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MATERIALS HANDLING: the bindery's best-kept secret

Sep 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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Materials handling is often an afterthought — after a company installs a new press or bindery equipment, jobs start piling up in the bindery because its materials-handling solutions aren't fast enough to keep up. But, some printers don't grasp the wider implications of inefficient materials handling.

“This is a major activity that adds no value to the product, just additional costs,” observe A. John Geis and Paul L. Addy in “Materials Handling for the Printer” (GATFPress). “But poor materials-handling methods lead to high labor requirements, product damage, material waste, production and shipping delays and wasted floor space. All of these add up to high costs and dissatisfied customers. Unfortunately, only a few printers see it as a means of reducing manufacturing costs.”


The bindery offers the biggest opportunity for realizing the benefits of streamlined materials handling. “Postpress continues to be the most labor-intensive department,” writes Joe Niehueser, product manager, Stahlfolders, Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA), in the “2002 GATF Technology Forecast.” “Virtually every sheet of material to be finished needs to be handled internally — either put on feeders or cutting tables. The simple addition of stacklifts on folders, in conjunction with low, long feed boards, can significantly reduce operators' back-related problems, not to mention turnaround times.”

Niehueser adds that automating cutter workflows with stacklifts, joggers, automated loaders and offloaders can yield dramatic improvements: “Aside from operator convenience, production increases of more than 200 percent are realistic and easily achievable,” says the exec.

A study based on printing firms in the MoPrint Workers Compensation Trust from 1993 to 2000 confirms that the bindery is ripe for materials-handling reform. The two most common workers'- compensation injuries, according to the Daniels & Henry Agency (St. Louis) report, are strain and injury caused by lifting, and repetitive-motion ailments. While these claims were not exclusive to bindery employees, most postpress tasks require more manual labor than other departments.

Felix Stirnimann, division manager, print finishing, Müller Martini (Hauppauge, NY), suggests that replacing manual lifting and repetitive-motion tasks with mechanical solutions also can improve employees' health and safety, thereby reducing workers'- compensation claims.

“By automating binding operations, printers can feasibly cut down on workers' comp costs by six to 10 times,” says Stirnimann.

The exec cites bundle loaders as an example. Today, thanks to automatic pocket feeders, there's no need for operators to move from station to station or to fan sheets prior to placing them in pockets.

“Manual feeding is very hard on an operator's wrists and can cause carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Stirnimann. “Also, if the operator has to lift the paper from skids on the floor, it can result in back strain.”

Tyrone Adams, national product manager for finishing systems, MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), says some printers hesitate to invest in postpress upgrades because they don't consider the bindery a profit center. “That's a big mistake,” claims Adams. “The bindery is charged with getting the finished job out the door and to the customer, just like the pressroom. Still, printers sometimes think it's difficult to justify investing in automation — especially if they've made recent CTP-related investments. But once we demonstrate how automating a lot of the manual practices can benefit employees as well as throughput rates, they soon see that the right solution can pay for itself.”

While there's no universal solution for improving postpress materials handling, Geis and Addy suggest using the following questions as a starting point:

  • How are materials moved from one operation to another?

  • Are aisles clearly marked to make material movement easier?

  • Are load levelers and joggers used at the cutters?

  • Are special cutter layouts used for specific types of work?

  • Are extended pocket feeders practical?

  • Is mechanical assistance provided for pocket feeders?

  • Could conveyors be used to minimize or eliminate other types of materials handling?

  • Could automatic guided vehicles be used?

Some materials-handling issues are universal — both sheetfed and web operations can benefit by using lifts and similar devices to reduce operator bending and lifting. For sheetfed printers, however, automating the cutter workflow is a top priority, while web printers typically are more interested in signature handling and related solutions.


At least one pundit claims that the automated backgauge is the most significant cutter improvement in recent years — it's standard on most new cutters. Graphic Machinery and Systems (GMS) (San Rafael, CA) and Global Systems (Dallas) can retrofit automation systems on older cutters.

