NFI: Industrial Printing Without Limits
Take a look inside Nameplates for Industry, a screen-printing shop that has served the North American industrial-graphics market for more than 20 years.
Nameplates for Industry, Inc. (NFI) opened up shop in New Bedford, MA in 1975 with one employee, Donald Rudnick, and a box of sample products from parent company Nameplates for Industry Ltd., located on the Isle of Wight in England. The British operation was a small company that offered nameplates, faceplates, keypad overlays, and other industrial products. It established the US branch to serve as a sales arm in territories abroad.
During that time, the company's headquarters involved itself in second-surface printing, which involved printing on the underside of clear plastic film so that the film could display a graphic while covering and protecting the print. The European screen-printing industry took notice of the process when General Electric introduced Lexan film and promoted the concept of second-surface graphics as an alternative to traditional metal nameplates and overlaminated products.
Rudnick's goal was to generate sales in the US for the products that NFI offered in the European market. Rudnick spent the next seven years securing a large enough customer base to open a shop that could support the manufacturing process for those products. In 1983, NFI's 5000-sq-ft facility opened with six employees, one clamshell screen-printing press, and a 60-year-old diecutting machine.
With its equipment and staff, the young company began to produce self-adhesive faceplates, nameplates, serial-number tags, and UL markings. Its customers were companies that manufactured commercial equipment, medical devices, appliances, computers, industrial instrumentation, and communication equipment, among others.
Building up for production
NFI has always believed in striving for high quality in all aspects of production, and prepress is no exception. The company invested in state-of-the-art screenmaking, screen-stretching, and exposure equipment from the beginning. "I was taught that you can give a great printer a substandard screen, and you'd never get a good print," Rudnick says. "But if you give a great screen to a marginal printer, you can end up with a great print job."
NFI later purchased a Kiwomat automatic screen-coating machine. Rudnick says he was interested in the idea of an automatic machine that could produce consistent, thin-film coatings on high-thread-count screens. With the company's purchase of the automatic coater, he says, came the opportunity to master halftones and four-color-process printing at finer and finer resolutions.
The company brought UV-curable screen-printing inks to the production floor for the first time in 1986. NFI was an early adopter of UV technology in the industrial printing market, but the shop immediately realized the benefits of the much cleaner process and the ability to print finer lines and details. The staff also enjoyed the health benefits of switching to UV inks for most jobs. Workers previously had to wear respirators in the production area to combat the strong aroma and health hazards associated with exposure to solvent inks.
NFI also consulted with a company that specialized in air-purification systems and purchased a custom-designed solution that dramatically improved the cleanliness of the air by delivering a steady stream of filtered fresh air from the ceiling. The fresh air is drawn downward, pushing the polluted, solvent-ridden air toward the floor, where it is sucked into filtering units. NFI was so impressed with the system that the company decided it would be a fixture in any other facilities that it occupied.
Steady growth and a growing client base prompted NFI to move to a larger, 12,000-sq-ft facility in an up-to-date industrial park located in New Bedford. The company's growing sales volume also made it necessary to add printing and diecutting equipment. Three printing presses, two diecutting systems, and semi-automatic doming equipment rounded out the expansion. Today, NFI employs 53 and keeps an assortment of equipment on hand to support the jobs it produces for various industries.
NFI's design department is home to nine Apple Macintosh computers, a few PC workstations, and a 2400-dpi Linotronic imagesetter. The design department also has a Vastech film processor, a few laser printers, and a color scanner. Today's equipment is considerably more sophisticated that the Rapidograph pen, T-squares, triangles, and hand-pasted type that ruled during the company's infancy. Back then, the artists produced all art by hand at two or three times the intended size. They then used a process camera to capture the artwork and reduce it to a film positive of respectable quality. NFI still has some of that artwork on file!
Rudnick remembers the day he approached one of the artists and suggested the company purchase a graphics computer to produce artwork. The reaction? "A computer could never do that!" That artist is still with NFI, and today she admits that using a computer to produce artwork has made her life a lot easier.
You'll still find stretch-and-glue frames in the screenmaking department (Figure 1), but they're used with some up-to-date equipment to produce top-notch screens. Beside the automatic coater, NFI employs a Saati pneumatic screen stretcher and two Douthitt Violux 5-killowatt exposure units with integrated sensors.
