A Complete Printing Press

loading Phoenix Press works to achieve and maintain a healthy turnover.

Phoenix Press, one of the oldest printing presses in Penang, began operations as a commercial printer along Lebuh Gereja at the turn of the twentieth century.

Strategically located in the epicenter of import-export businesses, trading houses, entrepots and commercial banks, Phoenix Press initially printed letterheads, and delivery order and customs forms for businesses like Sime Darby, Jardine Matheson and McAlister & Co. Later, it ventured into printing bus tickets – once considered a security item printed exclusively in England. It also became the first local company to print betting tickets for the Penang Turf Club.

“Phoenix Press was incorporated in 1948, and was purchased by my father in the early 1950s,” says chairperson Datuk Tan Leh Sah. “When we first started, many assumed it to be a Chinese printing press because of the name ‘Phoenix’, but it was actually named after the mythical bird rising from the ashes.”

To accommodate the state’s growing manufacturing sector in the 1980s, Phoenix Press expanded its services to offer offset package printing, providing duplex boxes, laminated flute boxes, as well as the printing of instruction manuals for multinationals that had set up bases in the region.

Phoenix Press is located at Seberang Perai.

“Father was quite visionary – he wanted Phoenix Press to be self-sustaining,” says Tan. “In the 1990s he purchased a six-acre piece of land in Seberang Perai with the intent of building an automated state-of-the-art printing plant supported by a network of the world’s most reliable and reputable hardware and software, and that integrates design, pre-press, colour separation, proofing and finishing under one roof. We are not one of the biggest printers in the region, but I can safely say we are the most complete.”

Package printing is the company’s bread and butter. “The demand and volume, especially from the F&B industry, is constant. Ever since Phee Boon Poh (state Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairman) moved to ban the use of plastic bags, we have had more demand for food grade paper packaging.”

Phoenix Press also offers book printing services, specialising in case and soft bound books and magazines. “We are currently at the peak of printing diaries and exercise books. At one time, we were also printing huge quantities of children’s books for export to England; the publishing house would send the artwork to us by air – either by disc or previous to that, film. Now it’s much easier with the internet.”

Continuous efforts to enhance productivity and quality with technology support is a top priority for the printing press.

Tan says the printing industry has undergone radical technological changes. “When Father was running the factory, we employed about 600 workers. We are down to about half of that as the computers now manage most of the tedious processes.”

From Block to Digital

Phoenix Press started with block printing. Texts were arranged in the reverse on steel blocks and printing was typically done by hand. This technique is also known as “relief printing” because the ink sits on the surface, adding a raised texture to the paper.1 “Block printing was used until the 1970s in the Malaysian market before we switched to offset printing instead,” says Hon, Phoenix Press’s long-serving chief marketing executive.

A commonly used printing technique, offset printing uses plates made of aluminium to transfer an image onto a rubber “blanket”. The image is then rolled onto a sheet of paper – ink is not transferred directly onto the paper. Offset printing is ideal when larger quantities are needed, and provides accurate colour reproduction, and crisp, clean printing.2 “This technique is used to print newspapers, brochures and leaflets. Today, most of the printers are partially computerised, allowing for better efficiency and speed control,” says Hon.

To keep ahead of competitors and to ensure a fast turnaround time, digital printing is the latest technique to be introduced at Phoenix Press. Setup costs for this technique are much lower in comparison and paper wastage is effectively minimised. It is also known for its variable data capability, where each piece of printed paper has its individual unique code, numbering, name or address.

The printing machines are specially imported from Germany.

However, Hon believes that more improvements can be made to digital printers. “At the moment, digital printers in the market are only limited to printing on A3-sized papers or slightly larger, but innovations are underway; it’s only a matter of time before these printers are able to print on bigger sheets of paper.”

Meeting Expectations

Phoenix Press is a Licensed Manufacturing Warehouse, and has been accorded duty-free status enabling it to cater to all types of printing materials inclusive of imported materials that would be exported later.

Changing business requirements concerning global issues, including quality governance, environmental conservation and occupational health and safety, have also prompted Phoenix Press to be dynamic and innovative when meeting the needs of its clientele. In fact, the factory was among the earliest establishments to build its own wastewater treatment plant. “Previously, our overseas clients would insist that we use only suppliers from their respective countries. Fortunately for us, globalisaton has altered this nationalistic mindset,” explains Tan.

