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Apr 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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Old timers remember well the salad days when web offset, flexing its economic muscles, bullied its way into market segment after market segment. Print buyers discovered they couldn't afford to print growing numbers of catalog, magazine, brochure, book and even packaging jobs on large sheetfed presses, letterpresses and, in some cases, gravure presses.

Heatset web offset was the printing industry success story of the second half of the 20th century.

Clearly the industry can't afford to rest on its past success. A serious look at what's going on should convince plant and pressroom managers to roll up their sleeves and restore web offset's productivity-based market thrust.

While it's difficult to meaningfully measure and chart industry pressroom productivity, we can draw some logical conclusions. There are approximately 4,000 heatset web offset presses in North America. Most are serving markets with shorter run lengths, as print buyers explore one-to-one marketing, print-on-demand and other emerging communication strategies. While most printers are aware of this trend, not all recognize the productivity challenge imposed by these shorter lengths (see Figure 1).

Although some printers like to think that selling makereadies generates revenue without wear and tear on the press, the customer gets absolutely no value from this activity. As run lengths decline, printers must adjust makereadies accordingly. If you can't drive makeready times down as fast as run lengths are declining, your press will obviously spend more time in the makeready process than in production.

How do you increase web pressroom productivity? Start by defining the opportunity for improvement-measure what you're managing. One way to do this is to compare a given press's output to its potential. We refer to this as calculating productivity quotient (PQ). A web press's potential output is completely dependent on the nature of the plant's jobs (run length, amount of color, register complexity, etc.) and management's press-booking policy. How tight is the schedule? How will schedule slips impact job delivery and customer satisfaction?

To determine the denominator (potential) of the PQ equation, calculate how many hours the press is available for production in your facility. Here's an example. Seven-day weeks (less ten holidays a year) multiplied by 85 percent productivity results in 7,242 available hours per year.

Next, define a typical or "norm" job and job times for the press in question. Figure 2 illustrates this, using the assumption of four-color 75,000 run length, 45-minute makeready time, 35,000 per hour cruise speed and 15 minutes per job for down time (web breaks, plate remakes, minor repairs, etc.) Those times indicate 3.27 hours per "norm" job. With 7,242 hours per year, we calculate that 2,215 jobs can be run per year with a total of 166.1 million signatures. If the press produced 100 million signatures annually, the PQ is 100 divided by 166.1 or 60. What would it take to get that PQ up to 70? How about 75?

You'll arrive at the answer by breaking the task down by one of four status conditions: Makeready, run, maintenance/repair and unscheduled. Aside from "unscheduled," all respond well to management attention and action. Some might ask if holding for plates or customer approval is a fifth status or condition-we're inclined to call that makeready.

We define makeready as the entire time from when the good counter is turned off on the previous job until it is turned on for the new job. Makeready costs include the hour costs for the press and crew plus plates and spoiled paper, ink, etc. Many pay lip service to makeready reduction but we see too few serious, long-term efforts. We believe a successful makeready productivity program begins with a clear understanding of the factors that determine plate quality, press condition and features, and crew motivation and capabilities.

plate quality | A bad plate delivered to the pressroom is an all-around loser. The crew rejects the plate and suffers additional down time while a (hopefully) correct replacement is produced. Or they "work" with it, which often leads to increased makeready time and waste and job quality compromises.

press conditions and features | A deteriorated and poorly adjusted press is a makeready problem. Any high-output production machine such as a web press should be routinely checked, adjusted and maintained so that its performance is at least predictable if not "standard." Most old, tired heat-set web presses are well worth rebuilding to restore them to a condition where they meet "standard" and are predictable. Also, some rebuilders offer product improvements for better-than-new press performance. These performance improvements affect makeready times and spoilage as well as run speed and running spoilage.

