Commentary & Analysis
FREE: “When I Move the Knife, I Am Making Money”: An Interview with Heidelberg USA’s Rob Kuehl
By Patrick Henry September 30,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: September 30, 2004
By Patrick Henry September 30, 2004 -- Say what you will about digital workflows, robotic press controls, and printing in six, eight, or ten colors: they may be dazzling technical achievements in their own right, but none of them is as basic to the success of a job as the simple cutting and handling of paper. In any printing process, “simple” ultimately means problem-free. Paper, accounting for up to half the manufacturing cost of most jobs, is either efficiently cut and staged for printing, or it isn’t. Inefficiency at the cutting stage breeds spoilage and bottlenecks— fundamental failures that no amount of prepress wizardry or pressroom finesse can wholly make up for. Heidelberg USA, the largest single exhibitor at Graph Expo, will acknowledge the primacy of paper cutting by dedicating a part of its 40,000 sq. ft. stand to the products of Polar-Mohr, its manufacturing partner in bringing advanced cutting and handling solutions to the world market. Administering the Heidelberg-Polar partnership in North America is Rob Kuehl, Heidelberg’s director of postpress packaging and label systems. At Graph Expo, he will be Heidelberg’s and Polar’s evangelist for automation with integrated, computerized equipment that can do away with the old inefficiencies of paper processing—a theme he expounded in a pre-show conversation with WhatTheyThink.com. Keep it in motion Kuehl can speak at length about everything that Polar systems do, but he notes that automating their functions always has same bottom line: “to make it a lot easier to keep the knife moving.” The keys to keeping a cutter’s knife in motion, he explains, are reducing physical effort, assuring safety, and letting the machines take over tasks that human operators perform more slowly and with greater risk of error. Cutting and handling come into play both before and after jobs are printed. Sheets in basic sizes for their grades are recut into smaller units. Roll stock is cut into press-sized sheets, yielding paper cost savings for high-volume producers. Off-loaded from the cutter, piles of blank paper are turned, jogged and aerated for press-side delivery in skids. Inked sheets are cut into signatures and trimmed. Most of these labor-intensive tasks take place in the bindery, the part of the operation traditionally held to be most resistant to what Polar solutions offer in abundance: process automation. Kuehl admits that the bindery “continues to resist the blandishments of computer driven automation” because people think that old postpress equipment never dies and that bindery work will never be anything but manual. “In many cases, the best that can be said of postpress is that it adds no cost,” he observes. But, postpress finally is being recognized as a “significant differentiator” for companies that have added value to their binderies by automating what goes on in them. “Many of our customers didn’t recognize the value of postpress automation,” says Kuehl, “until a few began to prove it by using automation to eliminate labor-intensive processes and their related mistakes, to streamline productivity, and to increase quality.” The benefits of automated paper processing aren’t exclusively for the bindery. According to Kuehl, Polar also offers “boundless opportunities” for automation to paper dealers and converters as well as to “industrial” printers that cut sheets from roll stock. Coming up on the century mark The developer of these solutions, Polar-Mohr, is a German firm founded in 1906 as a manufacturer of carpentry tools. It remains 100 percent owned by the Mohr family and is independent of Heidelberg, although Heidelberg, with which it has been closely affiliated since 1949, transacts most of its sales in North America. (Polar does not sell direct, preferring to market through Heidelberg and other third-party distributors.) Polar specializes in paper cutters and material handling systems for the print and paper industries. The functions of this equipment include loading, jogging, buffering, cutting, conveying (transporting), unloading, banding, die cutting for labels, banding, and pile turning. Polar produces about 2,000 cutters and 1,500 handling systems annually. Worldwide sales in 2003 were ¤ 80 million, with the North American market—consisting of an installed base of 17,000 machines—representing about one-quarter of the volume. Product literature from factory headquarters uses the slogan “buttons not muscles” to highlight the extent to which Polar equipment has been automated— a product attribute that Kuehl also emphasizes. Using automation to reduce redundant physical labor in the bindery and related operations is a bonus both for people and for productivity, according to Kuehl. “Power cutting is an extremely physical process,” he says. “Unless you’re practicing to be a bodybuilder all day long, there’s no need for anyone to be put through it.” Performing such work on equipment that forces them to bend, lift, and strain, people become “worn out,” slower, and more prone to mistakes as the day drags on. Happily, automating the machines that feed and clear the cutter can eliminate most of the “muscle” from the routine. When tending a Polar jogger equipped for sheet counting and quality checking, says Kuehl, “basically all the operator has to do is watch it” as it shuffles paper into a tight, square pile. A fully adjustable Polar stack loader can raise the pile to the cutter at the exact working height of its operator, reducing ergonomic distress from bending. After cutting, a Polar Transomat off-loader keeps the stack moving on “a film of air underneath 1,000 40" sheets weighing hundreds of pounds, sort of like an air hockey game.” Two do not equal one What’s more, according to the manufacturer, players in this pneumatically enhanced contest need no assists to score points that can be recorded as significant increases in productivity. For example, a Polar 155 