Those on a tight budget may want to investigate reconditioned machines. Colter & Peterson (Paterson, NJ), for example, can update the control, computer and safety systems of older cutters. The company, which also sells new cutters and paper-handling equipment, specializes in rebuilding large-format machines.

But the real challenge is moving and handling the paper — depending on the application, paper may need to be lifted, jogged, aerated, turned and repeatedly moved.

“The key is to get the material to and from the cutter as quickly, easily, reliably and ergonomically as possible and to keep the knife moving,” explains Rob Kuehl, marketing director, Polar Cutting Systems, Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA).

Some readers may recall the contest Heidelberg first staged at Print 97 to demonstrate its Polar System 2. Two operators were given a lift of 750 sheets of 70-lb. text stock. The four-up job required eight cuts with trimouts.

The first operator, a muscular man, used a standalone cutter. The second operator, a petite woman, used the same model cutter, but a stacklift, automatic jogger and trim removal, as well as an automatic offloader, surrounded it. She was able to complete the job in three minutes and 12 seconds, while the operator using the standalone cutter required five minutes and 49 seconds to complete the same job.

Cost of the System 2 varies — Kuehl says base models begin at $200,000 and increase from there depending on the choice of cutter, jogger and Transomat offloader, as well as any additional options like Autotrim automatic trim removal and backgauge options.

Heeter Printing (Southpointe, PA), a midsize commercial printer, is using a Polar System 6 for cutting multiple-up jobs such as coupons, bill inserts and pads. Vice president Scott Heeter explains that unlike the System 2, the System 6 has rear-loading stacking units and a robotic arm that pulls the next load of paper into the throat of the cutter.

“The folks at Heidelberg explained that this feature would give us a 25 percent increase in productivity over the System 2,” says Heeter. “We were easily able to justify the additional cost for that productivity increase — we've seen a quick payback.”

Prior to installing the System 6, the printer's cutting operation included a jogger operator, cutter operator and one or two people off-loading the cut material.

“With the System 6, we have a jogger operator and cutter operator,” says Heeter. “Paper is loaded into the jogger where a hydraulic roller automatically removes the air. The load is then transferred to one of five storage racks. When the cutter is ready for the next load, robotic arms grab the load from the storage racks and transfer it to the throat of the cutter, where the cutting process begins. During each cut, scrap is removed automatically with the Autotrim feature. Once the parent sheet has been cut, the individual cut pieces are transferred to the Transomat, which automatically loads and stacks the material in a near-perfect pile.”

Heeter also reports that the company is taking CIP4 cutting data from prepress and incorporating it into Heidelberg's Compucut program. “This is reducing cutter makeready by more than 50 percent,” says the exec.

MAN Roland's Adams says peripheral equipment, such as joggers and unloaders, play a key role in overall cutting efficiency: “The goal is to automate as much of the workflow as possible, reducing lifting and stock handling by operators,” says the exec.

Adams says the Baumann Power Hoist, ranging in cost from $8,700 to $9,700, reduces strain on operators who are responsible for moving heavy stock to the cutter. The height of the sheets continually adjusts, or moves up, so that the operator no longer has to bend to lift the paper and put it into the cutter.

MAN Roland also offers the BSB3L jogger with an expulsion roller and stainless-steel bed for about $26,800. Automatic unloaders, such as the Baumann 43- and 55-inch models, reportedly can be added to a cutter workflow for less than $50,000.

If you can't justify investing in a complete system, don't despair.

“You don't need to do everything at once,” advises Jeff Marr, vice president of sales, Colter & Peterson. “It's all modularized equipment — you might start with some lifts and tables, then add joggers and then eventually go to automatic unloading.”

Colter & Peterson distributes Rachner pile-turners and Knorr paper-handling equipment, including air tables, stacklifts, joggers, automatic loaders and unloaders. It also recently acquired Amatco (Des Moines, IA).

Automatän's (Plover, WI) 6500 GL jogger/aerator load-turner is geared for high-speed printing operations — it turns, jogs, squares and cleans loads of paper. Offered in a 28 × 40-inch format, the 6500 GL is configured for floor placement with ground-level loading.

