Finishing — Caught in a Bind?
BY ERIK CAGLE
If you think it's not easy making a living in the postpress environment, consider the state of the equipment manufacturers.
Finishing trends are causing manufacturers to respond almost as quickly as current turnaround demands. Issues abound: A lack of trained workers beget the call for increased automation. Value-added product enhancements are desired to help break away from a sea of finishing conformity. Commercial printers are being called upon to handle customers' projects in-house—from start to finish.
When printers and trade finishers feel the pinch, they pass it on to the manufacturer, whose job it is to make life easier for them.
Automation is first and foremost on the minds of many finishing pundits. Increasing production speeds and cutting costs are two of the main objectives, according to John Porter, division manager for LDR International.
"Part of the problem, from the bindery end, is that there's not as many ways to do some of the [finishing] tasks," Porter says. "It's not as productive to automate [folding and cutting] equipment as it is in a pressroom."
Porter sees a more concerted effort to improve material handling, such as employing electric lifts, automatic joggers, and automatic loading and unloading equipment, to boost productivity. He also sees a push to automate cutting, including efforts to adopt CIP3 protocols, where job engineering is programmed. He doesn't necessarily see this as a viable option, however, because paper is not a stable substrate and does not retain its original size after going through the printing process.
"We're trying to make programming simpler for cutting machines," he says. "We believe some of the programming tries to do too much, and can create operating difficulties and electronic or software problems. Manufacturers of perfect binders and saddlestitchers are computerizing the setups for the pockets, so users can set up a saddlestitcher, perfect binder or a three-knife trimmer in a short time. It used to take up to 90 minutes to set up a three-knife trimmer on a perfect binder; it can now be done in 15 to 30 minutes. That really makes a big difference."
Porter has also seen automation inroads with folding machines, but he questions the cost-effectiveness. Production speed may be increased slightly, but not to a level that would offset the cost of automation, since setup times for a folder aren't lengthy in the first place, he argues.
More beneficial, Porter contends, is an improvement for tacking—something that will handle product from the end of the folder. Most folders, he adds, run faster than the operator can remove product from the end of them.
Steve Astins, vice president of MBO America, has also noticed the automation of finishing equipment—as illustrated by the array of makeready controls, statistical production data and sheet monitoring systems being shown at major exhibitions throughout the world. He also believes enhanced add-ons that can stem operator fatigue and, in turn, increase productivity will become more popular.
Even so, Astins feels that finishers and binders are finding themselves in a precarious position, as faster press speeds have put greater productivity pressure on them, increasing output but putting turnaround times and flexibility in jeopardy.
The trade finisher and binder of the future, Astins feels, will probably become more specialized to produce value-added products that, in turn, will help to improve the bottom line and offer a greater range of excellent production facilities to a greater range of customers. "Perhaps the time has come for expert finishing centers to evolve in an area of the industry, whose skills worldwide have too often been neglected," he says.
Because of the need for faster machines, with increased automation and MIS information required by the production office, it's vital that machine manufacturers respond with well-built equipment that embraces the latest technology, notes Astins. Still, the units need to be reliable, user-friendly and provide what customers need, which isn't necessarily what the manufacturer would like to give them.
MBO's latest range of machines has taken note of both customer and consumer demands, Astins says. "Not only have we increased machine speeds by up to 15 percent, we're also offering quick make-ready; operator prompts; MC Control management and data reporting systems that center around our BDE board, controlling sheet monitoring, suction length and optimization of the infeed control; VIVAS infeed and alignment for greater sheet control at high speeds; Rapidset plates with 65 preprogrammed impositions; the unique MPC gatefold plate; and the Combiplate, which means there's no need to remove the fold plate when not required."
Also, pre-slitter shafts allow timed-cutting, perforating and gluing in almost any combination. "Likewise, our peripheral equipment to deal with the product once it has been processed includes a vast array of stackers and deliveries," concludes Astins.
Colter & Peterson offers a line of paper cutting and paper handling equipment that increases automation. According to Jeff Marr, vice president of sales, Colter & Peterson is working in tandem with a manufacturer that specializes in assembling customized solutions.
"We're coming out with a new size in our lifts and unloaders—a 48-by-48, which basically allows standard U.S. pallets to be handled," Marr notes. "Previously, many of the standard pallet sizes and equipment were set up around European specifications, and you couldn't fit a 48-by-48 unless you went to a very large-sized lift, which actually goes up to 60˝. It's taking equipment that's been popular in Europe, especially Germany, and making modifications to it so that it fits the standard U.S. format sizes."
