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March 2001

Bindery automation has long since ceased to be an oxymoron, but the back end of the process hasn't seen quite the same digital revolution as in the prepress and press arenas. Touch pads and automated setup features have become commonplace, but operators are not sitting around looking at computer screens all day, as one trade binder owner put it. The fundamental nature of the work hasn't changed all that dramatically.

Faster makereadies and more efficient material handling have been the primary focus of efforts to automate binding and finishing operations. Cutting and folding probably are the two areas that have received the most attention. In interviews for this story, automatic banding/bundling machines were one of the specific advances the industry executives zeroed in on as big productivity boosters.

"We have been on a mission to add automatic banding machines to all our folders so we don't need a take-off person and we eliminate exposure to repetitive motion injuries," notes Robert Murphy, chairman and CEO of Japs-Olson in St. Louis Park, MN. The $120 million printer of direct mail and general commercial work has in-house postpress capabilities to support its web and sheetfed presses.

"It used to be a miserable job in the bindery to get accurate counts and bundles," adds Jack Rickard, president of Rickard Bindery in Chicago. "One of our operators used to be able to only handle 5,000 pieces an hour with manual bundling. Since we bought an automatic banding machine, we can run at 15,000 pieces an hour." The trade binder has extensive folding capabilities (60+ machines), saddle stitchers, gluers, etc, in its 80,000-square-foot plant.

"A lot of the improvements have come from the peripheral equipment you can buy for a folder," agrees John Walecha, vice president and part owner of Olympic Bindery. "For example, we've gotten into map folding in the last couple years and, at first, we didn't have a special packer for the maps. We were able to run maybe 2,000 pieces an hour. Now that we've bought a pressing unit that flattens the maps out and makes them easier to put in the packing sleeve, we've been able to more than double our production rates.

New Configurations
"In the past, there was just one standard packer available for a folder. Now, manufacturers are coming out with specialty packers configured to handle different work," Walecha says. His company is a trade binder that offers basic services such as cutting, folding, stitching and perfect binding, as well as some specialty work. Located in Broadview, IL, the 150-employee shop handles runs from 500 to 1,000 pieces on the low end up to multimillion-sheet runs.

Equally impressive advances have been made in cutting operations, the execs report.

"All of the equipment we are operating with today has some form of computerized or electronic controls," Rickard says. "Even our old cutters from the 1950s now have black boxes on them. These retrofitted computers control the backgauge. We just program in the cuts, and setup takes minutes instead of half an hour or up to a couple hours for some complicated jobs. Our cutting accuracy and consistency has improved, too."

There are material-handling benefits to be gained in the cutting area, as well, notes Gary Markovits, president of E&M Bindery in Clifton, NJ. The company's primary services include mechanical binding, perfect binding, folding and tabbing.

Speeding to the Finish
"We installed a Polar cutter with the Transomat system from Heidelberg USA," Markovits explains. "The system automatically palletizes items being cut. It keeps products rotated correctly and automatically rejects bad pieces. Adding this equipment has sped up our cutting operations by 30 to 40 percent."

While Olympic Bindery has yet to make the leap, Walecha is particularly intrigued with the automatic counting features of material handling systems for cutters. The traditional, manual counting method of stabbing tabs into piles is not very accurate, he says, especially with thinner papers. Counts can be off by as much as 5 to 10 percent.

"The paper handling systems have scales and accurately calculate counts based on weight," Walecha points out. "However, since we have nine paper cutters, upgrading would require a big investment." He says he doesn't want to get into a situation where only a couple of the shop's machines have been upgraded and the rest of the operators are left to struggle along the old-fashioned way.

Since job setup information can be stored and recalled for future use, electronics are also having an impact on the level of operator skill that's required. This could help to ease the industry's chronic labor woes in the bindery segment.

"Finding workers is something we struggle with every day," says Japs-Olson's Murphy. "We are trying to automate as much of our operation as we can so the level of skill required doesn't have to be as sophisticated as it used to be. We have some new MBO folders with the Navigator system on order, specifically because they require less skill to set up. The folders are more computerized, so operators just punch in the numbers," Murphy explains.

There's also a potential financial benefit in this lowering of required skill levels, Walecha says. Before computerization, all of the workers in his shop had to be highly skilled in equipment operation and, as a result, commanded top pay. With the addition of automatic setup capabilities, Olympic Bindery is now able to have "a couple top-notched guys on a team with operators who used to be called apprentices," he explains.

"We can have two or three guys just handling the simpler stuff and keep them at a different pay tier. They make about 70 percent of the top operators' pay scale," Walecha says.

Walecha does sound one cautionary note when it comes to automated operations. "With all these built-in safe guards and automatic bad-product rejection, there can be a temptation to fall asleep a little at the switch and not watch the machine as closely. We have to stay on top of our operators about this, especially with the higher speeds we are running at now. It doesn't take long for your spoilage to jump way up."

