Narrow Web Profile: Graphic Label Solutions

By Rock LaManna | November 14, 2016

Going Lean with LED technology is fueling the growth of this Tennessee converter.

2407 Pulaski Hwy, Columbia, TN 38401

Continuous improvement is the operating philosophy at Graphic Label Solutions (GLS) in Columbia, TN, USA. At the helm is lean practitioner Deb Warner, president. In only 14 years, the company has grown steadily and now serves Fortune 100 customers and their suppliers. Warner runs GLS with her niece and business partner, Allison Spader, who joined the company in 2005. 

With 20 cross-trained employees, the company produces custom pressure sensitive labels, decals, overlays, RFID labels and membrane switches. Growth products are point of purchase (POP), flexible packaging, printing on shrink wrap, IMD (in-mold decorating), and IML (in-mold labeling).

IMD involves a polycarbonate surface that is molded into parts for appliances or other OEM products. IML material is thinner; it goes into a hopper with a vacuum process to create consumable products. With this complement of products, GLS aims to be a single source provider.

State-of-the-art LED technology
Behind the range of products is LED technology, the foundation of GLS’ in-house production equipment. The addition of the LED equipment came about after a 2010 flood in the plant swamped the company’s conventional UV machinery.

The disaster became an opportunity to buy faster, greener equipment. With the purchase of the EFI Jetrion 4950LX, Graphic Label Solutions says it became the owner of the first LED digital label press in the world.

Instead of using screen printing inks and UV curing, the LED press uses digital inks, cured on the fly with LED. The 4950LX offers an inline process that encompasses digital printing, LED curing, spot or flood varnish/lamination, slitting/winding, and high-speed laser diecutting. Its design allows GLS to add other processes as they become available as well.

The machine aligns with GLS’ sustainability goals as it produces no heat, has no carbon footprint, uses minimal electricity compared to traditional equipment, and minimizes make-ready waste. Other features of the EFI Jetrion 4950LX include 720 x 720 dpi down to 2 point type, substrate flexibility and no color limitations.  The press is compact, thus allowing GLS to add the inline laser diecutting option.

In addition to its digital printing assets – which also includes equipment from Gerber, HP Indigo and Mimaki – GLS also has an extensive lineup of LED screen printing machines. In 2013, working with Kamman, Warner says GLS became the first in the world to install an LED screen printing press.

On the flexo side, GLS has an 8-color Aquaflex press and a Mark Andy 2200 press with 10 color stations. In addition, the company has equipment from Demak for the manufacturing of dome labels.
Looking back, a Lean and systematic approach has been at the heart of GLS since its founding.

Brokering labels at the start
Warner launched Graphic Label Solutions when family circumstances required her to move back to Tennessee. After an extended leave of absence and then a brief return to her job in New York, Warner decided to go into business for herself.

Her professional background has spanned materials purchasing, estimating, production coordination and customer service. Her specific expertise was in labeling, security envelopes and other printed and screen printed products.

She chose to focus on producing labels and products for OEM applications. By working with OEM suppliers, her customers would make parts or subsystems used in another company’s end product. 

Expanding through certification and networking
The first few months of business were rough, she says, but in January of 2003 her fortunes changed. The State of Tennessee started a lottery to award business to diverse suppliers. Her company was chosen.

With the urging of program partners, she became certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) in 2005. WBENC is a non-profit certifier of businesses owned, controlled and operated by women in the US.

To be certified, Graphic Label Solutions went through a rigorous business analysis, including an audit to verify that the company is truly controlled by women. The state program and WBENC certification were incredible door openers, says Warner, not only for the contracts awarded but for the educational and networking opportunities.

The company’s gradual ramp up was now a skyrocket. “In 2011, we grew 168%,”  Warner recalls.

The benefits of Adding team-based process management
Next, Warner began using process management to increase efficiency and throughput. She also saw it as a way to empower her employees.

With Six Sigma methodologies, employee teams became “process owners.” Process ownership is more than an assignment or a responsibility, Warner explains. There’s true buy-in for continuous improvement. As each process interacts with other areas in the company, new teams are created – usually across departments – to identify issues, analyze impediments and optimize each resulting process.

“When we assemble these teams to solve an issue, we call them Kaizen events,” explains Warner. Employees are cross-trained and teamed up in various permutations to perform tasks and improve outcomes. A cross-functional customer service team, for example, includes members from sales, production and customer service.

Within a department, a team – or cell – can come together when needed, say to get a job on press quickly. “Our goal is to have a job on press with an acceptable sheet within 15 minutes. We can tell within 10 sheets if we have a problem,” explains Warner.

The cell doesn’t have to wait for the job to be printed, diecut and then inspected. “The equipment is right there, the job is being finished as soon as it’s produced, and we’re inspecting pieces on the fly,” she says.