Identical presses are in use in the production area: four Sias Vertomatic 19 x 39-in. and two Vertomatic 29 x 39-in. semiautomatic graphics presses (Figure 2). Some of the presses are used for printing solvent-based inks, others for UV inks. The idea behind having identical presses is one that NFI believes sets it apart from many other industrial printers. All operators can run all of the presses, as opposed to operators being proficient only on certain presses. NFI also finds using identical presses ideal for ensuring accurate registration when using multiple presses to produce a multicolor job.
Color matching is an important part of quality control at NFI. The company uses an assortment of devices to handle the task: two X-Rite spectrophotometers, X-Rite reflective and transmissive densitometers, a GretagMacbeth viewing booth, and X-Rite's Ink Master color-matching software. NFI produces a lot of overlays with transparent windows that may cover LED displays, so the staff must be able to measure the amount of light that the window will transmit to ensure that the final product will function correctly.
"[Color matching] is definitely a challenging area, and it always has been," Rudnick says. "It's not only getting it the first time, but it's that repeatability thing. When a customer returns and wants an additional 100 faceplates for their equipment, they expect them to look the same as the faceplates we printed the year before."
NFI's production area also is equipped with two Svecia dual-lamp UV curing units, a Svecia Combi dryer for UV and conventional inks, an Allied two-color flexographic press (10-in. web), a Sohn flexographic (6-in. web) press, and an Astro-Med thermal-transfer printer (5-in. web). A few rewinders/slitters, an Elite hand bench, a Gardner adhesion tester, and a Teknek automated substrate-cleaning machine also are located in the production area.
NFI maintains a Class 100 clean room that features a sophisticated air-filtration system. The company uses the clean room for jobs that involve fine-resolution halftones, conductive silver for circuits, and for overlays with transparent windows.
NFI purchased an HP Indigo digital offset press (Figure 3) five years ago to complement its screen-printing equipment. Rudnick says the Indigo has proven ideal for four-color-process jobs and graphic designs that include color gradients, blends, and other elements that might be challenging to produce with screen-printing equipment. The Indigo also helps NFI produce high-resolution, durable, and weather-resistant products—many of which are UL listed, as well as CSA recognized (the Canadian equivalent to UL testing).
"In order to sell in the markets we sell to, the end users want UL-recognized products," Rudnick says. "So we are faced with having to have [our] product constructions recognized and maintained for UL listings."
If NFI has found one limitation with the Indigo, it's that the press's inks are not opaque enough for certain applications. For example, Rudnick explains that some applications on clear plastics requires opaque inks; otherwise, the plastic can darken or change color as it ages. To remedy the situation, the shop uses screen printing to overprint certain jobs printed by the Indigo press.
The staff at NFI discovered over the years that a job does not necessarily end once it's printed. "When I got into this business, I thought it was a printing business," Rudnick says. "But I've come to learn that it is as much a finishing business as it is a printing business…all of that printing is useless unless it is finished accurately."
NFI's finishing department houses three Imperia 24 x 36-in. diecutting systems (Figure 4), one Imperia embossing and thermal cutting press, a Seybold Citation 45-in. guillotine cutter, and a Polar 39-in. guillotine cutter. Other equipment includes a Rollem 24-in. backslitter and two SEI laser cutters with optic registration systems.
The diecutting machines handle long print runs. The laser systems (Figure 5) are dedicated to prototypes and short-run jobs that require very tight registration. The shop maintains a ±0.010-in. standard cutting tolerance (Figure 6). NFI also uses an Acugage X-Y coordinate-measuring machine for jobs that demand critical measurements.
In the finishing area you'll also find an automated urethane doming system, two manually operated doming systems, three curing ovens used for domed products, two Franklin hot-stamp numbering machines, and two 27-in. laminators, which are used to apply adhesives and overlaminates to printed products. Other equipment includes Z-stat ionizers, a Blue M batch oven, Hi-Pot tester, and one switch-contact and LED- testing device (Figure 7).
