Anyone who’s taken a 5-year-old through a grocery store cereal aisle understands the role of packaging in determining which products are put in shopping carts and which end up languishing on shelves. Science reveals that consumers routinely make product decisions in as little as a third of a second, which means that retail packaging can be a make-or-break proposition for many companies.
No one understands this challenge better than Harper Corporation of America (HCA). Headquartered in Charlotte, HCA is a global leader in the technology and manufacture of high precision anilox rolls, gravure and coating rollers, and related machinery and supplies.
The rolls are laser-engraved on HCA-designed proprietary CNC equipment. The engraving is so small that all must be measured in microns with interfermeric instruments. (A micron is one third the thickness of a human hair.) The engraved cells transfer ink and ensure print consistency, which is the heart of the flexographic printing process.
“Flexo is used for the flexible packaging market, so pretty much all retail packaging is made with anilox rolls,” explains Vice President of Operations Lee Kluttz. “We work with major retailers who have their own print shops or with the printers for the product manufacturers.”
Currently, HCA is the largest worldwide manufacturer and restorer of anilox rolls. The rolls can cost several hundred up to tens of thousands of dollars and measure from one inch all the way up to almost a yard in diameter. The largest rolls can have a length of over 17 feet and weights that can only be moved by overhead crane.
HCA’s anilox rolls are manufactured domestically in Charlotte and Green Bay, Wis., and internationally in Herford, Germany and Bangkok, Thailand.
“The international push was customer-driven,” explains Margie Harper Kluttz, president. “We have a worldwide market and multinational customers that desire global consistency in their process and want Harper’s technology involved.
“Besides, being closer to those market saves time and the costs of freight and customs duties. Germany services the European market and Thailand services Asia and Australia. The U.S. is still our largest market but Central and South America are really starting to boom. We service that market from Charlotte.”
“The industry is not only highly technical, but also highly competitive,” says Lee, “but most other firms are in a niche market. They may handle only narrow web, or mid or wide web. We’re the only one who dominates in all those markets.”
Service is not only how the company started, but also why it started.
Back in the late 1960s, the family patriarch, Ronald Harper, was a salesman for a printing machinery company but was unhappy with the company’s customer support, or lack thereof, after the sale. That dissatisfaction led him to first become a distributor of printing machinery, and, ultimately, to manufacture the machinery.
Starting with base cylinders for the engraving and chrome plating trades, Ron Harper and his wife Katherine founded Harper Corporation of America in 1971. Together, the Harpers—including subsequent offspring—have grown the business to be an innovator and a major player in the industry.
“Harper revolutionized the industry when it pioneered ceramic-coated rolls,” says Jim Harper, vice president of the HarperScientific division. “We introduced the first successful ceramic-coated roll to replace chrome plating. It increased the lifespan of a roll from several weeks up to as much as five years, taking the industry to a new level.”
“The company also developed the ‘60 degree hex,’” Jim continues, referring to the honeycomb pattern laser-engraved in the rolls. “It gives measured, consistent results every time, improving efficiency and decreasing downtime. It’s become the workhorse of the industry—it’s been huge for us.”
Although Ron Harper passed away in April of this year at the age of 79, and Katherine is retired, innovation remains key to the company.
To stay on top you always have to have something new and different,” Lee says. “Companies pay a premium for unusual packaging to catch the consumer’s eye.”
“But the push for new and improved product comes not only from our customers, it’s driven internally too. Our tech team is always challenging our manufacturing department. And of course, it’s always about quality. Our facilities are certified ISO 9001:2008. We have a QC manager who regularly audits processes and product and our manufacturing departments have a monthly global Corrective Action Team meeting.”
Ron Harper’s commitment to customer service and support is still as important to the company today as when it was founded. “We have our GraphicSolutions Team,” Lee continues. “Their job is to help our customers be as competitive as possible. We’re the only company that has that technical resource for our customers.”
To accomplish this, the team of experts provides specific troubleshooting, consulting and training in all aspects of the flexographic process. One of their most popular programs is their trademarked “WalkingSeminar.”
“We used to do just classroom training,” Lee explains, “but my grandfather said we needed to break up the instruction some and walk around a bit. That was the beginning of the WalkingSeminar. A visiting company can choose from one of several of our programs or have one customized for their particular needs. Visitors tour the plant and meet our manufacturing department. The visitors get manufacturing’s input and the employees enjoy talking about what they do.”
The tours are complimentary and are also available to schools to teach students the basics of printing, inks and pigments.
“The walking tours have been so popular that about five years ago we decided to take them on the road,” adds Margie. “Our road shows go to eight or 10 different places each year. We’ve found that while managers and supervisors will come to our WalkingSeminar, the road shows give the people actually running the presses an opportunity to attend, especially if they can’t afford to travel.
