Edale: Transforming print

James Boughton, Edale

James Boughton, Edale

I recently visited Edale, a UK based international company located in Fareham, near Portsmouth on England’s south coast and met with Managing Director, James Boughton. The trip was a discovery of a company that has over the past 15 years changed considerably in terms of its business model, and doubled in size as a result. Traditionally Edale has been a manufacturer of print machinery for label printing. Their primary technology was always flexographic printing. And as a business they have been active in this way for 40 years. I talked to James about the evolution of the company and their plans for the future.

So James, tell me about Edale and the evolution of the company.

“I joined Edale back in 1995 as a graduate of Engineering from the University of Portsmouth. Steve Jordan (the current Technical director of Edale) and I joined at this time as one of a new small group of graduates.  

When we joined, flexo was still booming in line with the ever growing packaging sector. To be completely honest, the reputation of the technology at this time was not brilliant. The majority of the sales went to the far-east as manufacturing generally switched focus as Asia became the factory of the world.

Then 2000 heralded a change as new Edale members began to gain more influence and developed a new range of machines. At this time (2000-2002) Edale entered a new partnership with Agfa Dotrix who needed to provide finishing equipment for their single 26 inch wide digital inkjet label press. 

Agfa Dotrix Collaboration

Agfa Dotrix Collaboration

Agfa were struggling to sell Dotrix as people wanted more than simply print and rewind. Agfa decided they wanted to develop a hybrid version and we partnered with them to create a hybrid press with a combination of flexo analogue, digital dotrix and finishing. We ended up making about 30 print units. For our business it was a real step up dealing with a multinational organisation with new and developing machinery.

By working on this project we were fortunate enough to learn new things and Edale’s contribution became an important part of this product in the process. In 2009 we began developing the third generation Dotrix 30”   wide machine which was due to be launched in 2012 and this proved to be a pivotal moment for the company. However, just a short time before Drupa, Agfa dropped a bit of a commercial bombshell on us and decided to stop making the Dotrix”! 

So after this set back what happened?

“Although this was a little bit disappointing at the time, it actually proved to be the making of us. Because during this collaboration we had amassed 10 years of invested time and expertise and knew how to handle web for single pass inkjet. So from what seemed at the time negative, positive things began to happen. New opportunities came at us and these other organisations wanted to develop inkjet and a number of projects just came to the table. In fact, we were almost sat with a choice of different projects to choose from.

We decided that as a business, we didn’t want to be solely responsible for developing the inkjet technology as our core competence. We wanted to be a provider of design, engineering and finishing processes for developing inkjet packaging technologies. This is both our heritage and our expertise. We know all about packaging and have a depth of experience with 14 years in digital which is actually quite a long time!

This experience helps us help our customers in solving the problems of handling substrates for web and we know how to make a packaging machine and know what the solutions are.”

FFEI Graphium Collaboration

FFEI Graphium Collaboration

So how has the business changed?

“We are now an inkjet integrator as well as a flexographic manufacturer. 50% of our business is still manufacturing flexographic presses. But now 50% is designing, developing and integrating inkjet into new packaging printing lines. So it is quite a change in our business model.”

Does flexographic analogue still have a strong future with inkjet increasing?

“This is a difficult question to answer. It really is hard to say. These days you can print at 300 sq metres a minute with inkjet and it is getting faster. We are seeing examples where inkjet will match analogue in terms of speed and quality of production but only in certain applications. Nevertheless, I am not convinced we will see a total transformation.

With digital there is always a problem that will need to be solved. In contrast with analogue you have such a depth and breadth of ink selection and with inkjet you are still restricted in a number of places. You would have to have a good reason to print something digital. The cost of analogue inks is still a fraction of the cost of inkjet, and whilst this continues there will always be an issue with inkjet being a replacement technology. I think for packaging analogue and inkjet have a future.”

Will inkjet happily co-exist with analogue?

