Wide western firm finds new frontiers

Its first machine was a colour plotter that cost $17,000. Last year, it spent over a million dollars on new kit. It’s fair to say the company has grown a bit.

[Photos: Behind the scenes at Discus]

Perth-based Discus is made up of three entities. There’s Discus Digital Print, which has been running for 20 years and represents 60% of the group. It is based in Mount Hawthorn and focuses on large-format. Then there’s Discus Sign Services, which does installations and makes up 20% of the business. The newest addition is Discus On Demand, a commercial print hub with a pair of HP Indigo machines based in the suburb of West Leederville.

Managing director Carl Mendelle says Discus is the largest digital printer on the west coast. It’s a stark contrast to the micro company he founded with business partner Peter Benjamin in 1993.

Benjamin was a cartographer; Mendelle sold drafting equipment, as well as being a trained draftsman. Mendelle’s employer had recently moved into printing with a colour plotter. “Pete was doing colour plotting and we came up with idea of doing colour posters. We were just in the right place at the right time,” he says.

It was lucky timing, but Mendelle points out that luck has played a role in the history of many successful businesses. He’d prefer to call it serendipity.

“I was speaking Peter, because he was one of my clients, and I saw the opportunity to buy a machine and do colour posters, which you couldn’t do at that stage.”

The two joined forces and bought an HP colour plotter for $17,000. Discus was born in Benjamin’s lounge room. The expansion started slow. Around two years after Discus was established, Mendelle and Benjamin left the living room and moved to a site in west Perth.

“We always tried to stay small and stay in the markets that we knew. That worked well for about five or six years, but things dictated that we had to grow. We had to get another computer operator, someone to run the machines, we got a second sales guy. We got forced into growth even though we didn’t really want to go there,” says Mendelle.

The strategy to remain small didn’t quite pan out. But the partners have stayed true to another of their original strategies – to focus purely on digital.

Mendelle’s father was a screen printer. Carl cut his teeth as assistant manager at the company, Mendelle Displays, during his twenties. He learned about the industry and he decided that conventional printing was not for him.

“When we started doing this, it was about digital, which is clean and there is much less infrastructure involved. Traditional processes didn’t interest me at all. The investment was much greater. The risk was much greater. You needed more space. So for us to buy a little $17,000 machine and start producing posters the next day in full colour, you couldn’t beat it.

“That has been our philosophy the whole time. That the old processes will gradually disappear and these new inkjet processes will take over.

“All the traditional processes are aimed at volumes. The traditional processes never had the ability to economically produce low-run stuff. If you want to do a four-colour process screen print job, you need to produce four different films, one for each colour. You need to produce four different screens. To get the first copy out in screen printing can cost $6,000. The first copy out of one of our machines costs $3,” adds Mendelle.

Early adopter

Discus has certainly not been shy about investing in digital technology. The Mount Hawthorn plant has equipment to suit every imaginable large-format application. Mendelle appreciates equipment, but he is more excited by the inks.

These make all the difference in large-format work. Different inks mean different applications, which means new clients and new markets. Discus runs everything, including aqueous inkjet, UV-cure inkjet, solvent, dye sublimation and HP latex inks. Its three smaller HP aqueous inkjet printers roll out poster work and jobs that require high-end photographic quality. A dye sublimation machine from South Korean manufacturer Teleios caters to fabric printing, such as flags and teardrops.

Discus runs two HP latex machines, a 2.5-metre HP L65500 and a 1.5-metre HP L25500. Mendelle says latex is great for adhesive vinyl, especially vehicle wraps: the rubbery latex stretches around contours such as bumper bars.

For outdoor work, such as banners, mesh and adhesive vinyls for bus sides, it uses the 3.2 metre-wide HP Scitex XL 1500. The inks might not be the friendliest, but Mendelle says they are the most durable for outdoor conditions. A five metre HP XP 5100 roll-to-roll press uses UV-cured inks and targets large outdoor billboard work and volume banner work.

The factory houses two more UV inkjet machines, both from Agfa. The first to go in was the Agfa Jeti 1224 UV HDC installed in February 2012. This device, aimed at point-of-sale and high-end display work, added white ink capabilities.

Around six months later, Discus followed up with a more hefty Agfa investment. It bought Australia’s first Agfa Jeti Titan 3020. This five metre-wide roll-to-roll machine produces the largest output. The UV-cured inks are used for corflute and uncoated substrates and offer the fastest production speeds. Because of the quick drying times of UV inks, the printed output can immediately roll onto itself.

So, quite a fleet, then. It would have to be one of the newest, most extensive large-format set-ups in the country. Yet Mendelle says it is not unusual for rival printers from the east coast to come over and start telling customers, “We’re here to show Perth how this stuff should be done”.

“What they don’t understand is because we are so isolated, we jump on technology very quickly over here. We feel a bit left out of the big picture. We have people come over and say ‘the guys in Perth don’t know how it’s done’, that we’re cowboys. Well, fortunately for us, we do know because we’re a bit scared of being left behind.”

Technology purist

Discus runs a mix of flatbed and roll-to-roll machines. Mendelle is clear about one thing – he likes one or the other, but not machines that combine both. He says devices designed to be roll-fed or to be flatbed are different. Trying to shoehorn one method into the other is a compromise he doesn’t want to make.

“We see a lot of the manufacturers making hybrids. Agfa have gone down the path of making a flatbed, and you’re not compromising either way. I’ve got lots of roll-to-rolls, I don’t need more. But I think a lot of these manufacturers are trying to have a foot in both camps. That doesn’t always work. There always has to be a compromise somewhere along the line.”

