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Oct 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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AUTOMATION, MAINTENANCE AND OPERATOR TRAINING CAN ALL HELP Ask a printer how he or she improves productivity on a sheetfed press, and the response can range from training to preventive maintenance to installing a new, fully automated machine. Ask a press manufacturer how printers can boost productivity, and you'll get similar responses. Pressroom efficiency is a complex issue - it's dependent on so many variables, there's no one technology or practice that will turn every printing business into a case study on doubled productivity.

There are, however, certain practices that can boost productivity, and recent trends in equipment investment that promise to step up job turnaround. These include automation, perfecting presses and networking. Conversely, there are also common habits among many print shops that prevent them from reaching their full productive potential, such as the lack of an established maintenance program and poorly utilized press operators.

AMERICAN PRINTER asked sheetfed press manufacturers, printers and industry experts for some productivity tips. Since we have written extensively on makeready issues in past articles, that topic has less emphasis here.

AUTOMATING OPTIONS Automation has had a major impact on streamlining print operations, particularly in speeding up makereadies. Such features as automatic plate-changing, blanket-washing, ink-filling and sheet-size presetting have become so popular that they've become standard on many manufacturers' larger presses and preferred on the smaller sizes. "It often takes longer to get a press without automation," observes John Santie, product manager for sheetfed presses at Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses U.S.A., Inc. (Lincolnshire, IL).

Where automation really pays off is in short-run work, where makereadies can take more time than press runs. Bloom's Printing Inc. (Dennison, OH) is a 10-employee printer with typical run lengths of 10,000 and under. The firm was founded in the basement of the Bloom family home. Almost 15 years and four expansions later, Bloom's Printing handles full-color brochures, pocket folders and catalog sheets for its manufacturer clientele. "We're one of the new breeds coming out - jumping from quick printer to small commercial printer, from duplicators to true offset printing presses," explains Rick Bloom Jr., vice president.

A couple of years ago, the company invested in a Hamada B452 AI four-color press, the printer's first true offset machine. "What sold us were the automatic plate hangers and remote ink controls," notes Bloom Jr. "We had to go as automated as possible." The printer's customers encouraged the purchase - prior to the installation, many of them had to go outside of the rural Dennison area to printers in larger cities to get four-color work done. To keep its clients' business, the printer had to move into the commercial arena. "You either adapt and upgrade with the most efficient presses or you get left behind," says Bloom Jr.

Although automation offers high return in short-run environments, it doesn't make sense in every pressroom. "Some people overbuy options," notes Douglas Parker, regional sales manager for KBA North America, Inc. (Williston, VT). "Just to buy the most fully loaded press doesn't make sense for every operation. When it comes to automation, what makes sense for your business?"

Parker notes printers specializing in long runs, for instance, may not see as high a return for an automatic makeready system.

ON THE NETWORK CIP4 and a fully integrated printing operation promise great improvements in productivity. (See "CIP3 tackles JDF," September 2000, p. 46.) At Drupa, Komori debuted its Digital Open Architecture Network (DoNet) while Heidelberg introduced its computer-integrated print process model, which includes its CP 2000 control system, and KBA showcased its open networking capabilities.

Rudy Valenta, manager, corporate sales at MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), notes that networked presses are popular among the press manufacturer's commercial printer customers, with 80 percent of its presses sold with networking capability. Currently there are 250 installations worldwide of MAN Roland's NT-based PECOM networking system, and Valenta anticipates 400 by the end of 2000. While Valenta estimates that networking can add three percent to four percent additional costs to the total purchase price of a press, he further notes it can boost productivity 15 to 20 percent.

One example of a printer taking advantage of networking is Alpha Beta Press Inc. (Tinley Park, IL), a 100-employee sheetfed printer with customers in the financial and healthcare markets. Most of Alpha Beta's jobs are short-run marketing pieces and brochures. The company's pressroom includes Mitsubishi six- and four-color 40-inch presses, and a six-color 28-inch press, all with inline coaters.

The firm recently implemented Mitsubishi's Prepress CIP4 Control (PPC Server) to speed makereadies, create a more organized workflow and standardize ink setup. A file server communicates job information to consoles next to three of the Mitsubishi presses. A software program, Scitex's InkPro, provides an ink profile of each color, which is downloaded to the presses' file server. "When an operator runs a job, he or she can call up that ink profile from the server," explains vice president of operations Chuck McDermott.

