Narrow Web Profile: Topflight Corporation

By Jack Kenny | March 3, 2006

For more than half a century, this converter has been at the forefront of innovation. Today it remains a technology and business leader.

Above: The newest homemade flexo press at Topflight

A company's reputation is built on a foundation composed, among many elements, of skill, intelligence, service, quality products, and the right people. A company's reputation can vary among its customers and peers, but in every industry there can be found a group of firms whose reputations are far-reaching and strong. Topflight Corporation is one of those.

For more than 50 years, this US-based label converter has supplied decoration and identification products to some of the biggest names in the consumer products arena. If you use a tool or an appliance made by Black & Decker, for example, you are handling a Topflight label. If your father or your grandfather has Black & Decker tools going back as far as 1954, the labels on those are also Topflight's.

Maintaining a high reputation has meant moving beyond basic label converting into areas far more challenging, and Topflight has pursued these challenges consistently, often entering a new field early, quietly and deliberately. While many narrow web companies are now exploring the potentials and pitfalls of RFID labeling and construction, Topflight began working in that field in the 1990s, and today is in its third year as the contract converter of RFID labels for Alien Technologies, one of the main RFID producers. The converter is no stranger to such technologies as the printing of conductive inks and the manufacture of security packaging devices and medical components.

Owned by Erwin Huber, Topflight had its beginnings in 1943 as a precision machine shop, making components for World War II aircraft. By 1950 it was developing pressure sensitive labels to identify parts, as well as designing its own advanced presses to produce the labels.

Terry Sheaffer operates a Kammann screen press.
By 1960 it was taking on greater challenges — shrinkable films and self-destructing materials among them — in labels and adhesives. A decade later it had moved into emerging electronics products, such as conductive printing, sensors and membrane switches.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, Topflight moved into its current headquarters, a 97,000 square foot facility in Glen Rock, PA. Today the company has ISO 9001:2000 certification, and more than 150 employees working three shifts. (Recently, says Dave Buchholz, vice president of operations, efficiency moves have allowed Topflight to run a two-shift workday with a flexible third shift.) Moreover, Topflight has affiliates with manufacturing facilities in various corners of the world — Columbia, Venezuela, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Australia — companies in which it has equity interests. That adds another 300 people to the global productivity picture.

To further round out the technology picture, Topflight has a sister company, Adhesives Research, which is located a few miles away. That company is a world leader in research, development and manufacture of adhesives of all kinds.


Custom equipment

Topflight Corporation is large enough, and successful enough, to create positions and departments that focus intensely on specific aspects of manufacturing. For example, the company has a vice president and director of electronics and medical markets, as well as an RFID manager. It also has a vice president of supply chain. Topflight has in-house auditors, Six Sigma recognition, and supplier auditing and certification.

Bob Koch in the Topflight machine shop
The company owns the latest in digital prepress equipment, including an Esko CDI Spark imager and the DuPont FAST plate production system. In print production, it offers flexographic, letterpress, screen, gravure, digital, hot stamping, and combination printing. Among its array of dozens of presses, many bear well known brand names, such as Gallus, Mark Andy, Kammann, and Focus. Other presses, however, are unbranded. These are the Topflight machines, new and old, designed from the ground up to print and convert exactly the way Topflight wants its machines to run. These imposing pieces of equipment, as well as inspection rewinders and many others, are designed by the company's staff of engineers and technicians in its full-service machine shop and CAD department.

Four distinct market groups make up the majority of Topflight's product focus. These are consumer and durable goods (e.g., power tools, small appliances, batteries, and fire extinguishers), cosmetics and personal care (hair care, color cosmetics, personal care, skin care), medical and pharmaceutical (syringe labeling, EKG electrodes, island placement, biosensors, blood bags), and electronics (RFID, flexible circuitry, electroluminescent displays, antennas, security products).


Lean thinking

Topflight President Michael A. Falco Jr. has made several appearances before his fellow converters at meetings of the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute to explain the company's foray into Lean Manufacturing. The restructuring of its manufacturing processes into cells has enabled Topflight to realize improvements in the two most important areas: inside the plant and inside the customer's operation. Internally, the changes have reduced material and labor waste, and have improved throughput and output. According to Buchholz, the actual number of human steps required to produce a label has been reduced by 80 percent through the implementation of lean changes.

Shannon Yohe operates a rewind inspection machine built by Topflight.
The cells are simple in concept and design, but require significant retooling of work flow and work ethic. At Topflight, the cells are described as "market vertical", and the work done in each stays focused on one of the company's specific market areas.

