A mid-sized corporation with a reputation for environmentally friendly solutions, Think Laboratory has been a significant player in the packaging industry for more than half a century. However, it’s the company’s latest initiative which has the potential to cement its standing in the sector. The FX-eco project, which allows clients to obtain samples and print their own packaging and branding materials without the need for a specific printing company, might sound controversial. We spoke to president Tatsuo Shigeta to find out more.
How has your company been contributing to the global shift towards more environmentally friendly practices in packaging and printing processes?
We've always prioritized how we can positively contribute to the environment. We’ve addressed environmental issues by, for example, making the ink we use completely water based.
The fact that we’re not a large-scale corporation with only around 140 employees and yet are able to contribute to the environment on such specific levels as having our ink be water based is something I consider quite unique to us. We can even print your face to a high quality on our film using said ink. So for the past 55 years we've prioritized contributing to society in an environmentally friendly way.
Your FX-eco project allows customers to send you data as well as samples printed with FXIJ for them to try different ideas and designs.
Yes, these days all you need to do is send us the data and we're able to create the appropriate cylinder. What's interesting is that originally one would request or contract this kind of work to printing companies but now we are working with a company that makes the printing infrastructure necessary so clients can install the printers that we developed in their factories and print their own materials.
What's really amazing is that you don't have to be an expert in the printing process in order to utilize or operate our machinery. Our clients don’t need to go through a specific printing company but rather, can directly utilize our devices and our systems which are made out of safe materials and ingredients in an automated and convenient process.
In your home you can have your own color printer, and similarly companies such as confectionery makers can buy their own printers and print their own packaging on their own materials. Our business model has really transformed, perhaps we'll be scolded by larger scale companies in the sector.
Let's say for example that there's a convenience store like 7-11 with an inventory of about 5000 to 6000 items. Can you imagine that inventory changing every year, so that 5000 to 6000 items are replaced? They're constantly changing their product lineup in order to adapt to changing consumer demands and to the environment of the time. In that sense, the market is rapidly changing faster than anyone could react.
What happens is that for printing companies to be able to respond to that level of large scale inventory change, it can be cost effective when it comes to large lots but when it comes to smaller lots, it often becomes difficult.
What's amazing about the kind of processes and the systems that we can install for our clients is that for example, our client wants to try out a new product and they want to try out a new type of packaging and branding. With our system, they can actually produce this as a test in two days, and some parts are done in a day. So clients come and we demonstrate the printing for them and show them how they could do it themselves on their own packaging.
You said this technology is quite interesting because you're able to solve the small-lot problem while allowing your clients to avoid intermediaries like printing companies and do it themselves. You must receive a lot of criticism from other companies in the printing sector. How are you dealing with this?
Actually, this model is mutually beneficial for large scale companies because for them, it's not really effective to do business on a small-lot level. They don't want to have to take orders that require a rapid response on a small scale. So in that sense we fill in that gap because we're able to take on those orders that are required on this small scale, and quickly.
So when we think about the different ways in which we can use ink that is made out of organic compounds or is water soluble, and we then tell our clients that we have finally been able to succeed in developing a system that could provide eco-friendly solutions, they often want to adopt our technology in their own company.
What’s important for us and for our clients is to really be able to ensure that we can provide services that are not just limited to the printing itself, but also take care of after sales services that are involved. By this I mean post printing processes that include things like packaging, laminating and all the stages in between.
In order to demonstrate to our clients that we have the capacity to do so, we actually created a model factory site which was newly completed last May here at our headquarters. Unfortunately, due to the Covid pandemic our clients haven’t been able to come see it.
We would usually go and meet our clients face to face, but the Covid pandemic has prevented us from doing so. I'm sure this is something that’s not limited to the printing industry but is affecting all sectors. As a result, we've had to provide remote support to help customers with their questions.
Although we are all living in very challenging times, it has also actually been a great opportunity for us to identify the areas that we need to work on more, and which areas we can improve.
Coronavirus has been devastating the world economy for almost two years now. Can you tell us what are some of the mid to long term changes that the coronavirus has accelerated at Think Lab?
Covid has definitely changed the way in which we do business. Whereas before we would be promoting and providing demonstrations of our printing systems and services that we could provide, now we're not able to directly visit companies in order to promote our products and do marketing and sales.
We've had to revert to remote processes: we have the client send us specific data and provide samples and we send them a solution in the form of a cylinder. For example let’s say there’s a tiny, small-scale soy sauce manufacturer that wants to order the printing and packaging of just a few hundred of their bottles. Nobody will take such a small order, but we’re able to look in detail at their bottle with them and create a design for their packaging within a day.
Another example is a guy who bet on a horse at the Derby and won. Actually he was the owner of the horse and he wanted to create a bottle that celebrated that event, and we were able to do so. I think that up until now it was impossible to respond so quickly to demand for such small orders. It's not about only creating a quick response, these companies that had small orders weren't able to have them fulfilled at all. Now they can just send us their data online, and we're able to create samples for them.
This type of sample creation has become a business in its own right, and we've even gotten requests for just creating samples rather than selling the system itself. So actually, the logistics and transport have become quite challenging because we've received so many orders that it’s become a major challenge.
If clients install our systems, they'll be able to produce this kind of printing and packaging themselves. It's a great selling point, and in a sense, I would even suggest to you, why don't you take a system home and try it yourself?
The Japanese population has the oldest average life expectancy in the world of 85 years. More than 1/3 of the population is over 65, which means a reduced labor force and less demand for products in general. How has this declining demographic affected your company and how are you reacting to this particular challenge?
Actually, when you look at those in this industry, there are usually three operators involved in the process of printing the packaging and labeling, and when you consider that five to ten years from now, these three individuals operating each printer are going to be a lot older, I believe that the young people who are meant to take their place won't want to.
So because of this situation you're going to see the entire model changing within the next four to five years in order to continue being tenable. We actually believe that the kind of system that we are able to provide will be a way to respond to these kind of labor needs.
However, up until now, we've only been able to actually introduce and implement this FXIJ system at three companies, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. We're quite busy challenging ourselves in order to create the printers, the software and the ink. Actually we're also rushing to create a factory that will be involved in the production of the water-based ink.
If you buy a printer you need to make sure you have the ink as well. We all know that the ink itself is really expensive to buy even if you have the printer. We didn't want to create that kind of model, and we wanted to ensure that we would be able to provide ink that was also affordable.
We improved the affordability of our Gravure printing systems and optimized the energy efficiency of the development process of the ink. We actually installed solar panels and we are trying to create a factory where the ink is produced solely by solar power. We're looking to make the process as reasonable and effective as possible.
Your new FX series of cylinders provide a superior environmental performance. Thanks to a special gravure cylinder you created, you are able to reduce ink consumption by 20%.
Our Gravure system uses lasers to make the cylinders and has been proven to help conserve energy both domestically and overseas. Right now we've sold about 100-120 units of the system and results show that even those units installed in China have been able to conserve 20% more ink compared to others.
Up until now, we've been able to export our products to some 35 countries and territories. In some places there's very little volume, but we still have that network and one of our inkjet printer systems is installed in Vienna as well.