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Jun 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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There's something wrong with the majority of today's sheet-fed presses. Automation is not the issue--the blanket and roller washing, plate loading, hickey picking, etc., works just fine. We can't fault bearer-to-bearer ring contact, or plate-to-blanket squeeze, or the shore hardness of rollers or water and fountain solution pH and conductivity, either. So what's the problem? We are. Old-fashioned thinking, ingrained habits, misplaced thrift, complacency and tunnel vision are just a few of the human foibles that can impede pressroom productivity.

"We know of one company with several multimillion dollar 40-inch presses that is running those presses at only 50 percent of the capable yield," relates Bob Rosen of Rosen & Associates (New York City). "It's not lack of technical knowledge or some unique situation. It's because management hasn't set the proper standards. A 20 percent to 25 percent increase in pressroom productivity can be achieved simply by attention to little things--just by establishing certain expectations and removing small obstacles. But you have to change the process."

The consultant adds that before the process can be changed, management may have to purge itself of some outdated operational principles. "The first problem with productivity is that most printers are still living in a time when it was enough to get a job produced correctly--the emphasis was on getting the job right. Presses had a difficult time picking up a sheet, registering one color to the next, putting down the dots and delivering the sheet at a certain speed. It was a struggle, and all too often printers operated under a 'Do you want it fast or do you want it right' mentality."

Raymond J. Prince, senior technical consultant at the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), concurs. "In general, U.S. printers' makereadies are too slow--we use stock that's been through the press two to three times. In Germany and most of Europe, the operators start out immediately with clean stock--they assume color will be okay right off the bat. But in this country, we tend to start and stop presses a lot, adding tremendously to makeready time. Years ago, plates were so far out of register, operators had to keeping starting and stopping to make adjustments. Today, especially with a good imagesetter or computer-to-plate system, makeready time should decrease. But many are still doing it the old-fashioned way."

"You have to have a system in place," says Jay Gibble, production manager at Cadmus Communications (Charlotte, NC). "ISO 9000 has helped us accomplish that--we have all our procedures documented. Everybody on a press has a PC with all their work instructions on it. You have to have procedures so that everybody's not doing it their own way."

Cadmus' Charlotte plant is its flagship facility for its specialty packaging and promotional printing product lines, as well as the primary production facility for its financial communications division. Its sheet-fed pressroom includes two seven-unit Heidelberg 102-CDs, two four-color Speedmaster perfectors as well as a Speedmaster 102 equipped with LYL multi-coating technology.

Gibble says an Intranet helps Cadmus ensure that standard operating procedures are being followed. "Everything we do is in on the Intranet--I can call up instructions for a gluer operator and see exactly how that machine should be operating."

However, communication does not have to be high tech to be effective--showing crews a simple graph can yield dramatic productivity gains. "People can understand pictures better than they can a column of figures," explains John Geis of A.J. Geis Associates (Chapel Hill, NC). "Graphically displaying weekly production averages is an easy way for the crew to see results for the whole year. On a weekly basis, there are spikes--you'll have really good weeks and really bad weeks. Don't worry too much about spikes per week--use a 52-week moving average," advises the consultant, "As long as that line is moving upward you're doing better."

Can a graph really help productivity? "I've done this when running a plant," responds Geis. "Productivity on every piece of equipment went up. I never asked the crews to work harder. They just said, 'hey, we can do better.' "

GATF's Prince urges printers to reduce raw materials and equipment variables by using a single supplier when possible. "You'll see plants with nine different brands of presses," submits the consultant. "Look at the learning curve for nine different presses --you don't have the interchangeability of crews and productivity is rotten."

The consultant says the "mix-and-match" pressroom may be a holdover from the days when certain jobs required a certain press --i.e., one for printing solids, another for halftones and type, etc.

"When you go to a big plant, you do notice they tend to favor one kind of press over the other," adds Charlie McCarthy of J.S. McCarthy Printing Co. (Augusta, ME). "These days, manufacturers know if they can get that first press in the door, they have a pretty good shot of getting a second one in, too." McCarthy's company recently added a second six-color Mitsubishi press to make it easy to interchange operators as well as jobs. "Training was a big consideration," explains the exec. "We also wanted a single format for plating jobs so we'd have greater flexibility if a job dropped out."

Poor pressroom maintenance is another potential productivity drain. "A really good press operator bursting his buttons with professional pride will say 'I can make any press run,' " notes Richard C. Holliday, president, 3P Inc. (Westerly, RI). "That might be so, but to make a press print that's a little tired, a little worn and out of spec, is going to take longer and more material will be wasted. No question about it."

