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Nov 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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If you think you can't judge a book by its cover, you haven't visited Mid-City Lithographers (Lake Forest, IL). The 60,000-sq.-ft. facility produces textbook covers, software package wraps, playing cards, baseball cards and more. Mid-City has the capacity to produce one million covers a day for books used by moms, motorcycle enthusiasts and school kids just to name a few.

If you own a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook (the one with the laminated red-and-white-checked cover), for example, you've seen what Mid-City Litho can do. If there is a Harley Hawg parked in your garage, you may have noticed a handsome new book, Harley Davidson Chronicle, featuring a cover printed on metalized polyester.

While covers produced for the commercial market must meet exact design and quality standards, serving the educational market imposes some unique challenges as well. Textbook covers must be attractive enough to entice administrators to purchase them, yet durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of youthful scholars. "There is a designer behind every one," explains Wayne L. Sorenson, chief operating officer. "The book cover impacts school districts' buying decisions, so it should catch your attention." The exec adds that these book covers must be tough enough to withstand certain extra-curricular activities, too. Sorenson recalls one salesman who field-tested his wares for prospective buyers by kicking the books across the parking lot.

The Chicago-area printer recently became the first printing facility to be accredited in the Total Production Maintenance (TPM) program developed by the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF). Larry Detwieler, Mid-City's vice president of manufacturing and long-time advocate of single minute exchange of die (SMED), a scientific approach to traditional press makeready, is an active participant in a statistical process control user's group and first learned of the quality standards program in his role as a GATF board member. In March of 1997, he began laying the groundwork for TPM. "We were eager to implement TPM because, unlike other programs, it is specifically designed for the printing industry . . ." relates Detwieler. "We resisted the ISO 9000 process because the program is so general--we were very excited to hear that GATF had designed a total quality system for the printing industry."

Kenneth Rizzo, the GATF consultant who developed the program, based it on a series of common-sense measurement, operational and continuous improvement systems used in most industries. "The system's tools include statistical process control (SPC), single minute exchange of die (SMED), total production maintenance (TPM) and the ISO 9000 quality operational standards," explains Rizzo. "The program helps printers identify productivity interruptions and systematically eliminate these problems to achieve the ultimate goal of zero breakdowns."

Combining TPM with total quality management (TQM), the program isolates six areas of major operational and mechanical loss: equipment failure/breakdown, equipment setup and adjustment (makeready), equipment idling and minor stops, reduced running speeds, defective product and reduced equipment yield (start-up losses). Once a firm passes its audit, it is presented with a registry certificate that is valid for one year.

To implement the program, Mid-City formed an internal audit team. The seven-member task force represented a broad cross-section of departments: three people were selected from the pressroom--the remaining members came from the planning and scheduling, platemaking, finishing and purchasing ranks. The team was responsible for reviewing every piece of equipment and establishing the required quality checkpoints.

Rather than fixing equipment when it breaks, Mid-City now concentrates on preventing breakdowns. "Each machine now has a binder containing standard operating procedures," explains Detweiler. "It's great to have that in black-and-white." The binders are divided into two main sections. In the front are daily, weekly and monthly checklists --the written SOPs are in the back. Supervisors are responsible for reviewing the checklists on a daily basis.

Sorenson adds that collaboration and cooperation among Mid-City's 70 employees played a key role in implementing TPM. "It was a strong team effort," he reflects. "Everyone wanted to pass the audit."

Rizzo agrees that employee buy-in is crucial. "As with any total quality program, TPM is successful only if everyone at all levels of the company, is personally involved and committed to the program," relates the GATF exec.

Last July, Frank J. Gualtieri, director GATF services, conducted a three-day audit at Mid-City, covering the platemaking, press, coating/laminating and shipping departments. (Because the printer's ink room is maintained by its ink vendor, this area was not included in the audit.) Much as the typical job would go through the plant, the auditor methodically examined every facet of the operation. For each piece of equipment, Gualtieri reviewed maintenance, calibration and process control procedures. Mid-City was required to produce documentation that scheduled maintenance had been performed and that the equipment was calibrated to manufacturers' specifications. In his auditor's report, Gualtieri notes that "questions were also asked of the departmental personnel to uncover deficiencies within the recorded procedures, to determine a clear understanding of the needs for a TPM program within the department, and to see if there are other processes and equipment that would need to be covered by this audit."

Weren't the employees--many of whom don't regularly interact with customers--nervous about being center stage? Sorenson acknowledges that a few staffers were a bit intimidated at the prospect of being asked to demonstrate their calibration technique or similar questions, but that most weren't. "We're used to stress in this business," he chuckles.

The audit uncovered only two minor deficiencies--a Sutherland rub tester in the coating/laminating department that wasn't calibrated, and two electron air cleaners that were properly maintained but missing from the equipment manifest. "These are minor nonconformance issues and within the TPM criteria to pass the audit," relates Gualtieri. "They received a nearly perfect audit--we'll be surprised if another facility receives a higher score."

Detwieler acknowledges that while it wasn't easy to find the time and resources to implement TPM, "if you're serious about improving quality, you can find the time. It takes less time to do this than fight fires that would happen without TPM. It's like adding another manager to the staff."

He adds that Mid-City is already reaping rewards--both internally and externally--as a result of implementing TPM. Having worked closely with team members from different departments, employees have gained a better understanding of the entire plant's operation. Customers have been receptive to the program as well. "We have presented the program to a few of our customers," relates Detwieler. "Not only have they accepted the program in place of ISO 9000, they also feel more confident about us using a program specifically designed for this business."