18223 Shawley Dr,. Hagerstown, MD 21740 USA
Since L&NW’s last visit to Hub Labels more than a decade ago, a lot has changed, but also much has stayed the same.
For starters, the company’s commitment to Lean Manufacturing remains, and is an integral component of day-to-day operations. Hub Labels has always been a pioneer and industry leader when it comes to equipment adoption, and that spirit lives on today through its president, Thomas Dahbura, who took over the reigns from his father, Bud, in 2014.
Hub Labels’ roots date back to the 1960s in Central America. Explains Thomas Dahbura, “Our family was involved in several cottage industries that took care of each other. In El Salvador, we had one family member that produced cores, the ones used for winding yarn on. When they would come to require tape, my dad got involved in Cellotape, which started him in the converting industry. With a background in engineering, he learned about flexography and invested in his first flexo press.”
Bud Dahbura, with his lone press, started the very first self-adhesive label business in Central America. But when war in El Salvador broke out, he returned with his family to the US and settled in Hagerstown, MD. It was here, in 1978, with a 3-color Mark Andy 820 press, that he started Hub Labels in a small storefront. During these early days, Bud worked a full-time day job and would print labels in the evening. It was a two-person family business, with his wife handling the bookkeeping and office work.
Many of Hub Labels’ first jobs were government work – relatively simple 2- and 3-color labels – and the company used a lot of brokers to acquire business. Food labels came next, including some major accounts from local brands that included Wonder Bread and Martin’s Potato Chips.
Hub Labels enjoyed steady growth in the ensuing years, and the business got increasingly bigger and more complex, thus prompting the need for more presses and capacity. Following a couple moves to larger buildings, including one across the Maryland border into Pennsylvania, the company settled into its current location in Hagerstown in 1998. The building has been expanded upon several times to make room for more printing and converting equipment. Today, the facility is about 110,000 square feet.
Thomas Dahbura has been around through it all, witnessing the company’s moves, evolution and transformation. “This is all I’ve ever done,” he says of his career in the label industry. Recalling Hub Labels’ earliest days with just a small number of employees, he says, “We’ve always been lean – everyone did everything. It’s always been a real community atmosphere here. Whatever needed to be done, we did. And this philosophy carries through to this day.”
Narrowing the focus
Hub Labels has 110 employees, but despite the significant increase in people and capacity since its humble beginnings, the business model has changed significantly.
“My dad’s philosophy was to keep buying presses,” Dahbura says. “At one point, we were running a total of 26 flexo presses. We’ve since become a lot more efficient. In today’s world, you stack them up and look at capacity, so by investing and transitioning to more efficient machinery, we’ve scaled down to seven flexo presses – five Gallus and two Aquaflex machines. Plus, we’ve invested in a digital/flexo hybrid press.”
What’s also been scaled down and streamlined is the customer base. Dahbura explains, “When we had those 26 presses, we did every kind of job. We printed labels in any type of format, in any market – my dad would take any order.”
Since taking over the business, Dahbura has implemented one of his strategic goals to narrow the focus of the company, honing in on three core markets – prime, linerless and direct mail. “For much of our history, we wouldn’t say no to anyone, no matter how crazy the job would be. But looking back, some of these jobs were a distraction. Today, I’m doing more with seven flexo presses and one digital/flexo hybrid than what he did with 26. We’re no longer doing any of the weird jobs; and no more blanks – we’re going from being a generalist to a specialist.”
As a manufacturer of linerless labels, the company sets itself apart from other North American converters. The segment continues to grow, and at Hub Labels it was up 28% in 2016. “We were ahead of our time with our linerless business,” Dahbura says of his initial investment in this specialized, eco-friendly packaging technology. “When we were the only converter in the US with linerless, it was a real challenge penetrating the market, but now it’s really starting to take off.”
At the forefront with Labelfire
As in the case with its foray into linerless technology, Hub Labels has always been on the forefront of advances in the label printing industry. The company was one of the first in North America to implement four-color process printing, the computer-to-plate prepress process, UV curing technology and many other innovations. In fact, in 2004, Hub Labels became the first US label converter to invest in a servo-driven flexo press when it added a Gallus RCS 330.
When Gallus recently invited Dahbura to its Innovation Days event in Germany, he decided to go. It was here that he found what he’d been waiting for, and once again, Hub Labels is back on the leading edge of innovative technology adoption.
In September 2016, Dahbura signed a contract to purchase a Gallus Labelfire DCS 340 digital/flexo hybrid press. The press was installed and up and running in March 2017. The Labelfire DCS 340 at Hub Labels is the 10th installation worldwide and the second in the US.
