If realtors were printers, the mantra, “location, location, location” would be recast as “automation, automation, automation.” Features like touchscreen or touchbutton consoles, servo-motor control and JDF compliance are said to result in significant savings of time and materials as the industry moves to shorter and shorter run lengths and dramatically reduced makeready times. Reflecting the growing trend among conventional printers to augment their capabilities by bringing in digital machines, postpress equipment is being produced that reportedly functions equally well in digital and offset environments, including the binding and finishing of fragile digital output. Powerful software enables printers to network their bindery equipment, track productivity statistics in real time, perform load balancing and scheduling, capture error rates, and measure the amount of time spent in production versus setup. Workflow integration adds the ability to report these data to a plant’s MIS system, with the advantage of recalling job parameters at a later date.

On the eve of Print 05, four postpress executives agreed to discuss these and other topics with WhatTheyThink.com: Mark Hunt, director of marketing, Standard Finishing Systems (booth 2845); Werner Naegeli, president and CEO, Muller Martini Corp. (booth 4018); Ralph Pasquariello, director of postpress product management, Heidelberg USA (booth 1200); and Rick Trapilo, executive vice president and general manager, C.P. Bourg (booth 4805).

WTT: Where will the growth come from in the market for conventional finishing equipment?

MH: Automation. To reflect that, every new product coming out of Horizon has been designed with automation in mind, including JDF capability.

WN: There is a definite trend toward automation, due to the increasing costs of medical benefits for bindery employees and the need to reduce makeready times as run lengths get shorter.

RP: Heidelberg is highlighting “next-generation” postpress, meaning automation, in-line or off-line, connected or not. Automation is the key to postpress productivity and a key competitive advantage.

RT: Automation is the primary trend. What used to take an hour or two for adjustments can be done in minutes now without human intervention, yielding productivity gains in excess of 100 percent.

WTT: How do you define automation?

MH: Automation is not a yes or no thing. It’s a continuum. Equipment may be more or less automated and JDF-compliant or not. Some non-JDF-compliant equipment is automated to some degree but maybe can’t take the step to a JDF workflow, if and when a company decides to do that.

WN: We need to differentiate between “conventional” material handling and machine automation with stream feeders, motorized machines, faster makereadies and faster changeovers, and automation via full integration with JDF.

RP: When people talk about bindery automation, generally they’re talking about stackers, banders, loaders, unloaders and other peripherals we put on equipment to take the place of labor, not necessarily to replace the human element but to deploy it more efficiently elsewhere.

WTT: What is the relationship between automated material handling and machine automation?

MH: It’s the same evolution from craft to digitally controlled manufacturing process that has occurred in pressrooms. There will always be a dimension of craft in the production and binding and finishing of documents. It’s one thing to digitize prepress and MIS because nothing has hit the physical world yet. But once ink or toner hits the paper, it has physical properties like grain direction, humidity level, static - that require it to be handled in different ways. That’s not a process that can be fully digitized. There has to be somebody who knows the sheet needs to dry longer because it has too much ink on it or when to put in some offset powder. Some of those core capabilities will continue to be necessities, but some unique capabilities that have sustained bindery operators in the past may be superceded by capabilities that are built into the machines.

WN: You have to look at the workflow as one thing. Today’s finishing equipment uses material that is affected by its handling right after the press. That very often is neglected by a lot of people. If you want to be effective in finishing, that material must be stacked or bundled well, then separated well to the infeed of the machine. You cannot have damage; you cannot have waste in between because all that will affect finishing. You convince customers by showing them the measurable difference a 100 percent perfect bundle makes in the bindery.

WTT: Are customers asking for JDF (Job Definition Format) compatibility?

MH: I believe JDF eventually will disappear, by which I mean it’s going to be more or less universally built-in but under the hood. The point isn’t really the technology or JDF per se; it’s integrated workflow: What are the benefits to me? Am I going to save time and money? Am I going to run a more profitable print enterprise by adopting this integrated workflow? And the answer to that is absolutely, yes. We are trying to demonstrate the tangible benefits for the customers to help them better appreciate what’s in it for them beyond being able to raise their hand and say they’ve implemented JDF.

WN: We see customers learning about and pushing for JDF when they buy a new machine. Even the biggest printers, which before drupa 2004 had no interest in JDF because they had their own MIS and data collection, now specify full JDF/JMF (Job Messaging Format) capability.

