LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — For the past few years, Kyle Lamb has been thinking outside the brown box — looking for a practical technology to let his packaging business print high-quality color images directly onto retail boxes.
Now Lamb, president of Lamb & Associates Packaging Inc. of Maumelle, is the proud owner of a multimillion-dollar Spanish-made press that can do just that.
The high-speed EFI Nozomi C18000 digital direct-to-corrugated unit went into LAP's vast 130,000-SF Maumelle operation in May, the 12th of its kind installed in the United States.
The unit, manufactured by Electronics For Imaging, or EFI, of Fremont, California, digitally prints high-resolution marketing images directly on the outside of corrugated boxes — think of the photos on microwave or coffee maker boxes at Walmart, and you've got the idea.
"Before we got this equipment, images had to be printed onto labels that were then glued to the corrugated board," Lamb told the Arkansas Business. "We still do label work, but printing directly to board at faster speeds in a larger format cuts costs and lead time, and makes small jobs much more practical and affordable. Our customers will be anybody doing retail packaging."
But the press, about 120 feet long by 16 feet wide, isn't the only Nozomi C18000 in Arkansas.
The other is in Jonesboro, home of Precision Digital Printing, a startup led by former steel fabricator James Best, his son Justin and a nephew, Troy Best. Until April 2018, Troy Best was office manager at the Lamb & Associates plant, and he generated hard feelings and a lawsuit when he left last year to join the family startup in Jonesboro.
The lawsuit, filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court last year, claimed that Best, who has 25-plus years of experience in the corrugated board industry, essentially took Lamb's Nozomi idea and ran with it. Precision Printing disputes that, saying the company looked at several digital options before choosing the $4 million Nozomi.
On Jan. 3, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ordered Troy Best "to return all confidential information obtained from Plaintiff (Lamb & Associates) during Best's employment" there. But Griffen also ruled that a noncompetition deal wouldn't prevent Troy Best from working with his uncle and cousin because Precision Printing does not manufacture boxes, a key element of the noncompete clause, but rather prints on boxes provided by customers.
Griffen ruled that Troy Best breached fiduciary duty of good faith by disclosing confidential information about LAP's business, but the court saw no proof that Lamb & Associates suffered any "irreparable harm." Lamb & Associates filed the appeal.
Meanwhile, EFI announced Lamb & Associates' Nozomi purchase in an April news release, then Precision Printing's purchase in a separate release the following month. Justin Best said in an email, however, that Precision Printing had made its purchase in May 2018.
Neither Lamb & Associates nor the Bests spoke about the suit for the record, preferring to celebrate the Nozomi's capabilities, not belabor legal conflicts.
"Our main business for a long time was the brown box business, and then we were putting labels on," said Lamb, whose sister, Laurie Lamb Whitfield, is LAP's vice president. "Printing directly onto the corrugated is much faster. We started test printing this week, and about an hour ago a customer sent over an art file. An hour later we shipped him the sample. That sort of speed would have been impossible with a litho label. The graphic quality is also amazing."
James Best ran steel fabricator Best Manufacturing in Jonesboro for 30 years before selling the business in March 2016. He said Precision Digital has built a 100,000-SF facility for the press — and perhaps a twin to match it down the road — and the startup had technicians from Spain recently training his staff. He wouldn't reveal the building's cost, but said "the machine was a $4 million investment."
For Best, the printing press was a business opportunity and a chance to spend more time with a young grandson. "After selling Best Manufacturing I took about a year off," James Best told Arkansas Business. "Justin was working for HP in Dallas, and I was going to see my 2-year-old grandson every two weeks. So with this I could get my son into business nearby, and get my grandson close. I'm also a technology guy, and I see this hugely changing the packaging industry."
The two Arkansas companies are pursuing different business plans, they emphasized, with LAP printing largely on boxes it manufactures, and Precision Printing ramping up a print-only business serving corrugated converters, companies that turn brown boxes into containers that advertise what's inside. In this model, customers supply the raw materials and Precision Digital uses digital images to print the provided sheets and then ships them back to customers, who convert them to the finished boxes.
"This service allows corrugated box companies to outsource to us without tying up capital in the investment themselves," James Best said in the EFI news release.
LAP, founded in 1981 by Jerry Lamb — Kyle and Laurie's father — has grown into a full-service packaging company, with the largest independently owned corrugated sheet plant in Arkansas. Along with its manufacturing facility, the 100-employee company boasts warehouses in Maumelle, Springdale and Memphis, and a fleet of tractor-trailers. "We do it all," Office Manager Jeff York said. "We see our customers as anybody who is doing retail packaging."
LAP Plant Manager Harvey Sisson, a three-decade packaging industry veteran with experience at WestRock, a global box and paper industry leader, said he was stunned by the Lamb plant's capacity and flexibility when he came aboard six years ago. "We can make you one box or 50,000 boxes in a day and hand-deliver them if we have to," said Sisson.
Whitfield noted a sign in the factory: "Take care of the customer, or somebody else will."
Kyle Lamb said the Nozomi C18000's ability to print on board up to 71 inches by 118 inches offers the opportunity to print signs and displays for retailers. "Some time ago, we started offering litho-laminated products, but we saw digital printing coming as well," he said. "It's the future, and it will change our industry forever."
Lamb & Associates has high-graphics clients who order 500 to 1,000 boxes, quantities that weren't cost-effective before. "They could be paying thousands of dollars just in plate costs," he said, referring to the custom printing plates used on corrugated containers. "The Nozomi gives us a way to save them money while giving them the high-quality graphics they are looking for."
Lamb expects to staff his new machine with five or so of his 100 employees. The Bests expect to hire 25 workers for their printing plant in Jonesboro, with more for a second shift and perhaps to run a second Nozomi press in the future. "The building is constructed in a mirror-image fashion," Justin Best said. "We have loading docks on each side and we constructed a custom conveyor system so sheets coming off the press go right to strapping, are married up with paperwork and are immediately ready for shipping."
"When a customer gets ready to change graphics, often for marketing reasons, the technology will allow you to change graphics with one stroke of the computer," James Best said. "You could change the images from Christmas to Mother's Day to the Fourth of July. The sky's the limit on what graphics look like. If you can visualize it and get it onto a computer, this printer will print it. We saw the first Nozomi running in the United States, and we were all amazed by the technology."
The press prints at speeds of up to 246 linear feet per minute and is compatible with a range of board thicknesses. A digital quality inspection system identifies and fixes inkjet problems.
Jerry Lamb, who started LAP and still is involved in daily operations, noted that customers will be able to print many different marketing versions driven by language, seasonal events or other factors.
"They can now change languages on the fly without having to redo all the art," Jerry Lamb said.
"I also think this will be a great way for smaller companies, who need smaller quantities of materials, to do the kind of graphics they couldn't afford before, and that will grow our customer base as well."
Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com