Narrow Web Profile: Graphic Solutions Inc.

By Jack Kenny | July 20, 2005

Bold steps take this Illinois converter well into the 21st Century.

Suzanne and Bob Zaccone are prominent figures in the label converting industry. This sister-brother team is involved in many aspects of the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute, and Suzanne served recently for two years as president of the association — a first for a woman in an industry dominated by men. Bob and Suzanne are known for their energy, for their ideas, for their enthusiasm and optimism. They are also known for their success.

For years their company — Graphic Solutions Inc., of Burr Ridge, IL — made its bread and butter in pressure sensitive flexo-printed labels, rigid products such as auto dashboard panels, and flat screen printing. In 1995 company sales revenue was $5 million. Today, Graphic Solutions is deeply involved in 21st Century technology, and sales have risen beyond $15 million.

Graphic Solutions has new equipment, new sections of the plant devoted to producing products that are distinctly new to the narrow web field. Some areas are off limits to visitors, especially visitors with cameras. The company boldly advertises its ISO QS9000 certification, required to do business in the automotive industry.

The Zaccones' penetration into new markets has been quiet, but now they are ready to talk about it and show their new stuff. Just days ago they announced the US launch of PowerCosmetics, in partnership with Israel-based Power Paper. Graphic Solutions will produce hundreds of millions of thin, flexible, environmentally friendly batteries that will power transdermal patches that contain cosmetic formulations.

Already the company is well into the RFID market. It manufactures components for electro-luminescence. It embeds security threads into sensitive documents. It is clear that the direction of the company has shifted, and the Zaccones plan to be established in the future when others arrive.

"Our industry has changed — is changing — greatly," says Suzanne. "There is innovation to a point, in such areas as in-mold labels, shrink sleeves, UV flexo, and digital printing. Down the road, however, there will be a lot of capacity. Five years ago we began exploring printed circuitry. We put some information on our web page and got quite a few inquiries. We ended up doing testing for suppliers, using conductive inks, etc."

"Today we are printing about a million circuits a day, every day," says Bob. "By 2005 we will do a billion a year."
RFID circuits are printed on a custom designed screen press with conductive inks.

Full-time visionaries
Suzanne and Bob Zaccone used to run the whole show at Graphic Solutions, but in the past couple of years they changed the way they work.

"We have removed ourselves from the day-to-day operations," Suzanne says. "Bob and I are now working full time on the strategic vision of the company. We have gone to a five-year plan, so that we can obsolete ourselves before our customers do."

Back in March, a company called IDTechEx produced a three-day conference called Smart Labels 2003 USA in Cambridge, MA. Bob Zaccone was there, networking and talking about a new organization called SAL-C, which stands for Smart Active Label Consortium. A founding member of the group, Graphic Solutions is working with other members to promote and develop the use of smart active labels in many industries. Smart active labels are distinct from smart passive labels in that they contain an integrated circuit and a power source, such as the thin, flexible batteries produced at Graphic Solutions, which enable enhanced functionality and higher performance, such as two-way communication.

Graphic Solutions has invested heavily in RFID production technology, transforming its screen printing equipment to produce the printed circuits, the batteries and the electro-luminescent products. The Zaccones have never thought of themselves as a "me too" operation, and knew that they had to undertake risk to get ahead. And they say they are satisfied that they are ahead.

"A lot of our friends are struggling now," says Suzanne. "In these new fields there is a learning curve, and equipment to buy, and time required to invest in this type of technology, time to find the right customers. And, of course, finding the money."

"The barriers to entry are very high," adds Bob, "in both time and capital."

The Zaccones are satisfied that the risk will soon pay off. "We have the potential to be huge," Bob says, adding that one job on which they have bid could require the addition of 10 presses.
Webtron and Mark Andy presses produce flexo labels.

In March, Graphic Solutions Inc. received its third Eugene Singer Award from TLMI. The award recognizes the best-managed companies in the industry, based on performance in the association's annual operations and finance ratio study. For the Zaccones it was the third award in a decade. "We won this not because of a merger or acquisition or the new technology we've undertaken," says Suzanne, "but because of our internal, organic growth with our core products.

"The future with this new technology is what we're betting the farm on," she adds, "and all we keep hoping is to hang on, because it's going to be an interesting ride."