“Yes I think we are seeing this already with some interesting innovation with digital hybrid machines where analogue combined with digital is working well and you get the best of both technologies. The majority can be printed analogue then you deploy digital within the same machine to perform a role analogue is not suited to. 

However let’s be realistic, the amount of digital print for packaging is still quite small.  Flexo and offset is not dead. Recently I had a tour around a commercial printer looking at a bunch of analogue machines printing very quickly. It will take a lot of time for anyone to want to print digital with these kind of run lengths!! 

The problem with digital is that the relative ease of printing digital labels is not the case for packaging. People in the label industry don’t realise the fact they are in a niche and it is relatively straight forward compared with most packaging. The substrate is relatively simple and stable, the presses inexpensive and there are still pretty good margins being made.
To speak only of inkjet is not accurate either. For instance, we still are developing our flexo machines today. If you are a flexo printer it is still difficult to justify a transformation to digital. For an average printer it is not efficient. 

Looking at what is happening within the label market and applying this logic to the packaging market is not helpful either. The label printing market is much easier than the packaging printing market in terms of production. Within the label community for instance, there are digital only label printers – however for packaging this is not the case largely due to the relative technical complexity.

In the packaging world – you can’t just make stock machines and place them into a plant. The HP model is exactly the same, the part that may be different is the finishing line and this is configured each time. This is the same with hybrid – the inkjet engine is the same, but everything else is completely different – this gives us the role of helping companies to make it happen.

In order to help our customers solve complex technical challenges, we have built a part of our business around providing design engineering, consultancy and manufacturing for partners looking to develop products that will be branded as their own. So we’ve changed from a label print manufacturer to a design, manufacture and integrator and this is really growing for us. We have doubled revenue size since past two years, doubled our numbers of employees and the size of the factory size to a new 60,000 sq ft. production facility.”

How have you built the business?

"As I said the culture had changed at Edale and we were given more freedom to explore new ideas. These new ideas have been forged through the development of really successful partnerships that much of the industry would not know about. For example, we have a collaborative partnership with AB Graphic where we design  and manufacture the print finishing technology for the HP Indigo 20000. And this technology has been pretty successful! In addition to this we were also involved in the creation of the Graphium made by FFEI . Another exciting collaboration with Inca Digital has just been made public where we are developing web transport systems up to 1600mm wide running at 300 m/min!

For us, a really important word is collaboration. We now want to focus on what it is that we excel at and by collaborating we can do just that. We took the decision to exhibit at InPrint because this event is clearly about developing new technologies and it is a perfectly focused place to develop new partnerships that will take Edale into new areas.”

Edale HQ Fareham, Hampshire, UK

Edale HQ Fareham, Hampshire, UK

How are regions different?

“The particular drivers for change are always different from region to region therefore the technological development varies. For example in the US we have we developed bigger, wider and faster solutions for longer runs.  As a result the US will adopt hybrid far more than Europe as it is a much bigger single market so the run length is far higher. Compared with other regions another noticeably different characteristic is that the US is open minded, they take a risk and just go for it.”

What is the key driver for change in packaging in your opinion?

“I think it has got to be about adding value to the product they are showing. A label can cost twice as much but it can triple sales if it is creative and clever. In addition, digital enables a quicker turn around. Customers will pay more if you are able to deliver more quickly with something other people cannot match. The growth potential is there now for inkjet for packaging, it kind of feels like the time has come for the packaging sector to really embrace inkjet and from our perspective, and for the wider market we think that it is fine if it co-exists with analogue as this way you really do get the best of both worlds.”

What will Edale be doing at InPrint?

“At InPrint we will show our design and competence for the development of industrial print technologies particularly for single pass inkjet for packaging. We will be interested in meeting with companies that need our help in designing, manufacturing and integrating inkjet into their particular packaging lines. The show is perfectly positioned for us to meet the right people who are keen to change how they print and produce within the packaging sector and we look forward to the positive outcome we will surely get from our time at the show.”

For more information check out the Edale website here