is different.” He stressed: “Quality flexo is now a science not an art.” The company has also purchased enough aniloxes to allow jobs to move from press to press.
“We have 24 hour cover for the production element in prepress. Plates can be ready for the press the following morning, but the quality control is critical. “Plates do not get issued if they are not right. All tone areas are checked for physical size along a control strip using Vipflex 334 plate measuring equipment and the percentage dot area determined.”
A sizeable area is devoted to the plate library. “We have improved our handling of plates; we look after them so we only have to make odd ones for repeat jobs,” he explained.
The press armoury comprises two Windmöller and Hölscher presses – an eight colour 1,320mm wide Starflex and an eight colour 870mm wide Soloflex and, more recent investments, three PCMC presses – one Infiniti (1,270mm wide) and two 940mm wide Vision II machines. One of the latter has a Cerutti gravure unit in line to apply coldseal and anti mist coatings. “We have been fitting automatic register controls on our presses,” added Robin Chudley. “The three PCMCs now have Ultramat Meshcon controls. It allows us to reach register very quickly and save on makeready.”
Inks, pumps and doctor blades sit beside running presses ready and waiting for the next job and all the major plant has fire suppression systems fitted. The whole of the flexo unit is air conditioned.
In the ink kitchen the company holds 28 different components to mix 13 different ink systems on a Rexson system as well as additional “specials”. It also manages coatings and adhesives.
Within 10 hours of being printed the films are laminated. Lamination may be solvent based and water based “not necessarily the best performance but a good cure time” or solventless providing “better performance, but needing a longer cure”. The laminators can also be used for coating coldseal or matt lacquer in register. “Combination matt and gloss effects are in demand,” he commented. When Converting Today visited the plant the Nordmeccanicas’ flexibility was illustrated with the Simplex running coldseal in register off line (at around 150m/min) while an adjacent Combi was solventless laminating metallized PET to coex PE at 250m/min. It is the only UK company with three Combi lines.
As well a large Atlas slitter to split incoming jumbo rolls, the slitting rewinding armoury comprises 15 other machines. Pride of the department is the latest investment of two Titans – a CT600 1,500mm wide with automatic knife setting and automatic take-off and a Titan SR8 also fitted with automatic knife setting. “At the moment we are designing an automated packaging system. We never stop thinking about what’s next,” he added.
The QA lab boasts some impressive kit including a Lloyd Instruments lamination tester, Perkin Elmer gas chromatography and a new Hazemeter.
“We have been consistently innovative,” stressed Robin Chudley. “And it’s that flexible attitude that has kept us going, and our suppliers. It is no good ordering a machine, waiting for it to arrive and then when you get it having to fill it. Opportunities come and you have to react quickly.”
“We have a lot of creative people here so when we find an opportunity we give quick approval for equipment. And we want a quick reaction from our suppliers. Nordmeccanica has the flexibility and the ability to build and deliver quickly. It is why we go to them. It’s the same with PCMC.”
Handle on costs
One innovation developed some 18 months ago is Estersteam – a simple valve applied to the lidding film. Under microwave conditions the label shrinks at a certain temperature, rolling back to allow steam to vent through the perforations in the lidding film beneath. The valves are applied on a finishing machine specially developed with a machinery supplier. It is also used to pre-apply labels to lidding film.
Ready-made pouches are also offered; the company currently outsources this production.
And further tips for success? “We know what our skills are and we know we have to align those to the marketplace. Knowing what we can’t do is very important too.
“You have to have a good handle on your costs. You have to know when you have no margin,” he stressed.” You have to know when to say no to the customer.”
Secret of success
FFP has always rated materials technology as vital to success. Robin Chudley took over running what was previously Foilwraps in the early ’90s. His father purchased the operation from Waddingtons 37 years ago. In those days it was printing gravure and supplying aluminium foil, paper and cellulose based materials to the confectionery and bakery businesses. It grew well until the 1980s, operating several plants and using gravure, offset gravure and flexo printing processes. There was early experience of lamination using wax and solvent based adhesive. “We produced gravure flexo combinations for Birds Eye’s packaging,” he recalled.
During the early 90s recession, offset gravure was consolidated into gravure and then the aluminium converting portion was sold to Alusuisse in Bridgnorth. “We wound down the gravure to concentrate solely on flexo,” he explained.
That flexo operation of 20,000ft2 has gradually expanded up the road with unit after unit changing to the dark blue FFP colour. Now the Moulton Park Industrial Estate based company operates from 100,000ft2 with units dedicated to printing and laminating; prepress and administration; slitting, rewinding and finishing, and incoming and outgoing materials.
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