A focus on employees
"Anyone with the proper financing can buy the equipment, but the equipment does not run itself," Rudnick says. NFI believes that bringing out the best in its staff yields the best possible product. Several of the shop's employees have been with the company for more than 20 years. Rudnick attributes the long-term retention to the company putting a lot of stock in its staff.
The company's mission statement and quality policy are aimed toward each employee reaching his or her full potential and doing it in a safe manner. Training is a big part of that policy, and NFI finds hands-on experience to be the most effective form. A few of NFI's employees brought with them some experience in the industrial-printing industry, while others arrived as novices. ISO training is a crucial aspect of helping employees achieve tight tolerances in production. A corrective-action program and Right to Know and Safety Training, based on materials from the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, are a part of the company's orientation program. NFI also sends its staff to trade shows and training programs offered by industry manufacturers and suppliers. The staff cross-trains on all equipment and processes.
NFI also credits its high employee retention to its flexibility in schedules and to understanding the importance of family and personal lives outside of the building. In fact, NFI's managers encourage staff to attend their childrens' school-related events and programs that take place during the middle of the work day. "We all have personal lives on the outside, and I think as a smaller company, we can be much more understanding and responsive to those types of things," Rudnick says.
NFI also extends the same flexibility and openness to its competitors. As part of the company's open shop policy, competitors and vendors are invited to visit NFI, tour the facility, meet the staff, and share ideas. The open shop policy has benefited NFI by bringing in new ideas and techniques to improve the workflow and grow its business.
NFI prides itself on offering a wide assortment of products to the graphics and industrial markets. Such products include nameplates, decals, computer logos, metal and rigid plastic nameplates, serial numbers and barcodes, faceplates and keypad overlays, membrane switches/touch panels, and self-laminating labels. Other offerings include variable-data applications and UL/CSL-recognized products and roll labels (Figure 8). NFI also produces graphics that are used as instrumentation in aircraft and military equipment, as well as graphic overlays and braille-embossed serial-number tags for devices used by the blind.
NFI also offers urethane doming services. When doming, NFI uses specially modified, custom dispensing equipment to apply a photopolymer coating onto printed images. Finished products and customers' brand identities are then safeguarded by a self-healing, 3-D surface that also draws attention.
Clients often call on NFI to handle jobs of an odd nature or with turnaround times that other screen printers might find impossible. But NFI welcomes challenging requests. In some cases, NFI accepts responsibilities beyond printing and finishing by taking on the task of engineering the job. In one example, Sony asked NFI to produce the graphics for its Picture Station kiosks. The company that handled the construction of the kiosks for Sony delivered a kiosk to NFI so that the staff could take measurements, gather other information pertinent to the job, and generate detailed plans. Other customers who have the resources to complete the engineering portion of a job often send drawings or blueprints to NFI. The blueprints, even if they represent a simple label, show all aspects of a job, which is helpful because the demand for accuracy is high.
NFI has won several awards for its products and processes. In 1991, the company received the SBA Southeastern Massachusetts Small Business of the Year Award. Three years later, NFI was awarded the SGIA Business Management Award in the Industrial, Electronics, or Container category. NFI achieved ISO certification in 1997. The company received more than 20 SGIA Golden Squeegee Awards in the Nameplate, Decal, or Instrumentation categories from 1991 to 2004. SGIA also presented NFI with Safety Recognition awards from 1999 to 2004.
NFI's practice of using identical presses in production has proven to be an effective and successful solution, but this year, the company intends to mix it up a bit with the addition of a multicolor press from Systematic Automation. NFI hopes that using a multicolor press will reduce the amount of labor required to finish products.
Other goals include continual improvement of cycle times. Part of that initiative is already underway. The company has implemented THE System, a business-management software suite from CRC Information Systems. Rudnick says the program provides his staff with instantaneous information—as he puts it, more information than they will ever need—for numerous job functions. Information sharing has helped improve lead times, which were 8-10 weeks in the early days when products were shipped from the UK. Rudnick says that over the years, NFI has been able to shrink its lead time to 8-10 days. However, he says customers still demand quicker turnaround.
Finally, NFI plans to revisit its roots a bit by establishing more strategic alliances with foreign businesses. The company has found that in the screen-printing industry, sometimes the saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," holds a lot of weight.