On the top floor of ICON Digital Productions’ 90,000- square-foot manufacturing facility, tucked into a dimmed backroom, three technicians sit in front of a dozen screens grouped together on the wall like the Network Operations Centre of a cable news network. They are monitoring some of the highest profile static print and dynamic digital signs controlled by ICON’s newly minted Media division, including all the visuals hanging in Toronto’s Dundas Square and way-finding screens directing passengers at Pearson Airport.
Responsible for thousands of digital signs across Canada for Blue Chip clients like Shoppers Drug Mart, ICON Media illustrates the reach behind one of the country’s most unique visual communications companies. Designed to deploy national signage networks by procuring all of the necessary hardware, developing business plans and ultimately managing ever-changing content for clients, ICON Media is well-positioned to take advantage of an evolving wireless world. It provides the company with an irresistible vehicle for C-suite strategy discussions with clients. The bedrock of the parent company, however, is formed by ICON Visual with one of Canada’s most powerful technological infrastructures for large-format imaging.
ICON Visual dominates the company’s Markham, Ontario, facility, which any grizzled graphics pro would recognize by its curved-glass façade as the former home of Apple Canada. This division generates more than half of the parent company’s annual revenue, which in its most recent fiscal year amounted to just under $40 million, by pumping out static display graphics with print qualities demanded by the likes of Fortune 500 cosmetic and fragrance clients, Hudson’s Bay Company and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
ICON Print is the third pillar of the company’s All Things Visual strategy, developed through a divisional rebrand in December 2016. After years of outsourcing the production of offset-print jobs for its Blue Chip clients, ICON in January acquired Toronto Trade Printing, bringing decades of 40-inch-offset expertise in-house. The move creates a multifaceted communications manufacturing company powered by ICON Media, ICON Visual and ICON Print.
Last year alone, ICON oversaw the printing of more than 20-million direct-mail pieces in addition to a range of offset-produced marketing collateral. The company’s executive team has spent the past several months looking at both commercial and trade printing operations to purchase in the Greater Toronto Area. “We look at print not so much as old technology. We look at it as just another communications medium. In fact, our numbers tell us there is a lot of growth in print still,” says Juan Lau, President of ICON Digital, who co-founded the company in 1995 with Peter Evans and Peter Yeung. “The last three or four years we kept looking at our financial statements and, ironically, the fastest growing service sector was commercial printing – and we were not even trying.”
Without a direct need to acquire book of business from a commercial shop, which is the primary M&A driver in today’s printing market, ICON’s executive team was focused on finding the best lithographic-manufacturing fit for its existing AAA client base. Lau explains his priority was to purchase a well-established printer to immediately provide the offset knowledge ICON lacks after two decades of building a roll-fed digital printing operation.
Approximately 80 percent of what ICON Visual now prints is produced with Durst roll-fed machines. Lau describes this as a key differentiator for ICON because its production has been built around a square-metre pricing model, driven as much by finishing and fabrication as by print production. “From a pricing model we are able to get more yield [using] rolls – just a pricing thing. We can get that buttoned down pretty quick. Printers getting into our space still go off the rate-card mentality,” says Lau, describing what he sees as traditional offset pricing based on number of sheets produced.
“We know a lot of commercial printers are trying to get into our space now,” says Lau. “To get into our line of work, they are going to blow their minds out on the finishing end… anyone can print, but it is the finishing that really makes or breaks a project.” Most commercial printers getting into large-format imaging also turn to flatbed machines, continuing to focus on cost-per-sheet pricing models.
Lau explains he never set out to build ICON as a traditional printing operation when the partners founded the company. In 1995, the Internet had not yet penetrated the minds of most people, fax machines and phones were the dominate business tools of the day, and modems were limited to speeds of under 20k. Still, Lau wanted the company name to hold the word digital, as well as production, because he initially wanted to start a video-production company. The key word ICON came to him one day when a radio host referred to Madonna or Michael Jackson, he cannot recall which, as the Icon of Pop.
Prior to opening ICON, Lau was running a photo-enlargement company producing monochrome engineering drawings and architectural blueprints, generating slim margins, pennies per sheet. Lau describes his large-format eureka moment arriving in the early 1990s after seeing new colour imaging technologies at a tradeshow: “The idea of taking a file and outputting larger-than-life graphics on just about any surface, whether it is vinyl or textiles, or what have you, nobody was really doing it.”
ICON’s first large-format machine was a Xerox electrostatic printer and, Lau explains, he and Evans decided to put a stake in the ground as a new type of printing operation. “We printed on sheets alright, but we printed it to transfer media and that allowed us to, with lamination, transfer it directly onto any substrate.”
The technology was slow, outputting two or three posters per hour, and not a realistic investment choice for offset-based commercial printers. Lau explains he was driven to own the market that ICON would serve, akin to McDonalds being synonymous with burgers, Coke with soda, and Rolex with watches. Advertising agencies were immediately drawn to the new output possibilities ICON could provide with one-off large-format printing, even if they would often turn to offset or screen technologies for longer runs. “We started to establish a name in the business to do mockups, ideas, innovative stuff,” says Lau, noting ICON initially produced a lot of tradeshow graphics ideal for one-offs.
“What we were bringing on was really, by today’s standards, considered disruptive technology,” Lau says. “We didn’t know it at the time, but I think we were disruptors.” He explains it took about a decade after ICON’s founding for large-format imaging technologies, shifting from heavy solvents to UV, to evolve into a viable printing process for new entrants. “We went through a metamorphosis ourselves around 2005,” Lau says. “A key turning point in our company because it allowed me to do what I do best and that is go downstairs and take care of the operations, because our sales had never declined since 2005.”
Lau was trained as a programmer and holds great affinity for taking a process-minded approach to business. He felt ICON’s challenge was not about topline sales and he began to search for more efficiencies in the facility. “Once I got my hands on the operations side, the process and all of that – [we previously had the] same level of sales, $10 million, for a while – our bottom line increased tremendously.”
ICON brought on a new customized ERP system, internally branded as Cyrious, and a much-needed scheduling system for what had become a very busy large-format shop. ICON also brought in a new Chief Financial Officer, Alex Christopoulos, who Lau credits with greatly improving cash flow and the company’s overall financial health.
Lau describes the years from 2005 to 2008 as a “pivotal time” for ICON as he and Evans also decided to stop producing trade work for other printers and instead sell direct into the commercial market. “Part of the improvement on our bottom line was we made a conscious decision to shift and go after end-user markets,” explains Lau. “If we look back right now, we could have a few chuckles over that. It was one of the best decisions we could have made.”
Around the same time, ICON’s future would be influenced by the arrival of significant developments in large-format digital imaging technologies with a new wave of UV-based inkjet systems. ICON threw out all of its older-generation, heavy-solvent inefficiencies and made significant investments in UV technology, which Lau also credits with improving the company’s bottom line. ICON’s attention to the bottom line through the latter half of the decade would soon prove critical as The Great Recession of 2008 fast approached, all but strangling print sales for months.
A year before the printing industry plunged into the throes of frozen marketing budgets, Lau points to the significance of another technological marvel on ICON’s future. “2007 was a pivotal year from a technology standpoint, because when the iPhone came out [it] launched wireless technology in my opinion,” he says. “With all of the apps, [Apple] launched a whole slew of development in wireless technology.”
The economic ecosystem that quickly developed around wireless technologies would serve as a catalyst for the growth in screen-based digital signage. Lau explains wireless technologies broke down barriers that had been fortified for years by the need to run so much cable and obtrusive hardware. Less than two years after the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, ICON purchased a two-person AV company called Gridcast in 2009, when digital signage was still very much in its infancy. ICON had previously worked with Gridcast on a project for the Bank of Montreal, which wanted to integrate a digital projection within a large banner with a cutout. “It went really well and that was another eureka moment with Gridcast,” recalls Lau, describing ICON’s first project to integrate both print and digital mediums.
“Gridcast was very AV-oriented – hang-and-bang hardware. We saw very quickly in the first year that the model wasn’t really going to be a sustainable model,” says Lau. “Not only did we develop it by feeding it through ICON’s customer base, we actually changed [it] into a consulting model.”
The Gridcast division, rebranded in December 2016 as ICON Media, has been a significant driver for the company. “Our business in Media is an annuity. We will charge you a three-year management deal,” says Christopoulos, as an example of how the company can work with a client to finance a network of in-store screens, while ICON is truly interested in ongoing content management services.
Christopoulos explains the company, to a much lesser extent, hopes to take the same approach with some of ICON Visual’s work, where they might provide a client with a free banner stand with a commitment to print work to cover it – ideally, changing out the print regularly – over the next several months. With The Bay, ICON Visual is also starting to print on magnetic sheets that can be applied to painted walls, speaking to the division’s growing attention on developing repeatable visual systems with clients. The continuing innovation in both ICON Visual and Media have developed a strong reputation south of the border, where the company now produces around seven percent of its work.
“[It isn’t] so much because we are a better printer. They have local guys down there. It was actually our Media division because they are a lot more proactive when it comes to new innovations,” says Lau. “Because they want to do new things with digital, they are very open-minded to talk about the other print things we offer. So that is how we have been using digital media, more as a way to penetrate organizations from the top down, as opposed to starting with procurement and working our way up.” ICON Media has been using Virtual Reality for almost two years to show clients, like Sport Chek’s CMO for example, what their stores will look like with large-format print.
As ICON Print is developed, the company plans to leverage strong C-Suite relationships to drive work onto litho presses. In fact, Lau envisions an emerging media procurement approach that will benefit the rebranded position of ICON’s three divisions: “I am hoping as more Millennials get into positions of power and decision-making, they are going to say, ‘Why do we need a separate print budget. This is a media budget. We need to line up all of our marketing together.’ I think those budgets are going to change. We are kind of placing a little bit of a bet that way.”
Under ICON’s new multifaceted media vision, Lau explains it is important to hold a true offset-printing presence beyond outsourcing. “We have only touched the surface of the excitement the Media division is going bring,” says Lau. “It is huge. The ICON rebranding of All Things Visual is going to take us to the next level.”
In July 2013, Ricoh made an initial strategic investment in Avanti as the MIS developer was preparing to launch its new generation Avanti Slingshot solution, which was released in the fall of that year at Graph Expo. One of the most-advanced MIS products in today’s print market, Avanti’s new Slingshot platform was built around a completely new coding infrastructure and the MIS sector’s highest level of JDF certification for automation.
With the full acquisition by a world-imaging giant in Ricoh, Avanti now holds the potential to become a true global power by leveraging Avanti Slingshot as an MIS newly built for today’s multifaceted business of print. PrintAction spoke with Bolan just days after the Ricoh purchase for his take on what the future holds for one of Canada’s most dynamic software developers for printing.
What attracted Ricoh to acquire Avanti?
PB: I think Avanti Slingshot is a big attraction. We have the best MIS system in North America, if not the world. From Ricoh’s standpoint, it acquired has MarcomCentral, which they bought just fully about two years ago... So they have the Web-to-print piece and now they have the MIS piece. They already have the production workflow piece, which is their TotalFlow product, so they have a complete workflow for a printer. I think it is a brilliant strategy on their part.
Why is Slingshot an outstanding product?
PB: The biggest thing is that the market has changed. Most MIS systems, including our legacy product Avanti Classic, were written 20-plus years ago. Back then offset was the primary focus. There was no or very little digital. The market has changed to where most of our customers are working in multiple lines of business. They offer digital, offset, large-format print, mail, fulfillment, data-management and even Web services for their customers.
Most older systems do not handle those multiple lines of business. Meanwhile, Slingshot was written from the ground up to do just that. Number two is that Avanti Slingshot can be run on premise or in the cloud. And number three, Slingshot was written to be an open platform.
How critical is Avanti Slingshot’s high level of JDF certification?
PB: It opens a lot of doors. It is a key requirement for printers replacing an older MIS. They want connectivity. They want those islands of automation connected together and so absolutely it is definitely paying off.
What allows Avanti to keep pushing MIS?
PB: We have the experts on staff. You need an experienced team of product managers and implementation specialists, who are entrenched in MIS every day, to guide the product development process. We also have a strategic partners program of 10 or more customers who we bounce ideas off of.
How much has your team grown since Slingshot launched?
PB: Since Avanti Slingshot launched in 2013, we have more than doubled and maybe even a little closer to tripled – Definitely more than doubled.
How much business has Slingshot generated for Avanti?