One cell, for example, is devoted to health and beauty products. In one clearly defined area of the plant can be found the press (a custom-built multi-station flexo combination press), three rewinders, and a team of seven people who are responsible for nothing but the output in that cell. Plates are ready four hours ahead of a job. Roll materials are waiting to be mounted. Inspection and shipping people are in place. Steps are few, and the atmosphere is charged and positive.

"It's about a 12-month cycle to redo the manufacturing floor to create a market vertical cell," says Buchholz. "And we are always realigning them to make them even tighter."

Results? Buchholz says that productivity from the cells has risen from 10 percent to 300 percent, and that the company has seen a reduction in errors of 50 percent.

One result of the lean improvements has been a reduction of the internal warehouse space. "Two years ago we took 20 percent of our warehouse, chopped it from the expense side of the business and moved it to revenue generation with more production equipment," says Buchholz. He pointed to the wall at one end of the warehouse, a wooden wall that was clearly temporary in its construction. "That will move as the warehouse continues to shrink," he adds.


Challenging markets

Topflight President Michael Falco

Topflight Corporation is a major player in the emerging RFID market. Tom Hartmann, the RFID manager, says that the company has years of experience working with electrical components and conductive inks. For the printing of antennas "the technology uses screen, as well as gravure. But we are inventive to the point where we are starting to use flexo in the process. We are still working on it, but we'll get there.

"We are different — in our core markets and in the areas where we specialize. We will take on markets that are more challenging. That's why Alien Technologies tapped us three years ago to be their contract converter, because we were able to get our equipment and procedures and processes in place to be able to handle their work quickly and capably."

"Topflight also provides a wide range of products and unique converting capabilities to the security market," says Brad Harner, VP and director of electronics and medical markets. "Security assurance measures are entrenched in all procedures, including constant video surveillance of the materials throughout the facility and all operations."

Through its relationship with Adhesives Research, Topflight is capable of utilizing taggants in many different applications. These can be customized, says Harner, to contain a wide range of information, such as alphanumeric or images, and can even be adjusted so they can go into the coating on a pill.

Supply chain champions

Improving the customer's business is one of the commandments etched in stone at Topflight. To further that goal, the company has developed a program that it calls Operation Eliminate. According to Tom Koslowsky, director of new business development, the goal of the program is "to remove time and touches from the buying process."

Operations VP Dave Buchholz talks with Brian Litvak, manager of the health and beauty label production cell.
Operation Eliminate involves "getting information about what the customer is running, the real needs, not what is forecast. We accept a lot of the responsibility of handling a customer's needs. That involves downloading the data from the customer, eliminating the purchase order, and moving ahead with it. The customer pays us when they use the labels," Koslowsky says.

The program started with long-time customer Black & Decker. "Our durable goods customers were among the first to feel the effects of overseas competition," Koslowsky notes. "They had to take costs out, and they were getting pressure from the Home Depots and the Wal-Marts to drop their costs. So we have been working with them on cost reduction since the 1990s at least." Since then, other well known consumer products companies have signed on to the program.

The cellular production system factors strongly into Operation Eliminate, says Koslowsky. "Most of the cells are based around customers. We devote presses to them." Another major company, he adds, used to have nine label vendors, and Topflight was among them with $40,000 of annual business. Because of the lean manufacturing structure and the cost reductions it was able to realize both at the customer and manufacturing levels, Topflight is now that company's number one supplier.

The wall at the far end of Topflight's warehouse is not permanent. As the company increases its internal efficiencies, the wall is moved to shrink the storage space.
"In some plants you hear the phones ringing all day in customer service. We don't have that," Koslowsky says, "because with these customers we know what we will have to do the moment their planner knows it."

Getting customers involved in the lean system is a challenge, he adds, because it involves an open, electronic exchange of information and a lot of trust. Facilitating that process is Nancy McHenry, the VP of supply chain. "She is up on it, teaches our customers about the process, and works with them," he says.

"It's vendor managed inventory," Koslowsky observes. "It's our inventory until the customer consumes it. This process helps them offset that Wal-Mart cost pushback. It allows us to get more creative with how we do business. On the customer side there's no inventory, no obsolete labels, reduced operating expenses, and an increase in cash flow. Overall, we estimate that the savings comes out to about 25 percent."


277 Commerce Drive
Glen Rock PA 17327 USA

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