Ways to Help Avoid Bottlenecks in Your Digital Finishing Department
There is no denying that inkjet printing technologies have changed the way commercial printers operate. While traditional equipment isn’t going anywhere, digital printing has opened up new markets, new applications and, of course, new challenges. One such challenge is that as run lengths get shorter, and turnaround times get faster, finishing departments are struggling to keep up.
Streamlining workflow is nothing new, and printers of all sizes have been trying to eliminate touch points for years now. However, the bulk of that focus has been on areas such as estimating, prepress, and how information flows throughout the operation. While finishing has been on the peripheral of that process, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the tips and tricks to help address one of the largest bottlenecks most printers are struggling with today.
Invest in newer postpress equipment. This might seem like an obvious statement, but the reality is that while many have invested — sometimes heavily — in the pressroom, with new, faster, more efficient equipment, the same can’t be said about the finishing department. It is still common to enter a shop and find a press that is only a few years old, at most, being supported by finishing equipment installed decades ago. It’s time to start investing in finishing equipment designed to operate alongside modern, digital presses.
For Daren Robarge, executive VP of manufacturing at Quad (a Sussex, Wisconsin-headquartered company which ranked No. 2 on the 2022 Printing Impressions 300 list), that strategy is working well for the company. “Our newest pieces of finishing equipment are high-speed inserters for direct mail, and a digital cell that includes a Standard Hunkeler Generation 8 roll-to-cut/stack line attached to an HP PageWide T-250 HD inkjet web press,” he notes.
That said, with 50 facilities that span 14 countries, Robarge also points out that Quad has invested in a full complement of both traditional and digital finishing equipment to ensure it always has the right piece of equipment for the job. “Our print and finishing experts assess each job and assign it to the right technology to meet our clients’ requirements and to solve their marketing challenges as seamlessly and efficiently as possible,” he explains.
Make finishing part of the initial evaluation. While estimating will likely factor in some of the costs to finish a job, including the materials used, make a point of evaluating a job’s profitability when running it on various pieces of equipment. Having a good mix of traditional and digital finishing equipment is all well and good, but it won’t solve bottlenecks if the team isn’t actively assessing every job to ensure it is being routed to the best possible piece of equipment — not just the one that happens to be free, or because it’s the only press in the facility that happens to do a particular job.
“Each project is analyzed to determine the most efficient means of finishing possible. Overall capacity and throughput speed are also determining factors,” Todd Meissner, president of Sussex, Wisconsin-based Color Ink, reports. Color Ink’s newest digital finishing device is a Highcon Euclid III laser diecutter. “Our oldest device — the Zünd G3 L-3200 digital router/cutter — has been our primary finishing device in our wide-format department for more than 12 years,” he says. “More than 50% of our overall volume utilizes some form of digital finishing.”
Quad follows a similar approach to optimize postpress productivity and efficiency. “Because we’re in the business of optimizing the marketing experience, we start with the end in mind, and we chart a path to get there with minimal friction and slowdown,” according to Robarge. “We look at the specific requirements of the finished product — whether that’s a book, a self-mailer, or a piece of direct mail — because the final process usually dictates the best equipment path. And we determine how to batch the work so that we can keep the presses running optimally, minimizing makeready and downtime, and then feed the printed materials to different finishers that are set to complete the products.”
Don’t get stuck on “traditional” or “digital” labels when it comes to finishing equipment. Yes, digital output devices are producing work in a fundamentally different way from traditional analog presses — those shorter runs, with a higher degree of variability, coming back into play. But that doesn’t mean all digitally printed jobs should be run on finishing equipment designed specifically for that purpose, any more than it means all traditionally printed jobs should only be run on traditional finishing equipment.
Instead of getting hung up on which pieces of finishing equipment are supposed to run the jobs off which presses, look at the actual jobs themselves, and what they require, and go from there.
“There’s an opportunity to enhance this process by exploring the relationship between traditional and digital,” Robarge says. “We’re [exploring] some innovative solutions in this area so we can further maximize results for our clients. For example, there are times when it may make more sense to run a print job on a digital press, and then finish it on a traditional binder. Our focus is on what will best serve the client, and we’re willing to try unconventional things to get there.”
Make finishing part of the conversation with clients. “Proper file set-up and good job planning are instrumental in maximizing the throughput of the equipment,” Color Ink's Meissner points out. “Our learning curve on the front end was much greater than I had expected.”
When working with clients, it’s important to not only educate them on what needs to be done to get the best printed materials, but also what information needs to be included in the files to get the best possible finishing as well. This is a good time to sit down with them and explore all the finishing options, and explain how they differ — not just in cost but in both time and the look and feel of the final product.
Not only will this allow you to be more of a collaborative partner overall, but it will cut down on any surprises when a job has been completed, where customers may be expecting one thing and getting something else entirely. “Complexities with finishing are inherent, so we see them as an opportunity to collaborate with our clients and maximize the manufacturing process to achieve the desired results,” Robarge stresses.
Have the right staff in place. While both traditional and digital equipment is typically part of the finishing department, not all pieces are created equal. It is important to understand the differences, and have the staff on hand to efficiently run them. Thought must also be given to whether an in-line, near-line, or off-line digital finishing configuration makes the most sense from a productivity and workflow standpoint.
Don’t just assume you can install a new piece of digital finishing equipment and your operators will be able to jump right in. Make sure you have the training in place to support the staff on both sides of the equation.
“Digital finishing devices typically run much slower than traditional machines,” Meissner notes. “On the flip side, they are typically much simpler to operate, and multiple machines can be monitored by one person. Traditional equipment generally requires a higher level of skill to set up and operate.”
Ensuring staff has the technical skill to operate traditional equipment, the knowledge to operate one (or more) pieces of digital equipment, and the bandwidth and ability to multi-task to move between them is critical to ensuring the department as a whole runs smoothly without costly bottlenecks.
That said, finding those personnel is easier said than done in the current marketplace, so when you do find talented operators capable of handling both traditional and digital finishing equipment, it’s important to ensure they have all the tools they need to be successful and enjoy the work.
“We will typically have operators run more than one machine, and we have been adding more shifts to accommodate the increased volume,” Meissner continues. “Just like everyone else, staffing shortages are our biggest challenge.”
Take a hard look at automation. Automation on the front end has been years in the making, with most shops having some form of process in place today. However, that hasn’t always translated to the pressroom, and even less so to the finishing department. It’s time to change that if you want to truly eliminate the bottlenecks.
Meissner notes that this is advice he wishes someone had given him when he first started investing in digital finishing equipment. “Buy equipment that is ‘automatic makeready’ and not ‘manual makeready.’ Ensure it reads a barcode and can set the machine up by itself without human intervention. Go for as much automation as possible. This will help speed, efficiency, and output.”
That is something Quad’s Robarge echoes, noting that when he looks at the future of finishing, he sees “robotics, AI, and stored memory of presets on previous jobs will be instrumental tools for the future of our bindery.”
Avoiding bottlenecks in the finishing department — especially when it comes to finishing jobs off digital presses — is a challenge every printer will need to address sooner rather than later to stay competitive. By making the decisions around finishing just as critical in importance as the print technologies and techniques, half the battle will already be won.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.