Another vendor, Kolbus America, has pioneered computer-assisted makeready to reduce the time it takes to get machines running. An example of this, according to Tom Roche, chief marketing officer, is its Co-Pilot Program, which uses a PC that communicates with a PLC (program-logical board) that, in turn, interfaces with a machine.
"The interface from the human being to the machine is via the screen, just like you would have a PC at your desk," Roche explains. "We have fiber-optic controls on the machines, which means customers can place the control cabinets in virtually any location they want in the facility. It keeps dust and heat—conditions that aren't good for computers—away from the main manufacturing floor and puts it in an office environment, if so desired."
Faster, less complicated make-readies are being demanded of Heidelberg Finishing. Larry Tanowitz, vice president of marketing for bindery equipment, stresses the need for less operator skill when it comes to completing an equipment makeready. In essence, users count on the equipment to virtually walk them through the makeready.
"For example, we've incorporated computers in our saddlebinding equipment that virtually bring the machine where you need it to do the makeready and take it step by step. It's very simple and very easy," Tanowitz says. "On our folding machines, we've added devices such as the zero-makeready plates, so users don't have to pull the buckle plate out of the machine.
"On cutting machines, we've added Transomat, a device that automatically palletizes the cut materials. The printer or binder that does not opt for these advancements will not be competitive in the marketplace because there's a severe shortage of qualified labor."
Tanowitz also feels material handling is a key issue in the bindery. He sees considerable growth in the area of delivery systems for both folders and saddlebinders, and points to two solutions.
"On the folding machines, deliveries that press the signatures allow better folding quality, make the signatures stand up so that operators don't have to lean over the machines and perform easier operations," he says.
"With stitchers, it's devices like Rima stackers that go into the end of the saddlebinder. They allow the stacks of booklets coming out to be properly oriented and easy to handle, so that operators can run the machines at faster speeds."
Automation and flexibility are the two key issues facing Quad/Tech International (QTI), according to Randy Freeman, vice president of sales and marketing. Reducing tougher and more mundane jobs on the line, namely material handling, is being demanded by customers.
"There's a range of specialized material handling equipment being developed for the bindery," Freeman says. "Namely, in terms of stream feeders that handle the signatures as they're being fed into the bindery machines, and the stackers and palletizers in the pressroom which, in turn, feed the bindery."
More sophisticated controls are being implemented on the equipment, Freeman notes. Machines boast a higher level of electronic sophistication and are now PLC- or computer-controlled. Quality control sensors are also being added to machines to detect that the right signature is going into a pocket.
QTI also manufactures ink-jet controls that allow a customer to do demographic binding. "There's a rising interest in that type of binding," he says. "It provides flexibility for the customer to do more varied types of jobs on that machine."
Another growth area is mechanical binding. Cerlox (plastic comb) binding, double-loop wire and plastic coil are among the most popular, according to David Spiel, an owner of Spiel Associates. Manufacturers like Spiel are coming out with more machinery to address those needs, including automatic plastic coil inserters.
Spiel's Coilmaster permits productivity of up to 700 books/hour in contrast to between 100 and 150 books/hour done by hand.
Index tabbing is an enigma of sorts; Spiel believes there is more demand for index tabbing work than there is machines. Locating a used tab laminator can be as difficult as finding an eight-track music player.
"I have 400 to 500 used machines here, and in the past five years perhaps I've sold one used automatic tab laminator," he says. "Nobody sells them. The only way they sell them is if a company goes out of business, and that's rare."
To answer the call for tab laminating, Spiel Associates has devised the Bat Tabber. It automatically indexes tabs and laminates them at a rate of 4,000 sph. Completely computer controlled, the Tabber doesn't boast peripheral features but proves sufficient and cost-efficient for the needs of postpress operations.
Rilecart of America is also addressing the call for mechanical binding systems as opposed to traditional wire stitching and glue binding process. Dr. Cesare Sassi, president of Rilecart, feels the double loop wire binding system has experienced maximum growth, especially for calendars.
"The increased use of double loop wire in the production of calendars is primarily due to aesthetic reasons," Sassi exclaims. "In the production of books, the increased success is also due to the high production speed of the system."
Rilecart has responded to this need with the Rilecart B-599, which can produce more than 4,000 books/hour. Another unit, the WireBind DP-4500, is being developed to generate higher production speeds, It is an in-line machine with integrated volume, splitting, punching, re-collating and binding features.
The trend, according to Sassi, is to have faster and more integrated machines for the industry, while another tendency is to have more simple and cost-effective machines for the office in order to obtain small, high-quality runs.
Kolbus America stands on the in-line side of the in-line vs. off-line debate. Roche believes in-line offers significant advantages for medium and large runs, and Kolbus offers more in-line linked systems.
