Productivity equals time and time equals money. Obviously, sheetfed and web offset printers want to get the most out of their expensive equipment. And, just as obvious, is the fact that printers want to be as profitable as possible. The opportunities to become more productive in the lithographic pressroom are numerous.
"The trend in pressrooms across the country is toward more and more automation, both in material handling at both ends of the press, as well as more closed-loop control processes on the press itself," notes Edmond Kelley, executive director for the National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications. "The challenge this brings is in the training and education of the existing and future workforce."
Kelley sees material handling processes and systems as the technology having the most immediate impact on productivity, followed by register and color control systems and automated press setup options.
The training issue is echoed by Raymond Prince, senior technical consultant at Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF). He feels that production-raising tools can only be utilized to their full potential if the press operators are fully educated on how to use them.
"Today, pressroom training is the key to boosting productivity," Prince stresses. "You can have the best equipment available but, without proper training, you would do better with (your) money in the bank."
In the recent past, pressroom productivity has been affected primarily by bigger and faster presses, reduced makereadies and better personnel procedures. But most printers have covered these areas by now, reports Dennis Mason, president of Mason Consulting.
"From here, the next significant improvements will most likely come from process standardization and management practices—the type of productivity improvements that come primarily from the corner office rather than on the pressroom floor," Mason advises.
Hardware and software technologies have become more automated to provide faster, better and cheaper performance. This is being accomplished through computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), advises Steve Suffoletto, senior training specialist, industry education programs, at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). However, important industrial engineering and quality improvement initiatives can do just as much to bring real productivity and profitability, he says.
"The two most common are Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma," Suffoletto points out. "This doesn't require purchasing expensive equipment—just working smarter, not harder."
Technology doesn't necessarily have to be "new" to be effective and to provide productivity opportunities. Suffoletto admits there is a learning curve that follows after implementing a new technology—it takes time and practice to learn how best to use it.
He offers some examples of productivity-boosting options:
* Computer-to-plate (CTP) has enabled higher screen rulings or advanced and hybrid screening options like stochastic or frequency modulated (FM).
* The productivity gains in the pressroom due to CTP workflows are faster makereadies because of better fitting register and accurate dot gains on the plates.
* CIP4 ink key presets from prepress allow the pressroom to shorten makeready time by getting up to color faster with less paper waste.
* Closed-loop color is becoming popular because it can reduce paper and labor costs, while also increasing quality with better color consistency.
* Color management systems using ICC profiles from IT8/7.3 targets allow wide-format ink-jet to be an accurate contract color proof.
As such technologies become more affordable, it will help with the long-term survival of many printers, Kelley says. Also, some printers are more accepting of change than others.
"As history has shown, those who embrace change and find a way to make it work for their customer base will not only survive, but will thrive," he states. "Future challenges and opportunities will come from the need for new and innovative equipment and processes, as well as the development and procurement of the human element. I see the key element for success being the understanding of how to develop and maintain the workforce during this ever-changing process."
Still, it is automated equipment that comes quickly to mind when talking about productivity in the pressroom. As a result, many older presses, especially web offset models, are being replaced due to productivity and quality concerns, PIA/GATF's Prince says.
"We as printers cannot hold on to 42-year-old webs and 25-year-old sheetfeds and still expect to be competitive," he maintains. "New equipment, fully loaded, is two or three times more productive than what it replaces."
Don't Fall Behind
The sad, but realistic, result of all of this is that some printers are going to be left behind. These are the printers that are unwilling or unable to buy the latest technology and make appropriate changes in operational and personnel practices, Mason predicts.
"The unfortunate thing about this process is that some printers, with legacy equipment that is fully amortized and no longer must be depreciated, often can offer prices at lower margins than printers who have modernized," warns Mason. "These legacy printers may not endure for the long haul, but they lower margins for everyone else while they last."
RIT's Suffoletto reminds printers that no machine or product can solve all of the industry's problems. Technology may make printers' businesses more productive, but they need people to come up with creative and innovative solutions to old, chronic problems that still plague the industry—issues that technology alone cannot solve.
"Change is inevitable and will occur, if not now, then later," Suffoletto preaches. "We can sit back, resist change and then react to it, or we can be proactive, plan for change and manage it. Printers that don't invest for the future will have no future."
Suffoletto speculates that pressrooms will go through the same metamorphosis that prepress departments did 15 to 20 years ago. Manual tasks will become a thing of the past, and press crew numbers will be reduced, doing more with less. "The craft and art are being replaced with science and technology," he contends.
Mason sees much of the same for the future. He concludes that the Job Definition Format (JDF) will loom large in tomorrow's pressroom.
"JDF offers printers the opportunity to fully integrate their equipment with their print business management software," he says. "This could be the thing that truly separates winners from losers in the pressroom."