With the increasing importance of makereadies in the job cost equation, management should not ignore the potential payback of makeready-reducing enhancements that are available for all existing web presses. It's true that the new press manufacturers have dramatically increased press-operating speeds during the past 15 years. But for most printers, certainly those printers who don't believe they are in a position to buy new web presses, the most important developments have been those that reduced makeready time and waste. With one or two exceptions, these developments can be retrofitted to existing web presses. Notable retrofit or upgrade components include ink fountain remote adjustment systems with the following:

*Ink fountain-preset software and links to capture prepress data and preset fountains without plate or film scanning. *Stiffer ink fountain bodies that reduce or eliminate repeat makereadies upon acceleration due to fountain flexing. *Refined spray and continuous dampeners. *Waterless plate operation. *Fast-acting, simplified plate lock-ups. *Blanket washers. *Unit-to-unit phasers. *Flying plate changing arrangement. *PLC-based press controls that provide automatic sequencing and flexible ink and water ramp settings. *Closed-loop color-to-color register. *Closed-loop ink density control. *Automatic web cut and clamp devices. *Automatic cylinder positioning control. *Simplified folder change-over. *On-the-run adjustments, especially on folders. These are in addition to those closed-loop web guiding, tension control and cut-off control devices, which have been common for years. Custom engineering is another option for configuring a press and its makeready components to facilitate crews' access and eliminate or reduce makeready inhibitors.

*crew capabilities and motivation | Don't underestimate the importance of a press crew's talent and attitude. Time and again we've seen pressrooms where there was a makeready culture and where motivated, trained crews working on outdated equipment delivered better makeready results than those in pressrooms with the newest equipment but lacking a makeready culture. Because shorter run lengths and the resulting increase in makeready cost importance can creep in slowly, management may not get the wake-up call.

First, management must clearly establish that makeready performance is the centerpiece of the plant productivity improvement program. This means, of course, that management gets involved in makeready improvement programs, and pays attention and recognizes individuals' and teams' special efforts and successes.

Second, management and crew teams should break down, study and analyze makereadies to identify specific tasks and the times associated with each task. This permits arranging job materials, tools and schedules to streamline the makeready process, reduce redundant moves and minimize idle time while the press is "off the good counter."

Finally, there's crew training. Press crews are sometimes compared to race car pit crews. If it's your responsibility to optimize pressroom productivity, you know that it's just as important to get the press back on the good counter as it is to get the race car back on the track. Does every member of the crew know what to do and how to do it when the press comes down? Does each member have the supplies, plates and tools at hand? Is the crew trained as a team? Do they have good leadership? Makeready, unlike the run or cruise mode of operation, is man-paced. If one member of the crew is tired and wants to slow down, he drags down the entire team's performance. It takes good leadership and constant reinforcement to keep the team charging while the press is off the good counter.

*run mode We define this as the time the good counter is turned on. We choose to refer to run-mode interruptions, web breaks, blanket washes, plate changes and various necessary press adjustments as "down time," which, if they relate to the characteristics of the job, should be charged to the job. If they don't relate to the job they would fall within "press maintenance/repair."

Unlike makeready, the run mode is machine-paced. It's not as dependent on procedure refinements and crew training. In general, we find more pressrooms where run-mode productivity is acceptable than makeready productivity. Having said this, most pressrooms operate their presses, even on the longer runs, significantly below the press's rated speed. Here are some common scenarios and possible solutions:

*"The run is too short-it's not worth incurring the high-speed, second makeready cost associated with shortening the run time by 10 or 15 minutes."

solution: Consider new, more rigid ink fountains and improved ink feed "ramps" that will prevent the loss of color with higher speed operation. Consider rebuilding the press if its mechanical integrity causes print and/or fold problems with speed increase.

* "This is the press's 'sweet spot' and if we take speed up we'll pay in terms of web breaks, marking, blistering and/or folder jams."

solution: The press needs to be restored or at least selectively rebuilt-reduced time and waste will quickly pay the restoration tab.

* "The crew at the delivery end of the press can't keep up with the press."

solution: Check your stacking/bundling or other signature handling equipment. How much sense does it make to throttle an entire press bay, machinery, crew and support structure to skimp at the delivery end?