"What we mean by flexible link is that each in-line system has the capability to run as a total system or as independent components within itself," Roche says. "If you have a run of 50,000 and you want to run a combined all the way through casing-in, it's no problem. If you have three runs of 2,500, and you have two casing-in lines, you can break the line apart [operate it independently] for greater flexibility."
Selective perfect binding is a highly desirable, but expensive proposition, according to Ralph Box, executive vice president of Muller Martini. A prime example of versioning, selective binding is particularly important for monthly publications such as Ladies Home Journal, which cater to a range of demographic markets.
According to Box, selective binding investments are cost-prohibitive for many printers. "Printers rarely produce monthly magazines without a selective binder," he says.
Box recalls a time when owning a saddlestitcher was out of reach for many companies, but is now a viable investment. He doesn't see that happening with the selective perfect binder. "I can't see the price of perfect binding going down because of the requirements to produce that type of book," he says.
The emphasis on solutions for shorter runs, faster makereadies and quicker job turnaround was the task presented to Duplo U.S.A. Its reply, notes Marketing Director Jennifer Gattis, was the world's first automatic-setting stitcher/folder, the Duplo DBM-250.
Automatic setup and changeover are crucial because they save time, enhance productivity, reduce waste and increase profits, according to Gattis. With today's demand for shorter run lengths, it's now questionable to operate a bookletmaker that takes the traditional 10 to 15 minutes for changeover every time a new job is produced. In contrast, the DBM-250 boasts job changeover speeds at under 1 minute.
Backed by the automatic setup, Gattis points out, printed pieces are not wasted, which can be critical on short runs from a financial standpoint. The automatic-setting feature is also vital, she says, because the quality of the finished booklet is no longer dependent on the skill level of the operator. "In today's workplace, many employers cite finding qualified employees as one of their major business challenges."
Flexibility is especially important, she adds. The equipment needs to be able to produce a wide variety of applications produced on a range of paper stocks—including NCR, coated, 10 point, etc.—so that fewer jobs need to be done by hand, outsourced or even turned down. Gattis notes that bindery equipment is also being required to work both off-line and in-line with printers and high-speed copiers.
Keeping operations localized is another trend, reveals Doug Herr, national sales manager at the Bobst Group. More finishing operations are being brought back into commercial printers and less work is being farmed out to specialty finishing houses, according to Herr.
"Finishing work is being brought back into the commercial printing houses because of turnaround time, the reduction in transportation expenses and the ability to maintain the quality requirements that the commercial printer's customers desire," Herr says. "It makes sense in today's society, given that time is such a major factor. Turnaround times are compressing. Printers are not just installing old and used equipment, but newer equipment that has higher run speeds and quicker make-ready times."
On the down side, this trend pinches the trade finishers that normally would run this type of work, according to Herr—whether it's a diecutting operation or a hot-foil stamping house. Still, some finishing processes remain cost-prohibitive to many commercial printers, and finishing houses excel by capitalizing on specialty niches.
Roger Mattila, bindery consultant and product manager for Vijuk Equipment, also believes that shorter lead times and quicker turnaround requirements are among the major issues facing the postpress industry. In response, equipment manufacturers and their distributors are providing more automation and faster changeovers.
One area Vijuk Equipment has targeted is supplying in-line folders. "We've designed a web press folder that can run in-line with web presses to produce the final product," Mattila says. "With shorter lead times comes shorter runs," he adds. "Instead of looking at the high-end speed of equipment, we're looking at midrange speeds and trying to provide those as economical as possible to the end user. We have mid-line ranges in perfect binders and we're also looking at providing it in saddle-stitchers."
Vinnie Kapoor, president of INNOTECH, agrees that a current trend is toward finishing in-line with a web press, which avoids subsequent steps in the bindery. He does see a push toward increasing the number of gatefolds on the products.
To produce different configurations of products, Kapoor explains, prefolders are being added to the press folders. "We offer the fastest prefolder with almost no makeready time; [operators] can go from one job to the other without spending too much time trying to change it over," Kapoor says.
"We also have options in the prefolder to add spot glue, so that the gate decks are attached together and don't open up during binding."
Kapoor notes owners of web presses are adding auxiliary pieces of equipment to their presses—such as remoistenable glue, diecutting or perf units, to add value and enhance versatility.
Aside from in-line finishing trends, operator safety is also an issue that is being addressed currently, according to Colter & Peterson's Marr. European regulations have been toughened and regulations in the United States are not far behind.
"Steps have been taken, and are continuing, to improve health and safety concerns," he says. "An effort is being made in the standardization of safety regulations, with the C.E. regulations in Europe and the ANSI here in America. They're voluntary regulations, but they're tied in with manufacturers."