In 1974, Jon Landau wrote the prophetic words, “I’ve seen the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Similarly, Serigraph, Inc., a specialty printer based in West Bend, Wis. that literally started as a garage business in 1949, saw the future of customized decorative graphics for OEM displays and instrumentation, and its name was “3-D Polycarbonate.” That history is still being written.
“A few years ago we were looking at something to replace traditional flood-lit displays,” explains Randy Wiskirchen, vice president of sales and marketing,” and we came up with the right product at the right time. There’s a lot more you can do with a 3D design than you can do with a flat display to give it `pop’ with curves and contours, colors and coatings, with the total absence of seams or parting lines. You can also do back-lit displays. With a protective coating, the polycarbonate material looks like glass, but weighs less and costs less to make.”
While Serigraph continues to print more traditional two-dimensional displays, Wiskirchen notes that the 3-D product line further adds to Serigraph’s leading reputation as a provider of unique decorative solutions as well as the largest printer of polycarbonate plastic materials. “We don’t chase commodity opportunities, though sometimes we have customers that have a need for a commodity-type product, and we’re able to fulfill it for them.”
He adds that, “What we’re primarily looking to serve are those designers who are constantly looking for ways in which to differentiate their product among competitors and enhance the customer’s brand experience.”
Serigraph addresses these graphic differentiation needs in multiple market segments that encompass appliance, automotive, medical, marine, sports and outdoor, high tech, and point-of-purchase OEMs. Examples include control panels for kitchen appliances, instrument panels for automobiles, warning decals for outdoor equipment, exterior detailing on power sports vehicles, and paint-replacement alternatives for handheld equipment.
The demand for 3-D polycarbonate plastic displays is currently at the beginning of the curve, but Serigraph isn’t sitting back just because it has the advantage of market leadership. The company is aggressively seeking to regain business in the telecom and electronics sectors. “Our customers are telling us that if we’re not in the local supply chain, then they don’t want to consider us,” Wiskirchen says. “That’s been particularly true of telecom and electronics companies that have largely moved their operations offshore. Consequently, we’ve recently acquired operations in India and Asia, in part to get back into these markets.”
He point out that, “Of course, the fact is that our customer base in every market segment is comprised of multinational companies, so these offshore facilities help us better serve them, as well. At the same time, it enables us to have the capabilities to serve local companies in the geographic area. Strategically, we’re looking at growth both from existing customers with international operations, as well as the expanding Asian industrial base. The same sort of thing is occurring in Eastern Europe, and we’re currently looking at opportunities for us in that region.”
In North America, Serigraph operated three plants in Wisconsin, and an additional three plants in Mexico. Serigraph employs 1,300 people worldwide. “Having facilities both domestically and internationally better positions us as a global company serving our multinational customers,” Wiskirchen says. “There may be times when it actually makes more sense to manufacture domestically because even the offshore, low-cost options end up costing more when you figure in the costs of shipping and tariffs. Having multiple locations around the world provides us with the flexibility to come up with the most cost-effective solution.”
Additional flexibility is provided by the range of technology Serigraph has at its fingertips. “We have different competitors in different market segments; there might, for example, be two other players besides us in automotive and two different ones in appliances. But one differentiator we have in every segment is that we have about eight different kinds of decorating printing technology, which no one competitor in any segment has. Consequently, we have more capabilities to offer customers more options.”
But even as a custom solutions provider, Wiskirchen points out that ultimately most purchase decisions are driven by cost considerations. “In this business, you can’t really compete on the basis of providing better service than the other guy. Service is a given expectation. We have a clear advantage in that if you’re looking for a back-lit graphic on metal, we’re the only printer that can provide it. But there are still cost-pressures. If it’s too expensive, the customer might choose to do something less flashy that a competitor could do.”
To keep production costs down, Serigraph has for the past year and a half embarked on what Wiskirchen terms as “our lean manufacturing journey. We’ve still got a way to go, but every week there are a lot of events in every division to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Some of the results have been spectacular, cutting costs by as much as 50 percent. Today, going lean to trim expenses is what every company needs to do just to survive.”
While the cost of raw materials has risen, Wiskirchen doesn’t consider it much of an issue. “As a global company, we have the advantage of buying is sufficient volumes to achieve significant price discounts. Also, we recycle a lot of our scrap.” Indeed, Serigraph has been a leader in “green” processes that are not only beneficial to the environment, but the bottom-line. A 1995 recycling program expansion diverted four million pounds of solid materials from landfill to reuse. The 1997 construction of the company’s corporate headquarters and automotive graphics facility included a bio-filter that resulted in a more than 30-ton reduction of volatile organic compound emissions (VOCs) on an annual basis.
Moreover, the conversion to ultraviolet (UV) inks and curing methods from traditional solvent-based inks results not only in better quality and improved throughput, but further elimination of VOCs to provide a healthier working environment. UV inks act as liquid plastic, which when exposed to concentrated UV radiation becomes solid. Because UV inks do not dry in the air, they tend not to clog printing cells, and presses don’t need to be cleaned after each run.
Another way to trim costs is through technology. Wiskirchen notes that while digital printing is not yet capable of meeting OEM specifications for every need, it provides a flexible option for certain needs. “For smaller lots with less product in the pipeline that require faster set-up times to fulfill regional promotions, digital is a very attractive high-quality solution.” Towards that end, about three years ago, Serigraph invested in the first waterless KBA 74 Karat four-color digital offset press with a special plastics printing option in the U.S.
The creation of 3-D displays also required Serigraph to expand its forming, finishing and sub-assembly operations. The company also offers a complete fulfillment service. “Multinational companies typically don’t set up their own displays, but outsource it,” Wiskirchen says. “Because we’re a global company, another advantage we have is that if a customer does something in a certain region of the world, and then decides to do it somewhere else, we have the capabilities to fulfill it wherever they want to do it. That’s something a smaller, local printer might not be able to do.”
Researching New Solutions
Another key advantage is a commitment to extensive research and development coupled with careful market research. “We have our `blue-sky’ type of projects that get started from a designer’s idea of `wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this sort of thing.’ At the same time, we’re asking customers what they’re looking to do.
It’s a twofold process. You’ve got to listen to the customer and meet their expectations. At the same time, you exceed their expectations with innovation,” Wiskirchen says. “I was recently manning our booth at the National Plastics Expo, and people were coming up to our 3-D displays and saying, `Oh, you’re the guys who are making these.’ As customers enjoy success, other customers are going to want to do the same thing. At the same time, OEMs come to us with specs from their design team and ask us things like what the best ink system is or if we can provide certain contours they want. So product development is driven both by customer requirements and our own internal striving to innovate.”
In 2005, Serigraph generated $160 million in revenues. Wiskirchen says the company could double that number in the next five years. “The new opportunities in Asia coupled with the needs of multinational companies, our dominance in the markets we currently play in and our intention to regain market presence in the telecom and electronics industries, keep us poised for success.
That’s the message for success Serigraph goes to print with throughout the world.