American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.


Aug 1, 1998 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

You name it, they've got it.

Today's 40-inch sheet-fed presses are armed with sophisticated automation, from ink key settings to blanket washup to fully automatic plate changing. Indeed, sheet-fed equipment is better than ever before. Better. Stronger. Faster.

Automation, which has honed in on speeding makeready and washup functions, is standard on many presses. Color, too, is more important, and printers clamor for eight-, 10- and even 12-color presses.

And for good reason. Color contributes to snazzier, eye-catching pieces. Automation can provide faster makereadies, tighter turnaround times, faster throughput, heightened productivity and happier press operators.

While you may hunger for the automation and advanced color capabilities essential to a highly competitive arena, before indulging your appetite consider which types of automation are best for your operation and the products it produces. What choices provide a realistic return on investment? Roller, blanket and impression cylinder washup? Fully or semi-automated plate changing?

Manufacturers provide extensive menus from which to choose. "There isn't anything left on the press that isn't automated," asserts one industry expert. A great deal of this automation is a must. "In order to be competitive in the marketplace, industrial-size printers with 40-inch sheet-fed presses need a high level of automation," stresses John Dowey, Heidelberg's (Kennesaw, GA) Speedmaster marketing director.

"Every printer can benefit from automation," concurs Rudy Valenta, national product manager for sheet-fed presses, MAN Roland (Westmont, IL). Press manufacturers agree across the board. Indeed, while automation packages differ from one manufacturer to another, many offer standard on their 40-inch presses automatic formatting of the feeder, side guide position, impression cylinder settings, delivery, etc. Options typically include semi- or fully automated plate changers, ink and roller washup, and impression cylinder washup.

Such an array of automation comes none too soon. "Today, runs are shorter. Turnaround times are tighter, and everyone wants everything yesterday," claims Bob McKinney of KBA-Planeta North America (Burlington, VT). Further, "the current population of operators is aging and isn't being replaced by the highly skilled operators of the past," relates Mary Lisi, director of marketing communications for Komori America (Rolling Meadows, IL). "In fact, today's operators may be less well trained. The number one problem printers have is finding skilled press employees. Automation helps address that issue."

While it's one thing for manufacturers to be in favor of automation, it is quite another for printers to actually make the move. F.C.L. Graphics, Inc. (Harwood Heights, IL), a 174-employee shop, recently invested in its third MAN Roland 700-a fully automated six-color press. The result? "Unbelievable makereadies. The press cut makeready time in half," says Frank Calabrese, president and owner of the Illinois firm.

Michael Zienty, director of operations for 100-employee R&B Group (Chicago) agrees. "Our makereadies with the MAN Roland 700 are 25 percent faster" than they've been in the past. The R&B Group's press includes these automated features: ink key settings; blanket and roller washup; impression cylinder washup; ink roller washup; and automatic formatting of the feeder, impression cylinder settings and side guide positioning, etc.

"A company that has its prepress act together can put on plates and get color and register in 20 to 30 minutes on a six-color press, including setting up for sheet size," relates Dowey, referring to Heidelberg SM 102 and CD 102 40-inch presses.

Another benefit? Operators are partial to automation. According to Calabrese, the firm's press operators "love" the bells and whistles on their newest press. "It's simply easier to run" and helps reduce operator fatigue, says the president and owner.

"It takes the menial tasks out of press operators' lives and allows them to concentrate on product quality," agrees KBA's McKinney.

Further, automation lessens human error and fosters more consistent production. Indeed, "you may be able to complete a makeready and run the press faster, but unless you can do that throughout the day" some benefits are lost, relates John Surch, press product manager for Sakurai USA, Inc. (Schaumburg, IL).

Higher productivity is another advantage. With automation, operators can produce more jobs in a shift than they normally could churn out, relates Bill Hedrick, service engineer for Shinohara USA, Inc. (Elk Grove Village, IL).

"In the end, it all drops to the bottom line. That's the whole purpose of automation -a more economical way to produce the product," relates McKinney.

Are you itching to invest? Rein in that urge, at least until you've ascertained your true equipment needs. "There's some question as to how much further you can take mechanical automation and get a reasonable return on investment," relates McKinney. "We're quickly approaching that point." After all, he adds that automation can total 15 percent to 20 percent of press cost.

While much automation is fairly standard, printers still must decide among an array of optional systems. Before catering to your cravings, it's best to do your homework to determine which automation is right for your shop.

In general, the shorter the run length, the greater the need for automation. "If operators have average runs of 5,000 sheets and only produce five or six jobs a day, automation saves setup time, enabling them to produce seven, eight or nine jobs a day," relates Hedrick. "However, if they have 100,000- to 300,000-sheet run lengths, saving 30 minutes on setup doesn't add up to a great deal."

What about specific types of automation? Should you invest in fully or semi-automated plate changing? The question is an important one, especially since the former can cost from 50 percent to 100 percent more than the latter, according to Dowey.

The difference between the two? In a semi-automated system, "the operator pushes a button, the machine unclamps the old plate and backs it out, stopping at the right spot, opens the lead edge clamp and the old plate is taken out manually," explains Dowey, describing Heidelberg's system. "The new plate already is sitting on the guard; the operator lifts and drops it into the clamp and it sits on the pins. The operator then pushes a button, the machine closes the clamp, goes onto impression, rolls the plate on, tucks the tail of the plate into the tail clamp, locks it up and takes out the slack."

