Being niche pays

15 November 2006

Narrow web converter OPM is set to expand again. Pauline Covell travelled to West Yorkshire to meet md Chris Ellison

When OPM decided to enter the flexible film market in 2000 it was an interesting move for the family owned, narrow web, flexo printed label company. “We spotted a gap in the market to use narrow web label presses to produce short run films,” managing director and owner Chris Ellison told Converting Today. The route he took to achieve the clear success the company has become was far from conventional.

He was invited to Nilpeter, to see its cold UV development. “That happened to coincide with our desire to upgrade the business. We knew the larger packaging converters were not interested in orders under a tonne so we asked Nilpeter to provide a flexo press that gave us the quality print required.” The company had a long history of buying machinery from the Danish press builder.

The press built was based on the 3300; a hybrid capable of printing and converting labels as well as packaging films and laminates. OPM Flexible Packaging was launched in late 2000, in a new unit in Bradford. “The concept of selling packaging was no threat to the larger converters - in fact we buy substrates from them. We provide a service especially in niche materials,” he explained.

The company may be small beside the giants, but from the very start of the growth Chris Ellison was determined to have the best kit installed. “When we set up in Bradford I asked who were the best suppliers. We brought them in for inks, repro, anilox and tapes, and I said 'I need you all here on the 7th of January by the press and I don't want you to leave until it works. The deal is that you all have the business for two years.'

“The result was that the blame culture simply didn't happen. They all helped each other rather than blaming each other. We set standards and a working procedure.”

What were the advantages? “We control the process. If we have a change in anything we have to know the effect on manufacture, the effect on downtime - and the cost of that downtime, “ Chris Ellison added.

Four years on and the company was ready to expand again. By the end of 2004 a second Nilpeter arrived, this time servo driven. It was fitted with a GEW UV system and at the same time the older press was retrofitted with the same system for increased productivity.

The armoury at the 7,000ft2 Bradford facility includes the older nine colour 3300 Nilpeter with web width of 340mm. Two screen units can be dropped in to any of the nine stations, and cold foiling, lamination, delamination and reverse lamination can be achieved, as well as die cutting. The press is equipped with a single rewind (with soft tensioning for film). Substrates from paper, films to 300g/m2 board can be handled.

The new 3300 servo driven Nilpeter “can handle anything - even tissue paper.” The accurate and variable repeat lengths so necessary with applications such as flexible films for form, fill and seal operations are easily achieved, he reported. It also allows handling of some of the more difficult filmic labelstock. Operators can set up far faster, quickly pre-setting all the main production and process parameters. Waste is cut to a minimum.

The company also boasts a 16in LeoMat soft tension servo driven rewinder. “Rako, of Germany, built it for us. The main advantage of the servo rewind is that the start-up and running tolerances are much softer on the motor. We can rewind a superbly flat reel.”

Bradford is one manufacturing centre of the company. OPM runs a “cell” culture for each of the four group companies: OPM Labels and OPM Systems at Keighley, West Yorkshire, the Flexibles operation, in Bradford, and OPM Midlands in Bromsgrove, which manufactures for clients in the southern UK. All the management, administration, sales and buying are operated from the head office in Keighley. The company is committed to a flat management structure.

“Our philosophy is simple,” explained Chris Ellison. “Presses are the only revenue generators. The uptime has to be maximized. Everything else is an overhead. So for us the way it works is that the press is king. Everything has to be ready to go.” Commercial partnerships with award winning CTP repro provider LS and ink company intercolour have enabled OPM to provide “complete and accurate” colour management and consistency.

“We have consistency of light everywhere,” he added. “We fingerprint the presses on a regular basis; we have standardized aniloxes and we have climate control to ensure consistent temperature and humidity.” The company received ISO 9002 status as early as 1990 and now it is accredited with the BRC/IOP most stringent Category B Food Packaging status.

It is also rather unusual to find a company of this size totally committed to an MIS system. OPM operates a Tharstern SQL system for estimating, shop floor data collection, purchasing, delivery and invoicing. “It is all real-time on an Intranet system. We don't need managers,” he boasted. Investment in the system was £150,000, but he says with all the man hours devoted to getting things as he wanted it “you could double that”.

“At the moment production planning is done in Keighley and Bradford in the traditional way, but in six months I will be confident of putting scheduling into the system too. It really is very powerful, especially for production and sales analysis. You can start to see how effective your machines are - the uptimes, the wash-up times, and the percentage effectiveness. Our structure and philosophy all help us to be good for the customer; it helps us be competitive and, of course, achieve our financial objectives.”

Another impressive facet is the shift pattern operated at the companies. The three days on, four days off (12.5 hour day with two breaks) system is clearly popular with printers and management alike. Many of the team members have stayed with OPM for many years and it enables the company to run a six-day week without extraordinary payments for Saturdays.

Although predominantly serving the UK, the company exports some 20 per cent of manufacture to as far afield as the USA, Poland and China. Short run, high quality flexo and niche is the order of the day. “We'd print down to one label if the price was right,” quipped Chris Ellison. “Anything over a tonne and we are not so competitive.

“We enjoy doing things others don't do. We specialize, for example, in soft touch, materials for pouches, reticulating varnishes, a lot of overlamination, metal effects, holographic labels, flow wrap and sachets, and easy peel and grab materials.” Converting Today saw some very clever double die cutting, delaminating and relaminating applications at the Bradford plant that cannot be revealed because of commercial secrecy agreements. The company is a regular top achiever at the EFTA and FTA awards.

“We plough a lot back into the business,” he revealed. Investment totalled some £2.5M over the last five years with the new press representing £900,000. And the future plan almost certainly includes another press. “We are looking at a wider press to provide not only more capacity, but also to cater for wider packaging widths. After that we will probably put together the Bradford and Keighley sites somewhere else. The time scale for the press is probably 2007. As far as the new factory is concerned land is not cheap and units are not easy to find. A lot depends on how the press acquisition goes, but if all is according to plan we would probably be thinking about three years’ time.”

OPM is constantly looking at running new materials. Some time every week is set aside for trials. Short run cartons may also be on the horizon, he hinted.

“We are in it for the long term. We don't want to be the biggest, but we want to be acknowledged as one of the best. And we come to work to enjoy it,” he concluded.


OPM Group
Tel: +44 (0)1535 642528
Tel: +45 58 50 11 66
Tel: +49 (0)4104 6930
Tel: +44 (0)1708 899091
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Tel: +44 (0)161 432 2225

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