by Melissa Larson, contributing writer
Most experienced printing professionals are accustomed to thinking that printing bottlenecks occur in the prepress department. That’s the black hole, right?
Bottlenecks can occur anywhere in the workflow, and these holdups in the bindery or finishing area are rarely examined and poorly understood. This has become even more relevant with the growth of digital printing technologies and working with digitally printed output.
We’ve talked to postpress professionals to get their best practices in avoiding bottlenecks, whether through making the most of the equipment a printer or binder already has or investing in new technology.
Think “Finishing First”
Si Nguyen, vice president of sales at Duplo USA, was quoted at the recent Dscoop 11 event in San Antonio, Texas, as saying, “If print service providers want to be profitable, they need to think Finishing First. Eliminating postpress bottlenecks will create a smoother workflow, generating efficiency and profits. In addition, when print service providers use finishing techniques to add value to their products, they can become one of the top profit-makers in the printing marketplace.”
Doug Sherwood, national sales manager at finishing machinery builder Rollem Corp. International, put it succinctly: “Make sure you have the right finishing equipment. So many times I go into facilities that have invested heavily in the latest press technology, only to have finishing technology that is outdated, hard to use and in need of specialized operators. Equipment that is user-friendly, easy to maintain and versatile, with the ability to run multiple substrates with high-quality, will go a long way toward efficient production.”
Start with a flowchart
Crafting a flowchart of the work moving through a printing or binding/finishing shop can help determine where the bottlenecks lie.
An essential component of this exercise is to put down the number of minutes each machine or operation takes to process an order. Work-in-progress areas normally will be spaced between the operations. When the flowchart is complete, walk out to the production floor and look at the real-time workflow.
Think the bottleneck must be the operation with the most inventory in front of it? You may have to think again. It could be the job down further in the workflow after digital or offset printing, including older and slower binding or finishing equipment, that is causing the problem. The old adage about the weakest link is true: your workflow is only as fast as the slowest operation.
The key is to look at the underlying reasons for the bottleneck and not just address the symptoms. This means gaining a whole new understanding of your overall workflow and hopefully getting input from production staff about the reasons the blockage is occurring.
Look at the layout
According to Brad Emerson, general manager at FixYourOwnBindery.com, “Layout is paramount. If you can move smaller finishing machines, if only to save one footstep, you should consider doing it. In this feast-or-famine sales world we live in today, a layout should be friendly to inline and near-line production, where minimal staffing can make one box of books with minimal footsteps, as well as max production, with max personnel stacking materials on and off pallets if needed, again with minimum footsteps.”
Be on the lookout for new bottlenecks
Eventually, you probably will conclude that you need to increase the capacity of the operation causing the bottleneck. This can be accomplished by adding team members, adding equipment or by taking advantage of new technology that speeds up a particular process – or a combination. And, asking if the equipment or new technology is something you need to have in-house or if it is best to partner with a reliable vendor for that technology – these are all questions that must be asked.
Although many binding/finishing operations can be performed in-house, either inline or near line with a digital or offset printing operation, there are situations where the binding/finishing functions may be better suited for a trade binder or finisher that has invested in specialized equipment for such things as complicated folds, special diecuts or specialty decorating techniques, such as foil or embossing. So, planning and avoiding bottlenecks with jobs that are outsourced to a binder/finisher also is very important to an operation.
As you improve one bottleneck, you may find the bottleneck now has moved to a different operation or different portion of the job. It is vital that you continually monitor the effects of your process changes to identify when the bottleneck does indeed change – then change your focus accordingly.
Make software your ally
Combatting bottlenecks increasingly includes the use of software – from MIS and enterprise resource programs (ERP) that have existed in some form for decades, to programs that are specifically designed for print production, from prepress through post-printing.
One commercial printer has made a seven-figure investment in an ERP system that allows for finite scheduling. It tells production what jobs should run on a machine and in what order and moves an operation to the next day when that day’s hours have been filled, synchronizing all work centers. Despite the expense and the fact that it involves numerous data points, the system has made identifying and avoiding bottlenecks easier.
A recent white paper from Kodak and Epicor, however, emphasizes that printers should “choose ERP that is designed and built to accommodate the specific needs of the printing and packaging industry.” And, the authors don’t accept that modified, adapted or enhanced ERP software will work for most printers.