PB: It drives a lot of the revenue for Avanti and, last year [ended August 31], we had a record year… We still have a really solid support base on Avanti Classic and continue to offer support and provide enhancements for Classic. We are up to around 100 Avanti Slingshot installs now.
How will Avanti operate following Ricoh’s acquisition?
PB: It’s really business as usual. There are no staff changes planned, so the great thing for customers is that they will still deal with the same people that they have grown to count on. I am staying. Stephen is staying, everyone is staying. I am sure that one of the reasons Ricoh acquired us is because of the subject-matter expertise of our team. Our team literally has hundreds of years of collective knowledge in MIS and it is impossible to replace.
How will this Avanti’s global position?
PB: This is one of the reasons we started discussions originally with Ricoh. They made it clear, from the initial investment three years ago, that they wanted our product to be a global product and that is exciting for us.
He has spent more than 40 years in the printing and publishing industries and is seen as one of the printing world’s leading technological pundits, producing hundreds of articles for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East, Asia and Australia. Romano is the author of over 44 books, with a vast majority focusing on the arrival of digital printing. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.
The title of Romano’s DIA keynote, Digital Printing, From Good Enough to Nanography, describes one of the most pressing issues of technology investment on the minds of printers across North America. The following excerpts from Romano’s speech describe the potential disruption of inkjet printing on the offset world.
Wrongly focused on page impressions
Frank Romano: The way they measure the output from these machines is page impressions. If you reduce everything to just a page, you have denigrated it – you have insulted it – because a page has no value. When the page is in a brochure it has value. When a page is in a book it has value… They are not pages, they are parts of a product and that product has value. And if we keep making that a page, we reduce the value in the product and that is an issue.
Too many digital sheet sizes today
FR: Let’s get rid of all of these stupid sizes. We cannot deal with every different sheet size you can imagine. I’m sorry, the paper companies are not going to support you – they can’t anymore. They do not have the resources. They do not even have the warehouse space.
Digital must move beyond CMYK
FR: The problem is that the majority of these [inkjet and digital] machines are CMYK and yet we all know that we have to handle brand colours – Pantone colours… That is one of the reasons why Indigo sells so well. HP has done a very good job because of the fact that you can match almost every Pantone colour, every brand colour. That is why they are so dominant in the label market.
It is just a matter of time, but the problem is without the brand colours they are not going to get into the packaging market… And, by the way, telling me you can do 80 percent of the Pantone colours with CMYK [is] not an argument.
A future in water-based UV inking
FR: I think the next big movement has to be water-based UV. UV is really a key system because it can print on almost anything. It is impervious to the weather. That is going to be a key technology.
Printing beyond paper
FR: The next generation is going to print on new kinds of substrates. It is going to go way beyond paper... The home decor market, make the pattern of your sofa match your wall paper, if you so desire. Make your windows look like Tiffany glass. You can do that now very easily with wide-format inkjet.
Offset and inkjet partnerships like Komori and Landa
FR: What Komori is doing not only with Landa but with Konica and others… Mr. Komori is very shrewd and has created partnerships with other companies to build the mechanism as they build the digital printer… what Heidelberg is doing right now with Fuji. You are going to see a lot more of that as the offset companies try to figure out how to keep some of their business.
By the way, when you buy a Landa machine, the base is shipped from Japan and the printing part is shipped from Israel and then they put it together in your plant. It is going to be very interesting to see how that works out.
Importance of page-wide print heads
FR: The other big change has been single-pass inkjet, instead of having the head move back and forth. Now that was pioneered by HP with a wide-format roll-fed machine... 40 inches wide by 500 feet a minute, CMYK, can’t beat it and it is selling very well worldwide.
Oce is doing the same thing with their roll-fed machines and others. Impika has been down that road and then Xerox acquired it and has improved the product line significantly.
Cost of new digital machines
FR: The thing that bothers me more than anything else is that we are a capital-intensive business and these machines are not cheap anymore.
[Technology suppliers] figure we all have money and yet that is one of my issues – we don’t. If you could get the machine at a reasonable price, we could then build a business and buy more machines, and buy more consumables… But right now I think they have priced them a little bit too high.
MGI Digital Technology invests approximately 20 percent of its annual sales back into research and development.This astonishing number speaks to the company’s origins just outside of Paris, France, and why it has raised the bar amid what are now some of the industry’s mostpowerful technology suppliers driving the growth of digital printing.
PrintAction spoke with Kevin Abergel, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at MGI USA, about the company’s mantra of innovation.
How was MGI founded?
Basically it was 1982 when my uncle was fresh out of the military where he had worked on anti-aircraft missile technology and he had learned a lot when it was still really early days for computers. When you look back further, actually, my grandfather was an offset pressman his whole life and on weekends in the summer his three sons all went into that environment to make some extra money. The three brothers who created MGI went into my grandfather’s shop and really learned the business from a traditional standpoint, which is why we have always had an affinity for commercial printers, because basically it is our bloodline – it is where we come from.
Has invention always been in your family?
My great grandfather, on my mother’s side, actually has the first patent for the first pneumatic feeder – 1925 or 1927 – for an offset press and it is up in our offices. We have a very strong and rich history in printing that runs through the Abergel veins. The first products MGI came out with were not necessarily in the print industry. They were some of the first computer programs for accounting, also for hospitals, big old floppy disks. That is really where we got started and then in 1991 we developed our first press – with a three-man team that developed a roll of basically Bristol paper that was being printed on digitally with a cutter just making business cards. It was called the Mastercard.
And then the next generation of Mastercard all of a sudden it went from one colour to two colours to four colours, while also going from a business-card format width to 8 ½ x 11, then 12 x 18, and then we were doing plastics. We have really gone through 13 or 14 generations of engines in our history on the digital press side. That is really how we built up the business from nothing to a business today with a market-cap above 200 million Euros. And now we have partners like Konica Minolta, which really raised the profile higher.
What is the Konica and MGI relationship?
The Konica Minolta and MGI relationship goes back 20 years actually… The base MGI business model has been to use initial Konica technology, whether it is inkjet heads or toner-based print engines, and sup-up those engines. Two years ago we really started to get a closer relationship when Konica Minolta invested 10 percent into MGI – we are a publically listed company – and as a result of that we developed a smaller version of the varnish and iFOIL, called the JETvarnish 3DS, exclusively for their sales network.
Because of the success that we had in that first year of bringing this product to market, Konica was now wanting to distribute the entire MGI portfolio and it was at that point in time that they went from 10 percent to 41 percent, which is a controlling interest in MGI where we have actually launched a new distribution agreement. Konica Minolta is now globally going to market and sell our entire lines of products. From a sales standpoint, it gives us much more visibility and from a service standpoint a much wider infrastructure.
How much has MGI grown in 10 years?
From 2008 to 2016, we grew something like 500 percent during some of the most difficult times in the printing industry. I think when times get tough people need to invest in something that brings a level of differentiation or innovation, so that they can actually compete on applications, not on price. That has really been our mantra this whole time. I do not care about how many pages you are printing per month. How much are you making on each one of those pages? If you are only making four or five percent that is not a good business model, but now if you can go to 60, 70 percent it is a different story.
Why is MGI’s new Artificial Intelligence SmartScanner, AIS, significant?
If I made a die or a screen, for example, I would never really be able to register any of what I am doing to a digital print for the simple reason that digital print moves page to page. The image registration maybe is going to be a little to the left or right, a couple of pixels up, a little skewed – every page is going to come out basically in a different position on the sheet.
So the most important thing is being able to move up, down, left, right and custom fit every single page by comparing it to the original PDF of the print file and seeing where the moves are. The key point here is that AIS is going to be creating – using artificial intelligence – a topographical map of your print. By comparing that live with the actual PDF of the print file, it is going to be able to stretch out all those points where maybe there is high ink density that shrunk the paper or maybe you laminated it so you have a severe slip, stretch or a fan. In screen printing maybe it would take me 20 minutes to stretch my screens out manually to get my fit right and I have to spend a lot of sheets to get my fit correct to be able to make up for all of those deformations once it is out of the press.
The scanner does away with all of that. Number one, your first sheet out is going to be perfect. Number two, you do not need that professional eye to understand where your stretch is in your sheet. It is all being done automatically as touch-less as possible. When you mix that in with the variable data barcode reading system… Not only will it varnish and foil the right image, but it is actually going to custom fit and custom register each one of those sheets as they are moving through. It has never been done before.
How much data is being processed to leverage the AIS topographical maps?
That was one of our biggest problems. If you look at the actual computer system that is just running the scanner alone it is basically doing five teraflops of information per second. It is a lot of information being crunched to be able to pull up the right file, trace the TIFF from the PDF, then be able to compare that file live to the actual print and be able to do all of the modifications automatically. For me it is the coolest technology we have ever done and we have done some pretty cool things.
What MGI technologies excite you most?
I also think that the fact that we have a B1 JETvarnish and a roll-to-roll JETvarnish or the fact that we are actually putting foil down with toner are all really fascinating products. I am most proud of the [AIS] scanner, because I know how much work went into it, almost four years of nonstop development and to see it actually work, knowing that it has been the unicorn. That was the codename for it, The Unicorn, because everybody was talking about it internally and hoping we would one day see it work.
What MGI technology is having the most market penetration?
Right now, the Meteor is having a large amount of success because, at the end of the day, it is still a digital press that can do all of the commodity stuff. But then you turn on the iFOIL and you start running envelopes or plastics or PVCs, or long formats, and put the foil down and it suddenly boosts your added value.
On the JETvarnish side, I would say that 95 percent of the people who are buying this equipment are getting into varnish and foil for the first time in their history. So from a market penetration standpoint, we are having more placements with the Meteor, but the JETvarnish is significantly up compared to previous years because I think the market is finally starting to accept digital embellishment. Out of all the JETvarnish products, we are having an incredible amount of success with our B1 JETvarnish and iFOIL… it really allows us to go after a whole new customer segment which is the packaging converter.
Is packaging ready for MGI’s digitization?
Packaging wasn’t one of our priorities. For the past 35 years, we have focused on commercial printers, but the packaging guys are the ones who came to us and pulled us into that market. The more we did research, the more it made sense for us to develop a 29-inch JETvarnish to be able to do those XL sheets and today that is our number-one selling unit and that is for the packaging convertors. A lot of commercial printers are trying to find ways into digital packaging as well, because, according to Infotrends, there will be 41 percent growth over the next two years in digital folding cartons. I do not know if you could show me one other statistic in our industry that is as incredible as that 41 percent.
How is MGI technology suited for labels?
I read a stat from LPC that said by 2020 three out of four new label presses will be digital. Most importantly, [with MGI technology] it not going to cost you a lot of money to varnish and foil jobs. It is going to be a low-cost job which you can still charge a premium for. The brands are the ones who are pushing it that way, which is a big part of what we do to educate the brands on the advantages of digital and being able to do this kind of work.
A unique business trip to the Soviet Union, including a look inside the printing operation of the Red Army, at the height of the Cold War leaves a lasting impression.
The world of print has been enriched by many folks from all walks of life who took many different roads to arrive at an industry with seemingly no beginning or end. On a busy mid-week day 36 years ago, a city inspector walked into Frank Herrington’s print shop. “Can you tell me where your designated smoking area is?” asked the inspector. “Wherever I’m standing,” uttered Frank.
This story was often repeated and always with a chuckle. It was a different time. Frank, a lifelong smoker, seemed to have two butts going at the same time. It was never uncommon to see an ashtray with a forgotten cigarette burned to the end with a length of ash. I first met Frank around 1977. He was then a partner in a trade shop but already had a lifetime’s worth of print experience. Born in Hastings, Ontario, to a family with a lot of siblings, Frank had a rough early childhood and found himself and his younger brother, Murray, in an orphanage.
Unlike today, there were few family roots in the printing industry and it was a chance opportunity that Frank found a job at Toronto’s Parr’s Print & Litho in the mid-1960s. Starting with a broom, Frank did all sorts of odd jobs until one day a pressman called in sick and he had the chance to run a varnish job on a Consolidated Jewel. The Jewel was a hefty 30-inch single colour offset press made by ColorMetal in Zurich, Switzerland, but rebranded (as was common in those days), from its Swiss name Juwel to an Americanization Jewel.
Frank was hooked. Especially with offset as he had no interest in letterpress. Like many of his generation, trade schools carried printing courses and taught various disciplines such as typesetting, page assembly, platen press operation, and so on. But for Frank, learning the California job case and composing with type was dumb and tedious when offset offered a better future in printing.
