Automating Your Bindery: What Equipment Do You Need to Drive Your 2007 Business Goals?

by: Nancy Lowther

“The first red flag in any manufacturing operation indicating there is a need to automate is when there is a domino effect occurring, where one operation is affecting another in a negative way – a bottleneck, a slow process that impedes the next” says Douglas Kelly, editor and chief of APICS magazine and director of industry content.

As well as identifying bottlenecks, there are questions to address that will help binderies when conducting resource planning.

  • What jobs are your sales personnel turning away or losing? Is it because production cannot meet the job deadline (your bindery productivity is too low)?
  • What jobs are you accepting and then farming out?
  • How have current customers’ needs and products changed? What new customers have located in your area?
  • What automation (new bindery equipment) has your competitors incorporated and do you have comparable equipment?

Kelly also suggests that “a good consultant can come in and scrutinize your process and workflow. They question such things as legacy actions – doing things a certain way because ‘Bob’ used to do it that way.”

Bindery Automation in Action

Anna Massey, sales and marketing manager at Plastikoil, says that plastic spiral mechanical binding has been construed as labor intensive for a long time. How the operator held the crimping pliers and the experience and speed of the operator affected the output. In the past, coil inserters had belt-driven inserters – dozens of these lined up and dozens of operators. Consequently, productivity suffered. “So for me, automation means hands-off and higher productivity. It provides consistency. Automating this process with the Plastikoil Interline system means the operator places pre-punched books in place and the machine does the rest. It forms the coil, cuts it to length, drives it through the punch holes, and simultaneously cuts and crimps both ends,” states Massey.

Other than consistency, “There’s a 50 percent savings in material costs,” continues Massey. With this system, users can purchase spools of raw material and produce the exact length of coil needed for each job, versus making-do with pre-formed lengths from an outside supplier. These spools are half the cost of the equivalent amount of pre-made coils and there also is less waste (from cutting down pre-made coil to the exact size needed). Additionally, this system reduces the number of operators required because of the automatic inserters. “Companies may suddenly have a huge job available to them and this is often the catalyst for automating.”

When considering automating Massey says, “companies really should do their homework and research what is available.” Ask manufacturers for references – but not just the standard prepared list of names. Ask for the customer who has most recently installed the equipment. Ask that customer what made them choose it. Go to trade shows and see equipment in operation. Meet the sales reps and the service staff and see if you feel comfortable with them, if you feel they are credible, and if they can help you with your decision-making process without skewing the facts. Do they truly understand your business and the industry?

Mark Rasch, vice president of marketing at Rasch Graphics, a trade bindery in Houston, Texas, says “technology has changed and we changed with it. Today we’re faster. One of the beliefs we have is if we can replace people with machines, we do because the machine is there every day, on time, and if well maintained, is never sick.” Rasch Graphics automated by purchasing a Polar guillotine cutter since its old machine “just cut paper.. Now the company only requires one operator versus three because the cutter output has doubled. A photoelectric eye automatically brings the pallet of stock up to feed the cutter. A scale keeps the lifts in specific sheet counts and also jogs them. After the stock is cut, it is automatically jogged and packed perfectly on a skid.

The company’s old plastic coil equipment with its cloth belts and manual insertion of the coil produced 80 books per hour. Over a six month period, Rasch did an in-depth investigation of all the plastic coil equipment that was available. Now its new Plastikoil Concept QS2 system spins the coil through the book, forms it in-line, and produces 1,000 to 1,200 books per hour. For this company, automation was driven by its reputation for high quality work. When Rasch bid on several large projects and won, it needed to automate the bindery in order to deliver on time. “Automation means quicker turnaround, a lower price for the customer, and not only keeping up with the competition, but being a leader.”

“Automation means different things to different people. It can be anything from a fully automated JDF workflow to the automation of a single piece of equipment, an island of automation,” says Mark Hunt, director of marketing at Standard Finishing Systems. “To us it’s not an ‘all or nothing’ proposition. There are steps depending on how deeply and quickly a company wants to go.” With the margin and pricing pressure in the printing industry, companies are looking for ways to drive the labor cost down and stay profitably engaged. With shorter runs and thus more job set-ups per day, this means automated equipment. Related to that is the need to not compromise the quality of the final product, to maintain reliability, and thus make customers happier.

Another way a company can decide what equipment to automate is to analyze the lifecycle management (maintenance) reports for each piece of equipment. If it has been well maintained and has had few or no break-downs, then Hunt says to look at how much product is coming off it and check to see if this matches the specs in the manual. What is the actual spoilage, true productivity from that equipment versus any perceptions that exist? There was not a lot of measurement in the past. “The Horizon i2i bindery control system supplies visibility by capturing job statistics, actual productivity, and jams that occurred so these measurements can be compiled and then analyzed. And a CSR then can go into the system to see how much of the job is complete and if there are any problems in order to answer customer questions instantly. Binderies now need to automate just as prepress, press, and distribution have automated.”

Acculink Inc. is primarily a digital company with some offset, a bindery and a mail shop. President Tom O’Brien says that it is difficult finding skilled employees, so automating with devices that aid in set-up and changeover are necessary. “At Graph Expo, we plan to particularly spend a lot of time looking at all the bindery equipment.” Recently, the bindery purchased an M2 booklet maker and an Easy Crease machine from Standard Finishing in order to increase its productivity. “Productivity is one of the best indicators of how a company is doing and the sales per employee is how we measure that. In the last five years, there’s been little industry growth, resulting in fewer printing companies. But last year we grew 15 percent and are on track for seven more percent this year,” states O’Brien. Companies that want to survive will automate so they can deliver better than average quality and do it quickly.

As well as doing a ROI when planning on purchasing more automated equipment, the management at Acculink Inc. looks to see if there are specific customers with specific products, and if this is a sustainable market. The company checks to see if its operators have the skill set required and if the equipment can be serviced in-house and if not, what services are available outside. Acculink studies how to improve what it does so as to position itself as the vendor of choice.

At Globus Printing, the company has been actively automating its bindery. Globus added a STI hopper loader on its Kolbus perfect binder. This takes a lift from the press and places it on a conveyor, automatically feeding the perfect binder. Prior to this automation, the company had four to five people loading the pockets. Now only one person is required. Denny Schmiesing, president, says that “when this was done manually, it was easy to pick-up a signature and put it in the wrong pocket.”

Last year the company purchased a Baum folder and it has just added a Baum ifold, which is a set-up tool. The operator clicks on “fold” and a list of steps to set-up the machine appears on screen. “Recently an operator on night shift started running the folder that had been set-up on day shift but there was a problem. He checked on the ifold screen and found that the job hadn’t been set-up correctly and was then able to fix the problem and continue the job,” says Schmiesing.

By automating, the quality at Globus Printing has risen and the company better competes with other companies. Schmiesing summarizes by saying, “Automation is a necessity. If a company hasn’t automated, it probably isn’t there anymore.”

Nancy Lowther is owner of Lowther Training and Development and can be reached at (416) 282-1890.