"Quantitatively, it's hard to say the amount of improvement," admits McDermott. He adds, however, that the networking saves two to three minutes per plate per press. Over the course of a day, running three shifts on a press, the exec notes it's possible to fit in another job due to these incremental time savings. Additionally, the networking has a positive impact on Alpha Beta's customers. "There are a lot of customer approvals that go on - it's hard to automate that end of the process. I find that the networking really speeds workflow because everything internally speeds up."

PERFECTOR PERFECT Until a few years ago, perfectors lagged in popularity among many commercial printers because of marking issues, particularly on coated stock. With the advent of technologies designed to minimize and eliminate marking, however, perfecting presses are getting a fresh look. "This is something that has totally come of age - now it is possible to print four or more colors on both sides of coated paper, in one pass, with amazing quality," notes John Dowey, vice president of marketing/sheetfed at Heidelberg USA, Inc. (Kennesaw, GA).

"It eliminates double makereadies, decreases customer sign-offs and waste in setting up the press, and accelerates workflow," concurs Martin Petersen, marketing manager at Akiyama Corp. of America (Pinebrook, NJ). Petersen adds that, of Akiyama's commercial printer customers, 30 percent purchase the JPrint perfecting model versus the company's straight-line presses. And the number is growing.

Charles River Lithography, a $10 million sheetfed printer in Rockland, MA, invested in its 12-color Akiyama J-Print in order to gain a productive edge on its competitors. The printer also owns two straight-line six-color units, one with a coater. "One pass through the press and it's done - you never have to worry about sending it back through the press," notes owner Frank Nappa. "You are always starting with virgin paper - you never have to feed sheets with spray powder through the press." Nappa says that the perfector gives his company an edge when quoting against the many other sheetfed printers in the area.

Productivity potential aside, perfectors often cost up to 80 percent more than straight-line models; however, they can perform twice the work in less time, a capability that can be especially attractive to a printer wishing to differentiate itself. "It gave us the opportunity to jump a few steps ahead of everyone else," says Nappa. "With another straight-line six-color press, we would be just another printer."

SCHEDULED MAINTENANCE Just as new technologies can dramatically impact productivity, common-sense practices - that aren't necessarily common - can help, too. A case in point: press maintenance. "I have never seen quality work or good productivity come off of a filthy press," notes Ray Prince, who, as a Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) (Sewickley, PA) senior technical consultant and auditor, has visited hundreds of printer businesses across the U.S. to help their owners improve operations.

Prince stresses that a preventive maintenance program is a key ingredient to optimally efficient machinery and high productivity. "There's no excuse for one broken part on a press or old, hard rollers. Preventive maintenance works." (See "Keep up with the up-keep," January 1996, p. 54.)

Douglas Schardt, assistant product manager at Komori America Corp. (Rolling Meadows, IL), concurs. "Give the press the best maintenance you can - a lot of print problems are the result of machines that are out of settings because pressoperators are not giving the time to put them back in setting."

At Hatcher Press, a $16.5 million trade printer in San Carlos, CA, preventive maintenance has become a stepping stone to ISO certification. In preparation for the quality audit process, the company has prepared a binder containing policies and procedures for each press, as well as daily, weekly and monthly maintenance checklists. Included with the scheduled maintenance items is a section titled, "Got-a-minute Maintenance." If a press operator notices a problem with one of the machines, he or she makes note for the next press operator performing maintenance. Stancil warns, however, that unless a company is consistent with preventive maintenance, the system breaks down. "If you don't have some type of procedure in place, it just doesn't get done."

Alpha Beta Press and Charles River Lithography also have established preventive maintenance programs; both printers perform the bulk of maintenance on Monday mornings. How do these companies keep their systems alive?

"We just tell the press operators it's mandatory - we've got to take care of our equipment," says Nappa at Charles River. Alpha Beta has logbooks next to its presses where operators check off their maintenance tasks. "When you take care of things, they print better and last longer," notes McDermott. "A press is a considerable investment - you'd better take care of that investment."

The key to an effective preventive maintenance program is discipline. Prince recommends scheduling and performing maintenance as often as the press manufacturer suggests. "I tell people, `Maintenance, you must schedule, because breakdowns can never be scheduled,'" says Heidelberg's Dowey.

THE $60,000 A YEAR GOFER Even as automation simplifies the operation of the printing press, the journeyman press operator is still valued as a problem solver and master craftsman. It's ironic then that in many print shops, this endangered species is often stuck mixing ink and toting paper.

