Northern Flags is a long-established textile printing company based in Leeds.
It was set up 31 years ago with the Dutch Faber family,
owner of Faber Vlaggen, as a minority shareholder.
It originally concentrated on traditionally screen-printed flags.
Five years ago the Faber family acquired a majority shareholding and new
managing director Iain Clasper-Cotte bought a 25% share. Since then the
business has changed substantially, moving into sport and event branding,
POS and forecourt marketing.
In 2007 Northern Flags shifted all print production out of Leeds into
Faber-owned sites on mainland Europe. For eight years Leeds was primarily
a sales and customer management office, but last year it was decided
to re-establish production on UK soil. This time it was to be all-digital,
so print facilities had to be purchased and new skills obtained.
In March this year Andy Devine joined Northern Flags as production manager.
He says: “Northern Flags today is far more than flags, it is very much a
wide-format fabric printing company. It has expanded its capabilities to offer
a much broader range of digitally printed signage, advertising and point-of-sale
products. We predominantly supply to re-sellers, sporting events organisers,
automotive and construction industries, and retailers.
“Here in Leeds, our production equipment incorporates four large-format printers
covering a number of printing technologies. We also have a cutting and sewing
department with the capacity to produce the large range of finishes required for
the various types of product that we offer.”
The first textile printers chosen to be installed were two Korean built
D.Gen Teleios inkjets. These are disperse dye ink printers, more commonly
known as dye sublimation, for direct textile printing with inline heat fixation.
Devine says: “The first one, installed in December to begin production in January,
was a 2.5m wide model. This was bought to allow us to produce our core range
of products such as Heras fencing, exhibition graphics, pull-up banners and so on.
“It was determined that a second D.Gen would give us greater capacity and flexibility
and we came across a good offer on a smaller 1.8m wide model. This was installed
in late February and is predominantly used to run flag polyester, which is our most
commonly used material.”
A Durst Omega flatbed inkjet was also installed to handle rigid media including
Correx and there is an HP Latex 360 roll-fed inkjet for PVC, banners and wallpaper.
The total investment in print equipment has been around £500,000 over the past 12 months.
“Now that we have a production facility here in the UK it has given us increased
flexibility for smaller orders and orders requiring a short turnaround time,” says Devine.
“We still tend to allocate the larger 100-plus unit dye-sub jobs to Poland, the UV to the
Netherlands and screen printing to Thailand. This supply chain flexibility gives us great
price advantages and speed for those clients with short deadlines.”
An example of the mixed production sites was the giant FA Cup banner that covered the
pitch at Wembley just before the finals match this year. The banner was printed by Faber
Vlaggen in Poland, but the accompanying flags and banners were produced in
Leeds on the D.Gens.
Why choose D.Gen? Devine explains: “Part of the plan to introduce production
into the UK was to use dye sub printers with inline fixation. This allows us to maximise
production while maintaining a minimal production staff, and allows us to keep
the cost to customers as low as possible.
“One critical factor in the flag business is show-through. That is, how much
colour transfers through a material in order to have the back of a flag as closely
match the front as possible. It took two years of working with suppliers and other
manufacturers to identify the right combination of equipment, materials and
processes, suitable for the scale of operation we wanted here in the UK, that could
achieve the results on show-through that matched that of our other facilities.”
Space was also a factor, he says. “Space is at a premium here so having
a solution that could print and fixate within the same relatively small footprint
“The D.Gen Teleios printer with in-line fixation, supplied to us by RA Smart,
turned out to be the ideal choice.”
The D.Gen Teleios Black was purpose-built for direct textile printing.
It uses dye disperse inks which are applied to the textile medium,
and are then permanently fixed to the textile by heat which vapourises
the ink so it is absorbed into the fibres. Textiles with a high polyester
content have to be used. Wasatch front end RIP software is used.
“We run both our D.Gen’s with four-pass at 720dpi,” says Devine.
“We have experimented with other resolutions and passes but we found
that anything other than this configuration gave us either unsatisfactorily
reduced print quality or increased print time. At this setting, we achieve
on our 2.5m about what D.Gen say should be possible with six-pass,
“It’s fair to say you never quite get what a manufacturer says is possible
when it comes to print speed. Much like cars and their MPG values. These
speeds were expected and are satisfactory for us.”
Since Northern Flags acquired its D.Gens, new models have been launched.
The replacement for the 1.8m machine is the Arachne Hexa,
with Ricoh Gen5 heads in place of the Teleios’ Epson DX5s and a choice of
reactive, acid, pigment or dye disperse inks. The 2.5m has been replaced
by the Teleios Grande G5 XL2600, also with Gen5 heads, though RA Smart
says the 3.3m model is a more productive option.
How did the adoption go?
“Large-format, direct-to-textile dye sublimation printing can be a tricky
business if you’re new to it,” Devine says. “We were lucky that we had
the group to support us, along with RA Smart and D.Gen.
“Even with all of this we only felt that we were starting to get the most out
of the machines from the spring. I was brought on-board to strengthen the
team in March. What I have been able to do is to take the work that was done
between January-March and turn that into a reliable and manageable
manufacturing platform, allowing us to upscale our production output to the
kind of levels that we wanted to see. And there’s always room for more!”
Any problems? “As long as you keep up with the advised maintenance
schedule, the printer is excellent, a real workhorse,” Devine says.
“Other than the occasional dropped nozzle or ink droplet on a print,
it will run all day without any issue.”
The in-line heat fixation units have been a little more demanding, needing
careful attention to cleaning and lubrication, he says, adding that PTFE
works better than standard copper-based grease. The Fumebuster units,
which draw gases and moisture away from the heat fixation units,
also need regular cleaning.
“We’ve been satisfied with the service and support we receive from RA Smart,”
Devine says. “In the beginning, there were a number of issues that could not
be solved in-house, so RA Smart was called upon to send an engineer to
resolve the issue. This would sometimes mean waiting a few days, with a printer
out of action, for an engineer to become available. But RA Smart was always
understanding of our needs to resolve problems as quickly as possible. Since
my arrival, our in-house knowledge has allowed us to reduce the demand for
support to a minimal level and I’m happy to say that we haven’t lost a single days
production on either D.Gen in all that time.”
When it comes it comes to the best and worst aspects of the machines,
Devine says consistency is the best aspect. “Once you have everything dialled
in the way you want it, it will produce the same quality of print every day.
“The worst thing? Loading a 2.5m wide, 100m long roll of heavy
jet banner material, when you’re on your own!
“To ask it to do more than it already does would seems a bit much.
But it would be nice if there was less cleaning involved.”
And on the big question, would he buy another?
“Yes, I would like to have more now, to give us even more capacity.
But we only have so much space in our current premises.
We are planning for the future to move into larger premises where
we will be able to add more equipment to our production line.
And I would happily have more D.Gens!”