Pauline Covell reports from Amcor Flexibles' first short run gravure operation
A vision to offer short runs of gravure with short lead times that owes its origins to a “germ of an idea” from visits to Japan in the 1990s is now firmly a reality at Amcor Flexibles S & R just outside Edinburgh, Scotland. So much so that the company is seeking further investment in a second press, slitter and cylinder store, and is keen to spread theword to even more customers about the commercial advantages, rapid response and time to market possibilities that five years ago would have been a mere pipe dream to most.
The concept – designated Forge – was to print a high number of short run designs each day. The “real plus” was the target on lead times to be two weeks for repeat orders and two to three weeks down to 24 hours for new orders.
Just how could that be achieved? Tino Savvas, Amcor Flexibles’ managing director of UK Flexibles, explained: “It is all about driving out costs by reduction of complexity through standardization – what we call ‘mass customization’ and driving out the obstacles to fast response time”. That meant the development of a total new system, procedures and practices.
“An investment was made which included the addition of a new press, one laminator and slitter, and the factory was almost doubled in size.”
Why was S&R chosen for the first site of the vision? “The site was ideal in that the infrastructure was right, it was a lower cost base than other UK sites and there was a culture of responsiveness and flexibility,” revealed Tino Savvas.
The company operates from a 73,000ft2purpose built plant. Immediately prior to the Sidlaw takeover of S& R in 1998, it had suffered a rather hand to mouth existence and, as general manager Michael McKeown said: “No one here really thought the company would survive.”
The material product range, using a limited number of widths, is currently limited to one PVdC coated film for biscuit roll and overwraps, white film plus coldseal for countlines, OPP for confectionery and tobacco overwrap. The specifications are based on the highest common factors all the way through to packaging specifications. Clearly this sometimes means a degree of over-specification in some cases or more edge trim waste than on longer runs, but it is also far more economic than dedicating different material qualities to each customer. “As there is half the setup linear waste, having greater trim in standardized widths is not an issue,” pointed out Tino Savvas. The materials partner is ExxonMobil, which runs a vendor managed inventory.
Cylinders on site
There are five key areas in the system that have been “forged together” to drive out costs and time: origination, cylinder bases, base film, press and logistics. A key partner is Keating Gravure. “They set up a facility at Mold for all Forge origination for rapid turnaround. And we decided we wanted to go to lightweight polymer sleeve cylinder bases not only to reduce cost, but also ease handling and set-up,” said Michael McKeown.
All cylinders are produced on site at S&R by Keating’s dedicated fully automatic engraving and chroming operation, and delivered by it exactly when needed to the press. Computer linked to Mold, the facility boasts two Max Daetwyler Gravostar 850 engraving heads and chroming, dechroming and handling equipment. Cylinders are also removed from the press and cleaned by Keating in a partnership that resembles the responsibilities of in-house ink suppliers. At S&R, the ink partner is Flint-Schmidt who is working with the converter to standardize specifications within two ink systems. There is a commitment to minimize colour matching time. “The target is 15min/job. On occasions 10 minutes has been achieved,” reported Michael McKeown.
Auto change “key”
Taking pride of place at S&R is the Forge press. The Japanese style Valmet Rotomec built 10 colour press was “the first electronic line shaft (ELS) gravure press in the UK when it was installed in 2001and I believe it is still the only press with automatic cylinder change in the UK,” said Tino Savvas. Amcor Flexibles has installed two similar presses in Spain.
The S&R press is emblazoned with Japanese characters translated as “blacksmith’s anvil” (forge). Kept clean as a whistle – certainly when Converting Today visited in December – and with laydown of cylinders and materials ready for the next three jobs, it features faster registration and far less set-up waste than on long run equipment. The press changes print parts automatically, which is the key to the major reduction in set-up time.
Forge hardware also includes off-line lamination in the shape of a Nordmeccanica solventless Simplex and in the slitting and packaging room shared with the long run production from S&R’s 10 station 1,200mm wide Cerutti – a Forge dedicated Wickeltechnik 260 slitter with associated reel handling. “The slitter has special quick set-up features which allow much faster set-up times,” explains Michael McKeown.
Heart of the Forge system is the manpower plan, culture and way of operation. Michael McKeown told Converting Today: “S&R management and the Forge operating teams visited Japan for a week to study systems and working practices and actually train alongside operators on presses. We saw the simplicity of operations achieved with standardization and flexibility.”
The Forge team all work as staff on annualized hours with a flexible working pattern on continental shifts. The press can run 24 hours up to 7 days a week with some built-in spare capacity with the ability to plan in the really short response time runs if needed.
The company employs “process technicians” rather than calling them printers, recruiting them for aptitude and skill acquisitions. “Although the average age on the Forge team is only in the mid twenties, average length of service is eight years, so there is considerable company loyalty,” added Michael McKeown. (It could be why the company does so well in the Amcor Flexibles football championship, having won it two years ago and only going out to a team from Envi, Holland in the semi finals last year!). “We also have detailed training programmes including an SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualification) in gravure printing which we arranged in conjunction with the Scottish Printing Employers Federation (SPEF).”
Top of the list for benefits to the customer has to be the two-week lead time. “An important part of the concept is that this time is the norm,” stressed Tino Savvas. Forge allows faster and focused precise marketing, and there are significant examples of cost reduction.
These include reduced working capital, reduced stock write-offs (with smaller lots converted film print does not become obsolete). Origination costs are lower and there is a reduced packaging unit cost, claims Amcor.
But although the operation is now “commercially and financially a success with a much broader base than we expected,” Tino Savvas is nevertheless clearly frustrated that more of the company’s customers are not taking the opportunity to benefit from the Forge concept of fast response for some of their business. He said honestly: “Despite what customers were saying in the ’90s about speeding up the supply chain, some have not yet been able to grasp the opportunities to get promotions and new products to market. That is why we want to talk to prospective customers and retail groups who are able to understand and exploit the vision.” It is also a concept – a service where importers, particularly from India and the Far East, could not compete. “They could simply not match the response time,” he added.
Amcor Flexibles hopes to have approval for the second press by early 2004.
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