Commentary & Analysis
Work smarter – not harder
As the possibilities and the range of applications in the world of printing, including digital, continue to expand, the manufacturers of finishing machines are having to keep pace by delivering continual innovations.
By Michael Seidl
Published: December 9, 2011
One thing is for sure – at drupa 2012 there will be plenty of fresh ideas in finishing technology. All the manufacturers we spoke to confirmed to us that they are hard at work on new or enhanced products. And that’s just as well, because an industry that stands still will go backwards, and that is something none of us wants to see. Particularly when the industry again needs to gather momentum after the difficult years following the financial crisis. So drupa 2012 comes at a good time, and will surely show that the decline in the industry has been dramatically reversed since the last drupa. While booming markets such as China, India and South America are growing at an enviable rate in spite of the crisis, things are not so encouraging on the established markets in the West. Print potential is changing and print runs are shrinking even though there are more products, margins are falling, costs need to be kept under control and customers are becoming more sensitive. This situation requires both printers and finishers to develop innovative new solutions. Time is money, and every mistake has an impact on the bottom line. This applies to both large print runs and digital prints of one.
For years, finishing has been the poor cousin in the production process, but recently this traditional situation has been overturned. Why? Simple: the finishing sector has reinvented itself, being no longer a means to an end, but an essential process in the completion of a printing project. These days there is no point in having a fast offset printer, or the latest digital printing machine, if the finishing is not right and carefully saved paper is wasted in the folding process or the single photo book leaves the production line cut at an angle. Modern finishing technology is sophisticated and innovative, and can hold its head up high alongside other developments in the industry. Join us as we explore the latest trends in this area of the print industry. It might just give you an exciting insight into what awaits you at drupa 2012.
Automation: have we reached the ceiling?
In recent years, binding systems have become highly automated. As to the question of whether this trend will continue or automation has reached its limit, only drupa 2012 will tell. If there is no more progress to be made in this area, where else might development be focused? Thomas Krischke, Commercial Postpress Manager at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, believes that the dominant trend is the drive to increase efficiency and productivity. In finishing, he explains, automation serves primarily to reduce make-ready times for frequently changing small runs, the most extreme case being single-copy runs in digital printing. With large print runs, however, the productivity of the overall process is the key factor.
At Müller Martini, automation has always been a key focus of development. It says simpler, smarter operation results in faster make-ready and error avoidance, and thus higher productivity. “As print runs get smaller, workflow automation and the organisation of the associated business processes, such as logistics, become even more important,” stresses CEO Bruno Müller.
“We haven’t reached the ceiling yet,” adds MBO sales manager Jan Oldenkott. “The next stage in finishing will be book-on-demand printing.” His vision is to produce every book with a different format. Olaf Wallner, Marketing, Sales and Service Manager at Kugler-Womako, sees two key trends: a high level of automation in industrialised economies and fast format changes with small to medium batch sizes. He points to productivity as the dominant force, particularly in mass production. The requirements, he says, are for low staff levels and high productivity, which can only be achieved with a high degree of automation.
“In response to customer pressure, manufacturers have developed fully automatic machines,” says Kai Büntemeyer, CEO of Kolbus. “But these are not generally used to modernise traditional, manual production processes.. “Machine development has only reached a ceiling to the extent that the machines cannot be automated any further in themselves. There is still plenty of potential as far as machine users are concerned.”
At Swiss magazine and newspaper specialist Ferag, automatic make-ready processes come as standard on their gatherer-stitcher drums thanks to the PreTronic presetting system. Where economically feasible, format changes are performed by precision servomotors at all the relevant positions. “In the fight for newspaper contracts, low unit costs are essential. The demand for near-parity of net and gross output takes priority,” explains Ferag CEO Jürg Möckli. But automation alone is not enough, he adds. Reaching productive speed quickly when changing from one job to the next is equally important.
