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So many books, so little time

Jan 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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One bindery expert describes high-speed stitching as "the art of taking a loose sheet of paper from Point A to Point B in a controlled fashion despite the fact that the paper is moving up and down and back and forth in an uncontrolled fashion." So how do you win the paper chase? You need well-designed and well-maintained equipment, high- quality signatures and trained operators. Most importantly, the stitcher has to fit the needs of your product mix, and, for most operations, an ever-shrinking labor pool. Clearly if you want to control that loose sheet of paper, you must control print quality and labor costs.

When it comes to high-speed stitching, you're only as good as your worst form. "As you increase cycles per minute, you increase the need for the product being fed to be of higher quality," submits Don Piontek of Finishing Resources (Eden Prairie, MN). "Feeding is the number one issue. At slower speeds, you can deal with nailheads, dull lap signatures and imperfect signatures. As you increase cycle speed, the tolerance window dramatically narrows--the product coming from the pressroom has to be jogged, folded crisply; the laps have to be precise. The paper quality should be of sufficient basis weight to get through the feeder at speed without a significant number of misses, doubles or false starts.

"Once the signatures are opened, you've got the drop distance from the double drum to the chain," the consultant continues. "You're trying to get signatures assembled on a chain that's running 300 to 400 linear feet per minute. You can barely see it operating. The machine has to deal with handling of the paper in a very compressed cycle time, so quality out of the pressroom is crucial."

Speed needs | Stitching speed requirements obviously will vary by application. High-volume publication printers generally use three kinds of equipment: fast (15,000 cph), faster (20,000 cph) and, in certain cases, fastest (32,000 cph). Outside the high-end publication world, "fast" stitching speeds range from 10,000 cph to 15,000 cph.

Few but the largest publication/ catalog printers have the sheer volume of work to justify the considerable investment required for Ferag's 40,000 cph gatherer/ stitcher/trimming unit. Piontek says 18,000-cph machines, such as Heidelberg's 855 or Muller Martini's 300, are the mainstay of high-speed bindery lines. Midrange stitchers were much in evidence at Graph Expo, with Heidelberg's Stitchmaster ST 270 (11,500 cph), Muller Martini's PrimaSB (13,000 cph) and Vijuk's Purlux 321-T (10,000 cph) all taking a bow. (See "Sadddle Up & Stitch Right," November, p. 61.)

Quad/Graphics plants churn out weeklies, monthlies, annual publications and catalogs. Its nine U.S. plants feature a multitude of stitchers from Heidelberg and Muller Martini with options ranging from reverse-up feeding and printer-feeder pockets to ink jetting, gluing and cover wraps. "We have 15,000 cph machines and 20,000 cph machines," explains Bill Graushar, Quad's finishing manager. "The 15,000 cph machines will do anything our customers ask--that's our workhorse. Jumping to 20,000 cph, you have to give something up. You accept limitations. You're not going to run tabloids at 20,000 cph."

Quad also can claim high-speed stitching bragging rights. It has three Ferag gatherer/stitcher/ trimming units customized for applications specific to Quad's catalog markets. Equipped with six pockets, these systems are rated at 40,000 cph--Quad reports average speeds of 32,000 to 35,000 cph. (For a look at the "paddle-wheel" concept, see "Round and Round It Goes," by Werner Rebsamen, Oct. 1991, p. 36.)

According to Mike Paschall, commercial product manager, Ferag Americas, the high-speed gatherer/stitcher/trimming system was introduced to the North American market in early 1994, with two machines going to Quad, and one system each to R.R. Donnelley and Continental Web. "Since then, Quad and Ferag have worked together to customize the product for applications specific to Quad's catalog markets," says Pashcall. "As the design was improved, Quad has achieved higher speeds, format size changes in minutes and reduced maintenance. The system is unique--it's not a stop-and-go technology like conventional saddlesticher designs. The real world of 35,000 to 40,000 exists with these systems."

"The beauty of the Ferag is not only its ability to run fast, but to feed products at that speed," says Graushar. "It's very difficult to pick up something that's sitting still and get it moving and still be able to run the product with a very low margin of waste --1/10th of a percent."

At Williamson Printing (Dallas), stitcher flexibility takes precedence over speed. "Time is the same size day in and day out," observes Jesse Williamson. "But versatility is a huge requirement for us. We're going from 4 x 8-inch to 9 x 12-inch, with two to three changeovers a shift."