“The differences and needs of printing and packaging are so fundamental to the basic structure of how ERP works that modification and work-arounds will not suffice,” stated the piece, titled “Five Reasons Why Generic ERP Doesn’t Work for Printing and Packaging”.
“Printing and packaging companies should look for an ERP system that is designed specifically for their industry, with estimating, product and job structuring, scheduling and material control capabilities that are properly attuned to the specifics of their world,” stated the piece. “These fundamental capabilities, however, should be tightly integrated with industry-leading customer relationship management (CRM), workflow, quality and supply chain management applications for a comprehensive enterprise solution.”
Epicor and Kodak have partnered to offer the Epicor solution for printing and packaging, which includes Kodak UpFront production planning software, Kodak Preps imposition software and Kodak Prinergy workflow integrated to Epicor CRM, lean manufacturing and supply chain solutions. Epicor solutions comply 100 percent with service-oriented architecture and include service connect and business link for connectivity with other systems.
Muller Martini’s Connex software is designed for digital production planning. It simplifies complex workflows by tracking, monitoring and analyzing a job’s data and its variability throughout the entire production process, from file to finished product, thus significantly reducing bottlenecks on the production line.
Software systems are important for trade binding/finishing operations as well. Having an efficient way to track a job from start to finish and keep the customer up-to-date on the progress is crucial. “There is more pressure on printers to have binding and finishing all done in-house, so today’s trade binderies and finishers must be more efficient than ever when they are called upon by the printer for help,” states Dienamic MIS Software President Mark Porter. Dienamic has developed a software platform that is specifically designed for the special and unique needs of the binding and finishing businesses. Dienamic offers a fully integrated system, including estimating, management information system, customer service software and E-commerce solutions. Porter tells PostPress that the Dienamic software platform is designed to strengthen the bonds and communications between staff and customers. This is a key aspect for trade binders and finishers.
Search for the right equipment, in the right configuration
Rollem’s Sherwood urged customers to value versatility. “Automating the process has been a key focus of Rollem for some time,” he said. “Having the ability to perform multiple functions to complete a product, or run inline with other equipment, eliminates the bottleneck aspect, as well as improving quality and minimizing labor.
“The goal is to take a job from printed sheet to finished product in a single process that keeps up with, and in most cases exceeds, the output of the digital press,” Sherwood continued. “By eliminating the need to take a job to multiple stations, the job is completed in the most efficient and cost effective way possible. For example, many customers products require UV coating, which is a popular configuration of a UV system coating the sheet and feeding it directly to the slitter. This eliminates the need for moving the stock and instead delivers the coated, cut products at rapid speeds, greatly increasing turnaround.”
Again, not all jobs will be able to be completed in-house by the printer, so printers must seek out competent and reliable partners for binding and finishing as well. Those binders/finishers that have the right equipment for handling digitally printed output, as well as more traditional offset printed material, will be in the choices printers will make. So, having binding/finishing equipment that is flexible and can complete multiple types of bindery functions will be very important.
Embrace new technology
Andy Fetherman, vice president of sales and technology at Muller Martini Corp., extolled the benefits of what he called touchless workflow, stating, “Touchless workflow combines both automation and connectivity and is critical to achieving not only smooth production, but a quality end product.” He went on to explain that, “A touchless workflow starts with either simple barcodes or more sophisticated JDF integration. This enables our equipment to achieve uninterrupted finishing, oftentimes without any manual intervention.”
“Another advancement is hybrid systems. Our bindery equipment processes both offset and digitally printed products, either separately or concurrently, thus avoiding the need to utilize separate machines and resulting in reduced makeready during production and a more balanced quality of the finished product,” said Fetherman.
“We know that the finishing process is more complex than ever before. The ability to seamlessly adapt to variability is of paramount importance, not only for the efficiency (i.e. profitability) of the press run but the quality of the end product,” said Fetherman. “The nature of variability is its unpredictability and that can cause bottlenecks within every phase of the process, from prepress to printing to finishing to distribution. That’s why a higher, centralized level of intelligence needs to drive the workflow and oversee, troubleshoot and validate the integrity of the entire run The system only delivers complete, verified, good books at the end of the process.”
Sherwood concluded, “Many times adjusting workflow or product orientation to accommodate the finishing technology can be a huge asset to improving overall production and eliminating bottlenecks. The big advantage of the digital press technology is the flexibility in how jobs are printed and arranged. The better communication we have as to how the product goes ‘downstream’ the better the flow of production will be.”