Keeping up with customer needs is the key to business longevity for this digital printer

Written by Colin Gillman on 17 January 2017.

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With the average lifespan of a company reported to be as little as 10 years it is no surprise that businesses seek to adapt to the ever changing external environment as they strive to not only prosper but to actually survive.

And the external challenges are becoming harsher and harsher with business facing increasing pressures due to economic, political, and social turbulence on the world stage. So what is the secret to a long and successful business life and exactly how easy is it to extend the life-cycle when competitors fail?

Paul Reeve, managing director at Structure-flex Ltd, believes his company has remained in business for over 45 years because it has kept the customers’ needs right at the heart of its operations.

“Structure-flex has always had a strong customer ethic,” he says. “Since the company’s inception in 1970, we have strived to produce high quality products manufactured to meet the specific requirements of our customers. 

“These requirements have changed over the years so we have evolved to ensure that those requirements are met as precisely and efficiently as possible whether that be; investing in the latest technology, moving operations to larger facilities, or developing services such as creative design.”

Structure-flex has been a leading manufacturer of high quality tension lorry curtains since the product was first invented and has continued to provide an increasing range of innovative technical products for the commercial vehicle industry ever since. 

Its relocation in 2015 to a bespoke 50,000 sq ft factory, combined with ongoing investment in modern state of the art high frequency and hot air welding equipment, now provides the manufacturer with the largest capacity digital print side curtain manufacturing facility in the UK.

But it is a journey that hasn’t always been smooth, as Paul explains: “We knew we wanted quality from the outset, but the challenge has always been how to deliver it. 

“Supply partners didn’t really understand the demands of the market quickly enough, especially in the early days, so there was a big learning curve for us around the print process and how to deliver a standard that met expectations at an affordable price. 

“We now only work with supply partners, like printing press manufacturer EFI, who understand the business and are able to support us in providing the highest quality that we insist on for our customers.”

In order to consistently deliver the highest quality Structure-flex has invested millions of pounds over the years to constantly update its equipment and take advantage of the latest developments in printing technology.

Superlife Miller and on paper resizedIn the early days of the company’s existence, designs and images on curtainsiders were created using large tracings that were marked with small holes and then pounced with chalk. The chalk marks provided a pinline for the sign-writers to follow but it was labour-intensive and only allowed for single use.

For sharper images and repeatability, the company moved to pre-cut vinyl forms and lettering but signwriting still remained hand applied until around 1999. Pre-cut adhesive masking sheets were positioned on the curtain on which there was a knife cut outline of the livery, this was then ‘weeded out’ from the sheet allowing the specialist ink to be brushed over like a large stencil. 

“This was a key moment for us,” says Reeve. “The move away from chalk pouncing dramatically improved reproduction and standardisation of image application and, of course, factory cleanliness. It started to raise the bar for quality graphics on curtainsiders and marked the beginning of a new market for Structure-flex.”

The most significant change for the company came, though, when superwide format digital printing became available. Although large format printing was well established in the sign industry in the late 90's it was generally only used for static applications in the USA, the machines were expensive, and the substrate materials were unsuitable for printing curtainsiders.

To meet a growing interest in large static signs in the UK a number of companies, including Structure-flex, invested in early versions of US machines. By 2004 the company had investigated the potential for low cost overseas manufacture in the Czech Republic where it established a factory and invested in its first wide format printer, a Gandinnovations Jeti capable of printing 3m wide. 

Starting its wide format printing in the Czech Republic rather than nearer to home, however, lengthened the learning curve for the business and nine years later Structure-flex withdrew from offshore manufacture, investing in a second Jeti machine but this time in the UK.

“Superwide format digital print has certainly been the biggest change in our manufacturing process,” admitted Reeve. “The output ability of digital printers, compared to traditional signwriting and drying methods, is far superior and requires significantly less factory space.

“As the business has grown, the investment in digital printers has enabled livery production to remain in tune with curtain manufacture. Very few curtains now leave without a graphical element as designers take advantage of the creative possibilities digital print offers at more reasonable costs than available historically.

“Around four years ago we invested in a Durst Rho 320HS printer and, more recently, another EFI Vutek Structure flex Print Room resizedGS5000R both of which have white ink options that enable printing directly onto pre-coloured media. This saw the end of an era on the older traditional methods, which was a massive change in our operational approach.

“Although this technology undeniably represents a significant investment, to remain at the forefront of the market it has been crucial to continually improve our digital printing performance, not only in terms of the process itself but also the materials and inks used. 

“In comparison to the smaller Mimaki printers we operate, the learning curve on superwide printing was steep. We now operate in a different way to those early years and have an environmentally controlled dedicated print room, in-house colour management and profiling, as well as a preventative maintenance schedule.”

As the process became more complex, Structure-flex faced other challenges around the manipulation of artwork and colour profiling. More detailed liveries also increased the risk of making errors and consequently customer services became at the centre of the business offering to help create tailor-made solutions and avoid any potential issues with clients.

Innovation has also been vital in extending the company life-cycle. At Structure-Flex’s inception, the product range consisted of large bulk bags used in the Middle East oil and gas industries, and soon the company progressed to manufacturing curtainsiders. 

Structure flex Print Room 1 resizedOver the years, the company has taken advantage of enhancements in curtain materials and widths, ranges of ink colours, designs in buckles and rollers, security features, as well as insulation options. Systems such as its Reflex and Smoothside curtains have been popular partly due to the ability for the entirety of the full digitally printed curtain to be seen without any buckles interrupting the design.

“Through innovation, we have evolved into far more than a digital printer and offer significantly more than simply curtainsiders,” Reeve explained. “Structure-flex’s origins are with entrepreneurial packaging engineer, David Frankel, who obtained the worldwide licence to manufacture and distribute the Original Big Bag.

“He worked closely with European PVC coated fabric producers and machine builders to achieve the optimum performance from High Frequency welding technology to deliver a product which met very demanding criteria in extreme climatic conditions.

“We still offer the Original Big Bag today, along with fleet graphics for rigid vehicles, full or partial vehicle wraps, banners, and building wraps, and have recently been accredited as a 3M Select Gold Partner, one of only eight in the country, following an in-depth audit of our facility and external assessment verification.”

So, how is Structure-flex looking to prosper in the next 45 years? “Continue what we do best,” says Reeve. “Produce the highest quality products at competitive costs supported by great customer services, and innovate where possible to keep at the forefront of the market.”


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