* "Press crews get 'comfortable' at modest speeds."

solution: The pace is easier and there's less work. What price comfort? There is still some of the natural fear of printing so fast that you run yourself out of work! It's true that for most printers there's more productivity gain by optimizing makeready performance than always running presses at 90 to 100 percent of rated speed. But if printers are going to keep running presses so far below rated speed, they should reconsider their extra investment in higher cost fast presses and auxiliary equipment.

maintenance and repair | Suffice to say, the less downtime, especially unscheduled downtime, the better. We believe that all downtime, including unscheduled, relates more to having a well-thought-out preventive maintenance (PM) program than to the age of the presses. The people who do it best should do maintenance, and it should be done when there isn't a customer waiting for a job. A maintenance crew and the necessary parts are often not available when the press crew discovers a problem. Time is wasted and press crews often are idle. Unscheduled breakdowns and maintenance are losers!

The cost of low productivity is staggering. We believe it's completely reasonable to look for 10 percent and 20 percent productivity increases when management goes to work on the problem(s). If we average this at 15 percent, we calculate being able to eliminate 600 heatset web offset presses (15 percent multiplied by 4,000 presses in North America) which are owned, given a press bay, crewed and maintained today. Crew cost alone might equal $600,000 per press per year or $360 million per year in total. This excludes depreciation, utilities, repairs, rent and supervision of management.

We certainly aren't predicting much if any unemployment for qualified web press crews. In fact, we are expecting that as run lengths continue to decline and overall web press printed volume remains high, average output per press will continue to decline and there will be a requirement for more presses. With most printers listing the difficulty of hiring skilled crew as their number one problem, we see a natural solution in improving overall productivity.

* 45-minute makeready * 15-minute downtime * 136-minute run time * 196-minute total JOB TIME=3.27 hours * 7,242 hours per year @ 3.27 hours per job= *2,215 jobs per year= * 166.1 millions signatures per year

* assumes a four-color, 75,000 run length and press speed of 35,000/hr.

We can't discuss web offset pressroom productivity without looking at the physical condition of the "installed base" of presses. Perhaps only new press manufacturers are watching, but the installed base is aging at an unprecedented rate.

Commercial/publication web presses are designed for approximately 50,000 hours of use prior to needing overhaul. Depending upon run length we can estimate that it takes, on average, perhaps 12 years for a press to reach that point. Given that there are approximately 4,000 heatset web offset presses in North America, we can divide 4,000 by 12 and conclude that predictably 350 presses each year move into the "red" zone where reliability, performance and print quality consistency become issues.

These presses aren't being retired. It's the rare press that gets the torch and, it seems, fewer presses than ever are moving to offshore markets. Indeed, some machines are being imported. Some are being thoroughly rebuilt or remanufactured; most are being "patched" and kept going with little or no capital investment to keep them in tune and fully competitive.

Manufacturers of new web presses are frustrated. In recent times they've been installing (in North America) fewer than 50 new heat-set machines per year, less than 1/7 of the 350 that enter the "red" zone each year. It's clear the installed base is aging like never before and there's not enough new investment in new presses, rebuilding and/or new components to maintain historic productivity levels, much less improve them.

You won't find the Web Offset Champions Group on a Wheaties box. But you may find this international group of suppliers useful in addressing common web offset productivity problems. The group is defining and publishing best practice guides targeted to pressroom supervisors and production staff.

Roll to Web Processing, a 24-page guide, was published at IPEX in 1998; a second guide will be released at Drupa next month.

Companies represented on the Web Offset Champions Group roster include Aylesford Newsprint, MAN Roland, MEGTEC, NITTO, QTI, SCA and Sun Chemical.

"This group believes that performance can be improved by working together more effectively to meet the challenges of the printing industry," relates Nigel Wells, managing director of the initiative. "These include the complexity and variables of the process, its equipment, paper, ink and other consumables to which no single supplier can provide a complete answer, as well as declining skills of press crews and rapid increase of press speeds."

