KIRKWOOD PRINTING -- Energizing ColorAugust 2003
Mitchell says he positions the company as a high-end-color, commercial printer. The shop produces a range of work, typically including brochures, sell sheets, posters, financial reports, catalogs, POP and postcards. Among its client base are financial, advertising, medical and software companies, as well as educational institutions.
In a move that might seem contrary to the trend toward shorter runs, Kirkwood has built an arsenal of multicolor, 40˝ sheetfed presses, including two Mitsubishi presses (seven- and eight-color, both with coaters) and two Heidelbergs (six- and four-color). If number of impressions is the only factor considered, Mitchell concedes these may not be the most cost-effective platforms for producing short-run work.
"Quality was behind our choice of equipment," he explains. "If we put a price on a job and win the work, then it's an effective way to produce the job. We are giving clients high quality, faster turnaround and great service."
Kirkwood lets customers know if a job fits or doesn't fit its capabilities, points out the sales exec. If the work isn't a good fit, the printer will try to help the buyer find an alternative supplier. "Still, with some customers, when I try to direct them to a digital shop that can produce a short run, they say they really want to stay with the quality that we provide."
The management team has explored bringing digital printing capabilities in-house, but doesn't think the time is right. "It doesn't fit our market yet; our clientele isn't pushing us into it," Mitchell says. "Even so, it's a move we'll have to make in the future to stay in this business."
Of late, the engine of growth for Kirkwood has been its newest press. The two-over-two perfector has been a workhorse right from the start, according to Mitchell. "It has brought back in a lot of two-color work," he notes. "We can be competitive because we can perfect the sheets."
Business conditions have led the printer to look a little farther afield, geographically, for work. It previously had concentrated on the greater Boston area, but recently hired a salesperson who deals mainly out of the New York area.
"During this economic decline in the printing business, we had to think of different ways to bring in more work," Mitchell explains. "We tried direct mailings and got no place. Getting more heavily into cold calling, networking and taking samples directly to the buyer or designer brought some good returns. Lastly, we hired sales-people with some kind of following."
Experienced in Prepress
The company also has continued to make investments that support its growth. In September of 2002, the shop installed two Agfa Xcalibur 45 thermal platesetters driven by the ApogeeX PDF-based front end and outputting Agfa Thermostar P970 thermal plates. The system represents Kirkwood's third generation of computer-to-plate (CTP) technology. It's had in-house prepress capabilities since day one.
Agfa's screening technologies were what initially led Kirkwood to investigate the CTP system, Monfette reveals. "The quality of the screening from our existing system was a concern at the time," he notes.
Since the printer is located relatively close to one of Agfa's facilities, it had been running some jobs for the manufacturer using supplied plates. "We were working with more of the R&D side of Agfa," the prepress director explains. "The company was testing screening technologies and other developments."
Both department managers say they understand why some might question making such a sizable investment in a tough business climate. "We decided we needed to do it in order to stay alive in this type of economy," Mitchell says. "We sell the company as being state-of-the-art, so we tightened our budget and put in the system."
"The owner is constantly pushing for improvement, and buying the platesetters and front end shows his willingness to invest to make that happen," adds Monfette. "We definitely benefited from it. The system enhanced our productivity to the point where clients see the improvement. Turnaround time was an issue for us before, but it isn't anymore."
In addition to improvements in screening, the prepress exec says he was looking to implement a more automated workflow. The shop had been using a line work/CT-based workflow that required a high level of operator intervention, often to fix problems in processing files, he says.
"We spent way too much time setting and checking traps, for one thing," Monfette continues. "RIPing a PDF file to a one-bit TIFF and eliminating line work/CT have probably eliminated 70 percent of the problems, if not more. The Agfa system definitely increased our throughput, and with fewer workstations."
Along with reducing the amount of operator intervention to check and fix jobs, the system also automatically handles workflow organization tasks, the prepress director notes. "Two weeks after we had the system, our operators were saying it was too good to be true," he recalls.
Kirkwood now converts all files into PDF internally, but many of its clients are still sending application files. Mitchell reports that the company is exploring ways to help clients create proper PDF files. Monfette isn't sure any tool will make an appreciable dent in the number of problem files, though.
He estimates up to 50 percent of files come in with some kind of problem, and a missing element is the source of the problem in about 80 percent of those cases. "People are working to get jobs out so quickly that they don't take the extra time to look them over and make sure everything is right," Monfette says. "Clients don't want to hear about problems. They just want to hear that they are getting their proof on time or even early."
Good to Have Options
The screening part of the equation is still a work in progress, in part because Kirkwood's new setup opens up several options. The shop started with ABS (Agfa Balanced Screening), then became a beta test site for Agfa's new Sublima "XM" screening. Sublima is a cross between AM screening (ABS) and a form of frequency-modulated (FM) screening, used primarily in highlight and shadow areas, to support 210- to 340-lpi screens.
"Currently we have been implementing CristalRaster (Agfa's full FM screening solution), which we like quite a bit," Monfette says.
"Once you go through the initial step of calibrating your process, the screening options can be almost transparent to the press operators," he continues. "We're still learning how to match the paper, job and line screen to achieve the best results." Monfette anticipates supporting multiple screening options going forward, with the choice coming down to what's best for a given job.
Since it was working under an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement), the printer was constrained form telling clients about Sublima. Monfette doesn't expect the company to start charging a premium for the screening once it's free to promote the technology. "Using Sublima doesn't add any cost," he notes. "It gives us a competitive edge."
Proofing is another area of ongoing development at Kirkwood. "For quite some time, our stable proof has been an Epson Stylus Pro 10000 driven by Best Colorproof software with Monaco software for generating profiles," the prepress director reports. "We also have an Agfa SherpaMatic 43 double-sided proofer that more or less serves as our Dylux proof."
In July, the company was awaiting delivery of an Agfa Grand Sherpa proofer, which is an ink-jet device that can reproduce a halftone dot. "We currently have a problem proofing duotones on the Epson," Monfette notes. "Having dots will give us a much better proof."
He also is pushing Agfa to incorporate online proofing, so clients can approve PDFs over the Web. In a related move, the company is preparing to roll out an implementation of Internet-based preflighting for use by its customers.
Even as Kirkwood is turning to the Internet for production efficiencies, Mitchell says he still stresses the importance of face-to-face communication in sales activities.
"I've always pushed my sales staff—and our production people, for that matter—to take the time to get to know our clients. They need to understand what is going on with a piece so, when they come back to the shop, they can answer questions without having to go back to the customer," he explains. "A couple of clients tried computer-based print buying systems, but they came back to us and said it didn't work."
Ideally, the relationship should go both ways, with the client really getting to know the printer, Mitchell says. He notes that one of the printer's long-term customers characterized the nature of the relationship by saying, "You're like an extension of our company."
While Kirkwood's commitment to quality keeps clients coming back, it's also a big reason why employees stick with the company. "They're in it for life," Mitchell says. "The work atmosphere here is great.
"We empower employees," he continues. "We tell them, 'Don't be scared to make a decision. If you think there is something wrong, stop the press.' That holds true even at night. We want to make sure every job is done right."
Going forward, Monfette says he expects Kirkwood to continue focusing its efforts on printing. "The owner loves printing," he points out, "as well as the people that work for him. Even with state-of-the-art equipment, you have to remember it is the people doing the work that make the difference in what you produce for your client."
For more technical information about Kirkwood Printing's production operation, see "CTP Field Reports" on page 40 of the March 2003 issue and "Spotting an Opportunity" on page 34 in the May 2003 edition.