The right image

Posted on 5 Jun 2009 by The Manufacturer

A new site and a growing range of digital imaging solutions are good news for FFEI, Ruari McCallion learned from John Mortimer.

The name FFEI may not be immediately familiar. It was established in 2006 but it comes with a strong heritage. The original business, Crosfield Electronics, opened its doors in 1947 but the company became better known as FUJIFILM. It came into its present ownership after an MBO and is strengthening its image as a provider of full digital imaging expertise with a focus on what it calls ‘lifestyle improvement’. It manufactures micro scanners, , platesetters and software products at a new factory in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

“The reason for the MBO was that the Board recognised opportunities for future developments in CTP (computer to plate), workflow software and inkjet technologies,” said manufacturing director John Mortimer. FFEI has a long tradition of expertise in colour processing based on its development of innovative scanning technologies in the 1970s. FFEI’s Luxel V8 CTP is a system for exposing directly from computer-to-plate. As jobs are downloaded from the RIP PC, the machine will automatically load and feed a plate into the drum ready for exposing by a laser. While exposing images, the engine continues to receive and store new jobs from the RIP, which improves workflow and productivity.

The Luxel CTP is an example of how FFEI is using R&D to boost productivity and raise efficiency. But the company has also looked beyond printing and traditional markets to new opportunities, such as life sciences, as well as expanding in pre-press. Caslon, for example, was announced in September 2007 and represented a major new development in inkjet printing. Created in partnership with Nilpeter, a large Label Press manufacturer in Denmark, it features up to 410 mm imaging width using six print heads in each of it’s four colour bars printing on a web running at 25 metres per second with digital photograph quality. The special UV curable ink allows for printing on a wide selection of materials from paper to plastics and so is ideally suited to the Label printing application.

“Caslon is the first of a breed of new products we are developing and bringing to market over the next 12 to 18 months,” said Mortimer. “The advantage of six heads is that printing can be done across a wider web, providing more flexibility with wider medias. Or the printer can close down to just two or three operating heads. Whatever the choice, the image quality is outstanding.” FFEI is also rather proud of new products for the life sciences market, including a microscanner and Z-stacking scanner that are leaders – indeed, unique – in their fields, and a new line, which has emerged from earlier technological ideas.

“It scans tissue samples to cell level that are mounted on glass slides,” he continued. “We developed the idea on the back of technology that emerged in 2003/2004, when we launched a yeast cell scanner used for drug discovery. We went on and found a strategic partner to help develop the market opportunity, worked through the design phase over the past two years and are scheduled to launch it in July 2009.”

The partnership approach is key to FFEI’s strategy. As well as Nilpeter, it works with Xaar, the leading independent supplier of state-of-the-art industrial inkjet printheads, inks and peripheral equipment; with former parent company FUJIFILM, to develop and distribute graphic arts and prepress products; and with Adobe, developing prepress workflows that use technology such as Adobe’s new PDF Print Engine. It is engaged in joint research and development with other partners across the world. FFEI continues to be very much R&D-led, despite the odd hiccough and challenge along the way.

“Our previous R&D Centre in Hemel Hempstead was very close to the Buncefield depot, which blew up in the explosion in December 2005,” said Mortimer. “Since then, we have invested £2 million in our new facility, Graphics House, in Hemel Hempstead and £4 million in our design infrastructure – plant and equipment. We opened in December 2008 with a brand new Clean Room and streamlined communications that take lead time out of product development, which also helped create a new culture for FFEI. We have a very strong sense of identity and purpose.” The renaissance of FFEI, if one can call it that, has involved a degree of upheaval. It has closed its factory at Peterborough, which was the historical home of Crosfield.

“Peterborough had 25 years of history. There was a lot of knowledge there, knowledge that was crucial to us,” he said. “We lost some staff but were able to bring most of them down here. We also brought in some new people, with new ideas and we expect to see the plant really flourish over the next 12-18 months.” While closing Peterborough was a sad end to an old chapter, FFEI’s technology has moved on. In place of a big CNC milling machine, it now casts all its own drums from aggregate and resin mix to tolerances of 10 microns on beam and five on the perpendicular axis.

“A local company did the prototype for us and we were so impressed we bought them,” said Mortimer. Testing for user convenience is also part of the FFEI way. “We test our CTPs for up to five days, for fully integrated machines. The test programme can include anything up to 200 different parameters, getting the machine ready for plug-and-play.”

While printing and publishing has been suffering in the current economic situation, FFEI has continued to flourish. That’s in part due to its diversity: it has 63 different sales partners across the world and has been growing in India and China. It has seen its sales of CTP equipment rise 28 per cent, and that’s in a mature market. It has seen more business in emerging markets over the past 12 months than ever before – sales have more than doubled. Technology, a commitment to spend up to 20 per cent of turnover on R&D and its partnership strategy have all helped. So has its business improvement programme.

“While we’re not near Six Sigma standards in processes for younger products, our more mature lines – such as CTP – are pretty good. We use all of the Lean toolbox and matrix-manage in each area,” Mortimer said. “We operate a strategy we call ‘4C’, which covers customer satisfaction, cash management, cost of business, and company capability. It all contributes to our competitive advantage, which is about working smarter, rather than harder.” It’s the substance behind the image.