Technology Leads Filmet to Fortune

Disastrous property damage, loss of key customers, and evaporating markets would spell the end for most companies, but for graphics producer Filmet, these trials marked turning points that would lead the company to prosper. Read on to find out how th

Few companies could survive losing their biggest customer, having their most lucrative market snatched away, and coping with the obsolescence of their core service—all in the same year. But it was these events that dramatically reshaped
Filmet, a Pittsburgh, PA-based graphics printer, and ultimately led the business to the most successful point in its nearly century-long history.

 

Filmet was founded in 1910 by Vincent Bachelder as a photo-finishing operation that specialized in department-store and professional portraits. Upon Vincent’s passing, his son, Vernon Bachelder, left school in the 10th grade and took over the operation. A fire early in Vernon’s tenure resulted in a total loss for Filmet, and as Vernon rebuilt the company, he decided it was time to change direction. He dedicated Filmet to commercial photography and, according to his son, Rick Bachelder, became quite a skilled and gifted photographer. In the early 1950s, Vernon found his safety at risk during a couple of jobs, which prompted him to make his occupation a bit less hazardous. He put down the camera and focused on processing prints for other photographers.

 

Rick Bachelder, the third generation to lead the company, joined Filmet in 1976 after finishing college. Filmet had nine employees at the time, three of whom were Rick, his father, and his mother. Rick’s siblings, Gary and Denise, were next to come on board, and Rick took over as president in 1980, which gave his parents the chance to retire.

 

The mid-1980s brought the addition of Filmet’s first piece of electronic gear: a typesetting system. “We started setting type, and it really opened my eyes to this new wave that was coming—electronics,” Bachelder says. He was hooked on leading-edge technology from that point on.

 

Filmet’s next high-tech purchase was a machine that Bachelder had custom-made to image directly to a 4 x 5 piece of film, thus eliminating the need to make negatives from slides provided by the company’s customers. The photographic prints made from the direct-imaged, medium-format films were more crisp, in focus, and vibrant than the films made with negatives. This capability allowed Filmet to do business nationally.

 

“We were trying to start a pattern of being first in emerging technologies,” Bachelder explains. “Shortly after that, we got into prepress.”

 

Bachelder wanted to come up with a way to make high-resolution color transparencies with the shop’s
prepress equipment, so he purchased a Cymbolic Sciences Fire 1000 Film Re-corder system. It allowed him to gener-ate transparencies up to 8 x 10 in. and Filmet to enter the retouching side of the business.

 

“As this was starting to take off for us, we saw the next set of changes coming,” Bachelder recalls. “The next set of changes were going to be really hitting hard in 2001.”

 

2001: Disaster and recovery

The year 2001 dealt Filmet three huge blows. The shop’s largest customer closed 12 of its 17 locations, a move that cost Filmet 20% in total sales. Next, the events of September 11, as Bachelder puts it, essentially finished off the trade-show and exhibit business—Filmet’s primary market at the time—because the events were cancelled. Finally, Bachelder recognized that the photographic product Filmet sold as a display device was quickly becoming outdated.

 

Rather than abandon hope, Bachelder looked to new technology once again to rejuvenate Filmet. He became intrigued by large-format inkjet technology, which eventually led him to EFI’s VUTEk 2360 roll-fed solvent inkjet. He felt the machine would provide a way to shed Filmet’s older business model and explore new markets.

 

“I saw the 2360 as a printer that gave me close to photo-like quality, but a much more durable image,” he says. “I put the 2360 in and six months later added another one, which was a VUTEk 3360. All of a sudden, we were moving away from trade shows and exhibits into P-O-P.”

 

Filmet printed onto lots of pressure-sensitive vinyl and mounted the finished images onto rigid boards, a process that eventually began to drain valuable time and labor. Bachelder approached VUTEk again when he heard the company was developing a flatbed inkjet that could print directly onto these rigid materials. He visited the company, had a look at the machine, and was asked to be one of the three beta sites worldwide for what would be the VUTEk PressVu UV 180. The PressVu UV enabled Filmet to more efficiently produce one-offs and short runs of graphics for its clients, and Bachelder soon added a second PressVu flatbed to support the demand. But he also wanted to chase the bigger P-O-P runs (Figure 1).

“It was becoming apparent that digital was not going to be cheap enough, fast enough, or good enough to compete with screen printing, so we started looking at ways to get into screen printing,” Bachelder says. “We now have flatbed PressVus, a 3360, two FabriVus—which are dye-sub to fabric—and eight HPs, and what we saw missing in our portfolio was good old traditional screen printing.”

