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Postpress Efficiency — Bringing Up the Rear

November 2007 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
ANY TALK concerning the efforts to improve postpress efficiency invariably degrades into a philosophical discussion over what, exactly, entails binding, finishing and friends. Ah yes, there is more than meets the eye, especially when mailing, fulfillment, kitting and other sometimes labor-intensive duties are added to the mix.

After all, magazines are more apt to get caught up in discussions about definitions. But a workflow is a workflow, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whatever stands between receiving the order and the truck pulling away from the dock impacts the workflow.

While hardware and software manufacturers have yet to devise a tonic that can cure the hung-over stitcher operator, many areas have been adequately addressed...depending upon who you ask. Some feel we have made leaps and bounds en route to shortening the after-press process; others believe we’re still being short changed. We’ll take the cowardly route and say the answer lies somewhere in between.

Better yet, we’ve asked a group of industry experts their opinion on the progress made in automating postpress processes. Most agree that some areas have been bolstered, but all don’t agree on which areas.

“I’d say binding, folding and stitching equipment have drastically improved to the point where we have eliminated a lot of the previous so-called bindery stops,” notes Bill Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting Group. “The equipment has been improved so that it’s more fault-tolerant. And more fault-tolerant means I can input poorer signatures or poorer sheets into the binding equipment and still get improved throughput. That’s fairly significant.”

Yesteryear’s Equipment

Lamparter recalls that the bindery of olden days used to sound quite rhythmic, with frequent stopping. One problem is that too much of that equipment from yesteryear is still in use. According to plant audits, he estimates that 85 percent of all bindery equipment is more than 10 years old.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with using older bindery equipment when its performance does not come into question. But press capacity is an issue. Newer presses can have the capabilities and throughput of two (or more) presses from 10 years ago, Lamparter notes. More throughput with press technology, coupled with incumbent binding and finishing gear, equates an imbalance on the back end. That sends theory out the window.

Dennis Mason, president of Mason Consulting and Lamparter’s partner on a PRIMIR study, “The Market for Print Finishing Technologies,” also notes that technology such as binding and cutting has enjoyed immense efficiency upgrades in recent years, with bindery gear becoming less labor-intensive. In terms of production, Mason points out that electronic and mechanical improvements have reduced the degree of jams, misfeeds and incorrectly assembled product.

Unfortunately, the tail end of the production line has a log-jam in need of automating. “The process of assembling orders, putting them in boxes, adding items like CD-ROMs and ensuring that everything is in order, remains a manual nightmare,” Mason says. “Machinery is available that can perform some of these functions, but these require a flexible, cell-like manufacturing operation that remains counter-intuitive to many bindery managers. Automating these areas also often requires computer skills and information technology strengths that heretofore have resided in the prepress area at many printing operations, if at all.

“Companies like Buhrs, Longford and Streamfeeder can automate many processes at the end of the print production process, but these are still not names one often hears when touring a printing plant.”

Clint Bolte, principal of C. Clint Bolte & Associates, believes that services once viewed as ancillary—specifically mailing and fulfillment—now are viewed as typical cogs in the postpress workflow. As such, he sees the dynamics of the USPS and the resulting capabilities of application-specific software have provided many efficiencies in the mailing arena.

While Bolte has few qualms with the progress in the bindery, he believes that some of it’s going to waste. Not product waste, but time.

“The disappointment is not because the technology—the engineering of the automated pockets, or the JDF-enabled specifications for pocket setup and trimmer alignment—doesn’t work. They’ve accomplished gargantuan savings in time,” Bolte says. “It is the frustration that while your makereadies are now down to minutes, you can’t take advantage of it because it takes so long to move the skids of signatures from the prior job out of the way and move skids in for the next job. All of this is taking longer than the automated makereadies on the traditional pieces of equipment. This is true, to an extent, with folders and guillotines. The ROI evaporates.”

JDF: Matter of Debate

The impact of JDF on postpress processes, in its role as an automation enabler, is a matter of debate. According to Mason, the biggest impact has been felt in folding and cutting areas. Cuts and folds, he notes, are easy to program. But an issue arises with legacy equipment.

“Folders and cutters do not wear out or become obsolete in terms of their basic functions,” he says. “And while these machines can be retrofitted to streamline programming, many companies find it difficult to commit funds to what may seem like aged, inconsequential machines or only one step in a long, complex chain of postpress processes. To an extent, modernizing one or two postpress machines seems like strengthening only one or two links in a chain; the strength of the overall chain remains defined by the weakest link,” Mason adds.

“In print shops doing mostly standardized jobs—magazine printers, for example—JDF can make a major impact. But with commercial printers that seek to accept virtually any job that comes along, standardization is impossible, and automation expenditures are difficult to justify. My guess is that JDF and true automation will be a long time coming in these plants. In fact, the wider acceptance of automation could make if very difficult to remain a printer that accepts any job.”

Integrated automation may not make economic sense for all printers, Lamparter cautions. If he were building a company from the ground up today, Lamparter would make as many pieces of equipment JDF-compliant as possible. Many companies can’t justify replacing a viable piece of machinery without the payoff promise.

Many digital printers evade the subject of integrating their digital presses with in-line finishing equipment, opting instead for near-line finishing, Lamparter notes. These printers simply have too many varieties of printing in need of a multitude of binding equipment; thus, it is not practical to integrate press with finishing.

“To me, that’s a sales failure. The way in which you make money is to have a line that services predominantly one type of product,” he says. “There are very successful people doing that, because they know how to sell to the equipment that is integrated. That takes talent.”

Over the long haul, Mason expects to see printers and related businesses take an entirely new approach to streamlining postpress.

“We’re already seeing firms like DME and EPI Companies—both of which do a great deal of printing—take a holistic view of what they do,” he says. “They see printing as part of a much larger, and more complex, manufacturing process. Companies like this can be expected to take printing business away from printers that focus too extensively on the pressroom and prepress functions.

“Businesses that will benefit most from automation view manufacturing as one continuous process, from beginning to end.” PI

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