The ATF Chief 20 was a popular smaller press at the time and soon Frank was running one of these 14 x 20-inch single colours, too. He would run split plates for the record jacket business. This was difficult work, making ready two plates on one cylinder. Next he had the chance to run a Harris LUP two colour. This was a 49-inch press and the big leagues. Over his entire life, Frank preached about the simple intelligent concepts of the Harris press.
Frank also had a short stint working in St. Paul, Minnesota, with Ternes Pin Register. Norm Ternes was instrumental in developing a simple method of installing register pins in plate clamps and also made plate register punches. On his return to Toronto, along with two partners, Frank began manufacturing plate punches and installing systems on all sorts of presses. It’s important to know that even in the early 1970s few offset presses had any kind of pin register.
I once saw him completely re-strip a four-colour cover and print the job on a very old Solna 124 single colour. It was quite amazing to see him manipulate the film, cut the masking sheets, burn the plates and then make numerous adjustments to the press just to get the job out and prove to our customer the press would print.
On another occasion, we had a customer in our shop and Frank was print testing with some plates that the customer had brought. The Harris LXG-FR had Micro flow dampening. What a chore it was to set the dampener, because it was driven by two sets of V-belts. I leaned down to look at the plate docket the customer had brought. Frank, without missing a beat, leaned over and said if I ever pulled out that screen plate he’d kick me into the middle of next week! Frank knew that trying to run a full screen in such conditions would be a disaster.
On yet another occasion, we had sold a printer a Heidelberg KOR single-colour offset press. A few months later that customer had dropped a dampener form into the press and smashed it. Resulting inspections by the Heidelberg agent indicated the press was scrap, so we were able to take it back for parts. After months of this press languishing in our shop, Frank strolled in one day and asked, “Whats up with the press?”
I told him the story and how the press’ owner had said the plate cylinder was bent and it was toast. “But did you check it yourself?” Frank asked. I had not. So we did it together. Much to my surprise the plate cylinder was not bent and we quickly went through it and sold it on to another shop. This lesson was one of the most important Frank would pass on to me.
Our long association proved to be much more than fixing presses and learning common sense. Frank would always challenge you. This trait seems almost extinct today. Over the last 40 years we had many a good mechanic work for us. Some were quite brilliant, others less so. Frank was unique in his ability to speak to owners with confidence while at the same time be a mentor to even the lowest skilled employee. From all walks of life there are folks even today that can share the same sentiments about Frank and how he was the best friend any of them could possibly have.
Frank’s genius was in his confidence. He never let a piece of equipment intimidate him. No matter the complexity or difficulty. Especially with an offset press, Frank’s common sense fundamentals allowed him to almost always disregard the operation manual and use inherent basics to set grippers, adjust bearer pressures or make a feeder run difficult stocks.
Honey, disconnect the phone
Over the next 25 years I would make seven or eight trips to Russia but a visit in 1980, in the midst of the Cold War, was special. For Frank, this was his first visit anywhere out of North America. We traveled aboard an aging Aeroflot Ilyushin Il-62 where the in-flight refreshments consisted of handing out mickeys and chocolates wrapped in tin foil. So here we were in Moscow during two weeks of September 1980. Our goal, to study various printing related equipment manufactured by the Soviet Union and see if we could purchase any of it.
Frank and I had become close friends. He taught me a great deal and I needed him to help me access the viability of the anticipated equipment we would see. We arrived at the scary monolithic Hotel Ukraina near Red Square. A very large haunting and dark place we nicknamed Dracula’s Castle. The Ukraina was a huge place built in a typical Soviet Style in 1953. This was also a foreigner’s Hotel and Russians themselves could not enter without a pass. The room had a black-and-white TV and a radio that was hard wired and couldn’t be turned off. Only the volume worked – there was only one station, too. I recall it was made of Bakelite and had the shape of the Moscow University’s main tower. The radio would chime an eerie tune to signify the top of the hour.
Off we went the next day to the Red Army printing plant. There we were to see the supreme example of the Soviet industrial complex in the POL-54 offset press. This press, a single colour about 74 centimetres (29 inches) was running with two operators (one sitting on a stool at the delivery). To make matters worse the press wasn’t even running offset but rather letterset (dry offset). Frank had a quick look, smiled and whispered, “If that’s all they have we’re in for a rough two weeks.”
Representatives from Techmaschexport (Soviet exporting agency) asked our opinions and I nudged Frank to go take a better look. He’s under the feedboard checking the grippers while all of a sudden the operator hits the run button. This caught Frank’s finger in the press and, as blood dripped from his hand, off he went with a nurse to the infirmary. Shortly after, with a plaster cast the size of an ice-cream cone, in strolled Frank. We never saw the Pol-54 again and apparently no one else did either.
Our days off proved amusing and we had a lot of them. Each place we visited, Frank shook his head. In order to buy something at a store you needed to find what you wanted, get a chit, go to teller to pay, then back with receipt to the first guy. The 1980 Olympics had been held only a few months earlier, so we wandered over to the main outdoor stadium where, to our glee, we found a store that sold potato chips. Nearby was what we would call a fast-food restaurant. We nicknamed it the Bun & Run. They were serving some kind of dish with a flatbread and a white creamy sauce poured over it. Looks good we thought. Pulling out a few Rubles, Frank bought a couple only to find out the sauce was some kind of butter milk. Tasted awful, smelled even worse. The food in the Ukraine was remarkably better than Russia.
We walked each day to Red Square and watched the locals in the GUM department store. We visited a science and technology museum and spent time at the INTOURIST Hotel bar because as foreigners we could get in. But mostly we found ourselves in the main dining area of the Ukraina each night, getting a laugh when we spotted new arrivals trying to figure out that the only drinks were Georgian sweet “Champaign” and Vodka.
We took a flight to the Ukrainian city of Odessa on the Black Sea. There we toured a prepress factory known for platemakers and cameras. It held really nothing of relevance, but we consumed a lot of Vodka during a lunch put on for us. That evening Mr. Ptashkin, our host, insisted we take in a show at the famous Odessa opera. Moments after taking our seats, Frank quickly nodded off. Afterword we walked down to the water on the famous Potemkin Stairs. These sacred steps were constructed in the 1800s and unique because from the top looking down you don’t see any stairs only landings. But on this night somehow, Frank and Ptashkin got into a bet of who could get to the top first. Frank did.
So it’s now after midnight and time to head to the hotel. “Let’s go for a nightcap,” says Frank. There are no night bars in Odessa uttered Ptashkin in a stern voice. “Follow me,” said Frank. Around the back of the hotel, down some steps, knock on a door and – voila – a night bar and with Western liquor to boot. That was Frank, who was somehow a step or two ahead of everyone. Well, we left Frank at the bar and that’s the last I saw of him that night. I was worried in the morning when he didn’t show, having made my way down to the foyer to await our hosts. I was just about to explain Frank’s absence to Ptashkin when he strolled in looking haggard. Best we leave the rest of that story alone.
Soviet presses and the KGB
Once back in Moscow another outing was arranged to visit a major factory in the city of Rybinsk. This city was near a giant reservoir and about 300 kilometers north of Moscow. To get there we had to take the train and also get special permits. The trip involved leaving Moscow in the evening to arrive in the morning. Neither of us actually knew where we were going and looking back it seems nuts to take such a long time to go 300 kilometers. We shared a bunk-bed cabin with the female interpreter and Mr. Ptashkin, separated from the proletariat who had less than stellar accommodations. It seemed every time we awoke coincided with the train stopping, changing direction or in one case stifling smoke in the cabin. Someone had closed a vent for a coal-fired massive tea urn at the rear of the car.
The factory was huge. It still exists today. Back then it also had its own iron foundry. This facility made a wide range of printing equipment from web to sheetfed. A little cold set web press called the POG-60 was actually a licence agreement with West Germany’s MAN and was created to be portable. There were three units and a folder. Two colours one side, one on the back and in a tabloid size. We found this little press amusing because although the Soviet Union had several dailies we never saw anyone reading them – only reading official posted copies of a broadsheet on designated notice boards.
Very large offset and letterpress newspaper webs – all for Coldset newspaper production – were being assembled in the factory. One item of interest was a sheetfed feeder by the name of TIPO, which turned out to be a Planeta design and the Soviets were now building all the feeders that were to be used on these East German presses. Oddly enough, the Soviets failed to use this feeder for their own presses. We were able to view the VOLGA offset press. In a 40-inch size, the VOLGA featured chain transfer from each unit – another dud! We walked past at a brisk pace. But we did have another troubling experience the next day.
There was a special apartment in a workers housing complex. This was reserved for foreign guests. We had a few hours to kill and both of us had brought gum and candies to pass out as gifts. Looking out of the window I noticed some children playing in the late afternoon, so we grabbed our goodies and cameras and went downstairs to hand out the treats. All the kids were excited and we enjoyed making their afternoon.
The next day the Rybinsk general director invited us to a special workers camp on the banks of the lake. Surrounded by woods, this camp consisted of a large house, sauna and outdoor showers. They laid on a feast along with the customary quantities of vodka and toasts. Followed by an obligatory visit to the sauna. A car arrived for us around dusk and we headed back through the woods toward the main road. However, as we cleared the thick trees two black Moskvitch cars blocked our path. Frank and I were ordered to stay in our car while Ptashkin got out to talk to a bunch of guys wearing three quarter length leather trench coats. Moments later a stern looking Ptashkin came back and told us we had been observed taking photographs in a prohibited place the previous day and the “police” insisted that I hand over my camera and film. At first I refused but Frank clearly knew more than I and told me to shut up and give the KGB the damn film. I reluctantly agreed. The KGB developed my film and kept the ones they felt would cause harm to national security.
Funny enough, 14 years later I again found myself at the same factory. By this time the Soviet Union had collapsed and things had changed a great deal. In the huge machine hall, once occupying all types of machine tools, the printing presses were gone and in their place workers were punching out pots and pans. Central planning and subsidies exposed a crumbling infrastructure.
The U.S.S.R trip gave us a lot to laugh about for years after, but the trip ultimately proved to be disappointing. What was very apparent to us was a stubbornness of the Soviets not embracing developments from the outside world. As we later discovered all high-quality printing was not printed in Moscow but in places such as Finland, Austria and Hungary. But that’s possibly because print was not a defense industry and languished because of its apparent unimportance. Odd still considering the Soviet Union, at that time, was the world’s largest producer of books.
I continued to learn many lessons from Frank – both in and out of the printing world. I really miss my good friend in so many ways and I’m not alone. Frank touched a lot of people’s lives and left an indelible mark on all who knew him. We don’t have many in our print industry like Frank anymore. Guys that were strippers, pressman, mechanics and electricians all rolled into one.
I once asked Frank why he had so little respect for authority. In his early days, he had been in the Air Force, trained to use secretive radar equipment. After all the training and being sworn to secrecy, he was walking downtown a few years after leaving the military and saw one of those secret radar units for sale in the window of a surplus store.
Asia Pulp & Paper Group in 2013 introduced its Forest Conservation Policy as a large-scale environmental initiative based on zero deforestation. The policy would require a range of investments by Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) with a goal to put an immediate end to sourcing pulpwood materials from suppliers involved with natural forest clearance.
The company, with its primary roots in both China and Indonesia, subsequently engaged leading environmental organizations like Rainforest Alliance, Deltares (a research institute) and Greenpeace to evaluate this unprecedented Forest Conservation Policy (FCP). APP opened up its operations to allow these organizations to track its FCP implementation progress.
Over the next two years, APP continued to work on its environmental stance with initiatives like the world’s first-ever retirement of commercial plantations on tropical peatland – some 7,000 acres – and a program to restore and conserve one million hectares of forest across Indonesia, primarily within the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem, home to the endangered Sumatran Tiger. These massive initiatives were in response to mounting environmental criticisms leveled against APP over its practices.
As a result of facing the criticism head on, APP has invested millions of dollars into establishing a stronger environmental position and, at the same time, reorganized its operations into one of the most modern structures across the paper world.
While most other paper makers are running legacy equipment, often shutting down equipment based on unmanageable fluctuations in supply and demand, APP over the past 10 years has brought on line three new paper machines designed with technical flexibility to respond to new market demands.
The company, driven by its own unique eucalyptus plantations, is now seen as the world’s most vertically integrated paper producers. This position has allowed APP’s Canadian operation, focused solely on moving paper as opposed to diversifying into equipment distribution, to reengage to domestic printing industry and become one of Canada’s most powerful paper suppliers.
