Narrow Web Profile: OPM Group

By Barry Hunt | July 20, 2005

Film based flexo in the UK.

Received wisdom suggests that only the large packaging groups with integrated facilities can hope to gain business from today\'s hard-nosed corporate brand owners. Fortunately, small but agile firms also have a chance. The catch is you need to be a smart operator to do it. Being a patient owner-manager with a nose for business opportunities and an abiding respect for customers is a good way to start. A willingness to place one\'s neck on the block and take a few risks at times may also help. If this sounds like your company then shake hands with Chris Ellison, a fellow entrepreneur who comes from the north of England. He runs the OPM Group, a forward-looking label and packaging operation with headquarters near Keighley (pronounced "Keethley") in West Yorkshire. Ellison joined the company in 1986 and became sole owner in early 1989. Since then OPM has become internationally known for its high production standards, not least by successive judging panels handing out print awards on behalf of such bodies as the FTA, EFTA, TLMI and FINAT.

The group comprises four divisions, producing a turnover of about £6.3 million (US$12 million) with 60 employees. A sales director and four sales people generate the business, which includes a high level of referrals. Around 10 percent of output is exported and customers include US companies with European subsidiaries. OPM Labels Ltd. in Keighley produces prime self-adhesive labels and some packaging and accounts for 55 percent of turnover. Another OPM Labels plant is located at Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, to produce coding, marking and data labels. It also houses a group warehousing facility. OPM Systems in Keighley town center distributes thermal transfer machines and provides a short run print bureau. It reflects the company\'s beginnings in 1972 when, as Overprinting Machinery Ltd., it sold desktop label presses. It moved into label production around the mid-1980s using simple flexo presses to produce products for coding, marking and price/weigh applications.

The group\'s most ambitious venture so far has been OPM Flexibles. Formed in December 2000, it is located in a small factory near Bradford. From the beginning the aim was to use state-of-the-art UV flexo technology to produce the highest quality film labels and packaging. More than five years later it installed a second press. Output volume is expected to contribute over 30 percent of group earnings. "We wanted to set up the finest UV flexo operation possible in a dedicated factory. The aim was to produce not only filmic labels, but also top quality pouches and sachets, used for health care products, personal wipes and medical dressings," says Ellison.

"A core team of experts from chosen suppliers were appointed to guide the project," adds Darren Kaye, the business development director. "We had a clear idea of our objectives. We did not want to jump immediately on the UV flexo bandwagon, but admittedly we did not go as fast as we wanted. It all cost a lot of money and involved many talented people, but we did end up establishing niche partnerships with a team of dedicated suppliers." Intercolor, a UK flexo ink supplier; Praxair for anilox rolls; and RotoMetrics for solid and flexible dies were among the collaborators.

As for the actual press, the management team considered several models before choosing a Nilpeter FA-3300 UV flexo press, the first installed in the UK. OPM began using Nilpeter flexo presses in 1993. According to Ellison, the nine-unit press has given virtually trouble free service during double shift work and will soon have its UV curing system upgraded with GEW lamp units. It has earned OPM many of its print quality awards, including one for the very first commercial job - a film wraparound for an own-brand toothpaste pump.

A Nilpeter press at OPM
Earlier this year a second 13" wide FA-3300 was installed. It is the new servo driven "S" version, again fitted with nine UV flexo units, a cold foil unit and two Nilpeter/Stork drop-in UV rotary screen modules. Ellison says the servo drives have helped smooth out the production tasks when printing on thin, unsupported films: "On average we can change all nine colors and anilox rolls in about an hour and a quarter, using only about 150 feet of material in the machine." This makes it an ideal press for "short run" flexible packaging, i.e., work based on total substrate lengths of up to 300,000 feet. Typical jobs include brand managers\' sales samples or food and health care products being test marketed. It\'s not the type of work that suits web gravure and flexo packaging printers since it is both uneconomic and wasteful of materials. Nevertheless it remains a challenging sector for any narrow web printer who must achieve and maintain the same high quality levels. Here, holding 1 percent dots, and printing full color reversals with 4-point text as well as 2-point monochrome text is commonplace.

Modern UV flexo developments have helped, but the latest specialized inks and metalized foils, including those with holographic effects, have also widened printers\' horizons. OPM offers another example by supplying labels for the beverage sector. Worldwide and domestic customers include bottlers of so-called flavor alcohol beverages (FABs), as well as bottlers of wine and premium beers who use self-adhesive labels as an alternative to traditional wet glue labels. As elsewhere, some smaller regional breweries in the UK have been especially keen to use self-adhesive labels for the decorative and application benefits they bring.

Some history

All this is a long way from OPM\'s earlier days when it produced basic utility labels on Tacky Boy flexo presses. When it was time to move into full color primary labels in the early 1990s it found this meant investing in either a semi-rotary letterpress machine or a more costlier but faster rotary letterpress machine with UV curing. Recalling those days, Ellison said: "The process was not only too expensive for us, we didn\'t understand it. Water based flexo was our only option." As narrow web flexo color was still in its infancy in Europe, he went off to see what US manufacturers had to offer. Eventually he ordered a Model 700 from Propheteer, the company\'s first European installation. "It had a 7" web width, seven flexo units and a UV flexo varnish unit. It proved a great machine and was advanced for the time. We ran it for six years and I think it finally ended up in Poland."

As the business expanded, OPM\'s specializations included primary labels for the food and automotive lubricant sectors. A useful added-value business was printing pressure sensitive wallpaper borders, or friezes. In 1993 the first of three Nilpeter F-240 flexo presses were installed. The succeeding F-2400 version, with six units, came three years later, while a three-color F-2400 marked the opening of the Bromsgrove plant in 1998. The same year another F-2400, this time with five flexo units and a UV varnishing module, was installed in Keighley.

OPM undertakes some design and artwork in-house, but most origination comes from customers\' imported data files. There is no in-house platemaking. Instead all plates are supplied from a selection of top-rate trade houses conveniently located in the Leeds/Bradford region. There is, however, a fully equipped ink mixing and testing department based on CIE Lab color management principles. It includes an internet link with Intercolor, its main ink supplier, to assist the supply of base inks and formulate others for specific jobs. The facility contributes to reduced ink wastage and a more efficient usage of UV inks held in stock. Overall quality consistency is further assisted by maintaining the air conditioned pressroom at an equable relative humidity.

Of course, striving for technical excellence requires all employees to be sufficiently motivated to work well and take pride in the company. Ellison likens this ambition to engineering a brand: The people who buy into it are the staff, and it is they who must ensure that the customers -upon whom everything is based - also buy into the brand. In OPM Flexible\'s pressroom, a system of "cellular production" is used. Operators work in units to get presses quickly back in production after stoppages. "They know the presses are the only money maker. Full production is vital since everything else is an added cost, so there is a full reporting and feedback system to augment production planning meetings. In fact many staff have access to our networked management information system, which is located in Keighley."

For the future, product development will continue and the directors will examine more oversees markets, including the USA. One or more of the older Nilpeter presses may be replaced during the next year or so. However, digital color printing - a feasible option for short run work - is off the radar for now. The management is aware of the technology\'s benefits and limitations, but is content to adopt a "wait and see" approach. Whatever happens, OPM will continue to show that relatively small but well run production units in mature markets do have a place in an industry increasingly dominated by corporate organizations.

The OPM Group

Seedprint House, Halifax Road
Crossroads, Keighley
West Yorks, BD22 9DH, England

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