Printing Private Labels

Smyth Companies' fast-moving label operation depends on many technologies and processes to meet the challenge of…
Printing Private Labels

Imagine printing three dozen different labels, of varying shapes, sizes, and color combinations, all on the same press — and all at the same time. For a narrow web roll label converter, that's virtually impossible. For Smyth Companies, it's just another press run.

That's because the group's Bedford, VA, facility is one of the country's largest suppliers of sheet-fed, offset-printed “private labels.” And, according to VP Bill Bumgarner, the ability to schedule and convert hundreds of label jobs each day for the likes of Winn Dixie, A&P, and virtually every other major supermarket chain — among others — has become somewhat of an art form. Much like the labels themselves.

This capability is the core of a system Smyth calls S.M.A.R.T., an acronym for Shared Materials And Run Time. A typical S.M.A.R.T. run will be made up of a number of different brand labels, all of which share characteristics such as color, ink-density levels, and substrate construction. The set-up charges, total costs of inks, paper, and coatings, and the labor charges are divided among the different customers on the press run.

“It's challenging,” says Bumgarner. “It's very fast-moving. We deal with a lot of people, and they're much more upscale in their demands. So, the quality of private labels has risen quite a bit, and the supermarkets are realizing that this is a place where they can make money. That only leads to greater demand.”

Digital System Makes the Work Flow
Private label work for supermarkets and other outlets accounts for about 80% of the Bedford facility's sheet-fed label production — and it's growing. Bumgarner credits Smyth's proprietary digital workflow system for its ability to deliver a wide variety of labels in four- and six-color combinations quickly and cost-effectively, in runs as long as 200,000 sheets.

Bumgarner explains the facility, since it was purchased from Piedmont Label three years ago, has had a virtually all-digital workflow, including a CreoScitex digital platemaking system. He says the nature of the company's work — laying out and printing dozens of images on a single sheet — makes digital processing a virtual requirement in meeting the needs of its customer base.

“I think at this point we're probably tailored to service the private label industry better than any of our competitors, and digital workflow is likely one of the biggest reasons,” notes Bumgarner. “It's so fast-moving using digital technology and a CTP-type of workflow. When we get an order, we can cycle it through much faster than using conventional film.”

The facility, which operates two 10-in. Mark Andy presses in addition to its Komori and Mitsubishi offset equipment, still handles a minimal amount of film for some smaller end-users. However, the economic and productivity advantages of direct-to-plate have made that far less common. Smyth does, however, have artists on staff who can help develop a graphic — digitally, of course — or even a marketing program, which is a key asset in dealing with typically smaller, private label companies. Inks are supplied by Wikoff and Mallard.

“It's hard to communicate with film,” says Bumgarner. “With electronic information, it doesn't even have to be a physical file off a disk; it can be downloaded off the Internet. So, it's a much more rapid form of communication, and it's much more accurate, because with film you always have degradation as you go from the original information down through the generations of film. That's why the quality and sharpness of the image is much better as well.”

Typically, a 28×40-in. offset-printed sheet will contain more than two dozen labels for nearly as many customers. Each individual label may be printed in any combination of four- to six-color process, complete with an overcoat and an extra Pantone® shade or two. Scheduling the production of each job most cost-effectively is enough to boggle the mind of a tenth-grade algebra teacher, let alone a production manager.

Consequently, because of the economic advantages of combining as many labels as possible per sheet, lead times average about two weeks. However, the company does offer express service of three to five days and will give customers price breaks if they can allow four weeks for delivery.

“Because our business involves putting all these labels together on a form, the more time we have, the better the form we can put together,” says Bumgarner. “It's a demanding segment, because private label printing deals with a lot of items, a lot of SKUs, and smaller runs. But our challenge is to lay out all those colors on a sheet and print them so they could satisfy 30 different customers. That's the nature of dealing with private label brands.”

Few Presses Do a Lot
Although the Bedford facility primarily is recognized for its sheet-fed offset work, that segment of the label industry has been experiencing annual growth of no greater than 3%. However, Smyth expects both its roll-fed and point-of-purchase display businesses to double in volume over the next several years.

