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Jan 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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While many printers know how to throw a punch, very few are aware of what to look for when buying a punch. Remember, a punch is not a drill; if you are using a machine that rotates drill bits to create round holes, you are using a drill. A machine that uses reciprocating dies is a punch.

Punches are necessary to produce hole patterns for double-loop wire, plastic comb and spiral or Plasticoil bindings. The question is, what is the best way to produce these hole patterns?

Whatever pattern you decide to go with, buy a punch with interchangeable dies. Many printers clutter their shops with three or four different punches, each dedicated to punching a single pattern. This wastes space, not to mention money.

The first punch-buying dilemma is whether to buy a manual or automatic punch. Obviously, a printer's typical run length will affect this decision. However, when shopping for an automatic punch, try to determine the following:

* What is the unit's speed and size range? Automatic punches can range in speed from 20,000 to 130,000 sph. Buy a punch that your company can grow into, not just to fulfill current needs. The cost of dies also is significant. Dies often are not interchangeable with other units.

* How versatile is the machine? Many punches can only punch on the spine. Others can punch anywhere on the sheet. This allows punching of wraparound covers, windows, tags, doorhangers and slots. In essence, a punch can be used as a high-speed mini diecutter. Also, ask whether the machine can punch tabbed sheets (or the tabs themselves).

* Does the delivery end allow operation by one person? Some punches offer a hopper or a jogger. This can be problematic with faster punches since a jogger will fill up quickly, and another operator will be necessary to feed the machine.

* Is the feeder well-designed? The biggest problem with some punches is the feeding system. Stock often can curl or fuse from static. A stabber feeder that feeds from the top is a good option for overcoming this problem. Ascertain whether the feeder can accommodate a large lift so that an operator is free to unload.

* Can the machine feed signatures? More printers are gathering signatures and trimming all four sides to save time. Some punches will trim the backbone of the signature and punch the hole pattern in the same pass.

* How quickly can the die be changed? This is especially important to plants that are always changing hole patterns for different customers. Some machines offer a die change of minutes, while others can take nearly half an hour. Also, ask about the lead time when ordering dies and find out what the turnaround time is on sharpening the die.

* Are parts readily available? Ask for references and find out how long it takes to get replacement parts from the supplier. Some parts can be found at local electrical supply dealers.

You should, of course, observe the machine in operation prior to purchase. Try to arrange a demonstration of a die change. Bring along any special stock you consider problematic. After the paper is punched, jog the lift and see if the holes are perfectly aligned. If not, keep shopping.