Industry pros talk automation, new product development, foreign competition at Converting Influence spring meeting

Some of the industry’s hottest topics were on the agenda at last week’s Converting Influence spring meeting, held at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, WI. On the trade group’s panel were converters Brett Buratti, business development mgr. with Little Rapids Printing Div. (Green Bay, WI) and Richard Goepel, sales mgr. with Sellars Wipers (Milwaukee), and Brian Lynch, director-marketing & business development with supplier Tech4 (De Pere, WI).

Leading off the discussion, which drew plenty of give-and-take among the 40 audience members, Buratti updated the group on Little Rapids’ recent expansion of flexographic-printing capabilities with an 8th press being delivered soon to its Larsen Converting operation. The company also now has a well-established relationship with Next Generation Films (OH) to supply raw PE and PET films to serve its growing customer base for these materials. Little Rapids primarily serves clients with custom specialty papers as well in the retail, healthcare, hygiene and industrial markets.

Buratti brought up trends in flexo printing as a way to grow business, particularly expanded-gamut printing. “Consumer product companies are driving it,” adding 2-3 spot colors designed for their brands to CMYK, he says. If a converter / package printer can “demonstrate the economics, cost savings of today’s expanded gamut to customers, they might go for it.”

Goepel reviewed nonwovens converter Sellars Wipers’ seven-year development process for the latest, truly flushable fabric. The new-generation hand-towel material has 2- to 3-min temporary wet strength, then once in the toilet, it breaks down completely, avoiding the downstream clogging of sewers typical of previous nonwoven products. It has been tested by the National Sanitation Foundation and has passed all INDA standards. Target markets include hotel and restaurant guest towels as well as bathing cloths for hospital patients.

Sellars Wipers also is investigating other niche end markets along with new markets in Europe for the flushable fabric, which appeals to natural-fiber product customers with its eco-friendliness. “It’s hard to get it out of the packaging without tearing it, so you can see it breaks down easily,” Goepel says. “We had to develop a balance of strength and degradation, but the more stringent guidelines made it difficult at first to pass them.”

Automation is key to competitive manufacturing today, says Lynch. “There’s an increased focus on machine safety along with a need to cut labor costs and increase productivity,” he adds. He described one client’s automation of an old screen-printer / punch press to produce logos on key fobs. Linear servos now achieve 1,000th-of-an-inch accuracy, scrap is down to less than 1/10th-percent, and business has been taken away from its Chinese competition.

Lynch (and a few audience members) told of overspending by clients on some automation due to misconceptions or outdated thinking. He described how one customer overspent by $50,000 on a packaging line because of old safety and automation processes vs. new methods. Sometimes, however, it’s simply that a client has rules about what to specify and what vendors to use, which cannot be overturned, Lynch said.

On the topic of foreign competition, everyone had an opinion. For Buratti, today’s demands for customization, shorter runs and JIT supplying mean that “people want things yesterday, not delivered in 6-8 weeks from China. We’re keeping costs low and keeping [the business] in the US.” Goepel mentioned that Sellars Wipers’ proprietary processes along with its ability to keep overall costs-per-lb low enough make it difficult for Asian suppliers to compete. And Lynch also gave the example that reduced lead times for its products in stock is helping them beat Asian competitors.

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