Words of Warning: A Look Inside Electromark
Electromark is a comany that made its name by capitalizing on an extremely important segment of the printing industry. Find out how the production of safety-related labels and signage propelled the company to prosperity.
Electrical shocks, chemical burns, crushed fingers, and other catastrophes are very real in the workplace and can happen all too easily. Hazards are found in all industries—a fact that ultimately gave Wolcott, NY-based Electromark a niche in which to develop a successful business and carry out its mission: “to become a catalyst for an entirely different way to manage employee safety and plant equipment.” In other words, to save lives.
Electromark’s story starts in 1970, when founder Harold Rickles saw an opportunity to manufacture industrial-grade markings for nuclear facilities. The work was spread among five employees in a 9000-sq-ft facility. Over the course of nearly four decades, the company has mushroomed into a producer and supplier of tags, signs, labels, and other types of markings for electrical transmission and distribution, power generation, telecommunications, and other industries. And in that time, the company developed what it describes as one of the most sophisticated manufacturing operations in the industry.
Electromark is fully owned by the Brady Corporation, an international manufacturer and marketer of solutions that identify and protect premises, products, and people. Its products help customers increase safety, security, productivity, and performance and include high-performance labels and signs, safety devices, printing systems and software, and precision die-cut materials. Founded in 1914, the company has more than 500,000 cus-tomers in electronics, telecommunications, manufacturing, electrical, construction, education, medical, and a variety of other industries. Brady is headquartered in Milwaukee, WI and employs more than 9000 people at operations in the Americas, Europe, and Asia/Pacific.
The shop floor
One highlight of the company’s production system is the prepress department, which is staffed by five employees over the course of almost two full shifts. There the company operates a fully automatic Dane screen-prep system (Figure 1). Electromark operates the only fully integrated, turnkey system of its kind in North America. The system’s process flow—configured entirely inline—starts with a magazine inlet, then moves through a Dane Wash 380 reclaiming unit, a Dane After Cleaner, a magazine pass-through with air, a Dane coater, a magazine pass-through with heated air, a SignTronic computer-to-screen system, a Dane stencil processor, and finally through a magazine outlet with heated air.
“We migrated from power washers to a couple of standalone Dane units seven years ago,” says Ed Beck, Electromark’s plant manager. “They picked up the bulk of the ink and stripped emulsion. That was the extent of our automated washing at the time. But with the Dane automatic inline system, we put in a soil-ed screen and end up with one ready to go back to press without having to touch it in the meantime.”
The breadth of product with which Electromark is involved, a small sampling of which is shown in Figure 2, requires the company to operate an extensive array of production and finishing equipment. Among the standouts in the company’s collection of presses, some of which are shown in Figure 3, are a SIAS semiautomatic, a total of nine Saturn and Renegade systems from M&R, a four-color/eight-station M&R Insignia carousel graphics press, and a three-color, roll-to-roll SMAG press that also handles laminating, diecutting, and waste stripping. The shop also uses thermal-transfer printers from Gerber and Markem, a wide-format inkjet printer from HP, and a fleet of hot-stamping systems. Electromark operates a lot of drying and curing lines to accommodate those printing machines, including a monster of a hot-air dryer from Interchange Equipment that measures 76 in. wide x 78 ft long. Beck explains that the Interchange dryer allows Electromark to dry prints created with conventional inks and those to which baked enamels are applied.
Beyond the assortment of presses are porcelain kilns, routers, slitters, eyeletters, stitching machines, diecutting systems, laminators, QUV testers, and much more. Markings that are completed in this area are found in numerous end locations. Electromark’s products for electrical transfer and electric utility transmission and distribution are applied at substations, on overhead lines, underground, on meters and other types of related equipment, and many other places. Electromark also provides marking solutions in this market for lighting, gas and water, lockout-tagout programs, vehicles and personnel, security, and safety. Products for power generation include markings for pipes and valves, labels for calibration, architectural signage, radiation warnings, and badges and other security products. Finally, markings for telecommunications are produced for pedestals, buried lines, poles, cables, and more.
In addition to the specialty equipment mentioned above, Electromark offers MetalPhoto processing, operates clean-room facilities for bar codes, and uses several types of computer-control-led equipment for metal fabrication. The company’s quality-assurance (QA) program complies with 10CFR50, which is required for vendors of safety-related items to nuclear-power facilities. Routine audits of Electromark’s QA program are conducted by the Nuclear Procurement Issues Committee.
Materials, processes, and products
Electromark makes its primary product lines available in polyester, vinyl, fiberglass, aluminum (standard and annealed), and stainless steel and uses several types of printing and finishing processes to produce its markings. They include screen, thermal, and photographic printing, laser etching, MetalPhoto (creating images on photographic anodized-aluminum sheets), hot stamping, anodizing, embossing and debossing, chemical and laser etching, and more. The company also formulates and mixes its own photoluminescent inks. Among Electromark’s many signs, labels, and tags are five grades of marking products:
Polyesters Label and tag stocks can be screen or thermally printed and are typically designed to protect legends, serial numbers, and bar codes. Staple products include 10-mil polyester tags with self-laminating flaps that are used to seal in the end user’s manually added data. They also can be provided with Electromark’s non-conductive Snap-Grommet.
FiberTec Electromark manufactures screen- or inkjet-printed images that are embedded in the center of a fiberglass and resin mixture. The image is then protected from chemicals, UV exposure, abrasion, and weathering for long outdoor durability. This solution is designed for those who need lightweight, vandal-resistant outdoor markings. FiberTec is also available in reflective and photoluminescent versions.