As each solution is achieved, new issues arise and refinements are needed. “That’s why it’s a continuous process,” says Warner.

“The success of the Kaizen process has enhanced employee relations and retention,” says Warner. “People like working where their ideas are heard and implemented thoughtfully. Making a visible difference day after day is extremely satisfying for all of us.”

Lean raw materials and ‘Cradle to cradle’ accountability
After her early successes with the Lean operating model, Warner moved upstream and began choosing raw materials and substrates that fit the company vision.

She began to source materials that were green. Soon she strove to find and develop products that were sustainably created and could be disposed of without ending up in landfills. She calls it “cradle to cradle” accountability.

“We want to be sure what goes into the earth or the waste stream at the end of the life of our product is green and sustainable,” says Warner. “To that end, we’re producing 100% compostable labels using sugar cane and hemp that literally can go into your yard composter or down your garbage disposal.”

Continuously improving its customers’ end products and finding innovative ways to use green materials is a priority at Graphic Label Solutions.

Streamlining product design through software and processes
Operational efficiency and quality extends to the online portal, where customers can order jobs and make changes.

In OEM work, it’s common for designers and engineers to continuously refine their products. Warner says she wanted a better way to track the proper drawings and the correct version.
“By creating our own proprietary software, customers can manage this process online, and we can be assured that we are using the version they intended,” says Warner.

When customers log in to GLS’ online system, they enter a part number. Everything associated with that part number is immediately available, from drawings to changes to order history.

Users have the ability to easily revise an engineering plan to create a new part and get an automated acknowledgement of the order. The revision creates a new part number, tied to the new drawings and all supporting documentation.

There’s no confusion about versions, as each item has its own unique parts number.

“With products that are becoming explosively popular, the need to manage iterations is crucial,” Warner explains. “For example, our customers are innovating a number of bacteria-inhibiting products right now, using unique materials such as Steri-Cal.”

An example of where Steri-Cal can be used is on the synthetic mat on the grocery counter that is touched hundreds of times a day by money and hands. The material can be fabricated for washroom doors and light switches in restaurants, escalator handles in airports, surfaces in childcare facilities and hospitals, and even in some medical devices.

Speaking of materials, another benefit of the company’s online interface is that it allows customers to see the status of raw supplies on the fly.

“They see information in real time, just as we do at GLS,” Warner explains. “If there’s an issue or delay, we work together with the supplier to find options or alternate sources. This way the customer can make informed decisions.”

Involving the customer in workflow improvements
With a high level of involvement by the customer on the design side, Warner always wants to be sure customers understand GLS’ production goals.

She invites customers to participate in Kaizen events, too, so they can review their own project workflow and give feedback. There may be roadblocks within their own organization, issues that surfaced with previous providers, or simply a need to clarify expectations.

Wherever the issues are, the first step to improvement is measurement. “You can’t change what you can’t measure,” says Warner. With new customers, her team will start small. “We address primary pain points first such as meeting their timeline and quality requirements.”

In fact, one significant change came about because of customer input. In the company’s early days, Warner personally dealt with after-hours phone calls because she was always on the job. However, as the company grew, customers had to wait until daytime to talk to a real person. Once Warner involved customers in the Kaizen process, she learned they needed around-the-clock access to someone who could expedite hot projects or authorize quick turnarounds.

“For eight years now, we’ve had a manager on duty after hours and on the weekends,” Warner says.

In the typical company fashion, the true ROI of this option is regularly measured. “Customer satisfaction, improved workflow and the elimination of management by crisis – these are tangible benefits of having a manager available to customers when they need one.”

Planning for the future
Efficient, crisis-free operations have driven the decision to choose partners who can back her up in emergencies while achieving GLS’s quality needs. Protecting the operation in this way has required outreach, a written plan, careful vetting of suppliers and choosing people who are aligned with Warner’s vision.

“We have an open-door relationship with other printers,” she says. “Strategic partnerships and friendly relations have always helped us, never hindered. It’s a changing world. We want the best for our competitors and raw material suppliers. Being a role model and resource raises the level for all of us.”

In addition, the onboarding of Warner’s business partner and niece, Allison Spader, is a key part of the operational plan. Spader works closely with department managers to oversee and implement the corporate vision. Spader shares Warner’s commitment to Kaizen methodologies for honing operations, empowering teams, and capitalizing on talent within the company.

As a team, Warner and Spader will continue on the path of innovation and operational excellence as the company grows and the industry evolves.

Regarding industry evolution, Warner gives this advice: “Never stop looking inward at what you can do better. Continuous improvements and incremental corrections are what keep you on course and better positioned for tomorrow.”

Warner says she plans to continue what has worked from the start: have a business strategy to guide decision-making, operate Lean, improve continuously, choose the right equipment, and respect the contribution of her people and partners in the company’s success.