R A Smart is no ordinary textile printer and no run-of-the-mill machinery supplier. Images visited this industry innovator to witness how it successfully combines textile production, wide format and screen print machinery distribution, and silk weaving in its unique operation
Macclesfield was once the biggest producer of silk in the world. It’s a fitting home, therefore, for R A Smart, which not only sells printing hardware to the textile and garment industries and produces its own screen and digital prints, but also weaves silk on-site.
The silk production facility and two silk brands – Barnaby Silks and Robert Keyte Silks – are only one part of the business. R A Smart, which was founded by Ron Smart, is actually a small group of companies, and it is unusual in that it both sells machinery to the textile and garment printing industry, and produces printed textiles for clients.
It is a combination that works well, explains Alex Mighall, R A Smart’s market development manager. “People really appreciate the fact that we’ve got a heritage as printers: they can trust that they’re buying the machinery from somebody who knows that machinery, who can help them with that machinery, and who can support them with it.”
The machinery side of the business kicked off in 1986 when Magnus Mighall, Alex’s father, joined R A Smart. He had qualified as a lithographic printer after dropping out of his A-levels, then worked for four years in the Royal Engineers printing maps for the military before joining Ron. The company was being asked to provide bespoke, dedicated, short run textile printing equipment, and so Magnus started to manufacture specialist textile printing tables and auxiliary equipment. In 1998, as digital print began to make an impact, the machinery section became the CAD and machinery section. “We knew it was going to have an impact on the way our customers were going to work with short run printed textiles as the traditional constraints of screen print disappeared with the onset of digital technology,” explains Magnus.
The digital side has grown exponentially over the intervening years. “We operate one of the largest UK facilities for digital print,” confirms Alex. “We have three Robustelli Monna Lisa [industrial inkjet digital textile printers], four Mimaki JV5 with belt systems by Aleph, and then another three JV5s: two printing dye sub and one printing pigment. Three years ago, we didn’t have a dye sublimation printer in here, and now we’ve converted two to dye sub.
“We’re starting to get more substantial orders for dye sublimation. Polyester used to be a dirty word, but now you can get polyesters that mimic silk, cotton, linen, velvet and all kinds of materials. It is cheap, it looks good and it’s a lot quicker and easier to print than onto silk or using a reactive or acid process.”
R A Smart has a long relationship with wide format machine manufacturer Mimaki: Ron and Magnus operated printers from the Japanese brand before Hybrid became the UK distributor. “It’s been an extremely successful brand for us,” says Alex. “In the UK there’s not necessarily been much of a high production environment compared to other countries around the world – we find a lot of our business is for smaller, niche fashion and design bureaus that want to print their samples on to silks and naturals. It’s a big sector for us, and the educational sector is also extremely important to us.” Manufacturing is making a welcome return to the UK, though, he reports, with a high end fashion company planning to move its production back to the UK later this year. They’ve ordered a Monna Lisa as well as all the finishing equipment. “It’s really exciting, and a massive step for UK production,” Alex comments.
A bread-and-butter machine for the company remains the Mimaki TX300 – R A Smart installed more than 150 of its predecessor, the TX2. The company has recently been appointed as sole UK agent for the new Impres dye sublimation range from Dover Group, and also offers the Epson F-series. As well as adding the Impres, the company has recently started distributing an innovative signage framing system from Australia, called RexFrame. Turn to the wide format showcase on page 44 for more information.
The company sells finishing equipment too, from steamers to calendars. The calendar heat presses and the heat fixation units are mainly Transmatic, and the industrial steamers and washers are mostly Setema; the company is the UK distributor for both brands. R A Smart also makes batch steamers from scratch – those wanting to try reactive or acid printing can opt for a small bullet steamer, which can hold two to three metres of textile at a time and is priced at around £1,200 to £1,300.
The screen printing takes place in the second unit on the site. The noise of the digital printers in the first unit is replaced here with the noise of washing machines as huge swathes of fabric are washed to remove any excess dye and coatings remaining after going in the continuous steamer, which can hold 70m of fabric at a time. Steaming is used to fix the print when reactive or acid dyes are used.
On the far side of the unit are four enormous screen printing tables, each measuring 26.5m in length, which Magnus built. “This is where we do our specialist printing, things like Devore, where a special fibre etch is used to eat away the cellulose part of a mixed fabric to create a textured textile,” says Alex.
He continues: “We used to have a full screen making facility, but now it’s not big enough business to warrant all that space that it used to take up. The screen side won’t completely go, but it will probably continue to get a bit quieter. There are still certain things, however, that you can do only by screen print. I think there’ll always be a market for it, people love screen printing.”
There are 70 people working at the site in Macclesfield, but despite its size, it remains very much a family business. Alex’s uncle is a production manager, while Ron’s daughter Alison is the director of print and his grandson Dan is the print room manager. Ron’s wife Carole was also heavily involved with the business and her cousin David Clements runs screen manufacturing, while his wife Joy works in accounts.
Although the industry is moving towards automation, skilled workers are a huge part of what R A Smart offers its customers, and many employees have been with the company for more than 15 years. “They are artisans in their trade – there are not many places in the UK that can say that anymore,” says Alex.
As well as screen and digital printers, finishers, designers, screen makers and customer service personnel, there are skilled sewing machine operators who quickly run up teatowels, aprons, cushions, oven gloves and tote bags in one sewing room, and silk ties, squares and scarves in the other.
The six print machine engineers have a combined experience of over a hundred years. There is a dedicated room where they can refurbish the printing and finishing equipment that is being sold secondhand, and work on parts as needed. They are trained on all the brands that the company sells, from Epson to Mimaki. “It’s quite unique to have such a well-established support team,” states Alex. “It can be a bit of a minefield getting into digital printing, so customers get full training and support from us, and there’s always someone here to talk to them.
“I think a really important consideration for someone when they’re buying a piece of equipment is not necessarily ‘Is this a really good printer?’, because a lot of the manufacturers out there make very good machines, but should be ‘Am I buying equipment from a company that can support me throughout this process?’ We are definitely not a box shifter, we provide a complete solution for all of our customers.”