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Cutting to the chase

Apr 1, 1995 12:00 AM

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Highly automated finishing eases fulfillment house's move into printing

Vectra Marketing was founded 13 years ago as a fulfillment house in Columbus, OH. The company has grown and prospered, and now handles high-volume fulfillment work for numerous high-profile national accounts.

Until recently, Vectra contracted out the printing portion of its services. In mid-1992. however, management decided bringing printing in-house would benefit profitability and client responsiveness. As a result, a manufacturing division was formed featuring web and sheet-fed capacity.

The firm's sheet-fed equipment includes a new-generation six-color MAN Roland 700 with a coater, a two-color 40-inch perfector and a smaller two-color press. A five-color commercial eight-page heat-set web press rounds out the pressroom.

All this equipment was brought on board at essentially the same time, which meant Vectra's manufacturing division went from nothing to an $8 million to $10 million operation overnight.

As a fulfillment company, the firm already had a solid client base. However, it had to quickly learn to produce and get product out the door on schedule. Under the leadership of Dean Kelley and Pat Callahan, the manufacturing division consistently has risen to this challenge.

Not long after the manufacturing operation was in full swing, Kelley and Callahan realized the bindery couldn't keep up with the presses. The main bottleneck was the guillotine cutter; product wasn't going through it fast enough to keep the rest of the bindery as busy as it needed to be.

Callahan points out that nothing was inherently wrong with the cutter. Work simply wasn't getting to it or from it fast enough, and the operator was spending a great deal of time doing other things besides cutting. "If the knife operator has to jog and stack the work," he explains, "it cuts down on the number of blade drops in a day."

At Kelley's suggestion, Vectra acquired a new Wohlenberg cutter outfitted with a Baumann pile hoist, jogger, air tables, pile rack and a fully automatic unloader from MAN Roland USA, the North American distributor for Wohlenberg and Baumann equipment. This system was installed in the first quarter of 1994; the change in throughput was immediate and dramatic.

"We can cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million coupons or statement inserts in one shift," offers Callahan. "Previously, that level of production would have taken a couple of days. Our entire bindery now is three to four times faster."

Automated cutter systems are widely used in Europe, especially in Germany. However, they remain comparatively rare in the U.S.

A typical Baumann on-line system features a U-shaped workflow with the knife at the center. Work comes from the pressroom on a skid placed on a pile hoist. As the skid is emptied, the pile hoist raises the stock automatically, allowing all working levels to be at a proper height to slide onto the jogger.

Once the lift is jogged, it can go directly onto an air table for delivery to the cutter or to a pile rack - a buffer station that can hold five lifts. From there, an automatic transport gripper system, which feeds the jogger automatically, takes the work via the rear table without operator intervention.

After the cuts are made, an unloader places finished work on as many as two pallets simultaneously. Throughout the system, paper transfers are accomplished by automatic transporting and gripping systems. All these tasks can be computerized to keep track of incoming and outgoing work automatically, ensuring that the pre-programmed cuts being made coincide with the pile actually under the knife.

For operations that involve extensive cutting (i.e., labels) it is possible to set up two stations, one for jogging and one for unloading. This is true of any off-line system, allowing the knife to run almost continuously.

"We can use the peripheral equipment to set jobs for the cutter operators when they are not there," says Callahan "On the third shift, someone can preload the cutter, allowing the operator to run material through the knife for the entire shift." The cut material goes from the cutter to the unloader, then to packing, the folder or out the door.

That's a lot of automation, but is it expensive? From one point of view, yes. Installing a complete system on a cutter wild cost roughly as much as it would to buy another cutter. The cutter, of course, is the single most expensive piece of equipment in the cutting line.

However, the cutter and paper-handling system combination, at least in Vectra's experience, is capable of more throughput than two stand-alone cutters, and can be run by only one operator.

"We now have two folders," points out Callahan, "and we wouldn't be able to keep them going without the Wohlenberg/Baumann system. Although I have a 20-year background in the printing industry, this is the first time I've been in an operation that had a cutting system. I'm totally amazed at the volume of work that comes off that system in one shift."

That, of course, is the real benefit of this technology; printers get paid for finished, shipped and delivered work. It doesn't matter how sleek the desktop color system is or how fast the press is if the bindery isn't getting product out to customers.

For more information on the Wohlenberg automatic cutter system equipped with a Baumann pile hoist, available from MAN Roland.