New Canadian model
APP’s new direction in Canadian printing primarily began in 2010 when David Chin became President of APP Canada. One of his primary goals was to become a preferred paper supplier to Canada’s Tier One printing operations. This would require new levels of market penetration for the company, which had traditionally focused on the retail market as a paper merchant. Chin instead began to build from APP’s long presence in the Canadian market to establish direct relationships with printers, as opposed to working through distributors.
“We are not newcomers in the market. We have been here since 1998 so we are a very stable entity and we also have ample stock. If I am not mistaken we are the largest importer for commercial printing paper in Canada and we also have the most inventory of commercial paper in Canada,” says Chin. “We have made some giant leaps with Tier One customers, the top 10 printers in Canada, mainly because of our service and paper quality.”
Chin explains APP Canada purposely hires local people, as opposed to transferring people from overseas operations, to help build its presence in the domestic market. “We are truly a Canadian company. We are growing the Canadian economy and not just growing in Asia.”
Much of APP Canada’s growth in the commercial printing market over the past six years can be tied to the operation’s ability to leverage the complete production integration of its parent company, which has spent the past decade building one of the world’s most modern end-to-end paper operations.
“Our advantage is really integration all of our pulping facilities are a short drive away from our production facilities, if not on site,” says Ian Lifshitz, Director of Sustainability and Public Outreach, Americas, Asia Pulp & Paper Group. “So frankly we are able to get a competitive cost advantages.”
Lifshitz notes APP does source some pulp on the open market, typically based on product type, but for the most part APP has emerged as an internally driven global operation that has been outpacing the investments of its competitors.
“When we look at investments in new machines, and I am not talking about a converting machine, rather a paper-making machine, it has been a number of years since we have seen any investment in the North American market,” says Lifshitz. “When we look at what APP has done alone in the last 10 years we have brought on three giant machines – we are talking about $12 billion of investment.”
In China, APP brought on what is now the world’s largest board machine housed in a building resembling a large airplane hanger to accommodate what amounts to a circular machine measuring around one kilometre in length. “We see our potential on a global scale in terms of investment in technology… and I think that is huge for APP in terms of its future within the industry,” says Lifshitz.
New market realities
Lifshitz explains the investment in three modern paper machines allows APP to evolve product offerings as its printing-industry customers are also evolving, which may include providing coated or uncoated sheets, copy paper, stationery or printable packaging materials.
“APP can look at the growth segments and expand our portfolio. That is a key to our success,” he says. “We have an advantage in machine flexibility because we are able to produce jumbo rolls… we are able to adapt our machine technology with different levels of pulp, different levels of coating, whatever the customers demands on a full run.”
Whereas legacy paper production operations are primarily focused on shipping rolls out for further cutting and converting, APP is able to do single roll production and adjust its machines based on customer demand and this affords significant production savings.
Flexible, full paper production integration combined with sourcing its own pulp from plantations allows APP to turn savings into stable global paper pricing. This is a key advantage particularly over the past few years when printers have seen significant fluctuations in their paper pricing.
APP’s installation of new paper machines over the past decade are also supported equally aggressive investments around becoming a more environmentally progressive operation. “APP Canada sources from Indonesia and China and, through plantation development and sustainable efforts, we have really been able to take a leadership position to provide what the marketplace wants,” says Lifshitz. “We see customers looking for sustainable paper making and environmental credentials and we are able to provide that now... Over the past five years, the commitment on sustainability has really changed our value proposition and we now really have become a definer in terms of zero deforestation.”
The plantation model employed by APP, which allows it to avoid clearing forests, relies on a special fast-growing eucalyptus genus, with other farmed species including poplar and acacia. The APP concessions in China alone represent approximately half of the country’s total pulpwood plantations.
“The challenge for us, because we are truly integrated, is that we have to work with our suppliers and our suppliers’ suppliers to ensure they maintain the same commitments that we do in our supply… to ensure that all of our materials that arrive at our mill are harvested sustainability and follow our policies of zero deforestation,” explains Lifshitz.
Based on years of research and develops, APP’s eucalyptus trees can now be harvested and planted in five-year cycles. This model is driven by APP controlled nurseries, including its primary Hainan location that produces more than 100 million plantlets each year that are then transplanted into APP’s managed plantations – a process that is crucial to APP’s goal of zero deforestation.
“We are an integrated company all of the way from pulp manufacturing to retail and that sets us apart from the rest of the competitors,” says Chin. “Because we are fully integrated, we can go all of the way into the pulp price so we can offer more stable available pricing, which gives us more options.”
Chin explains these options afforded by APP’s full production integration directly relates to the growing number of paper varieties it now supplies to the Canadian printing market. This becomes a vital asset as a coast-to-coast operation, with facilities stretching from Quebec to Vancouver, employing around 75 people.
Chin explains this position is also supported by the fact that APP is solely focused on the paper needs of its customers, as many of its competitors have diversified into selling equipment and industrial supplies. “Selling our paper is what we have been very successful at over the last few years,” says Chin, “and I think for the next few years we will stick with that.”
The growth of digital technologies is now starting to make a major impact on the textiles sector, where new business models are opening up a world of possibilities.
If you don’t believe that digital textile printing has gone mainstream in North American fashion circles, ask Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. On March 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C., she wore a dress made with Canadian-manufactured digitally printed fabric to no less august an occasion than the welcoming ceremony for the first official visit of her husband, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to the White House.
To create the dress, Toronto-based designer Lucian Matis applied decorations made of silk that was digitally printed with a hand-painted pattern of pink and purple orchids onto a background of solid crimson crepe. Fashion media instantly erupted into raves about the dress, some commentators even going so far as to claim that its sensational colours stole the show away from the Prime Minister and the Trudeaus hosts, U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.
In fact, Michelle Obama had already climbed on the digital textile printing (DTP) bandwagon seven years ago in May 2009, when she made fashion headlines by wearing a piece by U.K.-based DTP-pioneering designers Basso & Brooke to an evening of poetry and music at the White House. (Actually, her stylist shortened Basso & Brooke’s design for a digitally printed, Swarovski-crystal-beaded dress into a top which the American First Lady wore over white cropped pants. Another Basso & Brooke garment is the first digitally printed piece in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York.)
Equipped with these revelations about the wardrobes of celebrity political wives and a tip from a fashionista friend, I tracked down the printer who manufactured the sumptuous silk fabric used in Grégoire Trudeau’s Washington-arrival-ceremony dress: The Emerson Group Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario. Company President Michael Hawke confirmed that the distinctive material was one of their recent jobs and speaks at length in this report about the evolution of his DTP business over the past eight years.
Global growth statistics
Via email I also contacted Ron Gilboa, a Director of Functional Printing and Packaging at InfoTrends (Weymouth, Massachusetts) a worldwide market research and strategic consulting firm for the digital imaging and document solutions industry. While I was writing this article, Gilboa was preparing to deliver an overview of the DTP market and trends at the FESPA Digital Textile Conference on September 30, 2016, in Milan, Italy. FESPA (formerly the Federation of European Screen Printers Associations) is a global federation of 37 national associations for the screen printing, digital printing, and textile printing community.
The Milan conference is one of a series of educational events on DTP that FESPA has organized since 2008. According to FESPA’s Website, Milan is the largest DTP market in Europe, and the nearby Como region a textile manufacturing and decorating hub that accounts for 55 percent of the European digital textile market and produced more than 180 million square metres of digitally printed textiles in 2015.
In an online description of the Milan conference, FESPA CEO Neil Felton comments: “Today, digital accounts for only a small proportion of all textile printing, but this is forecast to grow substantially in the years ahead, with estimates suggesting that digital could account for 5 percent of textile printing by 2020, up from 2 percent today. Clearly that’s a significant diversification opportunity for printers already invested in digital output technology and supporting workflows.”
Gilboa kindly furnished me with a statistical report he wrote with InfoTrends Research Analyst James Hanlon, entitled “Digital Textile Printing Market Overview,” that further explains and predicts the extent of the new global commercial opportunities cropping up in this up-and-coming segment of digital print. Their report expects DTP to reach an estimated global product value of over $30 billion by 2020, based on driving factors that include technology maturity, supply chain consideration, brand ability to develop new products, and a significant and positive environmental impact.
Additionally, although Gilboa and Hanlon predict DTP’s future growth will be concentrated in the Asia Pacific and other areas of the world where the most cutting and sewing is conducted, they add that “one of the trends we are observing keenly is the formation of localized production that includes print, cut and sew that are digitally enabled and automated. These allow for in-country production and consumption and new revenue streams for customized high value products,” as Hawke’s case exemplifies.
Emerson’s 8-year curve
Hawke’s business, The Emerson Group Inc. is a family-owned, integrated communications company whose current services, aside from DTP, include marketing and design. His father, John, first started the business as a prepress film company in 1986, and Hawke, now 52, jumped in soon after. His brother, Chris, joined them a year later and now runs production. Hawke’s wife, Kara, also joined them in 2000 and now works as Vice President of Sales. These days, even at age 75, John still keeps an occasional hand in the business.
As it evolved and the rise of computerized prepress caused demand for prepress film to shrink, the Hawkes bought a small design company and converted it into an advertising agency. Then eight years ago, after they first saw digitally printed fabric being produced in Europe, they decided to get involved in soft signage production. Hawke says they reached this decision in part because returning to some form of manufacturing seemed a more comfortable fit than staying with prepress and design work alone.
They started doing DTP with one large-format printer 3 metres wide and within the next three years added two more printers, both 1.8 metres wide. All three machines, manufactured under DuPont’s Artistri brand, are no longer available for sale. Hawke clarifies: “Although we do also own a dye-sub printer as a backup, we don’t do dye-sub” (short for dye-sublimation printing, a common process for decorating apparel, signs, and novelty items such as cell phone cases or coffee mugs. In dye-sub specialized processes apply sublimation dyes first to transfer sheets, then onto another polyester or polymer-coated substrate using heat.) Rather, all Emerson’s DTP work is printed directly to fabric.
Right now Hawke’s business employs 25 staff, six of whom work in the front end with the rest divided between two production shifts on weekdays. Production staff also routinely work overtime and on weekends during peak periods, which nowadays Hawke says fall practically all year round, except for summers and at Christmastime, when orders tend to slow.
Presently their DTP operation produces both large-format print on synthetic fabrics and textiles in natural fibres for fashion and interior décor. Their customers are located all over North America, many in the United States. Textile orders typically involve relatively small runs of 200 to 500 metres of printed cotton, linen, silk, viscose, or blends based on these fibres. Large-format orders include not only the usual signs, banners, trade show displays, and backdrops, but also frequent novelty items for theatrical performances, festivals, special events, weddings, and large parties.
One especially challenging job Hawke recalls was a wall covering for the theatre of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina--a project requiring them to print and sew together three separate panels into a gargantuan 30-feet-high-by-435-feet-long scene simulating the grandstand at a NASCAR race. Another was a tent for a corporate banquet with paintings by Old Masters printed on the interior walls, and a 50-feet-wide-by-165-feet-long roof printed on the inside to look like a ballroom ceiling decorated with elaborate crown molding.
“We are getting more and more orders for soft fabric walls and trade show displays,” says Hawke. “Although vinyl has traditionally been the main substrate for these products, fabric is so much easier to use in many ways: it’s lighter, more resistant to creases, easier to move around, and easier to handle and store.”
Hawke recounts that they have previously tried to run four different types of textile dyes on their equipment: acid dye, pigment dye, disperse dye, and reactive dye. Now, however, they specialize in only the latter two: disperse dye, which they run on their large-format printer for synthetic fibres, and reactive dye, which they run on the other two printers for natural fibres.
Reasons for limiting their production to this two-dye system include that washing the printers repeatedly to change over dyes is costly, plus the only fabrics they cannot print are nylon-based ones (because the dye won’t stay on the fabric.) Hawke specifies that the process of applying disperse dye to synthetics requires heat, while applying reactive dyes to natural fibres uses steam to avoid burning the fabrics. He adds that when using reactive dye, the type used to print the silk for Grégoire Trudeau’s dress, textiles turn out softest to the touch and their colours look the best.
“We try to offer our clients a range of about 20 different synthetics and 30 different natural fabrics that will work for a variety of projects, including displays, upholstery, drapes, household linens, dresses, and accessories,” Hawke continues, adding that textile orders for pillows and scarves seem to be especially popular. Designers can also bring in their own fabric for printing, providing it does not contain nylon, for the reasons explained above. After printing, both synthetic and natural fabrics go through a washing system to remove excess dye, then a post-treatment to apply water and dirt repellent or fabric softener, then larger fabrics are laser-cut to size.
