Label converter controls quality from the inside out

Walle Corp. attributes much of its success to keeping tight control of operations at the company's three plants.

Listen to the latest crop of advice coming from the nation's top management: Forget vertical integration; focus on core competencies; and buy as many materials as possible from outside suppliers. Don't bother telling any of this to the folks at Walle Corp., headquartered in Harahan, LA. Walle's sales climbed from $4.5 million in 1982 to $28.7 million last fiscal year - a 600% increase! And it wasn't by following the above advice.

Walle, a converter and printer of high quality, multicolor labels, has concentrated on gaining total, start-to-finish control of its manufacturing. The firm literally "insources" key materials in order to extend its stringent manufacturing standards and quality control all the way down the supply chain.

One example: Walle makes its own oil- and vegetable-based inks and varnishes in-house and tests them in its own in-plant labs. "We can't go to an outside supplier who makes ink for hundreds if printers that use a wide variety of press designs to print on every imaginable kind of stock and expect to get the consistent results our label customers must have," explains Michael Keeney, president of Walle Corp.

Walle operates three plants: Harahan; Winchester, KY; and Goodyear, AZ. The Winchester and Goodyear operations run flexo, and Harahan runs litho. Together, Walle's three plants employ a highly skilled workforce of nearly 400 people and have a total of about 300,000 sq ft of manufacturing floor space.

Walle's Ship Comes In

Keeney credits his father and chairman of the board, Cecil Keeney, as the architect of the insourcing and strict manufacturing controls that are at the heart of the company's success.

The Keeney family had been in shipbuilding before entering the label converting business in 1982. Though the elder Keeney originally bought Walle Corp. as an investment, he soon took over the firm's active management, believing his know-how and fresh approach would improve the company's fortune.

"Good business experience and the ability to work hard are essential in building either ships or labels," says Michael Keeney. "Cecil Keeney's innovative ideas were adopted and put into effect by everyone at Walle."

He adds, "From the outset, a new attitude sprang up among the employees: Everyone's contribution mattered, and even the tiniest manufacturing detail can be vitally important to the quality and consistency of labels we manufacture. That's our attitude today."

It's this attitude that helps employees view the exacting quality control standards with a sense of pride rather than as a chore. "A label has to be the right size, right color, and run exactly right on our customers' lines," Keeney explains. "Quality is expected by our customers, but, by itself, it's not enough. They also need consistency. Go to a grocery store, look at a shelf filled with one labeled product, and you'll see why. Every label absolutely must be the same. Small variations in color from one label to another can make a product seem inferior in the eyes of consumers. That's why label printing is far more critical than some commercial printing."

The company's insourcing philosophy is key to attaining these high standards. "To get that consistency, we need control of every critical material we use - such as inks - and tight control on every manufacturing step we perform," Keeney says. "Our key has been to eliminate as many variables as possible from the process - to replace 'unknowns' with 'knowns' having production outcomes we can reliably predict."

Equipped for Quality

Flexography is the fastest growing part of Walle's business. Using Windmoeller & Hoelscher (Soloflex) and Comco equipment, the firm runs 22 flexo presses, up to nine colors each, at widths to 25 in.

Walle's headquarters in Harahan is a sheet-fed offset label printing facility. Two Mitsubishi offset presses operate at widths to 40 in.; each press can run up to eight colors at speeds up to 15,000 sheets/hr.

The Harahan plant's offset inkmaking department boasts three large roll grinding machines that grind pigment flushes to precise consistencies. These flushes are then blended with appropriate waxes and varnishes to create inks with characteristics that best match the firm's presses. "We fingerprint all our presses and create our own inks in-house to achieve color, density, tack, gloss, dot gain, and abrasion-resistance characteristics that yield optimum and consistent results on our presses," Keeney says.

"The concept here is to understand the operations of the press in order to best formulate your inks to the specific piece of equipment. In essence, it's customizing. Most inks are generally designed for a wide spectrum of presses. Of course presses will print differently dependent on the specific characteristics of the press and the materials that are being used. The fact that we make our own inks allows us to customize them to meet our own needs."

Walle's inks are drawn down on the same paper the labels will be printed on and are constantly subjected to rigorous computerized testing. "When we're done," says Keeney, "we know with virtual certainty that the ink and paper we print with today will yield labels that exactly match the customer's requirements and what we printed for the same customer yesterday."

The company stocks large quantities of materials, everything from paper to plastics, in roll form.

In another example of "doing it themselves," Walle sheets its own stock in-house on Strachan Henshaw equipment to convert rolls to sheet stock for its sheet-fed offset litho press runs. Bill Dent, VP of operations, notes, "Sheeting our own stock gives us a high degree of control over the size, condition, and moisture content of the stock. It eliminates yet another series of variables from our manufacturing process."

Walle also trims, finishes, and die-cuts in-house on PMC equipment. Even the sharpening of dies and cutter blades is done within the plant.

