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Make your bindery a profit center with automation and efficient paper handling

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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The guillotine cutter is the Rodney Dangerfield of most printing plants: It doesn't get much respect. And yet perhaps no piece of equipment - save the press - is as crucial to the success of a job as the cutter.

"Almost every piece of paper that runs through the bindery touches the cutter at some time or another," notes Mark Hunt, director of marketing at Standard Duplicating Machines Corp. (Andover, MA), a distributor of the Horizon line of small-format cutters. "That device is central to print production and you rely upon it heavily. If the cutter is down, the bindery screeches to a halt."

But cutters do far more than facilitate an efficient postpress workflow - their accuracy also determines profit gain or loss. "The cutting process is extremely important because of all of the money and time already invested into jobs that need to be cut," explains Rob Kuehl, marketing director of Polar cutting systems at Heidelberg USA, Inc. (Kennesaw, GA). When a job is ready for cutting, it already contains paper, ink, prepress, press, overhead and labor costs, observes Kuehl. "A mistake on a cutter is therefore very, very expensive."

IF IT AIN'T BROKE, AUTOMATE IT Cutter manufacturers have been updating their equipment to keep up with increasing press speeds, shorter turnaround times and a rapidly changing labor force. Many printers, however, are choosing to automate older cutters as an economic alternative to investing in a new machine.

"If someone is doing more than four hours of cutting a day, then they're a candidate for automation," says Carl Lewis, president of Graphic Machinery & Systems (GMS) (San Rafael, CA), manufacturer of the microcut line of cutter automation systems. Products include microcut+, which automates the backgauge movement of any size paper cutter and includes networking capability; microcut jr., which automates cutters 37 inches and smaller; microtrack, a digital display and cutter programming guide; microfacts, a real-time data collection system; and cutternet, which enables one or more cutters to be networked for data exchange or programming from a remote PC.

Although Lewis notes that GMS has automated cutters from the turn of the last century, it will not knowingly accept an order for a machine that does not meet its safety standards - the cutter must have a two-hand hold. Otherwise, any age, size or brand machine is a candidate for automation, with a guaranteed accuracy of +/-0.002 inches.

To install a microcut system, the cutter's existing drive is replaced with GMS's proprietary DC servo system. An encoder is affixed to the cutter's lead screw, and relays the number of screw revolutions to a computer; it also compensates for lead screw wear. The entire installation, said to be "a matter of drilling 13 holes and snapping together parts," takes about one day. Retail prices for microcut range from $3,400 to $7,950.

When installed on a manual cutter, Lewis notes the microcut can provide a 50 percent productivity increase. On an earlier-generation, automated cutter, the control system will offer some increase in productivity; however, its biggest benefit in this instance is increased reliability.

Rebuilding is a large part of Colter & Peterson Inc.'s (Paterson, NJ) business - the company updates the control, computer and safety systems of older cutters, and is a microcut distributor. Most buyers of reconditioned machines want an economic alternative to purchasing a new cutter. "When you're looking to save money, you'd save more money with a reconditioned machine," notes Jeff Marr, vice president of sales. "Ours are remachined, updated and can perform as well as originally."

Marr adds, however, that large-format reconditioned cutters are more economical than small-format models - in fact, the larger the size, the greater the cost-savings. A reconditioned 100-inch cutter can offer cost savings of 50 percent. Cutter manufacturer Dexter-Lawson Manufacturing Inc. (Cambridge, Ontario), which has seen increased interest in large-format cutters, offers a 110-inch model to complement its 47-inch to 100-inch cutters.

MOVING PAPER The guillotine cutter's basic design hasn't changed much over the years. That's because, despite the advances of automation and CIP3 compatibility, a blade can only physically move so fast. Productivity therefore hinges on getting stock under the blade as quickly as possible.

Workflow systems, such as joggers, stacklifts, scales and offloaders, which move stock into the cutter and onto the pallet, have been available for years. Commercial printers are beginning to grasp the potential productivity improvements - up to 200 percent - and cost savings offered by adding these components.

"There are not a lot of ways to take cutting costs down unless you increase productivity," says Colter & Peterson's Marr. "Automation won't improve much unless you move the paper more efficiently." Colter & Peterson distributes the Knorr Systeme line of paper-handling equipment and Prism paper cutters; it also manufactures the I.S. brand of joggers.

One printer that has had particular success with workflow systems is Argus Press (Niles, IL), a $22 million commercial printer with 85 employees. Argus prints brochures, annual reports, calendars and letterhead, with many clients in the pharmaceutical industry. About a year ago, the printer purchased a 52-inch Polar cutter with a complete workflow system - including a stacker, scale, jogger and pile-down machine - from Polar distributor Heidelberg USA.