Online and other advantages
“We don’t do a lot of advertising,” says Hawke. “Instead, a lot of our business comes by word of mouth, Internet searches, and our blog on DesignYourFabric.com, an online business we’ve operated for about a year, where designers can upload their own designs to print whatever quantity they want of their own fabrics. We’ve had some hiccups along the way, but since we got the bugs out six months ago, we’re seeing the on-line business grow.”
He explains that to obtain textiles via traditional screen- or rotary-screen printing methods from places like Europe, South America, China, or India, customers have to order at least eight weeks ahead and commit to a minimum order of 100,000 to 500,000 metres. “If they don’t use up all the fabric, they’re stuck having to sell off their inventory. But our on-line ordering system fits the way people shop now, there’s no minimum, we can usually fill orders in seven to ten days – and those time frames are shortening. In eight years, print heads have improved, so whereas we used to get 200 droplets out of one head, now we get 1500 droplets, and the newer heads can print four to five times faster than we used to.”
Gilboa and Hanlon’s report provides further supporting details on how digital inkjet technology has dramatically improved in recent years to facilitate a multitude of applications, ink types, print quality improvements, and faster production speeds.
Hawke comments: “It’s nice because DTP is starting to bring textile production back to North America. Printing small orders on demand is where the growth is going to be here, because customers can buy locally, they don’t have to buy minimums and don’t have long waits for their orders.”
Significantly, Gilboa and Hanlon’s observations on new opportunities mirror Hawke’s Web strategy and bode well for his business model: “New software and technology developments allow for greater brand, producer and consumer interaction. Web based applications are being developed that enable an individual to create designs and patterns for textiles, manage orders, and track fulfillment more easily. All of these combine to facilitate a streamlined supply chain while reducing operation cost.
Digital solutions help products reach the market faster, reduce overall inventory, and make purchase activated manufacturing possible. This is great benefit for both the consumer as well as the brand that are now able to develop new products at speeds not possible with traditional printing. Brands, with digital textile printing, can react faster to consumer needs, localize products faster, and produce in small batches and custom products. This all leads to the democratization of design, and helps support upcoming designers, as there is minimal inventory obsolescence risk associated with digital production. Areas of textiles where these benefits shine through include fast fashion, high fashion, sports apparel, home textiles, and outdoor furnishing. Major fashion brands such as Zara and H&M are deploying digital print to improve and reduce their supply chain complexity.”
Hawke continues: “Another of the nice things about our DPT business is that our dyes are all water-based, you can recycle polyester, and natural fibres break down in landfill, so our process is pretty green.” Gilboa and Hanlon’s report also emphasizes that “digitally printed textiles have one other key advantage over current methods, and that is a drastic reduction in overall environmental impact.
Digital systems are able to produce the same printed textiles with significant reductions in water consumption during the printing process, sometimes up to 90 percent when compared to rotary screen-printing. Reductions are also seen in energy consumption as well as CO2 emissions, where steaming, washing and drying occur.”
The business resources Hawke continues to rely on include the Canadian Textile Industries Association (CTIA) and ITMA, a global textile and garment machinery exhibition held every four years, next scheduled in 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.
His advice to DTP novices: “Prepare for a big learning curve – for one thing because, compared to other substrates, fabric undergoes a lot of changes. It’s not stable. It shrinks, for example, and batches of fabric can vary from one to another, so it’s important to locate suppliers who give you a consistent product.”
Hawke’s future plans for his own business: “We’ve reached the stage where we’re maxed out for both space and electricity. So we have a choice of either moving to another building or trying to get more space and more electrical power at our current address. Once we’ve secured more of both these resources, we’ll take another step forward by purchasing more equipment.”
Located just off highway 401 at Hurontario, in the growing business area of Courtney Park, now home to some of Canada’s largest industrial facilities, the new Veritiv building is scheduled to be complete by around April 2017. It will amalgamate Veritiv’s three existing facilities in the Greater Toronto Area, bringing together some 350 employees. The project was led by Regional Vice President Jason Alderman, who became Veritiv’s leader in Canada when the company was formed in 2014 after a merger between xpedx and Unisource.
Alderman has been with Veritiv for 11 years after leading the company’s facilities supply business, which accounts for 55 percent of revenue generation in Canada, for a couple of years. He previously held various sales and production management roles, primarily in Canada’s Western region. Alderman sat down with PrintAction at the groundbreaking ceremony to discuss the Fortune 500 company’s growing influence in Canadian printing.
Why is this project described as an $70 million investment?
JA: The first year we are looking at about $8 or $9 million in some CapX to get this building up and going, and obviously the rent side of it to start. And then over the 15-year term, that we have taken out for this facility, it is $70 to $80 million investment overall.
What does this building say about Veritiv’s commitment to Canada?
JA: We are committed to growth is really what it means. We have an opportunity here to expand on our existing business which is already $106 million as it stands today. And we will have growth in all three core segments of our business: Commercial print, packaging and facilities. If we weren’t committed to Canada, we would not be making this investment today.
How will the new building change Veritiv’s footprint in Canada?
JA: About 1/3 of our sales will be sold and distributed out of this location once we move in. When we move in we will still have about 20 percent room for growth overall and it also helps us provide some new services that we are thinking of getting into for all three segments of the business. It really is an opportunity to expand the bundle that we already provide to our existing and new customers.
What are some of these new services?
JA: On the packaging side, we are going to have a little more room to showcase some of the packaging equipment that we previously did not have an opportunity to do. It also gives us an opportunity to bring in a little more inventory to support some of the investments, to support an expansion into the wide-format space, which is a growth media on the print side of the business. We are a little condensed right now in the facility we are at.
Which core business will grow most?
JA: This year we expect growth in all three segments. I know a lot of people are surprised by the fact that we are expecting growth in print. We believe that we continue to take share in the marketplace over the next four or five years to get ourselves up into the lead position in Canada from a share perspective.
We were not a packaging company in Canada if you look back over the past 10 years. In the last two years, we have really accelerated the growth there and we really believe that is where our greatest opportunity for accelerated growth is. But that also relates back to the print business where there is becoming a blurred line between what was traditional commercial print and now those printers are looking to get into some form of packaging world.
What will the facility in the GTA mean for the rest of country?
JA: We are making some minor changes such as moving out of our existing Ottawa facility, which is a bit older, into a brand new one to improve operational efficiencies and workflow, which keeps costs under control.
We are going to continue to look at our real estate portfolio that we have today and see if we need to make changes. But most of those changes are around upgrading facilities. We are not looking to close any facilities or reduce the footprint we have. We are going to continue on with the footprint we have today. We need it to continue to be a national provider to the print, packaging and facilities supply markets in Canada.
Is this your first major project since taking on Veritiv’s lead for Canada?
JA: There will not be bigger real estate project than this in Canada in the foreseeable future. It has been very rewarding for all of us and me personally.
Probably Metroland Media, owned by Torstar Corporation, which also owns Canada’s largest daily print newspaper, the Toronto Star, is best known for publishing over 100 community newspapers. Geographically the circulations of these papers span the province of Ontario, from London in the west to Parry Sound in the north to Ottawa in the east, with predictably the densest concentration in the Greater Toronto Area. Most of Metroland’s newspapers are distributed weekly, some twice a week, and two – the Hamilton Spectator and Waterloo Region Record – are dailies. Annually, the company also distributes four billion advertising flyers – partly printed by themselves but mostly printed by others – door to door to households in its newspaper-circulation areas.
This year, in partnership with BrandSpark International, Metroland completed a study of its community news readership, comprising over 13,000 online and telephone surveys of adults in Metroland’s circulation areas. The study shows that 90 percent of respondents use either Metroland’s printed community newspapers or flyers for local news or shopping information.
Recently, I asked Michelle Digulla, Vice President, Marketing, Metroland Media, and Dean Zavarise, Executive VP and General Manager, Torstar Printing Group, who oversees Metroland’s printing activities, for details on how Metroland maintains this high degree of market penetration in Canada’s most populous province. Digulla and Zavarise also discuss the future of Metroland’s community newspaper and flyer businesses, and how these fit with corporate strategy.
Digulla says, that besides their community newspapers and flyers, Metroland Media is one of the largest direct-mail distributors in Ontario, to the tune of four billion pieces a year that reach about 84 percent of Ontario households each week. In addition to the digital assets associated with its community newspapers, Metroland also operates other major online community news sites that Digulla says are one of its fastest growing businesses, currently experiencing double-digit growth.
The company also publishes printed magazines and organizes experiential consumer marketing shows in such categories as bridal, food and wine, travel and most recently a video-gaming show called EGLX, by far its largest expo, that premiered in Toronto in April.
Digulla explains: “Our biggest assets are WagJag.com, a group-purchase Website where Canadian consumers can buy discounted products and services, and Save.ca, the largest digital flyer and coupon company in Canada. We dabble in other interests, but the ones I’ve mentioned are the biggest buckets.”
Digulla says one of the main reasons behind Metroland’s strength in community newspapers is the company’s longstanding connections to the communities it serves: “Hyperlocal content really matters to the members of a community. Two-thirds of our online traffic comes from search and social media, where we find many people sharing our local content because of its uniqueness. They can’t find it anywhere else.
“Our staff who produce the community newspapers live in those communities, so we know the people intimately, what topics interest them, what causes a stir, and whom to call for the inside story. These relationships give us the right balance between the ability to act locally and be part of the community versus the large scale of a big company that enables us to do our job efficiently.”
Zavarise explains: “To maximize efficiencies across our entire platform, Torstar Printing Group operates as a network of printing plants and has downsized or consolidated plants as needed. In the last three years we have closed three plants.” In July 2016, this included Metroland’s Vaughan plant with printing of the Toronto Star outsourced to TC Transcontinental.
Zavarise lists the six plants Torstar Printing Group currently operates across Ontario, all with mainly cold-set web newspaper-printing capabilities: Ranked by number of staff, the largest is the Hamilton Spectator plant (in Hamilton), where they print Metroland’s two dailies on three large double-width Goss presses and perform offline packaging work for the Toronto Star. Besides printing and distributing its own properties, Torstar also prints and/or distributes newspapers published by competitors; for example, just recently it signed a contract to print Postmedia’s London Free Press (published six days a week) in Hamilton starting in October.
Torstar’s second-largest and most modern plant, located on Tempo Avenue in Toronto, is equipped with a KBA Colora press and two lines of community-style single-width presses. Largely the Tempo plant prints bigger community newspapers, and also Metro Toronto, the free daily owned by Metroland’s sister corporation Star Media Group, also a subsidiary of Torstar. Zavarise says the Tempo plant’s production consists of about 85 percent work for their own or affiliated companies and 15 percent general commercial work for third parties.
“At Tempo we are just starting up a new, relatively small heat-set single web installation – our first foray into this type of equipment after many years. Its purpose is to print small to medium runs of flyers and other marketing materials, which we see as an opportunity to grow our already strong relationships with many flyer advertisers by offering them more services,” explains Zavarise.
A third plant, Central Ontario Web in Barrie, with two community newspaper press lines, is used to print Metroland’s assets including its many newspapers circulated in northern communities like Barrie and Muskoka. At a fourth facility, Hamilton Web Printing in Stoney Creek, a single line community press prints newspapers and third-party commercial work. Thuroweb Printing, a small fifth facility in Durham, near Owen Sound, produces newspapers for southwestern Ontario communities such as Fergus, Mount Forest and Elmira.
Zavarise says Torstar’s sixth facility, Performance Printing in Smith Falls, a suburb of Ottawa, is the company’s most commercial-style plant, providing both newspaper printing (including Metro Ottawa) and full-service printing capabilities for the Ottawa area. Its equipment includes two cold-set community press lines (one tower with UV), sheetfed presses, bindery, an inserting facility, and a digital lettershop operation for direct mail.
Commercial third-party printing
Zavarise explains: “Our jobs for Metroland and Torstar are a captive business. Generally they are fairly routine and fall into the same slots each week. But our commercial printing is more opportunistic, and we’re always glad to take on more commercial work.” He adds that the schedule at each of Torstar’s six plants is overseen internally by each location’s operations manager, but when major changes are requested by publishers and third-party commercial customers, a central planning team figures out where they can best schedule the work to ensure efficiencies and that customer requirements can be consistently met.
Since the busiest production days tend to be Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays for community newspapers and Mondays and Fridays for flyers, he says commercial work is often scheduled in between these crunch times to maximize use of resources. “And if necessary, we also maintain relationships with other companies who can do our overflow printing.”