 

But perhaps the biggest motivator for bringing screen printing in house was the time when a large account, as a result of its expansion, made demands that Filmet couldn’t accommodate. According to Bachelder, the client gave Filmet a six-figure job every October. That company had grown by 50%, so the digital job that normally took Filmet four weeks to finish had become 50% larger. To make matters worse, the buyer cut the deadline for completion in half. Bachelder had to walk away from the job.

 

Afterwards, he decided that customer needs would never outgrow Filmet’s ability to keep up. “When you have to tell a customer ‘you have to change because I have limitations,’ then that opens the door for someone else to
come in,” he says.

 

Filmet’s first foray into screen printing was with the purchase of a one-color clamshell press the shop used to put white ink on a black substrate to facilitate printing on the PressVu. Once Bachelder determined that project wouldn’t recur, he decided to remove as many variables from the process as he could in order to extend the equipment’s value and make it a regular part of production. For Bachelder, that meant skipping all of the manual equipment he was told everyone starts with and going straight to an automatic screen coater and automatic presses.

 

“Why should you [buy manual equipment] if you don’t have to? If I can make that a constant, then I have much more predictable output. We started with all of those pieces at the same time. I believe it was the right way to go,” he says.

 

Bachelder studied the fundamentals of the screen-printing process and toured several facilities before investing in an M&R Insignia six-color inline press. He also faced the task of explaining the shop’s addition of screen printing to customers who only knew the company for taking the leading edge in imaging technology. Bachelder says customers scratched their heads and asked, “Are you nuts?” He educates clients by de-
scribing the value of screen printing, such as allowing Filmet to screen print a large graphic and then use a wide-format inkjet to add custom elements (Figure 2),
and he takes great care in pointing out some of the other advantages screen-printing equipment has brought to his company.

 

“We just had a job that we quoted with our two VUTEk printers that would take us 194 hours to print vs. screen. From the time when we make the screen, print, and clean up, we’re down to 18 hours,” he says. “And when I add the film, emulsion, mesh, ink, and substrate—compared to digital—it is actually cheaper on screen. But the thing that really opened our eyes was that the text was sharper and the colors were purer. And the biggest surprise was all of these specialties that the screen industry takes for granted—things that you can’t do digitally.”

 

Filmet markets its screen capabilities as a durable printing technique—an approach that can be a tough sell when dealing with clients who are used to litho and other methods. Bachelder explains that screen printing is a better process when it comes to the lifespan of a finished graphic and tells customers that the litho prints they order—the ones that fade within weeks of being displayed—are simply not representative of what he considers durable printing. So he’ll discuss the definition of image quality with buyers and find out what they expect in terms of colorfastness, viewing distance, and other aspects of the print.

 

“We’re still learning what works and what doesn’t with screen,” he notes. “You have different vendors that make ink and different mesh. The good news is you have a lot of options. The bad news is you have a lot of options.”

 

Filmet continues to invest in screen-printing equipment. The shop’s most recent purchase was a 52 x 84-in. M&R Patriot. Bachelder suspects the acquisition will set the company up to buy a five- or six-color inline screen-printing press in the 60 x 103-in. range sometime in the not-so-distant future.

 

Weaving in a new capability

Filmet’s two EFI-VUTEk FabriVu wide-format dye-sublimation printers helped Bachelder develop the company’s latest specialty: graphics printed directly to fabrics. He says imaging on fabric has become a major part of what Filmet does, and he finds that many retailers are looking to fabrics as the statement pieces around which they build the rest of the P-O-P kit.

 

“It’s one of the things that has customers really excited. The dye-sub process also has advantages that are environmental and some advantages that are fire-code-related, but the biggest one is bold, bright colors,” he explains. “The hand of the material stays soft and flexible. If you do it on solvent, the coatings on the material make it really stiff. Even UV digital has a stiffness. The dye-sub just stays soft, and you can wash it.”

 

Fabric also has allowed Filmet to simplify product packing and reduce the cost of fulfillment. For example, a recent job called for Filmet to print a 40 x 90-ft graphic. Using fabric meant the staff could fold the graphic, box it, and ship it via FedEx. When the shipment reached its destination, the customer only had to unfold the fabric and hang it.

 

The same holds true for a project Filmet completed for Pittsburgh, PA-based Davison Inventegration, a company that prepares new product ideas for presentation to corporations for possible licensing. The job consisted of printing 82 fabric panels, each measuring 10 x 20 ft, in full color. Davison used the printed fabrics as wall coverings (Figure 3) in its InventionLand, a 60,000-sq-ft workspace situated inside the company’s warehouse. InventionLand is equipped with moats, waterfalls, and offices in a cave, a castle, and on a pirate ship’s deck. The company’s CEO works from a tree house in the facility.