Growing again
The Zaccones have a long history in the narrow web converting business. Their father, D.R. Zaccone I (Bob is II), owned a label company in Burr Ridge and the children learned the business there. Dad sold the business in the early 1980s to an outsider, even though Bob and Suzanne made him an offer. The children started their own label firm, and in 1985 bought a press. Five years and two ownerships later, the young Zaccones bought out the second owner and set up shop in the 18,000 square foot building where it all began.

There they remained until about five years ago, when they could fit no more into the building. They moved into a 40,000 square foot property just down the street, but kept the older building and leased it out. Now the Zaccones are in need of space again, and are considering expanding into the original structure, as their tenant is moving, which they feel is karmic timing.

"Very soon we will move our flexo, fabrication and hot stamp operations to the other building," says Bob. "This building (the headquarters) will be modified. We plan to create a clean room that will enable us to manufacture 600 million batteries a year — eventually."

The new technologies

The press room at Graphic Solutions Inc. is clean and organized.
A clean room already exists for the battery pilot operation. Behind internal walls with small windows can be seen men and women at work with lab coats and hair nets.

According to Tony Lewandowski, the general manager, the batteries are produced via screen printing, using specialized conductive liquid. Anode sheets and cathode sheets are printed in separate rooms, and eventually joined in a third room.

"This is an environmentally friendly system," Lewandowski says. "The batteries can be incinerated and landfilled. They contain no heavy metals. Others are making flexible batteries, but not environmentally friendly ones."

The electro-luminescent products and the RFID antennas also are applied using screen printing equipment. For these processes, drying is critical. The antenna presses feature complex drying towers to get the printed products dry. As a result of the need for extensive drying, press speeds are lower. "It's not really fast," says Lewandowski, "but that's what the ink requires."

Graphic Solutions' migration to 21st Century technology prompted the need for more expertise. For that reason, the Zaccones recently hired Jim Parker to be director of engineering. The creation of the position, Parker says, "is symbolic of Bob and Suzanne's commitment to new technology. What they are doing is right on the edge — it's very exciting."

What they are doing now is launching PowerCosmetics in the US.

Electronic cosmetics
Power Paper has licensed Graphic Solutions to produce hundreds of millions of thin, flexible, environmentally-friendly energy cells per year in a roll-to-roll production line. They will be integrated into two PowerCosmetics product lines that will "boost topical delivery of active cosmetic formulations, increasing their overall cosmetic efficacy by several orders of magnitude (100-fold improvement, a new study shows)," according to the official announcement.

The rewind area also serves as home for two Markem hot stamp machines (in the rear)
The products are called Vitalizer and Enhancer; both are intended to "actively rejuvenate the skin and/or enhance delivery of cosmetic formulations onto the skin. Vitalizer is a patch designed to fit facial and body contours, and comes in an extra strength (3 Volt) version, and regular strength (1.5V). "Galvanic micro-currents are applied to the skin, moisturizing the skin and fighting signs of skin aging and skin fatigue," says the statement. "This patch has particular skincare applications in the areas of skin lifting and firming, skin hydration, anti-wrinkles, skin rejuvenation and deep pore cleansing."

The Enhancer also comes in two versions. "Spot Treatment Enhancer has applications for improving the delivery of cosmetic agents for age spots, skin whitening, blemishes and acne, while the Eye Contour Enhancer has applications for improving the delivery of cosmetic agents for early and deep wrinkles, fine lines, puffy eyes and dark circles."

'Sibling revelry'
Day-to-day operations at Graphic Solutions are in the hands of Lewandowski and Ed Leahy, the controller. Leahy knows the Zaccones from way back; in 1979 he worked for the senior Zaccone handling the numbers, and young Bob was his assistant. He left the company for some years, but the next generation owners persuaded him to return. Leahy has nothing but praise for Suzanne and Bob Zaccone.

Top managers at Graphic Solutions Inc. are (from left) General Manager Tony Lewandowski, Controller Ed Leahy, and Engineering Director Jim Parker.

In describing their business vision and pursuit of new niches, he says: "They have the seven-year niche!"

"I enjoy working for them," Leahy says. "The roles have changed, but the relationship hasn't. How can you not want to work with these two people? I've never seen a brother and sister work together the way these two do. You've heard of sibling rivalry? Well, this is sibling revelry."

Graphic Solutions Inc.
311 Shore Drive
Burr Ridge IL 60527 USA
Phone: 630-325-8181
Web site: www.graphicsolutionsinc.com