Indeed, the operator simply removes the old plate and inserts a new one in the clamp. In a fully automated system, no operator intervention is necessary.

Some experts say fully and semi-automated systems provide very similar accuracy and speed advantages, while others believe fully automated systems edge out their counterparts in terms of speed. "There is a speed difference; fully automated systems are faster in terms of hanging a set of plates," relates Komori's Lisi. "In an environment with numerous plate changes, saving a few minutes on every plate change sequence can add a great deal of production time.

"In fact, one customer in Missouri prints approximately 300-page yearbooks in runs of 1,000 or less," Lisi continues. "Fully automatic plate changing is highly efficient for that firm. It has dramatically increased production due to the technology."

Lisi adds that press size is an important factor. In fact, Komori offers fully automatic plate changing only on its 40-inch or larger presses because the time savings and return on investment of full automation are greater on this equipment.

That's true, says McKinney. "Shops with larger format presses-55 and 64 inches for example-see the greatest advantage from fully automated plate changing." The plates are so large that, without the technology, it may require two operators to get plates on press. Before selecting automation, John Stark Printing Co., Inc. (St. Louis) painstakingly examines the capabilities of its existing presses, as well as forecasts the type of jobs it will produce and technology it will adopt, according to Cliff Kelley, president and CEO of the 100-employee firm.

R&B Group took that approach as well, looking into the future to match automation on its new press with a planned leap into computer-to-plate (CTP) technology, explains Zienty. "When doing CTP work, plates always are burned and punched in the same way, paving the way for high quality. Fully automatic plate changing is a favorable complement because it loads plates in the same position every time. Thus, full automation will help ensure we reap the full quality benefits of CTP."

Of course, the R&B Group also scrupulously examines return on investment. The firm expects fully automatic plate changing to pay for itself in one year, says Zienty.

In addition, fully automated systems reportedly beat their semi-automated cousins in terms of operator flexibility. Semi-automated systems require operators to painstakingly monitor the press, relates Valenta of MAN Roland. But, fully automated equipment doesn't require constant attention and operators are free to perform other duties.

At least in theory. However, "if one plate out of 100 is mounted improperly by the fully automated system, operators no longer trust the system," claims one industry expert. "That means they watch the printing unit to ensure the plates go on properly. Thus, the fully automated system loses a major advantage-operators aren't free to perform other duties." Which type is more popular? It's difficult to say. Valenta, however, offers that 70 percent of MAN Roland plate changers sold are semi-automatic types; the remaining 30 percent are fully automated.

Automated roller, impression cylinder and blanket washup functions also are common options, relates Lisi. "Investing in washup functions depends, in part, on the type of stocks and specialty colors shops run," she adds. "For instance, if their stock is prone to picking and linting, washup functions become more important. Also, if printshops don't perform a large number of ink color rotation changes, they may not greatly need all washup features, although they might still want to add them."

Another consideration? "A big question is how many different stock sizes the shop uses," relates McKinney. "If operators constantly change sheet size, they may need the whole automatic preset group, in which they just punch in the information and the feeder sets itself; pressure settings, impression cylinder settings, etc., all are handled automatically."

Sure printers want greater productivity, faster makereadies, etc., but they also want to turn out snazzy, eye-catching work. Thus, they turn to presses that run more and more colors. "More than 50 percent of our jobs are fully process color, with one to four special colors, plus coating," relates Kelley of John Stark Printing, whose clients include ad agencies and point-of-purchase firms.

Tony Takami of Akiyama (Pine Brook, NJ) agrees, adding that his customers want to print not only process colors, but special Pantone colors as well. Thus, Akiyama plans to show a 40- and 44-inch 10-color perfector (five over five) at Graph Expo in October. The company also plans to introduce a 40- and 44-inch 12-color perfector in 1999.

In addition, the MAN Roland 700 is offered in up to 10 colors. "We see multicolor presses of such magnitude due to special processes. We have some presses in the trade that use the first couple of units to print opaque white in a UV environment, then litho atop that and water-base coating above that. We see that in label applications," says Valenta.

Ad agency designers are driving the move to more color in commercial printing markets; they always want to add yet another color, and matte coatings, gloss varnish and spot coatings," says one expert. "The move to color also is booming in the packaging market. Companies want to make their boxes stand out-the best way to do that is to have more and more colors."

This trend toward greater color capability is booming. "In 1993 and 1994, eight- and 10-color presses were a small portion of our total sales," says Dowey. "Today, in terms of printing units, eight and 10-color presses represent roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of our sheet-fed 40-inch sales volume in the U.S."

What's next for the sheet-fed presses? According to McKinney, having automated as much of the press as possible in order to speed makeready, manufacturers are seeking many other ways to slash makeready times. "We're focusing on tying the press back to the prepress area using CIP3," he says. "That way, all the digital information available in prepress can be utilized to set up the press, slashing makeready times even more," he relates. "It's the next logical step."

Finally, 40-inch sheet-feds are sophisticated, highly automated machines capable of producing more and more colors. Such machines can create vivid, eye-catching work, speed makereadies, hike productivity and profits, and contribute to a more satisfied workforce. However, such benefits aren't automatic-to reap these advantages, printers much pick and choose the automation options that are best for their shop. Only then will their sheet-feds "shine."