For Horizon, automation is also the order of the day. Because the trend is towards increasingly small print runs, efforts in automation are focusing on machine setup, which needs to be both faster and simpler. If a machine has to process five or six different jobs in a day (which is not unusual nowadays), the difference between a highly trained operator taking 10 to 15 minutes to set it up and a semi-skilled person needing just 5 minutes to do the same job without paper waste is significant. Robin Greenhalgh, Duplo International Chairman , agrees: “Automation will develop further because more and more areas of the printing industry will have a need for it.” He cites new multifunctional finishing systems that allow more automation while delivering higher speeds as a prime example. They enable perforation in two directions for the efficient production of coupons, tickets and direct mailings, which until recently has been reserved for traditional processes such as offset printing.
Digital finishing: a growing segment
The increase in the number of digital production units has naturally increased the demand for high-performance finishing solutions. MBO has a wide range of solutions to offer, from unrolling, plough folding and cross-cutting (with the option of cutting to different lengths and even different chip-out lengths) to fully automated delivery systems for signatures, flyers and single sheets. “We can separate different blocks from book-on-demand production by title and send them directly to the perfect binders. We can even handle different numbers of signatures per block,” says Jan Oldenkott.
E.C.H. Will offers an integrated finishing solution for high-volume production of digitally printed books. The machine turns printed paper webs into blocks of individual sheets which can then be sent to the binding process. The system offers high productivity, reduced paper waste, complete format flexibility and minimum make-ready times.
Müller Martini developed one of the first industrial integrated solutions for finishing digitally printed products, which has now been installed in saddle-stitcher, perfect binder and hardcover production systems all over the world. But the company’s digital solutions are designed with more than just finishing in mind – they enable end-to-end integration of all processes, from prepress data to the finished product.
As far as Kai Büntemeyer is concerned, there is no such thing as digital finishing. The outcome of the finishing process, he argues, is always a physical product. There is, however, such a thing as finishing for digitally printed products. Kolbus offers two solutions, EPCO and INDI. EPCO, or Electrophotographic and Consumer-published, involves the production of high-quality one-off products with a value of €101. INDI, or Industrial Digital Printing, refers to the fully automated production of products with a value of €100. “For the past two years EPCO has made up 25% of our sales. INDI is a large-scale experiment, but outperforms digital printing with a capacity of one million A4 pages an hour. We are waiting for printing machine manufacturers to catch us up,” says Büntemeyer.
Focus on green finishing
Ecology and sustainability are the subject of much interest, and not just in traditional printing. This trend is as relevant to the finishing sector as to the rest of the printing industry, and market players must respond accordingly, particularly as it is also becoming an important customer requirement. A finishing machine uses much less energy than a printing machine.
Nonetheless, at Heidelberg, minimising energy consumption is still one of the primary development goals in finishing technology. Its saddle-stitcher is equipped with a modular drive system which allows the individual modules to be shut down separately to save energy. During setup, only the required feeder is in operation and not the whole machine. Each hopper has its own servo drives, which stop automatically in the event of an error. Other machines only stop after two or three brochures, which then end up as waste. With an assumed annual throughput of 15 million 36-page A4 brochures, this saves 5 tonnes of paper a year.
Müller Martini set up its “Going green” programme several years ago. “It’s important to us to convey this environmental commitment through our EcoBinder,” says Olaf Wallner. This binding machine makes paper-bound ring binders that are 100% eco-friendly and recyclable. These are the first products to be manufactured solely from paper – a completely new market offering. The environmental footprint of an operational finishing system needs to be considered in the light of its actual productivity. “The development of systems offering optimum net output is a highly effective way to reduce environmental footprint. This is something we are passionately committed to,” says Kai Büntemeyer.
Ferag AG has always believed in stringent environmental standards. The company uses only renewable energy sources, returns surplus heat to an energy recovery system, and demands maximum energy efficiency in all its operating processes. Engineers use simulation software to design and develop optimised components and systems, while the production systems use state-of-the-art motors and electric modules. Logically enough, this results in finishing processes which are as eco-friendly as possible.