According to Holliday, management is responsible "for setting the right tone or culture inthe plant. Man and machine both have to be in spec. Do you ever ask a guy to run a job when rollers should be re-striped? Sure, sometimes you've got to get the job out. But you've got to let everyone know you're not just grinding out the work. You've got to meet the quality standards you've agreed upon with your customers. Your business depends on it."

On the equipment side, the consultant says operators should establish the mechanical reliability (e.g., ability to hold color and register) of their equipment. Holliday suggests using the test targets and forms available from GATF to determine the press' maximum ink densities and dot gain characteristics.

Cadmus fingerprints its presses annually. Current fingerprints are compared against the original print testing conducted when the press was installed. "We have one press that's six years old," notes Gibble. "When we did the fingerprint test, it looked as if it needed some work. We got Heidelberg in here to do a gear alignment, which brought us back into better-than-factory specs. You have to do the fingerprinting to know where you are." He also notes that fingerprinting provides his crew with a good opportunity to experiment with different inks and papers.

Running by the numbers is becoming more crucial as printers struggle to find skilled operators. "If you're running with new operators, you can't afford to be working around problems on press," declares Holliday.

John Santie, product manager, sheet-fed presses, Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses, also stresses the human factor. "To maximize a company's investment in automation, one word comes to mind," submits the exec. "Training. Today's presses are highly automated, as are the systems supplied with the press. It is important that a company not only invest in automation, but the people operating the equipment as well.

"Training plays a key role in the start up of presses in the field. We bring operators to our training facility in Lincolnshire, IL for a five-day class. This helps immensely when our field technicians arrive at the plant to start the press. The technicians presence at the plant is more of a follow up training session than starting from scratch."

"There's probably 70 to 80 percent fewer operator problems during the start-up if people have been here for training prior to delivery," reports Rudy Valenta, national product manager of MAN Roland's sheet-fed press division. "That's because you're taking the student out of the production environment and he or she can actually concentrate on the press."

The exec adds that some owners are so intent on getting the press up and running they don't allow time for training. "They shortcut it," says Valenta. "It's a shame--you're spending $2 million to $3 million on a press, and using an operator with limited experience and you expect full productivity from the machine."

MAN Roland offers training at its House of Excellence in Westmont, IL as well as its Offenbach, Germany headquarters. Clients also can opt for Sheetfed Offset Training Simulator (SHOTS), a software package that recreates all aspects of sheet-fed press operation.

Training employees can help boost productivity, but management must take a proactive approach to sustaining and surpassing these gains. "The plant supervisors also should be trained on the equipment so they understand what it takes to operate and maintain equipment," relates Mitsubishi's Santie. "This will help ensure equipment is being used properly and to the full extent of the automation."

Rosen suggests owners "take a chair and sit near their biggest and newest press. Watch a makeready by every different crew running that press. Makeready is different for each crew. While each crew may have something to contribute to the process, there is one best way for your company's mix of work. You have to decide what that way is and not allow operators to improvise."

While new ideas are to be encouraged, crews should understand that deviating from the agreed upon makeready procedure is unacceptable, says the consultant.

Management also must be on guard against underutilization of automation. Both Rosen and Geis cite automatic/continuous feed and delivery as a frequently underused feature . "An operator will say, 'Our runs are so short, we never go through more than one skid of paper,' " reports Geis. "Well, why pay for automatic continuous feed if you're not going to use it?"

"It's remarkable the number of people who have this feature on their press and don't use it," echoes Rosen. "If you ask them why, they'll say 'Well, we had to stop to wash the blankets anyway, to pick off the hickeys,' " To which Rosen responds, "How do the hickeys know to leap up on the blanket just when you're getti ng to the end of the lift? Let's keep running and chase hickeys when they come up. If we can't get them with an automatic hickey picker, we'll stop."

Press speed is another key factor impacting productivity. When considering speed, management must weigh all aspects of a job. "Not every job will run at top speed," says Santie. "The length of the job must be taken into consideration when determining how fast to run the press. If the job is 2,500 sheets, the press operator is not going to run that job at top speed. If something is wrong on the job (hickies, scratches, etc.), the job could be completed before the press operator has time to fix the problem."

"Most presses we have put in recently are running very close to maximum speed," adds Bob McKinney, director of sales and marketing, KBA Planeta. "You'll find situations in which somebody is running very tricky materials, such as plastics or thin foils, and isn't able to run at the fully rated speed. But printers factor that in when they buy the press."