Varnishes are typically applied and dried in-line for extra gloss and scuff protection. (The firm also does film laminating of labels in-line on the offset presses.)

Piles of printed label sheets are neatly stacked, then run through a Polar guillotine cutter that cuts them down to size. The individual stacks are then put through a PMC die puncher.

In addition to runs for individual customers, Walle prints "combination work" and "club runs," where multiple customers' labels share a sheet that is printed in standardized colors, proportionately sharing the prep and finishing costs. Finished labels are inspected, shrink-wrapped, and packed for shipment.

What You See Is What You Get

While Walle does little actual label design work, its prepress facilities are comprehensive. Most customers furnish film, though more and more jobs are coming in as electronic files. Sean Sweeny, prepress manager at Walle's Harahan plant, explains that the prepress departments at each plant are equipped and staffed to deal with both types of jobs and are also available to assemble and proof images for customer review and approval.

If film is supplied, Walle requires that customers provide a 3M Matchprint III proof to maintain color control.

"Our policy is that no film goes out on the floor without a color target," Sweeny says. "Films are made by people, and people can make mistakes. Nor can you know that it'll run exactly the colors the customer had in mind. The only way to know for sure is to make a Matchprint proof."

According to Sweeny, only Matchprints can stand up to such scrutiny. "They are consistent, color-accurate stable, repeatable in color density, and exactly match the standard ink densities we run on our presses," he says.

He recalls that before standardizing on the Matchprint proof for its offset label printing, the firm often discovered wide color variations between the other brands of proofs being furnished by customers with their jobs.

"There were considerable color density differences from one brand of color proof to another. No two brands had identical color densities," Sweeny says. "Investigating further, we discovered serious color density repeatability problems with one brand in particular - call it 'Brand X.' When we'd make a second, third, or fourth proof from the same film using Brand X material, the color densities would come out all different. Can you imagine how that would impact the color consistency of our labels for a given customer?"

Sweeny also found that some proofing materials could not reliably hold dots in the 3%-5% range. "They'd simply drop out on those proofs; they'd lose the highlight dots. Even though a Brand X proof might show an area of an image as being white, the film might actually have had small size dots that the proof just couldn't hold. Those other proofs couldn't be trusted."

In addition to using Matchprints as a color standard for clients who furnish film, Walle has recently begun using 3M Rainbow proofs to preview jobs provided as electronic files. These are rendered by a 3M Rainbow proofer directly from the digital image data sent by Macintosh PowerMac 8100 computers.

The Rainbows can be directly calibrated to the known performance of the Matchprint through the Rainbow system's controller software. This establishes a quick, filmless, low-cost means of digitally rendering a color proof of an electronic label file that can predict what will later be seen in the Matchprint when job film is run out.

Sweeney adds, "When we furnish a Matchprint proof to our customers for color approval, we have the highest confidence that what they see is what they will actually get in print. The Matchprint proof is easy to make, and [because of its recyclable chemistry], it's environmentally friendly."

Committed to Compliance

This, Keeney says, fits in with Walle's commitment to environmental responsibility. "We're very conscious of our environmental impact, as all printers should be. We're in strict compliance and, in fact, exceed all environmental requirements."

A participant in the 33/50 plan sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, Walle was able to drastically reduce its levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) ahead of schedule. "We signed up along with several hundred other companies across the country," says Keeney. "The goal was to reduce certain VOCs by 33 percent in two or three years and by 50 percent in four years. All of the VOCs identified by us during the program were eliminated 100 percent in one year."

Keeney says that a number of different factors combined to produce such impressive results. "We're using equipment that allows us to have flexibility, such as water-based ink systems, and we're recycling certain process chemistries that may be utilized. Our company size gives us the flexibility to react quickly to new ideas and new requirements as opposed to a large corporation that may take years to be responsive."

Walle Corp. is committed to managing variables in order to ensure that the final product meets the strictest standards. The other part of the equation that makes this company work is an equal commitment to customer satisfaction. Both commitments are legacies from the Keeney family's former business.

"All of us at Walle Corp. want to do our utmost to be the trusted label partner of our customers," says Keeney. "In a way, we're still in the shipbuilding industry, but now the ships we build are long-lasting relationships."

Supplier Information:

Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp., Lincoln, RI; ph: 401/333-2770; fax: 401/333-6491.

Comco International, Milford, OH; ph: 513/248-1600; fax: 513/248-8546.

Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses, Lincolnshire, IL; ph: 847/634-9100; fax: 847/634-9109.

Strachan Henshaw Machinery Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL; ph: 847/956-6727; fax: 847/956-7045.

Polar-Mohr, Hofheim, Germany; ph: 06192/2040; fax: 06192/22193.

PMC Printing Machinery, Cincinnati, OH; ph: 513/891-9000; fax: 513/891-0449.

3M, Printing and Publishing Div., St. Paul, MN; ph: 800/844-8816; fax: 612/736-5613.


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