The group recently surveyed 50 leading international web offset printing companies on perceived web offset productivity problems. Makeready waste, web breaks, makeready time, folder and runningwaste were the top five concerns. Nearly 50 companies participated (10 percent coldset and the balance heatset) from 12 geographical locations (UK, 32 percent; Germany and Austria, 15 percent; Italy and Spain, 11 percent; U.S. and Canada, six percent; Switzerland, Belgium and France, five percent each; Finland and Croatia, two percent).

For more information on the Web Offset Champion Group, contact Wells at 011-33-169408993; fax: 011-33-169428990.


A shaftless narrow web press is just the ticket for this Belgian printer. The tradition of the family owned printing company, so common in the United States, has its roots in Europe. In Belgium, for example, Drukkerij Strobbe is a household word in the printing community. Founded in Izegem in 1890, the printer is still an independent family business.

The printer has carved a niche for itself by offering a wide variety of forms, tickets, calendars and labels. Strobbe's commitment to understanding customer needs, coupled with innovation and top-notch state-of-the-art equipment, has resulted in a firm that enjoys annual sales of 535 million BEF ($133 million). Its 115 employees operate a fleet of offset rotary and sheetfed presses, a prepress department, and an extensive bindery and finishing department.

A special branch of Strobbe, called Buro, handles distribution of a line of exclusive calendars, plus forms, notepads and computer paper. In addition, the division offers a complete selection of office supplies at retail outlets throughout the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium.

Strobbe boasts a variety of presses in its shop, but has most recently added a Drent Vision SMR. This shaftless narrow web press is well suited for the Belgian printer's operations. "We chose a Drent Vision because it best suits our production operations. Because every tower has its own direct drive, we can send the information directly to the press," maintains Laurens Strobbe, technical director of the company.

"The chief advantage of the Vision's direct digital drive," continues Strobbe, "is that you can control the press with digital information. There is, therefore, reduced paper waste and much faster makeready."

The modular Vision press is designed to deliver short makeready times. Initial press settings and subsequent adjustments can be made from the central operator's console using a touchscreen monitor. Console displays include pre-programmed makeready task sequence to assure that all operators follow the same "best practices" procedures. Press settings can be saved to minimize set-up time on repeat jobs.

The Drent Vision used at Strobbe is a fixed press, but other configurations allow for 40 independently driven printing, processing and delivery modules. The module drives are linked electronically through the central control computer -not by mechanical connections. Machine configuration can be changed or expanded with additional modules.

That's the ticket Strobbe uses the Vision press to produce a range of products, including tickets. Many of the tickets are printed on thermal paper, which is extremely expensive. Therefore, Laurens Strobbe stresses that profits are made-or lost-during the makeready process. Waste of thermal paper must be kept to an absolute minimum.

Many of these tickets are unique. Printed on the six-color press, products can be produced roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet. Strobbe's configuration consists of a fanfolder, sheeter, UV drying, remote controlled ink fountain and web video camera. Most of the tickets are 10 to 12 colors and printed roll-to-roll, then go back on press. The technical director also points out that business forms find a home on the Vision press as more and more colors are being incorporated into their design.

Getting it right The technical director also explains that tickets for cinemas or other venues must be delivered properly-not just printed properly. Images are received from distributors promoting upcoming movies. These images must be matched with the correct dates and other text, then packaged correctly. "Some cinemas want the lowest number on the bottom, others want it on the top. It's our responsibility to see that these customers get exactly what they want every time we deliver a job," comments Laurens Strobbe.

The printer believes in "plates on demand" in its Belgian plant. "That way we can decide what press to use only an hour or two before printing," claims Strobbe. "The computer-to-plate device is in the pressroom. When plates are needed, the head of the printing department can make them."

The 110-year-old printing firm has re-invented itself over the years to survive and meet changing market needs. The Drent Vision press helps Strobbe meet the demands of the future. "We are very happy with this press. So happy that our next press will be a Vision press," concludes technical director Laurens Strobbe. "It is a printing press that is ready for the future."