An Alignment of Interests
Given that printing is a form of manufacturing, what more sympathetic a parent could an in-plant wish for than a company that also manufactures? Many in-plants are fortunate to have such parentage, and collectively, they represent a formidable piece of the industry. It’s no coincidence, for example, that in-plants belonging to manufacturing enterprises make up the largest group of subscribers to this magazine.
The in-plant at Spectronics Corp. epitomizes everything that makes the relationship between manufacturers and their in-plants special.
The shop takes the same engineering-oriented, problem-solving approach to its work as the technology-producing organization it’s part of. It adopts new tools and techniques when it needs them, but when it has to, it makes do with the resources at hand — even if this involves a bit of mechanical improvisation here and there.
The Spectronics in-plant’s working philosophy reflects the modus operandi and the experience of the person in charge of it. Walter Fuller, who will retire at the end of 2017 as printing department manager after 42 years of service, has guided the in-plant through several transformations that changed the nature of its value proposition to the parent company each time.
He believes that adapting to change isn’t merely about surviving, but about embracing every opportunity to help the parent company become better at accomplishing its core mission.
In the case of Spectronics, that would be developing UV-based solutions for fluorescent leak detection: equipment and dyes that verify the structural integrity of military and commercial aircraft, power plants, nuclear reactors, HVAC systems, oil pipelines — even the U.S. space shuttle. Based on Long Island in Roslyn, N.Y., the company has been a leader in this niche since 1955.
All of its R&D and manufacturing take place in a 100,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes about 2,000 sq. ft. of space for the in-plant. Most of what Spectronics manufactures requires labeling, and labels for products and packaging account for the bulk of the work that Fuller and his six-person team perform today.
About 32 years ago, he recalls, the company realized it was spending a great deal of time and money to obtain short-run labels from outside sources. That prompted a decision to acquire a hot-stamp label press with diecutting and lamination, a unit that did yeoman service until Fuller finally replaced it with an iTech AXXIS HS digital label printing and finishing system in 2013.
Pushing a machine to the limit of its life cycle — and then beyond it — is typical of the frugal practicality of Fuller’s in-plant management style.
There was the time, for example, when he designed, fabricated and installed replacement rollers and bearings in order to keep a vintage Davidson Dualith 600 offset press in the game of putting a UV-detectable security coating onto bank books.
“I can’t tell you how many millions of impressions that poor old machine has seen,” he says.
Davidson personnel who visited the in-plant to look at what he had done incorporated some of his changes into the new 700 series.
“The advantage of being part of a manufacturing plant is that it affords me the ability not only of working with an engineering staff but also the ability to have parts made in the shop,” Fuller says. In another in-house do-it-yourself project, he fashioned web-smoothing dancer rolls and a tensioner for the in-plant’s roll-to-roll coating machine.
These bygone episodes don’t mean that the in-plant is rooted in the past. Today, it’s a modern digital production environment that uses a Xerox Versant digital color press and a Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS 1052, in addition to the AXXIS HS, to turn out not just labels but also instruction sheets, product manuals, forms, literature, booklets, clamshell inserts, tags and coated stock for security use.
An internal graphics department — once part of Fuller’s shop but now supervised by the advertising and marketing department, which also oversees the in-plant — furnishes the creative design. Fuller says that although paperless PDFs have replaced many of the printed documents the in-plant used to produce, the growth in label output has more than made up for the lost volume.
The AXXIS HS, for example, used 42 rolls of base label material in its first year of operation; consumption more than quadrupled to 196 rolls last year. In 2016, the in-plant printed 12 million square inches of roll label stock; more than 45,000 12x18˝ sheets of label stock; and 222,000 feet of 11.5˝ rolls for specialty coating. Between them, the Xerox and Konica Minolta devices imaged nearly 1.6 million sheets of stock. Runs can consist of as few as 10 pieces to 50,000 labels at the high end.
Print manufacturing on this scale involves a corresponding amount of administrative oversight, and Fuller is the one who supplies it. Besides maintaining the production database, he handles costing and billing and manages relationships with vendors. The result, he says, can be that “I’m spending more time on the computer than I am on the shop floor.”
No matter what the task of directing the in-plant has required of him, Fuller has always taken steps to assure the shop’s continuity and to reinforce its favorable standing in the eyes of management.
When the time came to move on from the expense and complications of analog production, he convinced the company of the advantages it would gain from installing its first black-and-white copier. Spectronics also took his advice about leasing rather than buying the Xerox Versant 2100 so that eventually replacing it wouldn’t involve disposing of an owned but obsolescent piece of equipment. Grateful for cost-saving guidance like this, the decision-makers at Spectronics “have grown to respect my opinions over the years,” Fuller says.
The mutual support illustrates how close the alignment of interests can be in manufacturing environments. Working successfully with engineering staff, says Fuller, is a matter of “cross-basing knowledge” and staying focused on the fact that everyone in the company shares the same goals. This saves time, prevents miscommunication and leads to the most effective solutions.
Nevertheless, like every other in-plant, the Spectronics shop survives on its merits and its perceived usefulness to the parent organization. Although it produces most of the company’s labels, the in-plant doesn’t have right of first refusal and occasionally sees jobs sent to outside providers. Long Island, after all, is full of commercial printing businesses that can provide everything Fuller’s shop does and would relish having a company like Spectronics as a customer.
Service, Efficiency and Control
Where, then, does the ongoing perception of value come from? The answers, according to Fuller, are fast service, cost efficiency and production control.
In the Spectronics in-plant, a day that brings five new jobs will be followed 24 hours later by a day in which all five have been completed — even if they were all last-minute. When requested runs of labels are small, as they often are, no one has to worry about paying for 1,000-piece minimums. Nor are there any worries about security when printing labels carrying confidential or sensitive information.
Fuller has some action items remaining on his agenda before his retirement becomes official on December 31.
One is to finish training his successor, a Spectronics employee he has been grooming for the position over the past two years. Another is to identify a digital press that can affordably close the “big void” in capability he says exists between the in-plant’s tabletop AXXIS HS labeling system and the high-volume equipment it will need to stay ahead of demand. A laser diecutter is also on the list of new production systems that he’ll recommend.
Fuller says part-time consulting work may be in his future. His professional past offers more than four decades’ worth of proof that in-plants and manufacturing plants truly are “made” for each other.
Related story: In-plants at Manufacturing Companies