Zavarise continues: “In the last three months, we started Metrolandprinting.com, a do-it-yourself Web storefront offering our advertisers and other clients and the general public the ability to order a large gamut of printed products from us directly online. This portal was the brainchild of Nathan Matheson [Director of Business Development and Administration for Metroland Media and Torstar Printing Group], who thought, that instead of just selling what our plants can do, we should facilitate all forms of printing for our customers. This strategy enables us to build on our existing relationships and make things easier for our clients by offering them one-stop shopping.” The Website’s current online offerings include business cards, stationery, postcards, brochures, door hangers, greeting cards, tear cards, tent cards, magnets, labels and large-format signs.
Flyer fine points
Zavarise explains: “Our distribution business is a very solid, reliable process, audited by the Flyer Distribution Standards Association. It is a sophisticated operation involving not a few guys in a back room, but hundreds of people working in massive facilities of 10,000 to 80,000 square feet with one to four inserting machines. Across our footprint, we operate 14 such large regional distribution centres, most with machine-inserting capabilities.”
He says all their distribution facilities share a common software management system to track the week’s flyer placements and delivery destinations. This system records which zones each flyer needs to reach and downloads the information to the inserting machines at each facility. Each facility waits for the printing plants to deliver the week’s flyers before they can start building packages. Typically they start on Friday for a Thursday delivery and work around the clock and through the weekend, depending on the size of the packages to be assembled for individual homes. For one community newspaper, a typical package can contain 30 or 40 different flyers, says Zavarise. Once packaging is completed, contractors transport the bundles of flyers to carriers’ homes along with the printed newspaper for their community. Usually a Metroland newspaper and one or more packages of flyers are delivered separately to each carrier, who assembles them into a single package and delivers it door to door.
“Occasionally we use Canada Post, but in many markets we still distribute flyers in packages via youth carriers, each delivering to as few as 50 or 60 households,” Zavarise continues. “That’s where the complexity lies. Advertisers can narrowly target where their flyer lands. We can help them determine which zones have the right demographics to match their target market.”
Digulla comments: “No one else in Ontario is large enough to afford or warrant the type of work we do for major clients in targeting flyers to specific locations based on point-of-service customer data collected by the clients. Our team includes a specialist with a Masters degree in Geographical Information Systems who can calculate very narrowly targeted deliveries to as few as, say, 60 homes based on factors such as demographics, income, purchasing behaviour, lifestyle, or psychological profile.”
Zavarise says that advertisers often use this targeting service on simpler terms by choosing to distribute their flyer to one specific portion of a community rather than the community as a whole: “For example, although a big grocery store chain might want their flyer to reach every household, a small laundromat might only want their flyer to go to the 1,000 homes located closest to the laundromat. We have the capability of doing that.
“And if 20 other types of businesses are doing the same thing,” adds Zavarise, “an individual carrier might end up with a unique set of flyers that is quite different from the package delivered by the carrier on the next block.”
In the next three to five years, Digulla expects to see much more interest and business activity from clients based on point-of-service data and geo-demographics. She also anticipates that Metroland will be doing more to expand and leverage its growing digital properties.
Both Digulla and Zavarise say, that although in general the Canadian newspaper business is being severely challenged by the movement of advertising dollars from print to digital media, Metroland’s study indicates consumers’ receptiveness to printed community newspapers and printed flyers delivered door to door remains high. Consequently, they feel optimistic about Metroland’s ability to continue attracting advertisers to sustain these businesses into the future.
Additionally, Zavarise predicts, that although at present, relatively speaking, they do not print a lot of variable data for their flyer advertisers, the demand for this service may grow in the future. For example, right now they print and circulate multiple versions of Niagara This Week in six different zones. Some content is common to all six, but other content is limited to certain zones. Similarly, Digulla says a grocer who has great take-up on particular products in a specific area may customize their flyer for that specific area and request a special drop.
In the future, advertisers may start exploiting these types of possibilities more often. “It all depends on them,” says Zavarise. “We’ll stay open to whatever they need.”
As CTO of Global Graphics for the past decade, his knowledge is infused into the ubiquitous Harlequin RIP. PrintAction spoke with Bailey about the company’s new Fundamentals program to help inkjet press manufacturers overcome technical hurdles.
What is Global Graphics Fundamentals?
MB: For the last several years, a number of inkjet vendors have approached us with questions on whether we can help them build DFEs to go with inkjet presses that they have created or solve problems around the speed or quality on presses they are already shipping. And now Eric Worrall is heading up our [BreakThrough Engineering Service] and we’ve essentially formalized what we had been doing in a more ad-hoc manner. [Fundamentals] is designed to allow a press vendor to bring a new press to market more quickly and to be more confident that it is actually going to deliver the speed and quality and functionality that they want to provide to their users.
What area is of most concern for inkjet?
MB: We have talked quite a lot over the last couple of years, in particular, about halftone ink quality of using greyscale heads on single-pass inkjets. It is an area that a lot of people seem to be struggling with.
Why is there little inkjet screen discussion?
MB: There [is] very good technology in the wide-format space – multi-pass, fairly slow speeds, with many inks and levels of droplet size on the heads... but we do not see people doing significant work on the half-toning in the high-speed, single-pass production space. We do find that there are real problems there. That the drop placement isn’t as accurate as you would really like it to be, partly because of dot shape deformations, because you get elliptical marks where the drop actually hits because the substrate is moving so rapidly.
You tend to have pseudo random coalescing of adjacent dots. It is quite not random enough though. There tends to be a directionality to it, so that at normal reading distance you get a visible texturing. We have been working with three or four press vendors for a couple of years now to improve the output they can produce on their presses – to absolutely minimize the texturing effects and simultaneously ensure we are hitting the maximum total area coverage, ink lay down.
What is the best screening approach?
MB: There are good reasons to do the screening in different places depending on the workflow. In many cases, it makes sense to do the screening inside the RIP, if you can, simply because you are moving less data around post-RIP... When you consider that the fastest inkjet presses at the moment consume something around 20 gigabytes of raster per second then reducing that data transport requirement is a very significant gain.
But, in other cases, there are good reasons why people want to do the screening at the last minute in order to do on-the-fly recalibration, or head-to-head calibration, because of the width of the press, etcetera, and do that in a near close-loop environment… There are people who are using other people’s RIPs and unhappy with the quality they get from the screening or the speed they get at the screening. It is a very useful first step for them to say, ‘I am going to throw away the screener that came with the DFE… I am going to plug in Global Graphics ScreenPro because it is a lot faster and gives the quality I need.’
How are inkjet speeds and DFEs related?
MB: Building a DFE for one of these very, very high speed [inkjet presses] requires as much emphasis on systems engineering as it does on the RIPping, colour management, etcetera… that is hitting 1,000-feet-per-minute speed, which is aqueous. A lot of the people we tend to be working with at the moment are on UV and it is coming out at about 230/250 feet per minute. So far it is a lot slower than aqueous. I do not know if it is going to stay that way.
When will inkjet move deeper into commercial print sectors?
MB: They are pecking away at a number of different sectors to start with… Obviously, the direct-mail market as a sort of adjunct to the transactional space, where inkjet has been used for decades, but now pushing into much more graphically rich work.
They are being used in the book and publication space. It is also being used in some of the newsprint markets, which is kind of relating to book. It hasn’t really gone into magazines yet, because it is only fairly recently that aqueous inkjet presses have got to the point where you can print at a sensible price on coated paper. That has been a fairly big breakthrough in the last year, 18 months.
In 2016, Montreal-based TC Transcontinental, North America’s third largest and Canada’s largest printer, with over 8,000 employees in Canada and the United States and 2015 revenues of $2 billion, is celebrating its 40th year in business.
Additionally, in the past few months, the company has made headlines multiple times for other reasons: In May, Transcontinental sold off all of its newspaper assets in the province of Saskatchewan, amounting to 13 newspapers and associated online properties, and closed its printing plant in Saskatoon. In June, Transcontinental acquired Robbie Manufacturing, the third packing company it has purchased in the United States in just over two years. In July, the company commenced a five-year contract to print Canada’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, after its owners, Torstar, announced plans to shut down its printing plant in Vaughan, Ontario.
Transcontinental’s past few months of widespread activity, seemingly disparate events, fit into the company’s strategic plans for growth in both the newspaper and flexible-packaging sectors.
Katherine Chartrand, Director of TC Transcontinental’s External Communications, clarifies that the May sale of TC Media’s Saskatchewan newspaper assets occurred because the assets were small in number and geographically remote from the bulk of TC Media’s other newspaper assets, which are based in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. “Because of the limited synergies with the rest of our newspaper assets, it was simply not efficient for us to continue publishing a small cluster of newspapers in Saskatchewan,” she says.
The buyer of TC Media’s Saskatchewan newspaper assets, Star News Publishing Inc., already published five community newspapers in Alberta and Saskatchewan and printed over 60 community newspapers in Western Canada. “Because of Star News Publishing’s location in Wainwright, Alberta, and longstanding roots in that region, the sale made sense,” says Chartrand. “They are in a better position than we are to plan and maintain the growth of these assets.”
She adds that the closure of the Saskatoon plant, with an accompanying loss of about 30 full-time jobs, was a direct result of the decision to sell the newspapers: “The buyer prints their own papers at their Alberta facility, and the remaining commercial printing volume in our Saskatoon plant didn’t justify keeping the operation open.”
Chartrand recounts that around the 1980s TC Media first started to expand its publishing activities with the acquisition of Les Affaires (a paid-by-subscription business weekly) and other financial publications (plus consumer magazines which it later sold; 15 of them for example, to Quebecor Inc.’s TVA Group in 2014.) Subsequent acquisitions since the 1980s by TC Media include 20 Telemedia weekly papers in the greater Montreal area in 1995, 32 Cogeco newspapers in Quebec and Ontario in 1996, and the purchase of 74 Quebec weekly papers from Quebecor subsidiary Sun Media in 2014.
At present, Chartrand says TC Transcontinental is the largest publisher of local newspapers in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, with 111 titles in Quebec (including the daily Métro Montreal, all but one title free of charge), 35 titles in Atlantic Canada (including seven paid dailies, 17 paid weeklies, and other free-of-charge weeklies and periodicals), and two in Ontario (Seaway News in Cornwall and Orléans Star in Gloucester, both free weeklies.)
“We are proud to provide high-quality information to the communities we serve and are working hard to develop effective multi-platform solutions for our advertisers in these regions,” says Chartrand. However, she adds, a constant decline in advertising revenues year over year makes it especially challenging for TC Media and other publishers of community newspapers to continue providing high-quality information, while also endeavouring to convert their operations to more sustainable digital business models.
To offset this present economic challenge, along with other Canadian media companies and associations, TC Transcontinental is currently seeking the support of various levels of government. Chartrand reports, that in April, François Olivier, President and Chief Executive Officer of TC Transcontinental, recommended an action plan to the Federal parliamentary Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, including:
• Temporary financial incentives for up to five years for local media publishers to cover part of their content-production costs;
• Temporary financial incentives for up to five years for local media publishers to support investments in the digital transformation of their business model;
• Increased ad spending by government institutions in local print and digital media; and
• A review of the way recycling fees are calculated so that publishers can pay reasonable amounts based on their recent circulation volumes rather than outdated data.
Chartrand adds, that besides community newspapers, TC Media is the largest publisher of French educational resources in Canada, with an annual count of more than 12,000 educational books in French annually, covering all grade levels. The company also publishes more than 800 French and English titles in the supplemental educational and general interest areas.
TC Transcontinental not only publishes community newspapers as described above, but also continues to position itself as a newspaper printer par excellence. The company began its new five-year printing contract with the Toronto Star on the evening of Saturday, July 2, at its modern Vaughan, Ontario plant, a 30-minute drive northwest of Toronto.
Brian Reid, President of TC Transcontinental Printing and TC Transcontinental Packaging, explains: “Our Vaughan plant is a relatively new facility with state-of-the-art technology and a team that’s very experienced in printing newspapers. When the Star first opened their own plant in 1992, almost 25 years ago, it was also state of the art, but obviously technology has evolved a lot since then. From 2007 to 2010, when TC Transcontinental opened our Vaughan plant, we invested roughly $800 million to upgrade our entire North American print platform. I think our investments in new technology provide the Star with the opportunity to get a high-quality product on new equipment and also reduce their printing costs.”
Reid continues: “Our model is a little different than traditional manufacturing environments. For outsourced newspapers we work with highly skilled, self-directed teams and a lot of automation. The result is a very efficient operation that allows us to make the investments we need, still make a reasonable return, and at the same time provide savings considered to be significant by the news publishers who decide to print with us.”
