I recently visited Alan Shaw of Natgraph in Nottingham, UK, to discover more about the business, their history, their products and their view of the future. The overwhelming memory I took from the experience, to be completely honest, was Alan’s energy and enthusiasm, Natgraph’s team ethic and the level of success to which they have achieved.
Natgraph is a UK based business and leading machinery producer for the industrial screen print sector specialising in drying and curing. I learned that Natgraph are now clearly the world leader specialising in drying and curing technology particularly for this process for industrial printing across a diverse set of industries.
Principally Europe's largest manufacturer of conveyorised dryers, utilising forced air, infra-red energy and ultra violet radiation. Natgraph’s drying technology is now predominantly used to dry surface coatings applied during the screen-printing process. However, Natgraph's commitment to evolution means that new application solutions are being continually designed and developed.
According to Alan, the most significant area of development has been in conveyorised drying technology. Natgraph's state of the art dryers, utilising Forced Air, Ultra Violet radiation, Infra-red energy or most commonly a combination of all. With their strategic partnerships with Sakurai & Thieme, global leaders in screen printing machinery, this has further confirmed Natgraph as the leader within this field of expertise.
Right at the beginning of the conversation, Alan pointedly highlighted the importance of the people within Natgraph’s team as being an integral part of the success of the company. Indeed, Natgraph has 10 team members who have been at the company for 25 years or more. And they have a total of over 700 years of experience within the company!!
Alan explains, “Whilst the commercial direction of the business may come from the directors, the ideas and designs for new products come from the team and it is the team that really comes up with the ideal solution.”
Industrial and manufacturing companies are now the customer profile of choice for Natgraph. But this wasn’t always the case as back in the 1980’s, as graphic screen printers represented their core customer base. But Natgraph were able to adapt to see demand changing but also a significant marketplace with growing demand.
Since the establishment of the company in 1979 Natgraph has achieved an astonishing 13,838 (as of 30 March 15) installs of equipment around the world. And the business is most certainly committed to screen printing! Alan says himself that despite the much publicised death of screen printing, Natgraph grew 12% last year and look set to break that again in 2015 which is both a positive and impressive fact.
The Growing Industrial Print Sector
Alan explained that he has seen an industry transform in recent years as the company has evolved. "We haven't invested a huge amount of speculative revenue in R&D over the years, but we have developed our technology and our products on special projects and by listening to our customers and deciding what it is they need. This approach has helped Natgraph continually evolve and grow our business from one that was almost entirely focused on graphic screen printing into a business that now almost entirely services the higher value end product, industrial print sector."
By the time that graphic screen printing was contracting Natgraph had already begun working within the industrial print sector and the demand and diversity of applications led us to build a business that has developed cutting edge technology for a diverse range of industries from medical and automotive through to textile transfers and credit card manufacture.”
The drying and curing process is an undeniably important part of the process of any print process but as Alan says; it is often overlooked as pretty much everyone involved in print technology tends to focus their main energy and attention on the print machine itself, without truly realising the importance and significance of the drying process.
Alan explains, “It is a shame that it is so often overlooked because the right system will improve productivity, increase efficiency and most of all the consistent quality of the end product. At Natgraph we see ourselves dealing with process & production engineers. All types of applications go through our dryers and the end product is very valuable. Natgraph has therefore developed technology with a key set of production competences that deploys the creation of mechanical, welding, laser-cutting, electrical wiring as well as working with state of the art software so the amount of work to create a dryer shouldn't be underestimated."
Partnership and Customisation
Alan emphasises that "each dryer is tailored to suit each individual customer’s requirements. Natgraph is therefore not in the business of shifting boxes. An automotive customer has completely different requirements to a medical sensor manufacturer to a textile printer. This makes sense. It's our responsibility to create and integrate our machinery and technology to be able to contribute to the making of a product in partnership with the customer.
New ideas tend to come from us seeing a problem and an opportunity. I talk to the team who then, assuming they believe that the opportunity will turn it into a viable product, we then solve the problem. This simple approach to product development has led us to creating some tremendous drying systems by solving customer’s problems and more importantly improving their profitability."
There is most certainly an unwavering focus at Natgraph in creating machinery that assists in effective drying with screen printing almost entirely the focal technology.
Alan continues, “As well as this focus, there is also a commitment to partnership with our customers. A great example of this is the establishment of the Natgraph Drying Solutions Centre which is a key platform for sales and education on the importance of drying. Customers really value the opportunity to see our technology working with their own eyes, to sample the output and to work with the technology. We recognise it is a large investment for any customer so to be able to get a clear understanding of the value of the product, the ease at which you can operate it plus the performance of the product is like the ultimate road test in race conditions. They will leave the Drying Solutions Centre with the actual printed product and the data that accompanies it.”
But what about the future? If Natgraph has been very successful at evolving with changing demand, where does Alan see the future going for the business?
“Without question, the future of Natgraph is wedded to the growing demands for industrial and advanced printing applications. I believe the medical sector will continue to grow in its scale as the world becomes wealthier. For instance medical bio sensor production represents $4Billion globally and it is a growing market as we continue to become less healthy, and more people become diabetic and need to use bio sensors. Screen printing is playing a key role in this field of innovation with pruducts which enable a Dr to find out clearly if a particular person is a candidate for heart attack. Medical professionals using this new technology will be able to easily run a check on the blood to ascertain whether you are likely to become ill in later life. “
In addition to medical applications, Alan sees a continued role for screen printing in the production of automotive, electronics, flexible circuits, computing, textile as well as new niches such as the trend for hotels to use intelligent plastic cards for room keys & in-house billing etc.
Alan concludes, “As well as general growth linked to demand, we think that special projects will continue to become important and this means that the industrial screen printer will need to be very focused on managing production time. As a business we do not just sell the technology. We can visit a customer’s premises and pretty quickly work out how to improve their output by assessing their productivity and helping them to optimise their efficiency. We know the capabilities of this technology better than anyone, along with the most effective way in which to operate and integrate this into a production line.”
So the future looks strong for industrial screen printing and Natgraph’s growth proves this to be the case. To see Natgraph, meet Alan and the team, make sure to visit InPrint Show 10-12 November 2015 in Munich. Natgraph will be exhibiting in Hall A6, booth number B48
For more information on Natgraph http://www.natgraph.co.uk/home/