Pallet jacks and mobile skidlifts are economic additions to cutter workflows. Interthor (Broadview, IL) reports its lifts, stackers and tilters have broad appeal. They're used in operations ranging from three-person shops to billion-dollar printing operations.


Automatic palletizing offers many advantages for web operations. “Our new PowerLift employs an ergonomically designed double- or quad-gripper that is pneumatically balanced,” explains Leslie Figler, marketing manager, Gämmerler USA. “This enables the operator to pick up multiple bundles at one time, with very little effort. It eliminates the physical strain associated with manual palletizing… and also incorporates a bundle conveyor table capable of holding several bundles in queue while the operator tends to slip-sheet feeding, pallet removal or other tasks.”

Gämmerler also offers the PR 500 robotic palletizing system. The gantry-style system discerns the most effective pallet pattern, picks up bundles from the stacking table, places them on the pallet, inserts slip sheets and removes the completed pallet from the area.

Richard Rinehart, printing and packaging director for The Indianapolis Star, says that his plant, which prints commercial work in addition to the newspaper, installed two Gämmerler PR 500s this past January. “We used to stack down [more than two million units] a day for the newspaper alone,” Rinehart notes. “The two key benefits we see in the palletizer are reduction of labor and better efficiency. While we don't compile statistical data on injuries, we do know that the PR 500s have given us some relief in turnover caused by back strains and other injuries.”


Müller Martini's PrintRoll offers an unusual approach for collecting, storing and feeding web-press signatures. Rather than the typical method of collecting and palletizing the signatures for feeding into gathering-machine hoppers, the PrintRoll system collects signatures in shingle form and stores them on a roll more than 7 ft. in diameter.

“For the pressroom and finishing departments, it can help printers save as much as 40 percent on labor costs,” reports Stirnimann. “It can reduce waste while improving productivity by up to 20 percent and drastically reduce workers'-compensation costs.”

Waste is reduced, says the exec, because PrintRoll protects the printed products, eliminating curled spines, dog-eared corners and other defects.

In the pressroom, PrintRoll, unlike stackers and bundlers, isn't subject to the stop-and-go motion that can disrupt signature collection. “This stability is inherent in the roll concept,” says Stirnimann. “PrintRoll handles the product coming off high-speed web presses smoothly and steadily.”

There are currently 40 PrintRoll installations in the U.S. The system is more popular in Europe, says Stirnimann, because “U.S. printers have a tendency to spend their capital funds on new presses. They want to add to their printing capacity so they can produce more products. They figure that at $6 an hour, labor is cheap, so they can't justify paying for automation. But that's changing — decisionmakers are realizing that there is no added value in manually taking product off the press and hauling it into the bindery.”

While the PrintRoll solution requires a significant investment, Stirnimann says that a three-year ROI is possible.

All printers, regardless of size, share a common materials-handling goal, according to Geis and Addy: expediting materials and reducing costs. “The less time that raw materials, work-in-process and finished goods spend in the plant, less area is needed and less money is invested in inventory.”

OSHA and printing associations tackle ergonomic issues

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (Washington) recently signed an agreement with (PIA) (Alexandria, VA), GATF (Sewickley, PA) and the Screenprinting & Graphic Imaging Assn. International (SGIA) (Fairfax, VA) to identify and publicize ergonomic solutions. To prevent injuries and illnesses in the printing industry, a combined task force will share best practices and technical knowledge.

In 2001, Congress voted to halt OSHA's proposed Ergonomic Standard, prompting OSHA to seek new industry partnerships like this one. (See “Ergo standard halted — for now,” October 2001, p. 32.) The agency's goal is to work cooperatively with industries to create practical solutions rather than mandate ergonomic problems out of existence.

The alliance participants plan to develop and offer essential ergonomic information and deliver training to printing organizations and personnel. “It's certainly a positive step to have the ability to work together as an industry with OSHA, not with the purpose of imposing standards,” says Gary Jones, manager of environmental health and safety affairs, GATF. “Our goal is to offer voluntary guidelines. [The alliance] paves the way for a new relationship between the industry and OSHA — it's cooperative, rather than adversarial.”