McKinney cautions against sacrificing flexibility or paying for options which have no measurable return on investment. Work with your press manufacturer to determine what press configuration is best-suited for your plant, he advises. "More printers are looking to expand into new markets such as cartons and plastics and they're looking for presses that can handle a wider range of materials than ever before."

"As a pressroom manager you have to let people know your expectations," advises Gibble. "You need to run the press as fast as you can while still controlling the quality of the job. You have to stay on top of that. Some people will get in a funk and run the same speed on a 13,000 job as they do on a 7,000 job because they get comfortable. You have to constantly be encouraging people. You have state-of-the-art equipment that's made to run fast."

Sometimes crews are confused by what they perceive as a contradictory quality/speed message. "If you're constantly beating quality into a press crew's head and you're also saying you want the press running at 13,000 an hour, sometimes crews will say they can't do both," relates Gibble. "Well, sometimes they can."

Rosen advocates directly addressing press operators' perceived obstacles to higher press speeds. If you have a good supply of plates ready, says the consultant, operators won't be worrying about what they'll be doing next (and perhaps subconsciously running slower). If you observe a press running slowly for no apparent reason, find out why. "Sometimes you'll put your most senior operator on a press," relates Rosen. "He or she is used to hearing the press run at a certain speed. The operator might tell you it sounds better at that speed. Well, no, it sounds more familiar as that speed, which doesn't necessarily make it better."

The consultant says some operators are reluctant to run at high speeds for fear of overtaxing the press. "Some operators confuse an electrical press motor with a car's internal combustion motor,"explains Rosen. "Some instinct says it's bad if you get the press up near the red line. That's simply not so."

Finally, don't let your pressroom operate in a vacuum. Although presses have traditionally been the crown jewels of most plants, prepress advances are driving those cylinders. Why not work together? Form an in-house color committee of press and prepress employees to ensure each department understands the other department's needs.

Old habits die hard. But as CTP and other new technologies enter the pressroom, operators may find themselves in a situation similar to one described by the Queen in Alice in Wonderland: "It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Rare air. "You could spend millions on a new press with all the bells and whistles, but if you don't have the environment, you'll never achieve that first pull register sheet," explains Lloyd DeJidas, director of graphic services and facility manager, GATF. "We follow TAPPI standards--we want to be in the range of 45 to 50 percent relative humidity all year around."

Floor it. "If the slab you put the press on isn't rigid enough to support the load of that machine, it will never run at peak performance," cautions DeJidas. "Get a structural engineer involved to take a look at the installation drawings and your facility."

Don't touch that blanket. "Printers should not continue to tighten the blanket after its initial installation," notes Day International's John Brookshier, "Today's offset blankets seldom require continual tightening if they've been installed properly and the presses' blanket cylinder lock-up systems are fully functional. Some printers think they must re-tension their blankets at every press stop--this actually decreases the life of the blanket."

The right light.The GATF/RHEM light indicator is a 2 x 0.75 strip for visual control of color viewing. When attached to the border of a color proof or transparency, the light indicator signals the viewer whether he or she is judging the color accuracy with or without a 5,000K standard light source. Call (800) 662-3916 for more information.

Coat check. "Some people run into problems when they don't have their pressure right on their coaters," notes Cadmus' Jay Gibble. "It's should be a kiss impression--if you have too much pressure, you'll pick up more ink. Also, there's a belief you can't process a job after you've coated it for 24 hours. We don't believe that--a lot of times we're chasing on our diecutter right after we come off press."

Plastics make it possible. "If a load is going to be turned, why not deliver it on a plastic pallet?" asks John Geis. "Plastic pallets cost more than wood, but they'll last 10 to 20 years. Plus you have no broken boards or nail pops or moisture problems. Mill skids, which a lot of printers use, are too heavy and the wrong size. You should also use the proper material handling vehicle to deliver and remove paper. Nickel-and-diming material handling stuff is both counterproductive and dangerous."

Create a library. Make press manuals, books and videotapes easily available to your employees, suggests GATF's Ray Prince. "It's a great way to help people learn."

Good housekeeping. Pipes above a press are a spray powder magnet. Clean the whole pressroom, not just the press.

Is your press delivering the speed you've paid for? GATF has identified the following reasons presses are run at lower than rated speeds.

* Marking of the sheets * Slow-drying water-based coating * Slow-curing UV * Poor fit and register accuracy * Difficulty delivering sheets and signatures * Difficulty feeding sheets * Sheet coating picking * Mechanical press problems * Fear of wearing out the equipment * Ineffective quality monitoring