Aluminum These signs and tags are made of heavy-duty aluminum and designed for high durability. Graphical content is screen printed at resolutions up to 900 dpi, and numbers are applied by an embossing/stamping die. One-of-a-kind screen-printed and embossed panels are a signature product at Electromark. The enamel inks used on aluminum are baked at 400°F.
Porcelain Electromark calls this the ultimate tag. Graphical content—including legends, serial numbers, and bar codes—is screen or photographically printed at resolutions up to 1200 dpi with Electromark’s PhotoFrit material and process. These ceramic tags are built on a stainless-steel base. Electromark then fires ceramic or porcelain frit onto the stainless steel at 1500°F, and the resulting product resists solvents, UV degradation, high heat, and abrasion. Porcelain tags are typically hung or riveted to application surfaces.
E-Guard This class of product can last 30 years or more. These tags are produced on photographic anodized sheets of aluminum and support high print quality and resolution, approximately 1200 dpi. Graphical content, including bar codes and serial numbers, is embedded into the top layer of the aluminum and then sealed to prevent chipping, fading, peeling, and cracking. E-Guard tags meet a variety of UL, federal, and military specs.
All five grades of product present a variety of fonts, and all but AluGuard support the inclusion of bar codes. Customers can purchase tags, signs, and labels decorat-ed with stock designs, a combination of stock and custom elements, or entirely customize their own products. “The key of having a standard template is to meet ANSI and OSHA regulations and not deviate. That’s what those standard templates are about,” Beck explains. “Many companies might have their own interpretation, which is fine as well.”
Electromark’s J-Sign, made of 8 x 16.25-in. polycarbonate, is a good example of a regulatory-compliant product that the end user may customize. Electromark developed J-Sign in 1988 and notes that the hanging sign has become the standard in US nuclear and weapons facilities. It allows users to change displayed warning messages by swapping 1.625 x 8-in. Lexan inserts in and out of the J-Sign’s pockets (three- and five-pocket models are available). The inserts may be pre-fabricated with standardized warning messages and images, or users may opt to purchase blank inserts for complete customization. J-Signs allow users to attach the signs without disconnecting and reattaching the ropes or chains on which the signs will hang. The J-Sign features an ear at its top that, when bent back, allows a rope or chain to be fed through the sign.
Electromark recommends the use of Clearview font, which the company helped research and to which it was granted exclusivity in 1996, on most of its products. This typeface is intended to improve the impact of printed messages and make them more clear to those whose vision is degraded or who may be looking at the signage in low light or from an angle. The font’s appearance in these challenging situations is such that certain letters—such as e, a, and s—that would ordinarily fill in remain open instead.
Ordering and inventory
Electromark’s Website (www.electro mark.com) features e-commerce functionality to complement its traditional sales channels. It makes most of the company’s stock markings available for online ordering, from the J-Signs mentioned earlier to ANSI- and OSHA-compliant lockout tags. The Website also gives users the opportunity to customize certain products, and it takes them through that process step by step.
With so many products to offer, you’d think that Electromark would have a tremendous inventory to oversee. According to Beck, that’s not usually the case. “We’re typically not very large volume. Our average run size is in the hundreds, but we’ll run one or 100,000. We use what we call an anticipated-to-promise system, which means we have very reduced lead times and are very quick to market,” he explains. “We put as few items on the shelf as we can. It’s all about being lean, being able to produce a few labels as efficiently as producing many.”
The company has hosted several lean events over the past two years and is undergoing a complete, facility-wide process-flow change. Beck says walls are literally coming down in order to streamline manufacturing. Electromark uses an enterprise-resource-planning system that its IT department developed in house in collaboration with production managers. It facilitates real-time job tracking throughout the life of a project.
EHS and VOCs
Electromark conveys its expertise in safety in the products it makes and has extended that specialty to the way it protects its employees by developing a comprehensive environmental health and safety (EHS) program. EHS is a big subject at Electromark—one that goes far beyond ensuring that employees have and use proper personal protective gear. Beck explains that the company has guarded every piece of equipment and has relied on engineers and the employees themselves to develop those protective measures. Some of the other EHS-related programs in place at Electromark include waste management, HazCom, and a safety committee that meets monthly.
“Our employees are our greatest asset,” Beck explains. “It’s in our best interest to put their safety first—not only for the health and welfare of the employees, but also because they in turn recognize these efforts and feel a lot more comfortable coming to work every day.”
Maintaining the most safe and healthy working environment possible is but one part of Electromark’s philosophy of caring for employees. Beck says Electromark gives its workers every opportunity to succeed and grow with the company by giving them all of the training and support to do so.
Electromark’s approach to sustainability issues extends its consideration of company-wide employee health to the environment inside and outside of the facility. According to Beck, Electromark constantly reviews its emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and tries to reduce those emissions, based on products currently in the marketplace.
“We have the appropriate ventilation and just completed an air-balance survey of the entire plant so that we can again look at what we’re venting, how we’re venting, and how to make an environmentally friendly atmosphere as far as dust and VOCs,” he explains. “And as far as chemicals, we have a staff that looks at alternatives so we can go with environmentally friendly, VOC-free types of products.”
Everywhere a sign
Prevention of workplace injuries can be as simple as posting the right sign in the right place. Electromark helps ensure that safety signage is properly installed and displayed and offers sign evaluations, as well as plant walk-throughs, assistance with piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID) takeoffs, and turnkey installation of pipe markers and safety signs. This full-scale approach to sales and service has helped Electromark grow into a 130-employee operation and into an 80,000-sq-ft facility. But safety signage is more than just a source of profit for Electromark. These products are, as the company puts it, “the front line defense against unsafe practices, and it is unconscionable not to use them to warn effectively.” In other words, they save lives.