“This is the first digital press I’ve seen that does what I want,” Dahbura explains. “It integrates everything from the roll to finished labels – including flexo, screen, digital and diecutting – without secondary operations. I was impressed by the amount of energy and capital that’s been invested in the machine’s development. Finally, while we’ve seen other presses with excellent resolution of 600 x 600 dpi, this press prints at 1200 x 1200 dpi, and the level of innovation involved in how it’s engineered is just amazing. Most presses struggle with achieving 1200 dpi – the printheads clog going from 600 to 1200. The Gallus approach is very impressive. Recognizing that the heads will clog, they developed a system to monitor the print quality and adjust the way the heads function – it gets rid of print defects.”
After coming up with many decision-making costing models, in the end, for Dahbura, investing in the Labelfire was an easy decision. “I didn’t belabor it – it just felt right,” he says, adding that Gallus being backed by its parent company Heidelberg was another key factor. “To me, the Heidelberg name is pretty powerful. When I saw how much money, effort and resources Heidelberg was putting into the Labelfire to make it work, I knew this is what I wanted for Hub Labels. I want that type of support behind me, and they went above and beyond for us throughout the installation process. When issues did arise, they didn’t make it my problem – they wanted me to succeed, and that’s pretty awesome.”
The Gallus Labelfire uses both digital and conventional processes to deliver finished labels from print-ready files. It handles digital, flexo, cold foil and diecutting all inline from start to finish, in a single pass. Running at maximum speeds of 164 fpm (50 m/m), the press offers 8-color capability to extend the color gamut. It can also print either flexo white or digital white with extended color gamut. The combination of digital white, CMYK, orange, violet and green, as well as 7-color separation, translates to the Gallus Labelfire system being able to cover a large portion of the Pantone color range.
The high physical resolution of the inkjet heads offers advantages in printing small symbols and characters, as well as fine lines and gradients down to zero percent. Labelfire’s small ink droplet size results in smooth, satin-finished surfaces, improved ink adhesion and curing.
After just a few months of operation, Hub Labels is ecstatic with the results, and are now taking on the challenge of selling the advantages to customers. “The quality of the labels coming off the Labelfire is just insane,” Dahbura says. “We can now close the gap between digital and flexo while offering lightning quick turns. So our sales team is now tasked with educating our customers on the benefits of multiple SKUs and short runs, coupled with the highest quality.”
Hub Labels is leveraging the Labelfire for use in competitive markets where labels must look good, such as the growing craft beer segment and specialty foods like olive oil. The company is also looking to use the Labelfire’s capabilities and high-quality white to target the high-end health and beauty products segment.
With the Labelfire up and running, the strategy has shifted to getting the word out about what the press can do. Hub Labels has a comprehensive marketing department that works in tandem with the sales team. They’re big proponents of sparking emotion by incorporating visual and tactile elements within marketing materials.
Seen throughout Hub Labels manufacturing facility are elements of Lean Manufacturing, and Dahbura ascribes to the mantra that “we are only as good as our people.” Kaizen events take place regularly, and the company utilizes data gleaned from quarterly customer experience surveys to improve relationships with the goal of making “superfans” of its clients. In the works is an online digital storefront, as well as a mobile app.
On Twitter, Thomas Dahbura’s alter ego is @LabelGuru. While he has loads of label business wisdom to impart to his team, he is the consummate student of the industry. A regular attendee of TLMI meetings, he is always on the lookout for tips on how to improve not only the business side of Hub Labels, but also to enhance its culture and improve the health of its employees and the community.
Sustainability is taken seriously at Hub Labels, from printing with water-based, UV and eco-friendly inks, to recycling liner waste and water. In addition, the company has teamed up with EPA-certified SmartWay transportation vendors to ensure that its products are shipped to their destinations in environmentally friendly ways.
Hub Labels is also TLMI LIFE-certified. LIFE (Label Initiative for the Environment) is a sustainability program designed specifically for the label industry. Companies like Hub Labels that are certified must show how they constantly decrease their environmental impact and carbon footprint in four key areas: clean production, energy and greenhouse gases, product design and management practices. Moving forward, the next green goal is to become landfill-free.
As 2017 winds down, so too does Dahbura’s 3-year plan. As the company transitions toward a new plan, it does so by always putting people first and under the guise of its Vision Statement: “Hub Labels believes that positively impacting the community and environment will provide the ultimate customer and employee experience.”