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MAN THE CONTROLS

Sep 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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Imagine, if you will, getting on an airplane. You buckle up, leaf through the in-flight magazine and wait for the flight attendants to detail the safety features of the flight before the actual take-off. The PA system crackles and you hear the captain's voice as he welcomes you aboard. Then you hear, "A real special thanks for joining us today, since we've got a brand new pilot-to-be up here in the driver's seat. This is a training flight . . . "

Of course, that would never happen. Pilots endure rigorous training programs before taking control of the plane. There are huge risks associated with letting an inexperienced person man the controls. Likewise, a segment of the printing industry is overcoming the costs of a slow learning curve by adopting a technique pilots have long had: a computerized training simulator.

The two most advanced offerings on the market are from Sinapse, a French company, and PrintSim, from Finland's technology center VTT, working as a subcontractor for European Graphics Industry Network (EGIN). Both companies offer several different simulation programs operating on a PC platform. Although they compete head-to-head in the European market, only Sinapse has U.S. distributors. However, PrintSim currently is discussing U.S. distributorship. PrintSim can be previewed on the Web at www.vtt.fi/tte/ printsim/index.html.

Sinapse offers training simulators for commercial web offset, publication gravure and newspaper coldset printing. Packaging gravure and flexography are expected to be introduced during late 1998 or early 1999.

It is the sheet-fed program that has earned the most attention, however. Sheet-fed Offset Training Simulator (SHOTS) is a simulation program that aims to deliver a complete interactive computer training system. The turnkey system costs approximately $14,500 and includes software, a two-day training course for one person and a Windows-based computer with monitor. If the appropriate computer equipment is already installed, the software can be purchased for approximately $12,000.

SHOTS is the result of three years of development in conjunction with a consortium of 22 printers and manufacturers, including Day International, BASF and MAN Roland. SHOTS is distributed in the U.S. by Day International and MAN Roland. The Sinapse Web address is www.shotsim.com.

The program provides many interfaces, from a full display of the press controls and a view of what the printed piece will look like. After an initial runthrough, the printed piece may appear with some problems. The operator then has to use problem-solving skills to correct the imperfections.

Peter Herman of Sinapse, the creator of SHOTS, uses the image of a flight simulator as well. "All of these training devices are like flight simulators for printers. They all take the printing process and break it down into its components, showing people what can go wrong and what to do about it. It's practice in problem-solving, so the operator thinks about what to do before pushing the buttons."

Available in English, Spanish or French, SHOTS can be configured for two to six units and can include a coater and a dryer, with a choice of six paper types and three formats. For each type of job, the operator enters costs for the machine time, materials and for every action on the press. These costs will be calculated every time the operator runs the program. "Visually, it is quite accurate," says William Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting. "I could change the ink settings on the keyboard and it would show me the results."

According to Herman, primary users of SHOTS are operators with less than five years of experience. "It also can be used for refresher courses, the same way a pilot uses a simulator for wind shear. You can set up quite complex situations, but you don't set those up when you're starting somebody out."

Lamparter recommends several training procedures for SHOTS users. "It can be used for remedial training. The crew could recreate a run on the trainer, then compare how it was solved versus how the trainer might have solved it. Didthe crew solve it the best way?"

The program is intended to be used on-site and off-line, two or three times a week, for an hour to an hour and a half, no more, set up with exercises to practice problem solving. "Start off bite-sized so people get used to the simulator," recommends Herman. "It is designed to show them what they can do, not what they can't do. From the live job, back to the simulator, back to the job and so on. Working on the simulator makes operators think about the process and try things they aren't permitted to try on press."

Wayne Perk of MAN Roland describes SHOTS as supplementing the entire continuum of sheet-fed press training because it offers two operation modes: for new hires and basic training, the standard mode is appropriate. The problem-solving mode can throw a few curveballs: Hundreds of print faults can be programmed to appear at start-up or randomly after a number of sheets have been run, on one unit or several units, and it's up to the press operator to diagnose the problem, check for the cause and make the correction. Exercises can be built into the program with three different tolerance levels to challenge beginners or pros.

The program is not specific to a particular press, but both Lamparter and Herman say that isn't the point. "You aren't learning how to run a press, you're learning how to print," asserts Herman. "That's an important distinction. However, we can adapt the system and we're working with some manufacturers to provide a specific interface." Herman notes that the program is updated approximately every six months to reflect the suggestions of users and describes plans to move the program closer to the press, as a kind of on-line troubleshooting solution.

A simulator brings training into the pressroom. Training can be conducted in-house on a schedule, instead of whenever a press is available. A training program also can be used to evaluate the skills of a potential new hire or to identify areas in which a current employee needs to improve. With the increased emphasis on keeping a press running profitably virtually 24 hours a day, plus a real pressure to keep makeready and waste to an absolute minimum, a training simulator makes sense.

But does it really work? Can a computer really simulate the operation of a press? MAN Roland's Perk maintains that the program is not intended to supplant actual hands-on experience, but rather, complement it. "The press operator can go through the simulator exercises. Then, on press, a similar situation can occur. The operator thinks, 'I've seen this before' and knows how to solve it," explains Perk.

Mark Terrell of Day International maintains that the learning curve goes faster and that press operators who use the program in conjunction with actual presswork learn faster and are productive more quickly. Herman backs that assertion, but currently lacks quantitative numbers because the program is so new.

R. R. Donnelley, however, is Sinapse's largest web customer and the firm reports that training time was reduced in plants by six months, from the time employees walked in the door until they could take responsibility on press. Herman estimates that these numbers will be similar with the sheet-fed version.

However, he notes that the program's main purpose actually isn't to bring the person on the street up to speed in six months. "Yes, it's useful for that," says Herman. "But it's really for anyone interested in increasing the competence level of the entire staff."

Print shops also use the program to train print buyers, customer service reps, clients and others associated with the printing process. Quad Graphics sponsors Camp Quad each summer to educate customers about what the printing process entails. To that end, the printer uses its web simulator instead of putting customers in charge of the presses.

Since the technology is so new, only time will tell whether this training innovation will fulfill proponents predictions and help solve the industry's need for skilled operators.