Unit Safety Signs (USS) is a large Japanese company specialised in the design and manufacture of safety signs and products for the safety industry. It has been in
business since 1968 and is a highly respected leader in its field, employing 280 people at two main manufacturing sites at Sendai and Saitama.

In addition to the August 2009 Agfa :Dotrix investment, USS also uses silk screen printing technology and inkjet. USS has an annual turnover in the region of €50 million. USS has a diverse portfolio of products, over 4,500 types of safety signs for the construction industry, over 6,200 signs for industrial safety applications and over 2,200 safety signs for the plumbing and cabling industry. The market for safety signs has been growing in recent years and USS has been well placed to take advantage of this growth; anything that it can’t manufacture itself has been outsourced to subcontractors. The signs are typically wall mounted or free-standing and historically silk screen printing has been the main method of manufacture. All indications are that the market for safety signs will continue to grow significantly in coming years as health and safety legislation impacts all areas of both office and factory working environments.

Tough times in the safety sign market

Like many other sectors of the print market, one of the constant challenges for USS is dealing with the continuing trend to shorter and shorter run lengths as well as the
requirement to turn work around in shorter timescales. Some USS clients will place an order and expect delivery later the same day; these levels of customer service are
not uncommon in the demanding and quality-conscious Japanese print market. USS is seeing dramatic reductions in demand for signs printed on rigid media and board; the growth markets are for signs printed on roll or flexible sheet material.

In a market as diverse and varied as safety signs, USS has successfully used subcontractors to absorb capacity and assist with special orders. This is not uncommon in the safety sign market; some sign ‘manufacturers’ don’t have any
production capacity – everything is outsourced. One of the main challenges for USS is to actively reduce the cost of subcontract work, which can be over €30,000 per month.

Mr Keijiro Kuroda, production manager of USS, explained: “The flexibility of the :Dotrix was one of the driving forces behind our decision to purchase one. The ability to print with durable UV inks on a wide variety of substrates will reduce the need for external contractors. We also need the :Dotrix ability to ‘print on demand’ and reduce inventory of finished product by turning work around quicker than was possible before.”

:Dotrix delivers vital speed improvements

Using traditional production methods some jobs could take days to finish. The same work done on the :Dotrix takes just a few hours. “Having efficient production equipment like the :Dotrix in-house is a major advantage for us over our competition. We can complete work very quickly compared to traditional print methods. Unlike the silk screen method the :Dotrix doesn’t need a drying oven – this is another cash/energy saving and one that is good for the environment,” added Mr Kuroda.

Because the Agfa :Dotrix is an inkjet (‘non impact’) system there are very little restrictions to the type of materials that it can print on. Any material from 20µm flexible foils to 380gsm folding card can be used and the versatile UV inks are compatible with just about any type of material from paper to polymer, making it an ideal production device for USS. “By introducing the digital technology we can start switching away from silk screen production methods. We are seeing a huge demand for signage printed on PVC and tarpaulin rolls. We produce about 400,000 printed tarpaulin safety signs per year. By taking only this type of work to the :Dotrix there will be a good return on investment for us, but of course we expect the :Dotrix to do much more than printing only on tarpaulin rolls,” explained Mr Kuroda.

One of the major :Dotrix benefits for USS is the ability to produce its work much quicker than was possible before. USS mentions the importance of speed repeatedly; the speed of the :Dotrix provides both additional flexibility in the type of work that can be produced as well as additional capacity to produce it. Traditional silk screen production is an effective method for producing certain types of print work but it is slow and labour intensive. Analogue silk screen plates have to be made manually, which isn’t too technically demanding but it does take time and experience. Once the plates are made the production process of silk screen printing requires skill to deliver the perfect result. The silk screen process has been around for some time but its days are numbered now that digital UV inkjet systems such as Agfa’s :Dotrix have become so fast and effective at printing vivid, durable UV inks on such a wide variety of substrates.

:Dotrix replaces silk screen technology

Unlike silk screen printing methods the Agfa :Dotrix UV inks create no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during drying so there are environmental benefits to complement performance and efficiency improvements. Environmental pressures are present in the safety sign market and Mr Kuroda points out that USS is continually looking to source new substrates with lower carbon footprints.

USS had a smooth introduction of the :Dotrix. Mr Kuroda says that the operators were impressed with the simplicity but also the speed: “After some on-the-job training our :Dotrix operator was comfortable using the entire system himself. His first comment was how well it performed printing on PVC tarpaulin; it wasn’t just the quality of the print that impressed, it was the speed, especially being able to print variable data and different jobs without needing plate changes. Our customers commented that the safety signs have an improved appearance and better gloss.”

USS set for growth with the :Dotrix

USS has connected its :Dotrix to a Solutech W1200 sheet cutter which allows online finishing for USS, further streamlining an already efficient and highly automated process. USS has not yet finished its transition to fully digital working methods but is convinced that this is the future.

USS has clear business plans for the :Dotrix over the next 12 months. One goal is to continue reducing the money spent on subcontracting work to external suppliers. The flexibility of the :Dotrix means it can easily cope with small quantities of specialised production.

Another goal is to continue switching work away from silk
screen and on to the :Dotrix. Analysis has shown USS that
the :Dotrix is able to produce work at a lower cost than silk screen printing. All this is making life harder for other non-digital firms competing in the safety sign market. Not only is the :Dotrix allowing USS significant improvements to its speed of operation, it is also allowing the company to be increasingly agile and flexible in a tough and demanding sector.

Despite the safety sign market suffering the same price and run length erosion as other markets and despite the challenges of turning around jobs in faster timescales, USS is set for growth while many of its competitors are struggling to survive. The story of USS is one of a well managed and highly focused company that can continue to prosper in tough market conditions simply by embracing the
benefits of digital press technology.