What potential for innovation?
The word “innovation” is frequently overused. Is there in fact any potential left for innovation in the finishing sector? Horizon points out: “Innovation is defined as ‘introducing new products, ideas or methods.” Müller Martini provides several examples: the numerous quality control features now being integrated in finishing machines; full automation; the digital workflow system Connex with standardised platforms; and the wide range of digital solutions which have recently been developed. Then there are high-output machines for multishift productionwhich now offer more intuitive operation and a wider range of variants. There is also an inserting system, which is designed to cater for the individual needs of newspaper operations of all sizes.
So is there any potential left for innovation in finishing? “It would be an interesting conversation topic for a business lunch,” says Kai Büntemeyer. “You could take a spoon and discuss the need for innovation in this tried-and-tested utensil. That would be on a par with a book.” Between the publisher and the consumer there are certainly complex processes concealing infinite potential for innovation, but these are almost entirely exploited by recombining ideas from other areas. “So in all honesty, we would propose modest use of the word ‘innovation’,” Büntemeyer concludes.
At Heidelberg, innovation is being driven by both technical development and application technology. Its latest folder with pneumatic twin lay system is a perfect example of how an ingenious technical feature can achieve a significant gain in productivity. “For me, the measure of an innovation is whether it offers a significantly enhanced benefit for our customers,” says Thomas Krischke.
The imperative at present is to develop the right applications for the new trends emerging in digital printing. In recent years we have seen an almost complete shift from film to digital cameras on the consumer market. For printers, this has meant new products such as photo books and personalised cards. Various new regulations are demanding modifications to packaging; safety requirements are becoming stricter, and in some cases Braille text is now mandatory. Future generations of web-fed and sheet-fed inkjet printers will also open up new business opportunities. All these developments will generate new requirements for the finishing industry. “What inspires us is the fact that there are still plenty of paper-based developments to come that still need solutions,” says Robin Greenhalgh.
“We make a distinction between technological innovation and process innovation,” says Jürg Möckli. The two are mutually dependent, and involve partnership between Ferag as a systems manufacturer and the customer. In addition to innovation for efficiency, aimed at minimising unit costs in mass production, there is innovation in specific solutions for companies seeking to occupy a specialist niche. The customer’s specific needs are identified through an ongoing dialogue. One example of innovation at Ferag is the integrated finishing system with polybagging, gathering, stitching, trimming, inserting and bundling.
drupa 2012: the industry benchmark
drupa is the showcase for the whole industry. Every four years, the print media industry comes together in Düsseldorf to set the pace for the next few years. Trying to find out months in advance of the event what new products will be on show is rather like consulting the Oracle of Delphi. But this didn’t stop us asking. Müller Martini will be presenting several new solutions covering its complete product portfolio, with a special focus on MMServices. MBO will again be exhibiting in Hall 6 along with other finishing systems manufacturers. MB Bäuerle plans to showcase its latest developments in automated folding and inserting solutions. Kugler-Womako will present a machine that sets new standards in processes, end product quality and usability, and offers real innovation in this market segment with added value for the customer. “Unfortunately, digital printing is currently proving a barrier to innovation in the industry,” says Kai Büntemeyer. “Huge budgets are being blocked while people wait to see what future role digital printing will have.” Büntemeyer believes that the printing technology industry will have to eliminate this obstacle at drupa 2012. Kolbus will be seeking to do this with its own presentations, but will also be showing completely conventional bookbinding machines at remarkably affordable prices. For Horizon, the countdown to drupa started ages ago. In 2012, the company intends to focus more on finishing technologies for digitally printed products than at the last drupa. Ferag intends to concentrate on process optimisation for greater efficiency and substantial reductions in unit costs, innovative control concepts, and new added-value solutions.
It is certainly set to be an exciting event… so roll on 2012.