Before the purchase, Argus had one 15-year-old, 52-inch cutter. "Twenty percent of the cycle time was on the blade," remembers Dennis Kirschke, postpress superintendant. "The rest of the time was spent manually jogging, downloading or moving paper." After the installation of the new cutter and workflow system, blade cycle time rose to 60 percent; cutting jobs that typically took three days now required only eight hours.

SLIDE AND LOAD Kirschke is quick to add, however, that with the increased cutting capacity, Argus had to add an employee to load paper to keep up with the machine. The physical effort required, however, has significantly decreased. "Cutting is one of the hardest tasks an operator can do - you're constantly twisting and lifting paper," he notes. "Now [with the workflow system] all you do is slide and load, back and forth. Ten to 12 hours of work feel like eight."

Although workflow systems are more common for large-format cutters, the small-format cutter market is also beginning to introduce components. The Challenge Machinery Co. (Grand Haven, MI) offers a PowerLift stacklift that will raise 1,500 lb. on a 28 x 43-inch skid 36.5 inches. Baumfolder Corp. (Sidney, OH) has recently introduced its Baumcut paper handling and workflow accessories, including the B2 paper jogger, L2 stacklift and A2 side air tables. Polly USA (Jacksonville, FL), distributor of the SEM line of small-format paper cutters, offers side air tables standard on its 30- and 36-inch cutters; as does Adast America, Inc. (Arvada, CO) on its MS 115 (45.25-inch), MS 92 (36-inch), MS 80 (30.5-inch) and MS 62 (24.5-inch) cutters; and Victory cutters from Gergek, distributed by Vijuk Equipment Inc. (Elmhurst, IL), feature chrome air tables standard.

Paper handling doesn't refer only to finished stock. Trim-out removal systems, such as Polar's Autotrim, remove trim-outs immediately, and reportedly can offer a 30 percent productivity increase. At Argus Press, this system also has helped cut down on operator fatigue. "When you cut, the bed retracts and drops the trim into an e-vac system, which dumps it into a dumpster out back," explains Kirschke. "You're cutting back on maintenance employees' work - they aren't running around, emptying garbage cans."

CIP4 UNDER THE KNIFE Some cutter manufacturers see much promise in the CIP4 job definition language standard, and in fact are integrating compatibility into their current and new products. At Drupa 2000, Heidelberg introduced Polar CompuCut software, which supports the external generation of cutting programs and was a 1999 GATF InterTech Award winner. Cutting programs are transferred online to the cutter via the PC's serial interface.

An optional "data transfer from prepress CIP3" function will enable an operator to retrieve such information as sheet dimension from prepress, eliminating the need for manually measuring printed sheets. Kuehl at Heidelberg notes, "The program is very accurate because the gripper and guide cuts are automatically compensated by the operator, which makes every other cut perfectly square and accurate. Any paper stretch can be compensated for in seconds by Polar's standard `correction and compensation' module in the cutter."

MAN Roland Inc. (Westmont, IL), distributor of the Wohlenberg line of cutters and Baumann workflow systems, has also seen increased interest among its customers for CIP3. "The big buzzword is still CIP3 compatibility, being able to link to prepress from press," notes Tyrone Adams, national product manager for finishing systems. "Everyone wants equipment that's ready to be upgraded." All of the Wohlenberg cutters are CIP3-compatible.

Herald Printing (New Washington, OH), a $12 million printer founded in 1881, purchased a Wohlenberg 115 high-speed cutter with Baumann workflow system from MAN Roland in March 2000. The company, which prints a lot of work for colleges and professional sports teams, already had an older model cutter, but wanted to pick up speed in the bindery, especially after its purchase of a MAN Roland 700 six-color press in early 2000.

The new cutter and workflow system proved efficient: "We went from two cutters running one shift to one cutter running two shifts," notes Herald president Dave Stump. The new Baumann unloader helped improve productivity 50 percent - and the new jogger boosted it another 50 percent. "The workflow system makes the cutter knife move. That's the process of making money with a cutter: Keep the knife moving," Stump notes.

Besides the potential for increased productivity, however, Herald is also interested in CIP3 compatibility, which the printer hopes to utilize once a standard is developed.

THE SCIENCE - AND ART - OF CUTTING Can CIP4 significantly boost programming speed and, consequently, cutting speed? Some printers, like Argus Press, don't portend much improvement. "The only thing that has changed in this business is turnaround time," opines Kirschke. "It's all about speed, how fast you can get paper in and out."

Some cutter manufacturers also debate its practicality. One argument is that, because paper may distort during the printing process, once it reaches the cutter, cutting parameters programmed at the prepress stage may be inaccurate.

Others, although their equipment has the groundwork for receiving CIP4 data, are waiting for development of a common standard before fully integrating capability into their products, according to Marr of Colter & Peterson. "Until you get standards done, you're not going anywhere," he says. "There's no common language, and nothing's stored the same way."