Supplier relationships are crucial to any printer, and especially in a remote city such as Perth. “We won’t buy a machine until we know they have a tech on the ground in Perth,” says Mendelle.

“When we went to Agfa, we were also looking at Fujifilm and Océ and they were all willing to put a tech in Perth to get the business and sell a machine. For me that’s a big commitment. And Agfa now have a tech in Perth.”

While service and support in the city has got a lot better, the geographic distance made for some interesting solutions over the years. For instance, in the early days, Discus had to airfreight ink down from HP in Hong Kong because it had the only machine in Perth bigger than 1.5 metres.

This was another reason why Discus opted for the second Agfa – so it only had to carry the one inkset. “There are economies of scale in that,” he says.

Both Agfa machines went in during 2012, but Discus didn’t stop there. Never let it be said that the west coast is behind the east coast in early adoption of technology. In July, Discus invested in an HP Indigo 7600, just the second one in the country.

The production digital press was installed at Discus On Demand in West Leederville. It joined the company’s first cut-sheet machine, an Indigo 5600 installed just 12 months before.

The first machine was in fact a secondhand device. It was originally owned by On Demand in Port Melbourne. Mendelle’s business partner, Peter Benjamin, used to work with On Demand founder Bruce Peddlesden. They retain a close relationship, and Mendelle says Peddlesden’s insight has helped Discus On Demand establish itself in this new space.

He concedes the learning curve was sharp. The technology is digital but the markets, clients and applications are very different. There aren’t many examples of large-format printers moving into commercial digital printing.

“It is easier for traditional offset printers to move over into digital. But we are coming from the ground up with that stuff. We are lucky in that we already had a client base – we deal with the agencies, the desktop publishers and the sign companies. A lot of our users were saying ‘When are you going to start doing digital-offset?’

“We kept saying never, because we know the offset market was very tight, but it got to the stage when the opportunity arose and we thought we’d give it a shot.”

Clearly they caught the bug. Just a year later, the company was signing up for the latest and greatest Indigo. Mendelle was at Drupa to look at flatbeds. “We saw the 7600 and it ticked all the right boxes.”

Big spender

Mendelle says Discus ploughed around $1.3 million into equipment in 2012. That’s a sizeable spend for any company, let alone a medium-sized business like Discus. There’s an inherent risk of over stretching with such a high level of investment. But he says it is already paying off. While many printers on the east coast have reported a sluggish start to 2013, Mendelle says the opposite has been true for Discus.

“We’ve had a bumper start to the year,” he says. “It is as if all the investments are starting to kick in, not just one thing.”

The company’s core large-format business is particularly busy. Discus recently appointed a new salesperson, who is helping open up new outdoor clients.

Mendelle says Discus On Demand is “steady and getting busier”. The company is walking before it runs with the HP Indigos. Reaching a 20% revenue contribution in just 12 months is a better result than Mendelle had hoped for.

“We’re not into turning and burning work in short period. We really want that specialised stuff. We are after customers who do short-run annual reports but want quality stuff. We want people who like high-end printing. I don’t want to go out and get a couple who want their wedding invitations done.”

It all goes back to the small company ethos that the business was first built on. “We could go out there and buy market share but that’s not want I want. We don’t want to be really busy making no money.”

But fate has turned Dicus into a big company, whether it likes it or not. Benjamin is now effectively the chief executive. “We are equal partners. We have worked out that sales is where I should be, but due to the size of the business, it needs governance,” says Mendelle.

The company achieved another recent milestone when it put together its own corporate handbook and workplace health & safety policy. It has also established a bonus scheme to motivate staff.

That two-man poster business seems a long way away. “We started in Peter’s house and the culture up until a few years ago was the same as when we started in his lounge room with a beer fridge nearby.”

In fact, things have come full circle since the days of the beer fridge and the little colour plotter. The beer fridge is gone. The loungeroom is ancient history. But Discus hasn’t grown so large as to lose the personal touch and client service of a small company.

One of the first-ever customers for the little colour plotter was Burswood Casino. Fast-forward 20 years, and Discus recently produced a new campaign the client, which is now called Crown Perth and owned James Packer.

The skin for Crown Perth was the first ever to grace a new billboard supersite in Perth’s CBD. It is the largest such site in Western Australia and second largest in the country.

Mendelle might call it serendipity. It sounds like good old-fashioned service.




Staff 38

Established 1993

Owners Carl Mendelle and Peter Benjamin

Divisions Three – Discus Digital Print (60%), Discus Sign Services (20%), Discus On Demand (20%)

Large format equipment HP Scitex XL1500, Agfa Jeti 1224 UV HDC , Agfa Jeti Titan 3020, HP XP 5100, HP L65500, HP L25500, Teleios due sublimation printer

Production digital equipment HP Indigo 7600, HP Indigo 5000



Business Briefing

· Discus Digital Print was founded in 1993 by business partners Carl Mendelle and Peter Benjamin

· The first machine was a $17,000 HP colour plotter for poster work

· The company has grown into the largest digital printer on the west coast

· Last year it spent over a million dollars on new equipment

· In the past 18 months, it entered the production digital market with a secondhand HP Indigo

· In 2012, it bought an HP Indigo 7600, the second one in Australia

· Discus Digital Print also operates the only Agfa Jeti Titan 3020 in the country, a five-metre UV machine

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