 

“Fabric has always been the most premium of premiums,” Bachelder says. “The technology we have now has brought that from being a huge three to four times more than everything else in price down to where it’s much more aligned with the other imaging technologies. It’s still more expensive, but the difference is not as large as it used to be.”

The family factor

Filmet uses a variety of equipment in its 65,000-sq-ft facility (see the sidebar below for a comprehensive look at Filmet’s prepress, printing, and finishing assets) and employs 80 people. The company, as it was in the early days, is still big on family. Bachelder’s wife handles payroll, and her brother works in Filmet’s MIS department. His sister Denise is still with the company in accounting (her husband handles human resources and special projects), his brother Gary handles national accounts and special projects, and his son Andrew—the fourth generation to enter the business—is a marketing assistant.

 

Andrew Bachelder, much like his father, had to prove his worth before he was hired. In fact, Rick wasn’t even the one who hired his son. Filmet’s VP of sales and VP of manufacturing hired Andrew, who had worked part-time for Filmet designing Web pages and helping with other special projects. Bachelder likes to say that Andrew came in through the side door.

 

“I think that’s important because he has to earn his reputation and his spot. I think people respect the fact that they see family members come in knowing they have to earn their spot. They’re not given anything,” he says.

 

In the 1970s, when Rick Bachelder wanted to join the company, his father compelled him to prove that he would be an asset, not an added cost. “When I graduated college, I called my dad and said, ‘I’d like to come into the business.’ My dad’s first words were, ‘I’ve hired everybody I need. Why should I hire you?’ He set the tone very quickly that this was not an employment agency. It was a place of business,” he recalls.

 

Bachelder says quite a few other families at Filmet have more than one generation working there. He also points out that the company’s core management team has been with Filmet since the early 1980s.

 

Training is an important part of keeping the Filmet family together. Most of it is handled internally, though the company has taken advantage of opportunities offered by manufacturers and suppliers.

 

“Because of the ebb and flow of the work, we get very talented, good people, and we move them as we have moved, and I think that’s been one of the things that has really made us successful,” Bachelder says. “We have people who are very eager to learn and very flexible and up to the challenge of learning new things. And one of the strengths of our organization is the ability to digest new things and not be afraid to embrace new things.”

 

Filmet’s philosophies

Each generation of Filmet’s top-level leadership has been confronted by challenges. Bachelder says the business was on the brink each time, practically losing everything, and was forced each time to take the company in a new direction in order to succeed.

 

“It makes you understand that you have to work hard, and it’s over a period of time that you build success,” he says. “If you don’t take the time to build the right foundation, and have the right core values, then you cannot be successful over a long period of time. When we reinvented our business in 2001, I believe we wouldn’t have been able to do it had it not been for the fact that we had the respect and cooperation from customers, suppliers, banks, and employees.”

 

Part of keeping that respect and cooperation involves using equipment that may not be as forward-looking as some of the technologies Filmet uses each day. For example, the company still services photographers by processing film and printing professional photos. But Bachelder explains that it’s all a part of maintaining valuable, long-term relationships. He also is quick to note that Filmet will continue to buy digital and screen equipment because, as he puts it, neither one is right for everything, and the way that they live together is really important.

 

“Finding the right technology, the right customers that you match up well with, the right suppliers, and the right employees who give you flexibility—that’s the combination that lets you win,” he says.

 

An Overview of Filmet’s Equipment

prepress

M&R Digikote II screen coater

Helios exposure unit

AGFA Avantra44 imagesetter

printing

M&R Insignia six-color inline (images up to 40 x 56 in.)

Two M&R Patriots (images up to 40 x 56 in. and 52 x 84 in.)

EFI VUTEk UltraVu 3360 eight-color solvent inkjet printer

Two EFI VUTEk PressVu UV 180 eight-color UV inkjet printers

Two EFI VUTEk FabriVu eight-color
dye-sub printers

Eight HP 5500 aqueous inkjet printers

Durst Lambda laser photoimager

Xerox 8100 toner-based digital press

Two Kodak RP30 laser photo printers

finishing

Zund i-cut M-1600 and XL-3000 digital cutting systems

Accutech 16- and 24-in. liquid coaters

GBC 60-in. hot/cold laminator

Sallmetall 60-in. hot/cold laminator

Seal 5500 60-in. hot/cold laminator

D&K film laminator and Accu II cutter (31-in.-wide web)

Michael Miracle 60-in. guillotine cutter

Two Pfaff KL-1245 industrial sewing machines

Three Juki industrial sewing machines

JOP EVI industrial grommet setter

 

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