high speed cutter running in line with a Transomat feeder and off-loader is a fully automated system requiring just one operator. This lone worker, says Polar, can cut and trim 20 tons of paper per shift, vs. six to eight tons by two operators using a stand-alone cutter only. Without interruptions from operator fatigue to detain it, a system configured in this way is “continuously cutting—the knife keeps moving,” says Kuehl. And, when the knife moves, the operator can be certain that it will move safely. The infrared detector in the latest generation of Polar cutters casts a “curtain” of 20 beams that the operator can’t avoid breaking—thereby preventing the fall of the knife—if his or her hands are anywhere but in a protected position on the table. Safe operation and efficient throughput are the hallmarks of the digital controls that Polar builds into all of its equipment, particularly the cutters. The company’s blanket term for this initiative is PACE: Polar Automated Cutting for Efficiency, denoting technologies that link cutting and other operations to the same production workflows that govern prepress and presswork. Kuehl notes that job data for Polar’s newest cutters, the X and XT models, can be programmed offline and sent to the cutter as JDF (job definition format) instructions when the job is ready to run. Gone is the need to program jobs ad hoc, one at a time, delaying the all-important movement of the knife. As a result, says Kuehl, “when you turn the cutter on, it works.” Prepress talks to postpress The enabling solution is CompuCut, a software application installed on about 600 Polar cutters worldwide, including 200 in the U.S. CompuCut, the winner of a GATF InterTech Technology Award, generates cutting programs from prepress imposition systems and other CIP3/CIP4 compliant sources. With CompuCut, Kuehl explains, “you can tap into the data of a to-be-printed product” and capture the all the specs needed for programming the cutter offline. By reducing makeready and increasing throughput, offline programming facilitates the production of quick-turnaround, JIT (just in time) work—a category that Polar says may account for up to 70 percent of the volume in today’s binderies. Kuehl also notes that offline programming can eliminate what he calls “the whole sea” of backlogged work typically found in postpress departments lacking the capabilities of CompuCut. The digital backbone for binderies with multiple cutting stations is P-net, Polar’s Ethernet connectivity solution for two-way communication between the P-net server and networked cutters. P-net acts as an interface between prepress, order preparation, and production, organizing and managing the data flow among all Polar components. Kuehl says P-net makes it possible to program all components off line, send them their job instructions as needed, and monitor their operation. The next addition to P-net will be remote diagnostics, something that Kuehl will be happy to discuss with showgoers at Graph Expo. The acme of Polar’s ongoing R&D program—for which it budgets a sum equal to 6 percent of its annual turnover—is its XT line, part of the 10th generation of cutting equipment released by the company since 1947. Kuehl calls the XT cutters “new and future oriented solutions” that support networked and ergonomic operation with minimal maintenance. “They are designed both for the simplified processing of shorter runs and for the fully automated production of higher volumes,” he says. XT technology will be showcased at Graph Expo in the L-R-137-T integrated cutting system, the core component of which is Polar’s 137XT Autotrim cutter. This 54" device, which can store up to 99 sets of cutting instructions, can automatically recalculate a program if a cut dimension should change. It also can calculate the number of “ups”—sheets to be cut to a desired size—available in an uncut sheet. Prompts on its 15" touchscreen tell operators when and how to turn the stack and carry out other functions. The L-R-137-T system surrounds the 137XT with a lift, jogger, scale, and Transomat palletizer for inline, fully automated cutting, including vacuum removal of paper scrap. Also to be seen in Polar’s sector of the Heidelberg booth are the cutter models 66 (26"), 78X (30"), and 115XT (45"). The latter will be equipped with a DC-M inline die cutting punch. The Polar PW-4ABV pile turner will show off its ability to turn, aerate, align, and vibrate tall, heavy stacks of paper in one continuous operation. Liberating their checkbooks Kuehl realizes that even with the technological weight of Graph Expo on his side, some of the cutter owners he will meet there are in no particular hurry to retire old workhorses that they know they can refit or rebuild for less than the cost of buying a new one. What kind of case will he make to persuade these holdouts to upgrade? He says he’ll remind them that even with rebuilds, old cutters don’t have the quality and safety features that new ones do. He’ll emphasize that the great advantage of a new cutter is its higher backgauge speed: the working rate of the component that carries the lift of paper to and from the knife. Kuehl says the choice could be as stark as 12"/sec. on a new cutter vs. 5"/sec. on an obsolete model. He’ll also point out that the throat, or opening, of a new cutter probably will be larger than that of the machines it was designed to replace, making it possible to increase throughput by cutting taller stacks of paper. Kuehl has both a long and a short version of what he hopes will be his clinching argument to printers, bindery operators, converters, and others managing paper cutting and handling operations. Automating the process with Polar solutions, he’ll declare, “can reduce redundant physical labor to increase operator satisfaction and motivation and keep that knife moving consistently and reliably.” What it boils down to, he’ll add, is this: “When I move the knife, that’s when I am making money.” Whether it triggers a buying decision or not, Kuehl feels—correctly—that it will have been worth the customer’s trip to McCormick Place to be reminded.