Robb Gould, vice president of marketing and sales at Challenge Machinery, concurs. Both execs note that their firms' cutters do offer a floppy disk port, which enables cutter programming to be performed on a remote computer and transferred to the cutter via a floppy disk. "Variables caused by registration problems, swelling, and/or shrinkage of the imaged sheet still require a skilled eye to make final dimensional decisions," adds Gould. "There is still a lot of art within the science of cutting paper."

PROFIT CENTER OR EXPENSE? Cutters' durability may tempt some printers to get by with legacy equipment, especially as they contend with prepress and press expenditures. But this rationale ignores the bindery's potential profit contribution.

"Some printers are not looking at the bindery as a profit center - they're looking at it as an expense," explains Adams at MAN Roland. Minimum investment, however, seldom maximizes productivity, and can be downright dangerous.

"If you're going to compromise on any piece of equipment in your bindery, the cutter is not the place to do it," warns Hunt at Standard Duplicating Machines. "The potential for injury is as great or greater than any other piece of equipment."

Challenge Machinery's Gould advises that cutter owners need to be diligent in training their people, maintaining their equipment and recognizing when it's time to retire old equipment. He observes: "One liability claim from an unsafe, outdated piece of equipment would probably fund the purchase of many new pieces of highly productive equipment for the bindery."

Tales of decades-old cutters performing as well as new are common. This seasoned equipment wouldn't endure, however, unless it was well-maintained - and produced quality work. A maintenance program, which is a necessity in any printing plant, is crucial in the bindery, where a neglected cutter can wreak havoc on thousands of dollars' worth of printed material, or ruin pallets of fresh stock.

Southern Press (Gainesville, FL) is a $2.2 million sheetfed printer specializing in periodicals and newsletters for its clients, all of which are part of "the Fortune 500 of north central Florida," quips owner Rick Nesbit. To accompany its Polly five-color 1926 sheetfed press, the printer purchased an SEM 36-inch cutter, also distributed by Polly. The No. 1 requirement Southern had for the new cutter was accuracy and quality. Now the printer is intent on preserving its investment with a rigorous maintenance program.

"We print on 10-pt. Mylar and have to get perfect registration on press and in the bindery," explains Nesbit. "Cutting is extremely challenging. Everything has to be perfect: You have to clean the cutter very well and cut in smaller lifts." Cutting the Mylar also requires a fresh, sharp blade, which Southern bindery personnel replace each day, and a clean table, which is washed every day.

What should a cutter maintenance program comprise? Start with the manufacturer's manual. "Use the manual to create a quick maintenance checklist that the operator can refer to each time a job is done," advises Robb Gould, vice president of marketing and sales at cutter manufacturer The Challenge Machinery Co. (Grand Haven, MI). This checklist should include:

LUBRICATION | A cutter should be lubricated with grease and oil at the beginning of each work week so that lubricants can work their way through the machine's system. Lubrication performed at the end of week when the cutter is idle may run off or not be adequately dispersed.

BLADE CHANGE | The frequency for blade changes is dependent on the type of steel the blade is composed of, the type of stock being cut and the skill of the regrinder that sharpens the blades. Gould notes that a tool-steel inlaid blade, reground by a skilled grinding service and cutting quality virgin stock, should last 2,500 to 3,000 strokes before requiring replacement. Recycled stock, chipboard, plastic and aluminum plates will shorten that blade life considerably. Operators should regularly examine cut stock for any signs of dull or chipped blades.

TABLE MAINTENANCE | The degree of maintenance required is dependent on the table's composition, humidity and the stock being cut. Gould advises that milled, cast-iron tables need to be waxed twice a month. Plated tables may only require monthly cleaning. Light stock such as Bible paper will demand an immaculate table, while chipboard is not nearly as sensitive.

Once a maintenance program is set, its success depends greatly on follow-through by bindery management and personnel. As Gould points out, "The pride of the operator will be reflected in the maintenance of the paper cutter."

All cutter manufacturers seem to have a story about their oldest operating cutter. Jeff Marr, vice president of sales at cutter manufacturer and refurbisher Colter & Peterson Inc. (Paterson, NJ), notes that his company's oldest automated machine is a model from 1926. And Robb Gould, vice president of marketing and sales at cutter manufacturer The Challenge Machinery Co. (Grand Haven, MI), recalls a paper cutter the company had manufactured in 1895 that was still operating in 1995.

These anecdotes certainly speak for the durability of cutters. While there is no excuse for ignoring modern speed, safety or ergonomics, we're sure there are some good stories out there about vintage cutters still in safe, productive operation. Send your old cutter story to associate editor Samantha Hoover at or fax (312) 726-3091.