Reid says equipment highlights at Vaughan include two KBA Commander CT hybrid presses, both 66-inches wide with four towers and an individual capacity of 48 broadsheet pages in one path. “Hybrid means we can run both heat set and cold set and combine them – something very unique in newspaper printing,” he explains. “What this capability allows us to do, which helps in our pricing model, is to run newspapers at night, which are usually cold set – although The Globe and Mail runs some heat set on their outside cover and some of the internal sections – then run flyers during the day. All of our flyers are heat set.”
He says, besides The Globe, TC Transcontinental produces work for Torstar, Postmedia, and other newspaper publishers at their facilities in Vaughan, Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax, plus two plants in Montreal. In 2009, Transcontinental built another plant near Fremont, California, equipped with three hybrid Man Roland web presses with similar capabilities to the KBAs in Canada, to produce the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper they still print. “To print a daily newspaper, you have to be relatively close geographically to where the paper will be delivered, within a few driving hours,” Reid explains.
He continues: “Flyer work is our biggest segment in print and it’s very stable. Our research and the fact that we print billions of flyers each year demonstrate that consumers still like their printed flyers. Our customers still say they are the best way to drive traffic to retail stores.”
In Quebec, TC Transcontinental distributes its newspapers and retail flyers through its own marketing product called Publisac, a weekly bag containing printed flyers, newspapers, and specialty promotions with advertising printed on the outside that is hung on the door of households across Quebec (approximately 3.5 million homes). Elsewhere in Canada, the company manages the distribution of flyers to some 10 million more households through Targeo, its own Pan-Canadian distribution strategy and brokerage service.
“Newspapers are down a little bit because their revenue from advertisers has declined,” says Reid. “Some specific segments are better suited to online advertising, things like automobiles, so there is not nearly as much advertising for cars in printed newspapers these days. Real estate advertising has declined as well.
“As a result, newspapers are re-envisioning their models and choosing to outsource their printing so they can focus on their core business of providing content, rather than printing, which requires constantly upgrading the platform with capital investment. We have developed a model that’s win-win, so we can offer savings to newspaper publishers, yet still make a reasonable return that allows us to maintain a state-of-the-art printing platform.”
In explaining what made Robbie Manufacturing such an attractive prospect, which Transcontinental acquired in June, Reid says culture is always one of the most-critical factors when the company is considering an acquisition: “Since the inception of our business 40 years ago, we operate a certain way based on values that come from our founders, the Marcoux family.
“These values are innovation, team work, performance, and respect in the way we treat customers, suppliers, and each other internally. Because we spent a lot of time getting to know the owner and leadership team at Robbie, we were able to get a very good sense, that although they used some different terminology to describe it, their culture was similar to ours.
Reid continues to explain that Robbie Manufacturing also possessed a strong management team who were very supportive of the transaction and wanted to stay on. “Because we’re relatively new in flexible packaging, we need strong, talented people who are experienced in flexible packaging to add to our team.
“Third was their capability to add to our packaging portfolio with grocery-store pouches for products that include deli items and frozen foods, as well as packaging for multipack consumer goods.” Typically, Reid explains, if you buy a three-pack of, say, household cleaners in aerosol cans or plastic bottles, the products come wrapped together with shrink wrap film over a cardboard base.
But Robbie figured out an alternative packaging system for multiple consumer goods that eliminates the cardboard tray and prints on really, really thin shrink wrap film in a way that compensates for distortions to the printing caused by stretching the film around the product. Using their method, only when the film is in place can you actually read what is printed on it.
“Robbie’s national salesforce is nice, too,” says Reid, adding to the list of reasons behind the acquisition. “It expands our sales coverage across U.S.”
The Robbie Manufacturing plant in Lenexa, Kansas, is also about an hour and 15 minutes drive from Clinton, Missouri, site of the first packaging company Transcontinental purchased, called Capri Packaging. Reid says the production managers at Robbie and Capri already knew one another before Transcontinental acquired both companies. Capri prints rolls of packaging for dairy products, the largest being cheese and next largest yogurt. In May 2014, when Transcontinental acquired Capri from Schreiber Foods Inc., the Green Bay dairy company with over $5 billion in annual sales.
Transcontinental retained a huge 10-year contract with Schreiber which gave them security with the transaction. In September 2015, Transcontinental made its second acquisition of a packaging company by purchasing Ultra Flex Packaging Corp. in Brooklyn, New York, a manufacturer of roll-stock, pouches, and bags for the coffee, tobacco, confectionery, snack foods, and pet foods segments.
Why has Transcontinental moved so decisively into flexible packaging, which represents a clear shift in the company’s revenue generation, over the past couple of years? Reid explains: “First, for many reasons, the flexible packaging segment is experiencing a lot of growth: it’s cheaper, it distributes better, in many ways it’s more environmentally friendly – there are lots of reasons why there is a big shift toward it.”
“Second, the manufacturing process for flexible packaging is very similar to what we already do in our offset printing. The process still involves prepress, printing, and finishing, the big differences being that for flexible packaging we print on plastic instead of paper, and we use flexo plates instead of offset plates,” says Reid. “The finishing methods are also different, most involving converting and laminating, but still we have some familiarity with these processes. They’re not entirely foreign to us.
“The third reason is that flexible packaging hasn’t been consolidated yet. The fact that there are a lot of players allows us to look at acquisitions and ideally try to build a North American platform, both through organic growth and by seeking opportunities for acquisitions in the U.S. and Canada.” Transcontinental has since installed a new press, laminator, and slitter at Capri, and a new press and lamination line at Ultra Flex. We plan to make similar investments in the growth of other companies we acquire,” says Reid. “For sure, there will be more acquisitions.”
This past May, Solisco Printers marked its 25-year anniversary after the company was founded in 1991 by Alain Jacques and Jean Grégoire. The company initially focused on the publishing market, which remains a core business generating around 35 percent of its annual revenues, and more recently has expanded into the retail industry with the goal of serving niche vertical markets with catalogues and a range of related services from digital adaptations to distribution.
In 2011, Solisco initiated a new phase of investment with the installation of a Goss Sunday 3000 web press, which is now the cornerstone technology for the 400-employee company, headquartered in a 200,000-square-foot plant. PrintAction spoke with Jacques about the past 25 years and what the future holds for Solisco.
What is Solisco’s market position today?
AJ: We used to only mainly focus on magazines. Now we want grow the retail and catalogue side of our business, because newsstand sales today have been suffering. It is not a growing market, but there is still a huge market for magazines all across the U.S., so we want to offer the best services for high-end magazine and catalogue clients for the next few years. With competition you have to offer a bunch of services around the product. You have to be aware of the strategies of our clients and be a lot more involved.
What is Solisco’s key tech advantage?
AJ: Three years ago we invested in a Goss Sunday 3000. It was a risk but it has been a good reward for us, because it is a high-productivity piece of equipment... In our printing market, you must be a low-cost producer. In Canada, in general over the past few years, we have not invested in equipment as much as the U.S. has.
How does Solisco attract talent to Scott?
AJ: We do not have a lot of population around but people come from Quebec and we also do a lot of training with our people. We have a school inside Solisco. We have classes and train our people who earn a diploma. We have been one of only a few producers to do this and every session we have about 10 or 15 new diplomas.
What new markets are you focused on?
AJ: To print more jewelry catalogues, for example, we are going to go to all of the jewelry shows and directly show how we are going to be able to service that sector. We try to go vertical on specialty niches, so we do not go after big, big retailers or publishers… more emphasis is put on the manufacturers of products.
How do you approach niche markets?
AJ: We have subject-matter experts so whatever the client needs they are going to have the right person to answer their questions. Our sales reps know about the print itself, but when it comes to mailing and distribution or developing content for example, you need internal expertise.
How important is distribution for publication printers?
AJ: We do a lot of publishing in the U.S. and it is quite different than Canada with all of the co-mailing that exists. We have developed some expertise with geo-localization to get the best return on your investment. You have to offer services to go beyond just the cost of the transportation.
What is your primary objective moving Solisco forward?
AJ: Our tagline at Solisco is Experts with Character – innovation is the key. Innovation in everything: Research and development, on new types of products, adding equipment, whatever it is that is going to help clients sell more. Innovation is my key word for the next few years.
What is Solisco’s investment plan for the near future?
AJ: We are working on a major retooling to have all new equipment and get rid of the older equipment, adding capacity to our facility. This is a major tenant that we have for the next couple of years. I would like to put in another [Sunday] 3000... We are working on the project right now.
You need the right balance between signing contracts with major clients and having productivity gain. That is a risk that I am willing to take right now in the next two to four years. We will also be investing in new bindery equipment, so it is part of a pretty big project… we are talking about $20 million over the next four or five years, minimum… I believe print is going to be there for the next several years.
What excites you most about the future for print?
AJ: Canadian Tire just put out 12-million copies of a catalogue, last month. For me that is a game changer. They are going back to print. We see a lot of clients going back to print because it works. You have credibility in print that gives a client an edge over others that do not use print. I do not have any apprehension about the future with printing. Even if it is going to slow down for the next few years there is so much consolidation that there are a lot of possibilities, but you have to keep your eyes open.
The Mikia purchase is the most-recent example of a range of strategic investments led by Alpha Poly President Patrick Kerrigan, who took over leadership of the 50,000-square-foot operation in 2012, succeeding his father, Paul, who founded Alpha Poly in 1989. Kerrigan has been shifting Alpha Poly’s business approach since leading a lean-manufacturing audit in 2009, followed by a branding change, a new sales approach, and ultimately a multi-million-dollar capital equipment investment.
In 2013, Alpha Poly installed a massive 8-colour MIRAFLEX AM from Windmoeller & Hoelscher to produce higher-end process print jobs. This investment was followed by a decisive push to capture the growth in multi-laminates with a Nordmeccanica Super Simplex SL laminator. With the support of family members holding key leadership roles, including Matthew Kerrigan, Stephanie Kerrigan and Martin Boeykens, Alpha Poly is positioning itself as one of Canada’s leading independent companies in the robust flexography sector.
Kerrigan worked outside of the family business for 15 years after going to school for broadcast journalism at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont., which ultimately led to a career in post-production for television and movies. Kerrigan explains this experience allowed him to learn about his own approach in the business world before joining Alpha Poly. “I love to work with people and to mentor,” he says. “It is exciting to watch people grow – helping their families grow.”
When Kerrigan led the lean audit for Alpha Poly in 2009, he faced difficult decisions of managing a manufacturing business, particularly one that has worked to foster a family-like atmosphere across the entire operation. Following the audit, Kerrigan estimates Alpha Poly reduced its labour by 30 percent and increased its output by 80 percent. “The return on investment was paid back in a year,” he says, noting how much discipline it took to institute the changes; for example, having one operator work two packing machines instead of a traditional one-to-one ratio.
Just prior to the lean-manufacturing audit, Alpha Poly had purchased the assets of a struggling London, Ont., operation that had succumbed to selling work below cost, an easy trap to fall into in any printing sector. “You need to know and understand your costs,” says Kerrigan, who was preparing to have the same lean analyst return in February to reset Alpha Poly’s base after the past three years of change management to branding and sales.
“It is great to see things moving ahead,” says Paul Kerrigan, who continues to attend major management meetings. “Patrick is driving the ship. We have a lot of good workers and that is a big part of making your business successful. It is exciting to come in and hear about all of the things going on.”
As he began to transition into leading Alpha Poly, Kerrigan leveraged years of broadcasting experience to evaluate the company’s brand position, which lacked a concrete marketing plan. Alpha Poly’s eight-year-old Website was in need of a revamp to better support the sales structure and any future manufacturing investments.
“When people heard about us, because our name used to be Alpha Polybag, the first thing was ‘Oh, you do the shopping bags for the grocery stores,’” Kerrigan says, noting the company had also been printing roll stock for a long time, as well as reverse printing on polyesters. “We re-launched our name to let people know we are not just a bag manufacturer.
“At that time, I knew the next phase of the company was to get into multi-laminates because you could see back then it was a growing market,” Kerrigan says, recalling reports that indicated multi-laminates would experience eight or nine percent worldwide growth year over year. “Everything is moving from rigids like plastic clamshells and jars to stand-up pouches, so I knew it was a market you wanted to be in.”
Developing new markets
Kerrigan explains a key driver of Alpha Poly’s strategy began to unfold in late-2012 when he crossed paths with David Mailman, who was helping to lead packaging manufacturer Multipak Ltd., which was in the process of shuttering its operation.
