HCL Label

Label Printer Revolutionizes Production and Triples Capacity With Modest Automation Spend
Company VP: “It’s almost as if we have no lead times anymore.”

HCL-FinalBen Nell just wishes he knew about automation sooner.

Reflecting on his wildly successful journey to boost throughput at HCL Labels in Santa Cruz, California, Nell is struck by how quickly and easily he was able to expand capacity and shorten lead times once he enlisted the help of automation specialist Significans Automation.

Nell is Vice President and a 12-year veteran of the environmental label and sign company, which offers globally compliant safety labels that warn workers about various hazards in the workplace. As such, speed to market is critical, as end customers must comply with government audits and properly label dangerous chemicals or work areas within a designated time frame or else face fines or other penalties.

Long Lead Times and Backlogs

Covid-19 drew attention to the industry, and demand for safety labels increased, prompting Nell to look for ways to improve their problematic and extensive lead times which could be as long as three weeks for some orders.

“We didn’t want a giant bloated inventory, so we needed to able to print custom orders efficiently and focus on getting products to clients as quickly as possible,” recalls Nell. Like many production leaders, he typically dealt with increases in demand by adding staff or buying new equipment.
– Ben Nell, Vice President of HCL Labels

“But each time we increased our production capacity – our clients would respond by filling it – and our lead times would increase again. It was a bad cycle and required a production revolution.”
– Ben Nell, Vice President of HCL Labels

Although HCL had been producing labels for the past 15 years, it still considered itself more of an environmental solutions company than a print manufacturer. In 2022 (confirm), with sales approaching all-time highs, Nell made a concerted effort to become more inquisitive and seek out more creative solutions to boost workflow efficiency and reduce his weeks-long production lead times.

The Key to Success

After investing in some new hardware including an automated cutting table, he began asking around about potential software that could be used to maximize the investment. Nell was impressed by his existing imposition solution from Tilia Labs (ESKO) and was referred to Significans Automation to help automate the process. To tie everything together, his research led him to Enfocus Switch and specifically a Turbo Switch Pack (a combination of preconfigurable workflows and software) powered by Significans Automation. According to Nell, taking the advice to contact Significans Automation was one of the most important moves in HCL’s history.

The company’s path to output was originally quite inefficient, requiring up to three weeks of lead time to handle its workload. But since Significans set up Switch for HCL and began automating the workflow, lead times have shrunk dramatically to just one or two days, without the need for any additional staff. And even with these remarkable reductions, Nell estimates that he still has capacity to spare, and believes he could still double his existing volumes without adding staff or sacrificing turnaround times.

Nell has also seen a huge reduction in errors, leading to less material waste and happier customers.

“Everything is faster and more correct, and even if there is an error, we can reprint orders quickly without the typical weeks of lead time which would frustrate and drive away clients,”
– Ben Nell, Vice President of HCL Labels

Significans Automation was able to achieve these incredible results for HCL by automating various components of the workflow including the print queue, proofing, and imposition. The result was an almost immediate alleviation of the month-long backlog of jobs in the finishing department due to improved speeds and the dramatic reduction in reprints due to human error.

One notable innovation that was particularly successful involved automating the addition of cut lines and tabs to HCL’s label files. Years ago, the company developed a folded kiss-cut “peel-here” tab to make it easier for end customers to apply labels while wearing rubber gloves. Significans Automation custom-coded the Switch software to automatically add the cut lines and tabs, without the need for manual addition by a staff member using Adobe. They also optimized the process within the Tilia Labs imposition software to automate the layout and maximize the press sheets for these tabbed labels.

“Now the team doesn’t have to worry about the tedious, manual work that used to be required because it’s all done automatically and the time savings are mind-blowing,” says Nell. He estimates that the cut line automation saved an incredible four to five hours per day of production time, while the automated layout saves another one to two hours per day.

“I’d say our production capacity has tripled based on the innovations and improvements Significans has made,” says Nell, adding, “Every time they automated something for us, it was like finding money in our pocket.”

Nell chuckles when describing the return on investment on this foray into automation, suggesting that his total investment with Significans Automation was fully recouped within just one month with all of the time, material, and payroll saved.

And the overall expenditure was surprisingly manageable. “For some equipment, you need to mortgage your house to be able to afford it, but for automation, it wasn’t even a stretch for us; we just wrote a cheque,” according to Nell. “Within a month, I could see that this was paying for itself,” he recalls, adding, “I’m just disappointed that we hadn’t done it sooner.”

Shifting Mindset

Perhaps the most profound impact that automation has had on Nell and the company is the shift in overall mindset. Every success they’ve experienced has been the result of questioning if or how a particular process can be improved.

“Before we were busy completing orders, now we are busy developing longer-term automation solutions,”
– Ben Nell, Vice President of HCL Labels

The next step for HCL is using automation to drive a B2B e-commerce infrastructure for web-to-print. The company has begun building the foundation by streamlining its massive library of product files so that Significans Automation can begin connecting all of the necessary pieces and delivering more incredible opportunities for HCL.

“This journey has presented us with an incredible opportunity to provide our customers with faster lead times in our compliance environment and better serve the needs of our growing customer base. It’s remarkable to see how much more we can produce with the same amount of equipment and staff; it’s almost as if we have no lead times anymore.”

Solving the industry’s biggest problems

As a software and process integrator, Significans Automation delivers increased profitability, improved quality control, and enhanced production efficiency, enabling Artificial Intelligence to facilitating new revenue opportunities in Web-to-print and E-commerce.