Since its formation by George Gilmore in 1978, Autobond has not only bucked many industry trends but has also set standards to be met in the laminating sector.Today, Autobond is one of the best known manufacturers of laminating equipment worldwide, and yet the family-run business employs only 30 engineers at its Heanor factory in Derbyshire, which it has operated from since 1978.
In addition to designing, building and installing laminating machines, Autobond is a major importer and exporter of thermal and water-based film and a key producer of adhesives for use with laminators of any make.
“One of the main reasons for our success has been the high percentage of our revenue that we have always put into research and development,” says managing director, John Gilmore, who runs the company with his brother Alan.
“This has allowed us to continuously develop and try new ideas. Not everything on the drawing board ends up on the factory floor but we’re always looking to push the boundaries of laminating technology, while ensuring that quality remains at the core of everything we do.”
Autobond’s passion for quality is partly fuelled by self-preservation, because with laminators operating in more than 140 countries it needs to be as certain as possible of their reliability.
In many ways, Autobond is a contradiction of elements; it has remained a manufacturer for the graphic arts industry when virtually all other UK manufacturers in this market have ceased trading and it has retained many traditional engineering skills within its workforce and it continues as a family concern, with the third Gilmore generation already working in the business in the UK and United States. Moreover, the company has reached its strong market position without ever having employed a sales person.
“In the early days I did a lot of selling and travelled a great deal of the world,” says John Gilmore. “However, apart from attending GraphExpo, Ipex, and drupa, I haven’t flown in quite a few years, which is good for the environment and me!
“What may surprise many people is that we win orders from quite a number of companies who have seen nothing more than a video of the laminator in operation. Sometimes they’ve seen Autobond machinery running years earlier at an exhibition, but not always.”
With the B1 landscape Mini 105 TPH (Autobond’s best selling model), placing an order on the strength of a video shows considerable faith. This is no doubt partly due to Autobond’s long standing reputation: the very first Autobond laminator sold – a hand-fed, water-based model to London, UK firm, Walkerprint – is still in operation, although not with the original owner.
Autobond bought the manufacturing rights for TH Dixon laminators in 1990, and acquired the assets of laminator manufacturer, Lamtex when it went into receivership in 2004.
Technical breakthroughs have been a highlight of the company’s history, one of the most significant being the launch in 1993 of laminators able to handle thermal film. This development marked the beginning of a shift away from more complex water-based laminating, which required greater operator skill, and made the process more appealing to sheet-fed printers.
“We continued to automate functions on these thermal laminators which made them easier to use and faster to make-ready, and this in turn helped to make laminating an attractive ‘value-added’ process,” says Gilmore. “Printers were suddenly interested in bringing the process in-house, and laminating work to improve the appearance and durability of the printed product made the process increasingly popular.
“Of course, the other big attraction was cost. A complete rethink of design during the late nineties meant that a B1 Autobond laminator, which would have cost £180,000 ($382,000) in 1998 could be purchased for £110,000 ($234,000) by 2001, with the latter being significantly more productive.
“The standardisation of parts has streamlined production and reduced the price even further, while the redesign that led to the launch of the Mini series resulted in laminators with an extremely small footprint.”
Autobond’s range now includes B3, B2 and B1 models, which are available in single-sided or perfecting mode and as water-based or thermal machines. Laminators can be portrait or landscape and the latter gives the option to extend the sheet size up to 105cm x 1.4m. There are wide selections of different feeders, joggers, sheeters and ancillary items, and Autobond will often produce bespoke equipment to suit particular requirements of its customers.
All of its equipment is up and running within a couple of days of being installed, and the compact designs fits in well with modern factory layouts.
Autobond’s new Mini 76 TPE-H (Thermal, Perfector, Encapsulator, Heidelberg feeder) is the world’s first laminator/encapsulator. In addition to its unique ability to be used for single/double sided laminating or encapsulation, the new machine offers a range of optional features that enable it to be used in the production of floor graphics, pressure sensitive adhesive and fridge magnet lamination.
“The Mini 76 TPE-H can be built to suit customers’ specification,” says Gilmore. “For example, if there is a need to handle stock down to A5, we can fit a Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 feed head, which goes down to this size. However, if A4 is the minimum sheet, we would fit a Speedmaster 74 feed head.”
The machine’s angled feed table has micro-adjustable side lays to ensure accurate side positioning of the sheets - essential during encapsulation. New electronic front lays operate as a servo-driven sheet correctional device. When laminating thin film, the grip edge of the sheet is under-lapped and the ultrasonic detector is used, which ensures an accurately controlled under-lap of sheets.
When the machine is being used for encapsulation, the operator can set the gap between the sheets at a precise distance, and this will remain completely accurate throughout the run, because any sheets that are fed out of sync are advanced or retarded to give an exact gap. The advantage of this is that only one cut is required to separate work, which is estimated will save around 10 per cent on film compared to cutters requiring a double cut.
The Mini 76 TPE-H can encapsulate with 42, 75, 125 or 250 micron PET polyester. In laminating mode it can apply 25 micron matt or gloss OPP to one or both sides in one pass. Maximum running speed is 60 metres per minute when laminating or encapsulating. The stock weights that can be handled during either process are between 60 and 650gsm.
“The Mini 76 TPE-H can encapsulate 9000 A4 sheets per hour, which is a phenomenal output, while the same machine will laminate both sides of a B1 sheet at 3600 sph or 7200 sph of B2”, states Gilmore.
“We’ve incorporated side slitters with an edge waste rewind system that automatically rewinds edge trim on to a 75mm cardboard core on a quick make-ready airshaft. This ensures there is no untidy waste film around the working area of the machine.”
Autobond also began shipping its first ever thermal laminator/UV varnish coating machine last month. The 102 x 102cm laminator, which has been delivered to South Africa, can apply thermal film to one or both sides of the sheet in one pass and be changed over in less than five minutes to apply a UV varnish on one side.
“We’re planning to have a new Autobond Mini Digital, designed for the digital print market, on our drupa stand (hall 11 stand A78),” says Gilmore.
“The Mini Digital TP laminator, which was made specifically to handle stock printed on digital presses, has been extremely successful and is in use widely with output devices from leading players such as Canon, Xerox and HP Indigo. The 36 x 57 cm sheet size of the Mini Digital means it can even handle the output from a Xerox iGen3.”
Autobond sells direct virtually worldwide but in Australia and New Zealand is represented by Tom Ralph’s Graph-Pak.