"If you look at many plants, there is a lot of time being wasted because the operators of the press have to get all parts of the job together," observes Dowey. "They get the ink, get the paper, bend the plates, find the supplies. Ideally, this should be organized by someone else in the shop, so the press operators can concentrate on running the press."

Of course, even good press operators can acquire bad habits. "Most printers let their press operators decide how fast a press is going to run," notes Prince. "Very few printers have established goals for press runs or makeready times." He adds that most printing companies in fact run their presses too slow, some as slow as 50 percent of vendor-rated speed.

While on press, how can you keep your press operators motivated? By keeping track of their performance and posting goals for desired productivity. At Hatcher Press, typical jobs - which run the gamut from wine labels to fine art prints to point-of-purchase displays - have been increasing in frequency and decreasing in run length, a phenomenon that demands a well-disciplined crew. The company employs Covalent, a production management system from printCafe, to keep track of press and operator performance.

As a part of the system, a keypad terminal at each press keeps track of shift time, activities and job numbers. "It's not just for me and the management team," Stancil says. "To get people to monitor themselves, they need to know where they stand." Stancil reviews the resulting time sheets at the end of each shift, and uses it as reference when an operator's productivity is lagging. "The basic inference is still there: The job is on your press and you're completely responsible for it," he explains. "But they really take pride in what they do, and we nurture that."

MORE RESOURCES AMERICAN PRINTER has written extensively on the subject of pressroom productivity. For more information, check out the following editorial, much of which is also available online at www.

- In this issue: "Cutting down on costly idle time," p. 64. How production managers can cut down on idle time.

- "Conventional presses enter the digital age," September 2000, p. 46. An overview of the latest automating features and other productivity enhancements to conventional presses that debuted at Drupa 2000.

- "Something's burning: Benchmarking the sheetfed Pressroom," August 1999, p. 42. Using benchmarking to control the manufacturing process.

- "On your mark, get set, makeready!" April 1999, p. 42. Employee involvement and a scientific approach to job preparation can cut makeready times.

- "Automatic response," August 1998, p. 28. Discusses some automation features on 40-inch sheetfed presses.

- "Improving web press productivity," April 2000, p. 48. The key to productive short run lengths on web presses lies in efficient makereadies.

Training, training, training is the mantra often repeated by press manufacturers and printers alike when asked how to increase and maintain productivity. Most sheetfed press manufacturers offer training for their customers' press operators during and after installation of a new press. Although many print shops take advantage of training provided by press manufacturers, a few put their faith in the machine's automation rather than the operator's skills.

"It is amazing to see operators whom the print shop owners wouldn't trust with their car keys running their $3 million printing presses," muses John Dowey, vice president of marketing and sheetfed products at Heidelberg USA, Inc. (Kennesaw, GA).

Computer simulation has stepped in where vendor- and in-house training have left off. SHOTS, or sheetfed Offset Training Simulator, was developed by Sinapse Graphic of Orsay, France, to complement a printer's sheetfed press operator training program. "It's great for developing a systematic troubleshooting approach among press operators," notes Jim Workman, director of training programs at the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) (Sewickley, PA), SHOTS' U.S. distributor.

The simulator is a combined hardware and software package that operates on standard PCs with a specialized image manipulation card and one or two large monitors. In the two-monitor configuration, one monitor displays the press control console of a two- to six-color press, and includes controls for infeed and tension, ink and water, speed, cut-off, plate cylinders and dryer temperature. The operator is also able to check reel cores, blanket condition, ink tack, fountain temperature, scan cells and more.

The other monitor shows the printed result, which can be viewed in multiple ways. The operator can view several pages at once, compare a "printed" output to the "proof" copy, check dots with a magnifier, verify folds and count pinholes.

A problem-solving mode presents the trainee with an unexpected problem on press that teaches him or her how to troubleshoot. Pressroom supervisors and trainers can also create production problems to educate trainees in factors unique to the printing company. The software saves trainees' work for benchmarking and skill improvement.

Workman notes that there are currently 100 users in North America. Printers interested in trying out SHOTS have the option of visiting current users or attending GATF's quarterly training program. Press manufacturer MAN Roland also licenses the SHOTS program from Sinapse Graphic and has the system set up at its Westmont, IL, Graphic Center for customers to demo. For more information, contact Workman at GATF at (412) 741-6860; MAN Roland at (630) 920-3976; or visit Sinapse Graphic's website,