The alliance will start by analyzing printers' typical working conditions and ultimately develop guidelines that are accessible to printers nationwide. “Our intention is not to provide guidelines that they simply won't be able to meet,” GATF's Jones explains.

“As an industry, we don't have a whole lot of expertise when it comes to ergonomic science,” Jones admits. “But there are companies that are putting strategies into place, and we'd like to know about it, so that we'll be able to offer a range of solutions, including low-cost recommendations, that printers can reasonably implement… We definitely need to include manufacturers in our discussions. Dialog with them is absolutely essential.”

Expert materials-handling advice

Materials handling is more than just using a pallet jack to move a skid of paper, according to A. John Geis and Paul L. Addy, authors of “Materials Handling for the Printer” (GATFPress). Materials handling, say Geis and Addy, is providing the correct number of materials in the right condition, sequence and orientation at the correct place and time.

Geis and Addy offer the following tips for some common postpress materials-handling issues:


The major goal of improving materials handling at the cutter is to maximize the operator's cutting time by minimizing the amount of materials handling. This also reduces operator fatigue and possible back injuries.

A portable lift or load leveler are excellent pieces of inexpensive equipment for improving cutter operations. Using a lift, the operator can raise the load to a convenient height for loading the cutter or jogger. As material is removed from the pallet, the operator continues to lower the lift to a comfortable height. The lift also can be used for palletizing the product after cutting; in this case, when filling a pallet, the operator continues to lower the lift to a convenient height for loading. A load leveler maintains the loading or unloading height of products at the worker's optimum working level. It eliminates repetitive bending and stooping motions that are responsible for many bindery injuries.

A vibrating jogging table reduces the amount of time that an operator spends jogging stock on the cutter bed. For jogging, the table is tilted toward one corner. When jogging is finished, the table is returned to the horizontal position at the height of the cutter, and the stock can be slid from the jogger to the bed without lifting. The jogging should take place while the operator is cutting the previous lift. Jogging tables are usually used in conjunction with a portable lift.

Saddlestitchers/perfect binders

Both saddlestitching and perfect binding require large areas for temporary signature storage, since all components of the final product are at a single location. Gathering machines with many hoppers pose a logistical problem: The hoppers are not as wide as the pallet loads of signatures. If pallets for each hopper are stacked side by side, some of the pallets are too far from the correct hopper.

One solution is to arrange the pallets into squares of four pallets each, with adequate service area around each group. Or, you can provide spacers between hoppers in the gathering line to compensate for the pallet's width.

Brick-stacked signatures must be hand-loaded. Maintaining the pallet's unloading height at the optimum feeder's height with portable lifts reduces fatigue and possible back injury.

Logs are an ideal format for loading signatures. Extended hopper feeders hold one or more logs of signatures and automatically feed signatures in the gatherer's hoppers. The loading system reduces the number of people on the gatherer. It also reduces hopper misfeeds, because all signature backbones have been uniformly compressed. Either clamping devices or vacuum lifts are required to load logs onto the extended hopper feeders.

If extended hopper feeders aren't used, logs must be positioned vertically for manual hopper feeding. A pallet upender turns a pallet of vertically stacked logs 90 degrees onto another pallet.


In most binderies, product is off-loaded from an operation onto a pallet or cart, transported to a work-in-progress storage area, retrieved and moved to the next operation, where it is depalletized and fed into that machine. Using conveyors to move product from one operation to another eliminates materials handling and reduces costs.

Saddlestitched and perfect-bound products are usually conveyed directly to an attached three-knife trimmer. Perfect-bound books or thick catalogs need time for the glue to cool prior to trimming — spiral conveyors are an efficient option.

Conveyors also accommodate inline operations such as shrink-wrapping and drilling. Guillotine cutters that trim products can be rear-loaded by conveyor, and the cut product from the cutter can be moved to the next operation by conveyor.

Ceiling-mounted gripper conveyors are more expensive than the floor-mounted conveyors, but this option saves floor space and can eliminate palletizing/storage/depalletizing steps.

Excerpted with permission from “Materials Handling for the Printer” (GATFPress). Cost of the book is $75. To order, see