The high-end flexo knowledge of Mailman fit perfectly with Kerrigan’s plans to move Alpha Poly into new markets, which would require investing in the new press. “The stars aligned,” Kerrigan says. Mailman arrived in early 2013 to take over Kerrigan’s role as Plant Manager and to help direct the company’s capital investment.
This allowed Kerrigan to focus on melding Alpha Poly’s rebrand with a new sales approach. “I kept feeling that every time we came into our monthly management meetings we were always looking in the rearview mirror – what happened in the month before,” Kerrigan says.
He brought in an outside firm to review the sales strategy and a decision was made to implement the Salesforce.com CRM tool. At the time, Kerrigan explains Alpha Poly was generating healthy but flat annual revenue growth of around six percent. “We started setting targets for everybody and measuring,” he says. “People want to do better, but if you do not have anything to measure you do not know how well you are doing.” A sales roadmap was put in place to steer away from a shotgun approach and instead focus on what constitutes an ideal Alpha Poly customer.
In its most recent fiscal year, Alpha Poly experienced year over year revenue growth of slightly more than 20 percent. “We know where we are going because we can see everything in our pipeline,” Kerrigan says. “We can do accurate budgeting now… plus you have metrics that everybody is looking at.” The reinvigorated sales structure is also supported by a new business-development approach led by Kate Davis and former HP Canada trailblazer Debra Swift.
The February 2016 arrival of Vaughan Campbell, former owner of Mikia, who takes on a prominent technical sales role with Alpha Poly, helps establish one of the strongest senior leadership teams in Canadian flexography, with a technical and strategic ability to reach into completely new flexo markets. One of the most promising aspects of Alpha Poly’s new direction is that it currently only generates around five percent of its business from the United States.
With all of the investments in people and technologies, Kerrigan continues to focus on bottom-line growth. “We have to keep this cog going and we have really invested in this team to help us,” he says. “Our next goal… I would like to see in the next couple of years a 10-colour press in here.”
Just as most people might be shocked by the invention age of inkjet printing (1951), toner printing (1959), and laser printing (1969), the birth of 3D printing traces back to 1983 despite its new stature as the beginning of a third industrial revolution, opined by futurist Jeremy Rifkin three years ago. Today’s potential of 3D printing, also commonly referred to as additive manufacturing, is based on its sudden widespread accessibility, akin to the consumer-level arrival of the Internet in the late-1990s despite its 1969 roots laid down by ARPANET.
The availability of mature 3D printing technology now falls into the hands of revolutionary business leaders who take enormous risks to disrupt legacy markets and to ultimately generate new revenue models. In the west end of Toronto, Steve Cory, President of Objex Unlimited, is one such entrepreneur who has been exploring the possibilities of 3D printing since 2011. He has built a worldwide name for Objex developing innovative scanning booths, unrivalled 3D figurines, creative and industrial prototypes, and by diving headfirst into any potential 3D arena his team of young engineers, artists, programmers and writers can imagine.
Growth of Objex Unlimited
Cory found his way into 3D printing after reading what he describes as one of those big-future articles in The Economist, highlighting a 3D-printed chainmail glove and working clock. He became obsessed with the implications of additive manufacturing and for six months researched the sector, attending a handful of local 3D-printing enthusiast meetings.
In mid-2011, Cory, at age 35, had been running his own consulting business for more than a year. A problem solver at heart and a trained mathematician, he had built a successful career by leveraging Information Technology to manage production, including a 100-person plant making sprockets and roller chain; catering facilities at Pearson Airport; and with the document-destruction company Shred-it.
“I was always a good manager because I had better information than anybody else,” Cory says. “I would go get it myself, because I was really good at understanding ERP systems, pulling the data – optimizing it.” Computer Integrated Manufacturing exploded across the business world in the 2000s and Cory in 2009, with the recent arrival of two young children, decided to use his attractive skill set to branch out on his own. He became bored, however, with the tedious routine of sitting around the kitchen table and developing process solutions in Excel.
Cory in September 2011 made a seminal decision to invest around $100,000 to purchase a used 3D colour printer and to lease a 3D plastic printer, followed three months later by his first scanner. “It took three months to complete my first order, which was $200,” he says, “and it took me another two months to sell a $50 order to a guy who still buys from me all the time.” Cory also began to serve as a distributor of 3D technologies to sustain his more inventive plans for 3D printing. As fate would have it, the second handheld scanner he sold was to an influential Toronto businessman who would soon become a silent partner in Objex Unlimited.
“I wasn’t really looking for a cash infusion at that point,” Cory says. “I was ready to muddle through for the next coupe of years and grow slowly as revenue permitted, because I knew it would take time.” The cash infusion, however, allowed Cory to dream even bigger, broaden Objex Unlimited’s 3D printing assets, and begin to hire and train a unique collective of employees to push the frontiers of commercializing 3D applications.
“My business partner feels a big responsibility to give back and we are both very proud of the jobs that we have created here… 26, 27 jobs and probably 15 of these people would not have jobs like this,” Cory says. “They are extremely intelligent and talented, but maybe they didn’t go to the right school or maybe they are a little too wacky to survive in a normal working environment.” Cory prides himself on the creative atmosphere at Objex, which, to take from his own long-term business mantra, is very likely fostering future leaders of Canada’s 3D printing industry.
Exploring the future
Objex Unlimited today primarily uses Multijet Modelling, Fused Deposition Modelling, Stereolithography and 3D inkjet technologies, in addition to a range of ancillary equipment, to meet almost any non-metallic prototyping or modeling needs. This includes printing with carbon fibre and Kevlar additives.
“Prototyping is the reason 3D printing exists, because there is nothing better to make one-offs [particularly] if it is a small part with high detail,” Cory says. “When I started Objex there were three or four other 3D printing companies in Toronto all very strong in the automotive industry.”
Understanding it would be difficult to push his way into auto-part prototyping, where engineers supply great geometries but are naturally picky, Cory instead took a risk to focus on more creative 3D printing. As a result, Objex Unlimited is likely the most diverse 3D printing operation in Greater Toronto, probably Canada, running 14 machines. It affords Cory an unprecedented perspective – as both manufacturer and distributor – for what the 3D market can bare.
“There is a lot of really good marketing out there that makes it look like you can get a $1,000 printer and make parts for the Space Station,” he says, adding most people entering 3D simply do not understand its many critical manufacturing nuances, such as how difficult geometries are to reproduce, working with negative space and support materials, or why Z-axis builds provide little product strength. Cory explains any 3D printer between $20,000 and $50,000 is really a starting point to figure out how 3D works.
“A good 3D printer is $100,000 and they go up from there – it is capital intensive,” he says, reinforcing the need to take a long-term approach. Objex Unlimited itself – albeit on a unique path of 3D discover – is only now beginning to realize meaningful return on its investments, expecting to generate anywhere from $5 to $6 million in revenue by the end of its current fiscal year.
Cory explains the growth of 3D-print portals, driven by machine utilization, ganging jobs on a printer bed via online templates, presents significant challenges. “I really feel, that in some ways, 3D printed parts are disregarded by people because they have had bad experiences with them – poor quality, bad results, because everybody is chasing that low cost and lowest cost is not the right way to do it.”
He describes building an aluminum extrusion for a window, as an example. It might take three hours to print the part upwards on the Z-axis, but it can be easily snapped. If the window part was instead built lying down, this would require filling its negative space with support materials (later torn away or dissolved) and it might take seven hours to print, but the part actually bends because its lines are built horizontally on the X and Y axes.
Leading the way
Cory and his team are now a few months into an ambitious project to produce thousands of 3D figurines. Selftraits is an Objex-owned storefront studio on Queen St. West in downtown Toronto selling 3D selfies starting at $120 each. Selftraits leverages one of Objex Unlimited’s key R&D programs, a 3D scanning booth that employs 140 synchronized SLR cameras and vast amounts of intellectual property, from electronics and lighting to focusing tools and data transfer. The system was built by two 24-year-old Objex employees, who are now working on a fourth iteration of the machine, which Cory calls The Cobra and will sell for around $250,000.
“Everybody tells me our photo booth is overkill: ‘Why would you use 140 cameras when 60 is fine.’ It is to reduce the digital sculpting time,” Cory explains. The Queen St. store opened on December 10 and scanned about 300 people to make 5-inch-high figurines before Christmas. “I don’t think anybody in the world could have done that – not just scanned but delivered.” Cory hopes Selftraits will be scanning 500 to 700 people per month this summer. “It is both exciting and scary because we are proving a business model that you can have a free-standing store to make [3D] selfies and actually make money.”
Objex is now working on a mobile booth to scan dozens of people per hour at major events, in addition to high-profile art installations, which will place the Toronto company onto an even bigger 3D world stage.
At the age of 17, Vinay Tewathia, after a high-school co-op placement with a local print brokerage, began to build a printing business in the basement of his family’s home. He initially designed and brokered print, developing a business model around the high-impact possibilities of modern production technology.
By 2004, Tewathia founded New Era Print Solutions and focused on adding value to print through special finishing treatments. He acquired New Era’s first major press in 2012 with a Heidelberg DI. This August, as he was in the process of doubling his shop’s space from 3,200 to 6,400 square feet, to accommodate a 29-inch, 5-colour Heidelberg press with coater, PrintAction spoke with Tewathia about his passion for print.
This article originally appeared in PrintAction's September 2015 issue.
Why have you invested in a 29-inch press?
VT: We already have one Heidelberg machine. We have windmills and letterpresses where we do all of the finishing, from foil stamping, embossing, offline UV, and the OPP laminations and more of the specialty stuff. So we are just expanding more on the production side… we are known as higher-end printers within our local community. So the whole point of us acquiring the machine is so we can take on more and more, not outsource as much and be cost effective for the current brokers that we are dealing with.
Why focus on high-end print?
VT: Everybody knows how to get a quick postcard, business card or flyer done, but a lot of people get stumped or have questions when it comes to creating something with a foil stamp or adding a finish or some sort of elegance to the job.
Starting from the age of 17 and coming up in this industry, you are young and see how traditional technologies can be married with new technologies, so you just try to create something different and use new looks and feels.
Why print instead of digital media?
VT: We are in both. Print has been the stronger revenue for me. It is kind of where I started… I did a lot of the design for free [in the beginning] just to get the work flowing, incorporating it into my print price. What I find today is that digital is becoming more and more over-saturated and people want that tangible good in their hands and that is why we went the route of specialty and high-end finishing versus just everyday print production.
How significant was the DI press purchase?
VT: Purchasing the DI was probably the best move we have ever made… it is probably why we are in the position to now acquire the 5-colour Heidelberg. Without the DI, I just had a digital machine and we were outsourcing so I would always have to gang things up on a bigger sheet. It was very tough to offer different stocks and types of jobs, outside of just ganging things up and trying to make a profit.
How will the 29-inch format help New Era?
VT: A lot of the work I outsource now is to 40-inch machines and I find this is a happy medium to bridge the gap between outsourcing jobs and keeping them in-house. I am hoping the Speedmaster will allow us to do pretty much 95 percent of our work in-house... we definitely anticipate becoming a lot more profitable.
How will the facility expansion help?
VT: Right now in our one side we have the DI, three letterpresses, offline UV coater, OPP laminator, a folder and our cutter, with a whole bunch of skids and paper on the floor. We are now putting the press on the other [newly expanded] side with all of the paper, which will give us an easier workflow and customer-pick up area on the current side.
Why do you have such optimism for print?
VT: Everybody has new challenges and new things they want to do and I always feel like we are helping them out. Sure, printing is a tangible good, but I also feel like it is a service industry because you are serving people who have needs on a daily and weekly basis… to be honest that is what drives me all of the time… driving for success, trying to get bigger and better companies through our door.
What key print challenges are you finding?
VT: A lot of the market is underselling and undercutting each other and the truth is if the bigger companies put their heads together and stabilize costing I think it would really revive where print can go in the next five to 10 years. I think print is being undervalued and that is a significant challenge.
What is the risk with this new press?
VT: It is just over a half-million-dollar investment… the biggest one we have made thus far. It is the most critical time, being at an age where I am, but I feel it is going to get us over the next hump in business.
Why invest in offset, and not digital toner?
VT: Offset is traditionally what I have been dealing with for the last 14 years… I still feel like it is going to be almost impossible to replace conventional offset machines. There is still going to be a need for bulk work and specialty work; and you are still very limited when it comes to digital machines. The investment on a brand new digital machine to me is too risky... I know what I can produce, create and generate with this offset machine.
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