He says its two Heidelberg 705 stitchers, rated at 13,500 cph, typically run at 10,000 cph seven days a week. "We consistently produce a million books a day."

"Faster isn't always better," concurs Ed Pruett, bindery manager at Lithographix (Los Angeles). The $92 million printer sends a lot of work out for finishing. For in-house work, an Osako 368 rated at 12,000 cph was an operator-friendly option. "We like the 368's tilt-back feeder because we can set up hand stations without interrupting production," relates Pruett. "There's more space for the workers, too. It's a lot faster, especially when we're running covers with pockets." Lithographix currently has a four-pocket stitcher and plans to add a six-pocket machine soon.

The human factor | Financial printer Bowne & Co. (South Bend, IN) doesn't need Time speed, either. "We do not need 18,000 cph," explains Jerry B. Christensen, vice president and general manager. "We need about 10,000 cph." The two prevalent formats at Bowne are 8 x 10 inches ("magazine size," says Christensen) and double digest (53/8 x 8 inches). "For mutual fund and financial printing, the criteria we look for in a stitcher is a machine that has extremely quick makeready and one that can be manned efficiently."

At Bowne's 127,000-sq.-ft., three-shift plant, two Muller Martini Prima saddlestitchers finish the signatures produced by two six-unit Heidelberg non-heatset web presses and a 40-inch six-color Mitsubishi sheetfed press for printing covers. PLC controls are said to provide faster makereadies with greater quality control. Both stitchers are equipped with six model 370 flat pile signature feeders, a cover folder feeder, a model 360 three-knife trimmer and an Apollo compensating counter stacker.

"Our stitchers are rated at 13,000 cph and we try to run them at around 10,000 cph," reports Christensen. "Our challenge is thick signatures. Most of the stuff we run is 64-page signatures. With these signatures, running that fast and keeping the pockets loaded is a real challenge." Bowne recently invested in a hopper feeder from Sims, and it seems likely more printers and binders will follow this automation example.

"The hardest thing for printers and binders is finding enough people to feed pockets on a binding machine," observes Bill Klansko, product manager, saddlestitching, Muller Martini. "Nobody really wants a low-wage job, where you're bending and lifting, hour after hour. With a cutter or bucklefolder, you generally have one operator. With a perfect binder or saddlestitcher you have a multitude of signatures. If you're handfeeding a job with 20 signatures, you're going to need perhaps seven people--one person for every two to three pockets. Automating the loading process either through a bundle feeder or hopper loader can enable one person to feed from five to six pockets, depending on signature thickness."Although Quad is bigger than most printers, Graushar says size offers no immunity from finishing operations frustrations. "Our production is no different than any other printer's," reports the manager. "It's up and then down because somebody threw a curve ball and somebody missed it. But we address the issue and get on top of it."

The Quad exec emphasizes the importance of management's role in setting stitching expectations. "An operator might say he or she can run 10,000 cph on a 15,000 cph machine. Maybe that's as fast as you can run. But if you set some goals for the people in the finishing department, and the maintenance department listens to operators and helps them, machines will be in better condition and operators will go the extra mile to get those additional books per hour. It all boils down to taking care of equipment and encouraging teamwork."

The labor pool is just as tight for the Pewaukee,WI-based printer as it is for the majority of the industry. Graushar says Quad's emphasis on professional skills development, coupled with its family-friendly culture, helps attract and retain employees. "We have our own training center and classrooms," relates the manager. "We know that when employees understand our culture, throughput evolves. Last year production was down. Now it's back up and it keeps going up. We have to train and motivate our employees."

When pursuing potential employees who are mulling tempting signing bonuses and other enticements from fast food emporiums, the printer plays its trump card. Unlike restaurant cashiers or grill employees, Quad's employees learn a trade. "We win," notes Graushar.

What should we look for in the next generation of high-speed stitchers? "More electronics and automation," responds Muller Martini's Klansko. Look for existing automatic makeready technology to be tied into CIP3 protocols and automatic signature recognition to go on a wider variety of equipment. Also, expect more pocket-loading innovations.

"Everybody offers a fast stitcher," notes Quad's Graushar. "Our publishers want more value-added --what can we do to enhance their magazine or catalog or book to drive consumer demand? Speed is a given--now we're looking for creativity."