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Materials Handling--The Final Frontier

June 1998

As the "black hole" of the printing process, where no value is added to a product—only costs—and profits simply disappear, the automation of materials handling is the final frontier for reducing operating costs and increasing productivity.

Several jetsetting printers are already light years ahead in battling the war over back-end inefficiency, where materials are handled excessively, being picked up and moved from here to there.

Companies like R.R. Donnelley, World Color and Banta have invested in legions of robotics—armed with hydraulics, pneumatics, laser-guidance systems, sensors and scanners—to save time, space, manpower and money.

However, many printers are hesitant to explore the outermost regions of their press and bindery operations and launch into materials handling automation. Rather than invest in the unknown, they'd rather ride the coattails of those who've gone before them.

R.R. Donnelley, World Color and Banta are just a few that have found success in materials handling automation. Their engineers are providing testimonials and tutorials to industry organizations nationwide. As these industry leaders relay their triumphant tales, the thrill of victory echoes through the air to printers everywhere.

At PRINT 97, a session was dedicated to materials handling automation. Donnelley engineers explained how the 37 robotic units at their Lancaster, PA, plant reduced the labor force by almost 200 and cut workman's compensation costs by approximately 70 percent. (Self-guided vehicles are in use at many Donnelley facilities.)

World Color, another innovator in materials handling, recently installed 11 automatic-guided vehicles (AGVs) at its Dyersburg, TN, facility. Director of Engineering Ron Ferguson is so impressed with the results, he's hitting the road, speaking to industry organizations about the advantages of automation.

Why Automate?
In his speech, Ferguson asks "Why Automate?" then cites some of Dyersburg's achievements in materials handling. For example: three-year return on investment (ROI); accuracy of storage and retrieval with few or no lost loads; reduced damage to loads and racking; reduced damage to lift trucks; 20-percent faster staging of loads for shipment; and real-time tracking of product at all stages.

Ferguson cites other advantages of automation, explaining that up to 472 moves (or orders) can be programmed into an AGV, allowing it to make up to 2,000 moves per day. Per hour, Ferguson says AGVs are capable of achieving material movement flow rates such as these: seven palletized signatures from presses to bindery; nine palletized signatures into racks; and 14 palletized signatures from racks to binding lines.

Statistics like these are spurring industry organizations to include materials handling on their conference agendas.

For example, the Research and Engineering Council of the Graphic Arts Industry dedicated several sessions to materials handling automation at its recent 40th Binding, Finishing and Distribution Seminar.

"For many years, the printing industry viewed the bindery as a stepchild. But it's a very important facet of the business," explains Charles Dine, Banta's manager of corporate industrial engineering, who served as the council's session chairperson.

"A product has to be bound," he continues. "It's important that the product be folded, jogged and bundled correctly in order to run it on high-speed finishing equipment. If it doesn't feed well into a 20,000 per hour machine, that machine may only run at 14,000 per hour."

Which is an inefficient way of doing business, by any printer's standards. But any printer's standards might not be as high as the industry giants with multimillion-dollar budgets.

The Right Price
However, as materials handling forges to the forefront of industry issues, the demand for automated equipment is bringing prices down. From pile turners and palletizers to conveyors and computerized management information systems, automated machinery and software are being designed with the more modest bindery budget in mind.

Whether it's one piece of equipment or an entire system, many printers are finding that state-of-the-art materials handling is paying for itself in time, space and manpower savings, not to mention ROI.

Nick Adler, vice president of operations at Fort Dearborn, a food and beverage label printer located in Niles, IL, reports his company invested $2.5 million in automated jogging, cutting, banding and sorting equipment, with a 22-month ROI.

"It took two years to decide what system to use, what would work best for us," says Adler. "The first piece of the puzzle was to get the right binding equipment. The second piece was how to secure the finished product.

"We decided to invest in banding equipment. When the product was banded, the third puzzle piece was how to box and ship it. We were concerned with mixing up labels—for example, corn getting mixed with peas—so we invested in a custom-made sortation system."

Fort Dearborn worked closely with John Geis, a materials handling/plant layout consultant and author of the books "Materials Handling for the Printer" and "Printing Plant Layout and Facility Design," both published by GATF. Geis was also the session speaker on materials handling at the recent PIA Web Offset conference, which included a session on the subject for the very first time.

"Materials handling should be reviewed as a system," says Geis. "Receiving docks, pallets, in-plant trucks and storage areas must work as a system. If you have an in-plant truck that doesn't work with your racks, then the whole system doesn't work."

Helping printers select the right equipment and/or system is only part of Geis' job. He also helps them design plant layouts that will work best with the equipment or systems they select.

High on Stacking
One of the problems Geis confronts is efficient use of building height (or cube). Floor area is expensive, he estimates—between $25 and $45 per square (warehouse) foot. He says he shudders every time he sees a 20-foot-high ceiling with little or no stacking. If a ceiling is 20 feet high, you can stack skids three high, doubling, even tripling, storage space.

"You couldn't do this without automation," says Bernie Sandor, bindery technical consultant at Quality House of Graphics in Long Island City, NY.

"If we didn't have automation, our operation wouldn't shut down, but we'd have to add manpower. And that's a lot less productive and extremely expensive."

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