by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress
To longtime observers of the printing industry, finishing operations sometimes were referred to as the overlooked stepchild. Shops that had successfully made the transition to digital printing still were working with post-printing set-ups that had become antiquated almost overnight.
That’s changing quickly with the swift evolution of automated bindery equipment, which has become a necessity with the increased number of shorter runs, the shortage of skilled workers and mounting labor costs.
Printers find themselves smack in the middle of many of the global trends that are driving plant floor automation. Among these are a lack of skilled labor, reductions in operating costs and rising customer demand for flexible automation together with consistent quality. Also, although it may not seem like it when you’re contemplating a million-dollar purchase, the cost barriers to automation are falling.
The BindRite Dealers Association holds an annual meeting and vendor tradeshow to showcase the latest in print bindery and finishing, specialty printing and custom presentation equipment and supplies. During the meeting, and throughout the year, the association facilitates the exchange of information regarding member activities in marketing, sales tactics, technical service management and general business management practices. Additionally, the Dealers Association assists members in product and vendor searches. It has compiled a group of BindRite-branded products, including equipment and consumables.
Al Boese, BindRite executive director, has closely tracked the evolution of bindery equipment over the years and has commented on a machinery trend he calls the Green Button Revolution.
“What is the Green Button Revolution? Basically, it is the next stage of automation in digital printing, and it now is beginning to affect all phases of paper handling, binding, protecting and the other print finishing processes,” said Boese. “Green Button means that worker intervention is minimized; in its most ideal form, the operator merely needs to load the machine and press a button (which most often is green).”
Using data taken from the National Print Owners Association (NPOA), Boese has established that labor costs are the single greatest category of business expense in postpress operations, overtaking overhead as the greatest drag on profits. “In fact, with overhead and cost of sales remaining relatively stable over the last 30-year period, the uptick in labor costs comes almost directly out of owner’s compensation,” he explained. According to Boese, these findings account to no small degree for a surge in sales of automated finishing equipment.
“Highly automated bindery equipment is engineered to provide optimum ROI because of its unparalleled efficiency, shorter run capabilities and built-in quality controls,” explained Werner Naegeli, president and CEO of Muller Martini North America.
“Unlike legacy machines, which were designed with gears and chains, each component in today’s digital machines is individually servo-driven. Not only does that help achieve maximum production speed, but it also optimizes each production stage, allowing for machine set-ups and adjustments that require little or no manual intervention.”
And, this type of automation is available today for both inline and offline bindery equipment. For print binderies and finishers, automation may be more important for its offline bindery equipment than for their customers’ inline possibilities.
“Not all digitally printed materials are going to be practical for binding and converting inline,” stated Boese. “Because of this, trade binderies and finishers must have current, automated equipment to service the difficult projects in a timely and cost-effective manner. Old, out-of-date bindery equipment will simply not survive.”
Time to forget the ROI?
Occasionally, the ROI number crunching must take a back seat to the long, hard process of imagining what the future will look like for a particular business. Chris Eckhart, president of Eckhart and Co., a full-service binder in Indianapolis, Indiana, and also a manufacturer of custom packaging products, recently purchased a Kolbus perfect binder. This technology represented a multimillion-dollar investment; however, the decision was driven by more than money considerations, Eckhart explained. Looking to the future of his business, he stated: “To survive and be profitable, we concluded that we needed to invest in the technology that was available in our industry.”
Crunching the numbers for such a purchase, from an ROI standpoint, made no sense. “It was impossible to justify the ROI. I thought that with the greatly increased efficiencies of the new machine, we might be able to go from two shifts to one,” said Eckhart. The Kolbus’ set-up and makeready time is orders of magnitude faster than the previous equipment and runs at much faster speeds. But at the time of the purchase, it was hard to predict whether the greater efficiencies would mean loss of work hours for Eckhart’s staff.
As it turned out, so much new business rolled in that the reduction in hours never happened. The increased quality of the new binder’s output and the enhancement to Eckhart’s reputation made for new and happier customers.
And, there were other “soft” advantages that were not so easy to quantify. “We proved to our employees that we were committed to spending that amount of money to improve the reputation of the business,” said Eckhart. “Also, they are proud to have been trained on state-of-the-art machinery.”
The use of intelligent automation in today’s bindery equipment can significantly increase productivity and throughput in other ways as well. As a case in point, a book-on-demand provider in Germany utilizes Muller Martini’s InfiniTrim three-knife trimmer, which offers the complete automation capability so essential to achieving optimum productivity when processing ultra-short runs.
When comparing the InfiniTrim’s performance to a classic three-knife trimmer, the customer noted that 795,000 format changes have been performed on the InfiniTrim in one year. If those format changes were done on a classic trimmer, it would have required over five years of makeready time.
As Boese points out, however, theres more to the equation than just the purchase price. “Buying decisions are made, or should be made, based on the availability of the local supplier or dealer to support the equipment being purchased,” he said. “Support includes installation, operator training, technical service, spare parts and just being there when the need arises. While many focus on the initial cost of a piece of equipment, it is the total cost of ownership that counts, and that includes local service and the uptime of the operation.”
Contemplating the future
A 2015 report from Smithers Pira, a consulting and market intelligence company with US headquarters in Akron, Ohio, examines the current state of the commercial printing industry around the world going forward to 2020.
One summarizing statement includes the following examination of the print industry: “A number of technological developments have improved efficiency, contributing toward declining levels of employment within the industry. Rising levels of automation are being seen in both administration and print production, and printers have sought to invest in a range of areas to shore up profitability and compete more effectively. This, too, has led to increasing consolidation within the industry.” Printers are left to wonder what part their businesses will play in that consolidation.
Naegeli is firm in his conviction that new bindery technology is a must in today’s world in order to survive and stay competitive. “Since it’s not unusual for a printer to receive 200 orders containing just 20 to 40 runs each, an effective bindery solution must be able to process these files quickly. So, without investing in automated technology, it’s almost impossible to process digital print jobs efficiently,” he said.
Naegeli went on to explain, “Most importantly, customers want the flexibility to produce innovative products and promotions that offer personalization and other variabilities (e.g., format changes, hybrid products, multiple versioning in run lengths, etc.) that increase end-user engagement and response rates. And, they are seeking printers that not only meet their demanding deadlines, but deliver a consistent, high-quality end product. For most printers and binderies to remain relevant and robust, they need singular finishing capabilities that can produce a wide range of complex printed products.”
For Eckhart, it’s a matter of practicality. “At some point, equipment just wears out,” he stated. “Then you have to make a decision about the future. For the past 10 to 15 years, companies in this industry have survived by cutting hours. It’s time to think about adopting a strategy to re-invest in the business, because those are the companies that are going to continue to survive. The alternative is to go out of business.”
Boese put it succinctly: “Time is saved because the user interface is intuitive and simple. Many standard jobs are pre-programmed, and custom work can be stored for future use. Job set-up is simple, swift and precise. Machine operation during a job run is automatic, freeing an operator to prepare the material for the next job or other multitasking activity. Likewise, material is conserved because makeready essentially is eliminated, and a perfect result usually is achieved on the first sheet or book. Green button technology is alive and flourishing, with even more potential for the future.”