Murphy reports that Japs-Olson is going full speed ahead with its plans to take automation to the next level. The company is getting very close to company-wide implementation of the Job Definition Format (JDF) standard developed by the CIP4 (International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress) initiative, he says. For some time, management has insisted that all equipment purchased be CIP4 ready.

"Jobs should roll from prepress to press and through the bindery based on the original data entry," Murphy explains. "We have always subscribed to the philosophy that job specs should be written down just once. We don't want to have multiple data entry points; it increases the opportunities for errors."

According to its president, Rickard Bindery ascribes to a similar do-it-once philosophy. "We always have been, and probably always will be, limited by the ability of a human being to handle the product. That's why we pursue a different type of automation—it's the concept that you pick up and put down a piece only once.

Remember Ergonomics
"All of the equipment in our plant can plug into any other piece of equipment. Materials are fed in one end, pass through a number of steps and come out the other end as a finished product. To me, automation is the ergonomic design of our workflow and workstations," Rickard says.

From his perspective as a trade binder, Rickard is skeptical about the potential application of CIP4/JDF in his industry segment. The shop does store job information on its server, but he doesn't believe it would be realistic to download that information to set up equipment.

"There are too many questions left to be resolved with every job," Rickard says. "In order to make the product look the way it should, we have to make panels bigger or smaller, and do a little cheating on where the customer intended for us to make the cuts and folds. It would be pretty much impossible for us to say the cut or fold is supposed to be 1˝ from the side guide and 3⁄4˝ from the gripper, so we'll just program that information."

Being able to control all phases of production—prepress, press and bindery—in-house would seem to give companies such as Japs-Olson an advantage in implementing CIP4/JDF-based, automated workflows. However, printers with in-house bindery capabilities can be at a disadvantage in other areas, the trade binder executives say.

Independent binderies generally are in a better position to invest in specialty capabilities, Walecha asserts, because they can pull work from a number of sources to reach the volume levels required to justify it. He notes his company's investment in map handling peripherals as a case in point.

You Have to Pay to Play
E&M Bindery's Markovits says the same dynamic can hold true for capabilities with broader application, if they come at a higher sticker price. As an example, he cites his company's investment in a Muller Martini StarPlus perfect binder with computerized automation.

"A printer may have a certain volume of perfect-bound books to produce, but they can't justify going out and buying a $1 million-plus binder. As a result, they can't produce the same quality or achieve the speed of production we can," Markovits explains.

Such automation capabilities do have a potential downside, though, he admits. "The electronics have become critical because of the intense turnaround times and the speeds at which the work must be produced. However, if the computer goes down, a servomotor burns out or a relay circuit blows, you can't make any manual adjustments. At a time like that, you wish you could grab a wrench and make the adjustment by hand so you can get on with the job."

To help keep downtime to a minimum, Markovits makes it a company policy to stay current with any electronic upgrades offered for the shop's equipment.

While automation may not be the answer to every problem, it clearly has found a home in finishing operations. Who knows, maybe some day operators will even be moving a computer mouse and not bundles.

Facing Diversity

Labor issues, in one form or another, have always seemed to plague bindery operations. In this era of record low unemployment rates and changing population demographics, industry companies are having to cast ever wider nets into the labor pool to fill vacancies. So, here's a quick look at some of the practices these industry executives have implemented to manage their increasingly diverse work forces.

E&M Bindery found a very different labor pool three years ago when it relocated from Long Island City to Clifton, NJ, says Gary Markovits, president. "We encountered a language barrier, especially when it came to the general help positions."

Simply asking equipment manufacturers to provide Spanish-language versions of their product manuals made a world of difference, he recalls. "Any control that is computerized can operate in different languages, so we just translate instructions into our operators' native languages."

E&M also provides some formalized training on its procedures. This is backed up with a quality check list program. Operators have to sign off on a written list of about 12 items for each operation.

Rickard Bindery tries to head off potential problems right at the hiring stage. In addition to doing background checks, the company requires all new hires to have a physical, including drug testing.

Still, President Jack Rickard says, "The quality of people here would surprise most people who have preconceived ideas about binderies. Our people are extremely intelligent, and very capable when it comes to handling computers."

Japs-Olson also does background checks, but hasn't gotten into drug testing—so far. "We have considered it a number of times," says Robert Murphy, chairman and CEO.

According to Murphy, the company's biggest labor issue is the vast number of "temporary" people it is forced to employ. "That expression is one of the funniest in the world," he says. "We've got temporary people who have been here for years. Since we use so many people, we have deals with the temporary agencies that we can hire anyone we want almost at any time. We stopped doing that, though, because often after a month or two they want to quit.

"These people prefer to work with a temp agency, even if they are given the opportunity for a full-time job with all the benefits. I'm told it is basically because they feel that, with a temp agency, they have the option of not coming in if they don't want to. Yet, our experience with temporary employees has been that they show up every bit as regularly as full-time employees," Murphy adds.


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