“The good thing is our fairly broad product mix and our different capabilities,” Bumgarner says. “We bring so much to the table that customers who might be looking for some new and unique things in the display and roll-to-roll operations might do little or no business in the sheet-fed arena, and that's fine with us. We don't do just one thing, and that makes us unique and stronger than some of our competitors in the marketplace.”

The Bedford facility produces a large volume of sheet-fed labels on just a few presses: two 40-in., six- and eight-color Komoris, and an eight-color, 40-in. Mitsubishi, each with separate coating units. Bumgarner notes those presses replaced two older 64-in. presses that had been with the company since before he arrived eight years ago.

“It used to be when we were just printing four colors, you could get away with using those big presses,” says Bumgarner. “The runs were longer, and people didn't change graphics that often. But the private labels are growing and being more aggressive. They're starting to use some of the marketing tools the national brands have used for a good while, like coupons, recipe booklets, and temporary point-of-purchase displays. They're looking for more colors and faster delivery. So we've gone to the smaller presses for quality and the ability to put a run together more efficiently.”

On the narrow web side of its business, Smyth-Bedford operates two 10-in., ten-color Mark Andy 2200 ultraviolet flexo presses, “but,” says Bumgarner. “[that area] is growing so quickly that we're facing expansion plans.”

The company's 50,000-sq-ft Minneapolis facility also operates three UV (ultraviolet) presses from the Comco Div. of Mark Andy, in addition to letterpress and screen presses from Nilpeter and Gallus.

The nearby, Austin, MN, facility, with its sheet-fed litho and versatile finishing capabilities, works closely with the Minneapolis facility to produce folded booklets, coupons, and other promotional tools to help customers build brand equity. Private label as well as national brands use these products to promote sales.

Verification System Aids Integrity
Smyth-St. Paul has developed a proprietary label verification system for the finishing area designed specifically to prevent mixing of label bundles within a carton of printed labels. Under the system, open, packed cartons of labels are vision-scanned electronically to ensure the integrity of the contents, i.e, to make sure customers wind up with their own labels.

In addition, a computer-generated carton label is printed with the customer's pertinent information describing the carton's contents and specific order information, such as purchase order number, SKU number, spec. number, graphics number, etc. A “snapshot” of the actual printed label, in full color, is included on this carton's label.

Next, the carton identification label is scanned and verified against the labels contained in the carton. If improperly packed, no-read, or partially filled cartons are identified through the vision-scan, they will not receive a carton identification label and are rejected to a failed-read queue conveyor automatically for reprocessing by a line operator.

The system can be programmed for a one-time processing of partially packed, end-of-job cartons, if necessary. Following the verification steps, the carton is automatically closed and sealed, a carton identification bar code is scanned, and the carton is sent to a product-specific sorting conveyor for palletizing.

“Our new label verification system is designed to meet the highest demands of label integrity required by our customers and the industry,” Bumgarner says.

The Multi-Plant, Multi-Process Advantage
The Bedford facility is just one of six Smyth operating companies that trace their roots back nearly 125 years to the founding of H.M. Smyth Printing Co. in St. Paul, MN, in 1877. In addition to Bedford, Smyth operates several other offset, flexo, and commercial printing operations near its St. Paul headquarters. That includes a display division, which designs and converts point-of-purchase displays and litho-labeled boxes.

In addition to its private-label expertise, Bumgarner feels Smyth's multi-process, multi-plant organization also appeals to larger companies that value service on a par with product quality. He notes that single-plant, single-process operations are having difficulty meeting the needs of many end-users.

“With consolidation, some of the players operating [one facility] are on shaky ground,” says Bumgarner. “So, if you can deliver multiple products like we can, your chances of being one of their few select suppliers are much better.”

Smyth Companies
Bedford, VA; 540/586-2311;

Creo Products Inc., Vancouver, B.C., Canada; 604/451-2700;

Mark Andy Inc., Chesterfield, MO; 636/532-4433;

Komori America, Rolling Meadows, IL; 847/806-9000;

Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses, Lincolnshire, IL; 847/634-9100;

Wikoff Color Corp., Fort Mill, SC; 803/548-2210;

Mallard Ink Co., St. Anthony, MN; 612/788-0880

Nilpeter Inc., Davie, FL; 954/385-8835;

Gallus Inc., Philadelphia, PA; 215/677-9600;

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