Tan says the eco-friendly initiative is fast gaining traction. “For example, the demand for recycled paper is higher. What most people don’t know, however, is that paper in general is eco-friendly; it is made from wood pulp off the skin of trees. But the manner in which the papers are processed is extremely harmful to the environment. Recycled papers naturally do not go through many filtration processes, and they are not bleached white with chemicals that are later washed into the sea. They look more like paper maches students make in school.”

Eco-friendly printing inks have also been introduced. “Our inks are produced using Japanese technology and are lab-tested to ensure hazardous particles such as lead and mercury fall within the stipulated requirements of our clients in Europe and the US,” explains Hon. “Phoenix Press uses vegetable oil-based ink with a little petroleum mixed in. Using inks made only of vegetable oil prolongs the drying process by three to four days; the inks cannot be forced dry as the heat application will cause the paper’s moisture to dissipate, and what remains is a very stiff and somewhat crispy-looking sheet of paper.”

Consistent initiatives such as these have resulted in Phoenix Press receiving two prestigious international certifications – ISO 9001 for quality management systems and ISO 14001 for environmental management systems.

To provide quality printing, Phoenix Press also uses top of the line printing machinery specially imported from Germany, including Heidelberg and Manroland. As added support, various models of the Kolbus machines have also been used since 2003 to produce perfect bind and hardcover bound books at 8,000 and 3,600 copies per hour respectively.

Penang Monthly's 16-page signature printed on a press sheet.

Two units of eight-colour offset printing machine with varnishing, the first of its kind in the region, were installed to complement the production of books and magazines as well. “Our printing machines are very versatile in that they can print up to eight colours at one time. This is great for clients who want their products to have a personalised touch. For example, if a client requests for a standard corporate colour, we are able to create the exact shade using the Pantone Matching System,” says Hon.

Also known as a spot colour, it is not created by mixing other types of ink, but rather it is made to order for the project at hand. Speciality inks like metallic, neons and other unique colours can also be run as spot colours.3

“The printing process is quite specialized now,” says Tan. “In the process of serving our clients, we have developed the equipment and know-how along the way. Phoenix Press’s commitment to the most demanding print job is unparalleled. We strive to create value, provide innovative solutions and continue delivering premium quality to our clients.”

How Books Are Made

Book-making is an elaborate production process. During the pre-press phase, images contained in PDF files must be converted from the RGB (Red, Blue and Green) colour space to the CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) format typically used by commercial printers.

“Computer-generated images (RGB) tend to be brighter and clearer as they are illuminated by the computer monitor’s backlight. To ensure the printed images do not appear flat and dull, we have an in-house graphics department to do a standard-value conversion to CMYK,” explains Tan. “A printed image is made up of lines of dots much like an Impressionist painting. The quality of the printed image is dependent on these dots; that is why the image’s resolution and registration are important.”

The files will also be laid out as 16-page signatures, allowing for multiple pages to be printed on both sides of the press sheet. Signatures are used to speed up the printing process, simplify the binding operation and reduce paper wastage.4

After printing comes the post-press phases of binding and finishing. Printed press sheets are gathered and the signatures organised into sets to be readied for binding. Some examples of commonly used binding techniques are perfect binding, where pages are fixed to a cover or spine using glue; saddle-stitching, where a limited number of pages are bound together by staples driven through the centre of the spine of folded sheets; and thread sewing, in which a thread or cord is used to stitch a book block together. Thread sewing is used for hardcover books; the book cover is later attached using a technique called case binding.5

Book trimming follows the bindery process, and is performed by a guillotine cutter. A three-knife cutter, comprising three blades, is most often used to enable all the unbound sides to be trimmed simultaneously. After trimming, the sheets are often placed in a jogger, a vibrating table, the action of which squares stacks of sheets.6

The next step focuses on the decorative process. Depending on the finishing, coating is usually used for extra protection or for decoration. For example, a primer is used to prepare a surface for ink reception, or for the application of another type of coating; while an overprint varnish, a high-gloss coating, may be applied to the entire surface of a printed material, or to only select portions described as spot varnish.7

Coatings are classified according to the means by which they dry. Aqueous coatings are water-based, and dry upon exposure to air, thus requiring a long drying time. Ultraviolet and electron-beam coatings dry upon exposure to ultraviolet light and to beams of electrons, respectively, which cause polymerisation of materials in the coating.8

Many finishing operations are performed off-line rather than in-line. This means that these operations are independent of the printing operations. A disadvantage of inline finishing is that very often, make-ready time (a collective term for all the operations necessary for setting up a printing press) is increased – as is spoilage, since there are more individual operations to set up and prepare. There is also the increase of downtime with in-line units as a breakdown at any point in the system shuts down every other system.9

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.



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