When he describes Dion Label Printing, John Dion speaks carefully, deliberately and with obvious forethought. Those descriptors can be employed to describe accurately the progress that the company has made over its 40-year history to its present state of success. John Dion explores a subject thoroughly, which is also a good way to describe how the company's growth has been managed.
John and his brother, Dave, have piloted the company founded by their parents to a position of strength in many label markets, along the way paying close attention to technological developments. They have adopted those which have added to the company's capabilities, and are poised today for more change.
Traditionally a flexo label house, Dion Label Printing is now enjoying the fruits of digital printing to a significant degree. The introduction of the company's first HP Indigo press in 2005 marked the beginning of a change in the company's focus on production, a shift that accelerated with the acquisition a year later of a second HP press.
Dion Label Printing today is a regional and national converter, based in Westfield, MA, USA, with annual sales around $12 million. The company employs 70 people and operates in a 30,000 square foot plant.
Most tales of upstarts in the label industry begin with a small press in the entrepreneur's garage. This one starts in the basement. With Jane Dion's encouragement, the elder John Dion left a company in the late 1960s and installed a 4" Mark Andy press down below the living quarters of their home. "He made good labels out of it," says son John. "He was prospering reasonably well. There were healthy businesses in this area that were in need of labels: a brush company that operated until just a few years ago, a company that makes abrasives, just down the road from here, for whom we still make labels. He had a base of customers that were available, nearby and loyal, and they provided a good launch pad for his future business."
The founder dreamed that his sons would join him, but in the early days that thought was not in the boys' minds. Young John and Dave went to college, John graduating with a degree in computer science, Dave with a mechanical engineering degree. After a stint with Boeing in Washington, Dave returned in 1981 to join the label business. John had worked for a couple of companies in his field, and a couple of years after Dave returned, John accepted his father's invitation to join them.
"When an opportunity comes along, something kind of unique, it is worth considering, more worth considering than it had been when we were in high school. And also, we felt that we had earned our way, earned a measure of respect and developed some outside experience that we were able to bring to the business."
During the 1980s, the Dions felt that they could take on projects of greater challenge and complexity. From direct mail label printing they learned the power of organization. "We were getting overnight packs of orders to be distributed all over the country in a matter of five days," John recalls. "The printing wasn't difficult, but the organization, getting it done in time to ship products out in five days, was something that really focused our attention."
Around the same time, the company got into the ski ticket business. "It started when we convinced the local ski area that we should do their lift tickets," says John. "It turned out to be more challenging than we expected. At the time it was just pinfed labels. Everybody was using dot matrix printers, and we thought we could do that too. It fit right in with what we could do, except for the numbering part. That was tricky. We tried using a fast line printer the first year and found out that was pretty disastrous. We'd need a whole room full of line printers if we were going to succeed with that. We went offline and got an Arpeco, and Domino Amjet put together the first high speed consecutive inkjet numbering systems. That made a huge difference in the numbers of tickets we could produce.
"Dad was able to add a couple of ski areas in Vermont: Mount Snow, one of the big names, went with us the following year, then Killington. Next thing you know we were all over the place in that particular business. In the late '80s we went to a show in Boston put on by the National Ski Area Association. We made a presentation, impressed people from all over the country, won the best small booth award and got a lot of attention for it. Then we made a trip out West, made a sample run of labels for Aspen, and got their order the following year. That gave us a foothold there, and we branched out to other ski areas in the West as well. Today we are national in that particular market."
Ski lift tickets are not what they used to be. According to Dion Art Director Susan Hebert, some of the ski venues even want hot stamping on the tickets. Process printing, adds John, was not in the mix for years, but today it's dominant among the ski resorts. Some customers have toyed with RFID, which might be a future trend.
Dion Label Printing is active in many markets. "Supporting us all these years has been a group of steady customers in the food and beverage business; the food business has always been there – specialty foods, as opposed to major national brands. For the past 12 years, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals have been a large and growing segment for us, as have nutraceuticals. In recent years we've been making labels for the medical imaging business: We print the base labels that become the imaging targets, in a variety of different configurations, for a big national concern." The company also makes labels for the industrial, beauty and toy markets.
The Dions have for years been conscious of promoting a clean and healthy environment. When they made their first foray into platemaking, they elected to go with a water wash system. "We held off for a long time because it is a solvent intensive experience and we didn't want to get involved in that," John Dion says. "We took our first shot when water wash-out plates were possible, and we made a large number of those. We didn't make any of our screen (gradient) plates because we couldn't make really good quality screens with the waterwash plates. We used that system for three or four years." That process eventually yielded to a solvent system, which the company used for many years.
"As time went by we found that the complexity of jobs was greatly increasing. I don't know when it started to change drastically, but sometime in the '90s the average customer began demanding – expecting – much higher quality. We started going to many more process jobs, many more screen jobs. A lot of our lift tickets involved screens; even if they weren't process jobs they involved gradient screens," John says.
One of the company's goals was to get rid of the solvent process, and so a couple of years ago they made the transition to direct-to-plate, acquiring an Esko imager and the DuPont FAST system. Since then, says Hebert, the company has appreciated the consistency and speed of the new process. "The biggest transition is not the plate," she adds, "but the lack of film."
Dion Label prints on seven flexographic presses: six Propheteers and one Nilpeter. They have kept the older machines working well, rebuilding when necessary and tightening up tolerances. "The Propheteers," John says, "are prone to bar marking, especially on certain kinds of jobs. As we moved into more difficult work we didn't want to fight it on every job, so we bought a 13" Nilpeter and that pretty much solved that problem. Still a conventional printing model, same kind of equipment, line shaft driven, but still very good results and tight register. We are ready for that next transition to servo presses. I think that's been a long time coming."
Several years ago, Dion Label found that some of its runs were growing shorter, producing a strain on the flexo operation in terms of plates, makeready, and waste. "We found with our nutraceutical and OTC business that those labels especially were becoming increasingly complex. We were spending more time setting up for relatively short runs and multiple items than we were actually running our presses, particularly the Nilpeter. It became evident that we were really working much too hard on the front end with the plates, the mounting, the positioning, getting the cylinders ready, registering."
That realization led the company to acquire its HP Indigo digital presses. "We did an analysis and flipped a great deal of our pharmaceutical work over to the digital press as soon as it came in," says John. "We had more than enough work to keep the flexo business busy as it was, so we were becoming burdened. The real question was would we buy another flexo press at that time. We weren't that clear on whether the servo presses were ready to go at that time. Or would we jump into digital? We just thought that the digital presses fit exactly with what we were spending so much of our time dealing in. Our experience has proven that that was the case."
"Within a year we were able to load two shifts onto the digital presses," says Susan Hebert. "Our conventional printing environment became more efficient and more cost effective. Less time is being wasted in setup." The digital presses utilize seven-color printing: Orange and violet are added to the CMYK mix, with green as the seventh color on one press and white on the other.
The company has since been able to cut back from two shifts in the flexo department to a little more than a shift. "Currently in the flexo area we really only run a shift-plus," says John. "There's overtime every day, there's often some weekend work, but it's really just one main shift. But we are running two full shifts on both presses in the digital room. So there definitely has been a shift where we have seen better than 25 percent of our work by dollars go to the digital room, and that's increasing all the time. I would say that far more than that in the number of jobs that are processed through there. So digital printing has become the engine that drives us."
Randy Duhaime, the company's general manager, points out that Dion is exploring an addition to the flexo printing division, a press that would incorporate servo drive technology. "We are getting to the point in the conventional room that we are going to have to get another piece of equipment out there, because it's growing as well, so we are going to have to invest in that anyway."