“The idea took off and a lot of other suppliers in the industry wanted to tag on. So now what used to be a two- to four-hour seminar about anilox rolls has expanded to an all-day event where customers can learn about other related products like inks and cleaning systems.”
“Education was also very important to my father,” states Jim. “He wanted kids to have opportunities—and not just the kids who excelled in academics. My father felt that putting a printing press in a school and allowing students to design and create something from start to finish would give them a sense of pride. It might engage a student and keep them in school. He felt that if it kept even one kid in school, it was worth it.”
The Harpers’ dedication to education resulted in new flexographic printing programs in 21 high schools and 32 colleges across the U.S., in Canada, Costa Rica and in Argentina. There are flexo departments named for the Harpers in colleges in Illinois, Wisconsin and California.
Locally, Central Piedmont Community College has the Harper Campus, Ron and Katherine Harper Scholarship and the Harper National Flexographic Center; and Appalachian State University dedicated the Katherine Harper Hall in 2009. The Harpers also helped Clemson University develop their graphics department and initiated a drive to get interactive Smart Boards in 2,000 classrooms in Gaston County schools.
In 1995, in recognition of all of the Harpers’ contributions, Governor Jim Hunt appointed Ron Harper to the NC Education Fund board of directors. Even after retiring from the business in 2006, the Harpers continued to work in the community, and in 2010, received the Spirit of Freedom Award from the Gaston Gazette and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine State from Governor Bev Perdue.
“Our father—Lee’s grandfather— will be greatly missed,” says Margie, “but we fully understand the importance of his legacy in business and community service. It will be carried on.”
Since 2006, HCA has been managed by the Harpers’ daughter Margie, son Jim and grandson Lee, who can recall recall childhood Saturdays playing in his grandfather’s office.
Lee, who worked his way up the ranks from part-time janitor through blast operator, shift supervisor, customer service manager and plant manager to his present position of vice president of operations, now occupies his grandfather’s office.
“We want to make a strong statement that we’re committed to the business,” states Lee. “Since we’ve taken over management, we’ve put $8 million in new equipment and technology back into the business.
“And our employees are a tremendous asset. We have the largest and most highly skilled in field technical support staff in the industry—more than any competitor worldwide.
“And we have a very stable workforce here. We’re very proud, that in 41 years, we’ve never had a layoff.”
Growth is one of HCA’s more immediate goals. “We’ve had two consecutive years of 11 percent growth,” Lee says. “If we’re growing, I’m happy—but I’d like to provide more products and more jobs here. Our newest product line is bridge sleeves made in the U.S. and we will be adding other complementary products.”
HCA also has a strong commitment to “green manufacturing.” Fifteen years ago they made the switch from chrome-plated rolls to the more environmentally-friendly ceramic-coated ones. They also separate out and recycle all the metals used in their manufacturing, including recapturing metal wastes such as shavings, wires and powders. And all the cleaners HCA sells are environmentally safe.
Maintaining the quality of HCA’s products and services is also paramount.
“It’s about quality. We don’t cut corners. We’re not the cheapest, but when you look at what we provide, it’s really a bargain. We provide technical support, backing. Even companies who buy on price alone will say that Harper’s is the best roll out there,” says Margie proudly.
“It’s a safe bet that if it’s a package that’s printed, coated and involves precision, we’re involved,” offers Jim. “Our mission is to be the customer’s resource base and help take them to markets where they would not otherwise be.”
To keep their competitive edge, HCA stays abreast of industry trends.
“For example,” says Lee, “now there’s computerization built into rolls that track revolutions and temperature to ensure that the rolls, which are often expensive pieces of machinery, aren’t damaged. The rolls can even tell the operator if they have the right roll in the press.
“And the industry is always looking for faster and faster presses. Our ability to increase speed keeps us competitive.”
“As far as packaging,” Lee continues, “we were involved in the project creating thermochromic labels,” referring to the labels which were nationally introduced on beverage containers that change color when the product reaches a certain temperature.
“And we’re marketing a tactile label now that’s gotten a lot of interest. We have a sample that we show of a wet baseball sitting in the grass made with difference textures of threads. When you touch the baseball, you ‘feel’ the water beads on the baseball as well as the blades of grass. It has a three-dimensional look as well.
“We are also working with other industry leaders on combining thermochromic, scratch and sniff with the tactile. Imagine being able to see, feel and smell the product before ever opening the package. And who knows…maybe one day we’ll even be able to taste it as well prior to buying the product.”
It’s yet another innovation for Harper Corporation of America, but it sounds like grocery store shopping with a 5-year-old has just become a lot more challenging!