RP: In some applications it’s more important to extract information from postpress equipment than to feed it in. If the time saved by extracting a job from prepress and downloading it versus getting a job ticket and entering the values manually is significant, of course you would do it, and the added value also would be significant. But if the bindery manager can sit in his office, key into a machine and extract information about what job I’m running right now and how many books I’m getting off it, that’s good, valuable information gathering. Maybe I have two or three machines running the same job. Why am I producing 12,000 books per hour on one machine and only 6,000 on the other? That type of automated data collection helps an owner analyze and prioritize. It also helps him estimate how much a job will cost the next time it’s run. That being said, I would estimate that fewer than 10 percent of people are really talking about JDF. The other 90 percent know about automation, but whether or not they want to pay to get it is another question.

RT: The buying audience is sick of hearing about JDF as a concept and much more accepting of automation. Automation is practical and tangible. Having said that, it will take time for printers to buy in. They have to see what it can do for them.

WTT: Is it still a tough sell?

RP: I think it’s getting easier. You see some progress. Some people are starting to see the value, not just intellectually, but in practical terms. Others are going to flounder because they won’t make that leap.

WTT: What are the benefits of automation?

MH: When everything adjusts automatically to the proper position, it enables me to get my first product off at a high-quality level so that I can compete more effectively on short-run jobs. In the old days, when I had manual setup folders and was running a 30,000 run and burned up 300 or 500 making sure my settings were correct, it wasn’t a big deal. Today, with a job that might be 5,000 units, there’s no way I can burn up 10 percent. As run lengths come down, I need to be able to get to shippable, billable end product instantly.

WN: The bindery has to cope not only with shorter runs, but also with more different jobs. Work tends to pile up in the bindery under such conditions. One of the keys to a print shop’s success is to be able to get these jobs through the bindery. The fact that they have to gear up for a larger number of makereadies per shift attracts customers to automated solutions.

WTT: At what point does it make sense for a printer to automate his bindery?

MH: The biggest driver is run length. Some trade binderies have a volume threshold. If it’s not 10,000 units, they’re not interested. And if you’re that kind of a trade bindery and you elect to stay up in the higher volume end of the market, there’s probably an argument to be made that the automation doesn’t bring as much benefit to you as to another shop. Every business has a different set of criteria they use to decide what is going to bring value to their operation.

WN: I see two types of operations: Those with enough capacity in the bindery to cope with their finishing work. They have an operator around anyway. If the machines don’t run for an entire shift or two shifts, that’s fine. They do whatever makereadies they have, as long as they get their work done. Then you have the other type, which cannot handle more work unless they automate.

RP: It’s a natural progression that begins when customers get started with computer-to-plate and automation on their presses. People used to tell me, “I don’t need blanket washups on my presses. My operator can do it,” or “Why should I put a console on my press? My guys can turn ink keys.” Those are the kinds of defenses customers put up until they peek over the fence and see that the guy down the street has put in a brand-new cutting system, brand-new saddle-stitcher and a brand-new folder that folds at 10,000 instead of 5,000 sheets per hour and winds up producing more and making more money for less labor cost.

RT: Given the dynamics of the market today, a printer really has no choice. Every customer realizes the waste in dollars of having inventory just sit on the shelf. This requires all printers, from commercial printers to in-plants, to print shorter and shorter runs with equipment that can change over on the spot.

WTT: Is it also a question of scale? What about the most highly industrialized, high-volume printers?

WN: They also want to reduce their eight-to-nine-hour makereadies. After years of having no interest in automation, they suddenly are looking at components that require less makeready and less playing around for hours and hours until the settings are right.

WTT: How do you counter the “if-it-ain’t broke, why fix it?” argument?

MH: While there are some die-hards among the “heavy iron” customers, most customers recognize that if you don’t invest in automated technology that is quick to learn, set up and change over as well as adaptable for short-run applications, you probably won’t stay competitive. This is because the guy down the road has bought a system that will make the same professional quality book or saddle-stitched document you can make with your heavy iron except that he can put 20 different jobs through that machine in one day, whereas you’re struggling to do two or three.

WN: A lot of people run their old equipment at lower speeds with slower makereadies and more fiddling around. It costs a lot to maintain these machines. But there are some aggressive printers out there who realize they have to change. They listen and say, “Okay, “I’ll revamp my bindery, but you have to find me a solution whereby I can replace two old machines with one new one.” With today’s technology, we can do that.

RP: Operators jump to from shop to shop, salesmen change and word on the street is that your competitor is doing more because his bindery is superior to yours because you’re still running with 30-year-old equipment while his is brand new. People realize this. However, when everything old is working fine, it’s still hard for them to abandon it. The technology is almost exponential, even over the past 10 years. Still, it’s wrongheaded to think you’re going to solve a competitive problem by putting in a fully automated piece of equipment when your whole plant isn’t thinking that way.

In Part 2, WTT will ask Mr. Pasquariello to elaborate on those comments. We’ll also talk with Standard’s Mark Hunt, Muller Martini’s Werner Naegeli and C.P.Bourg’s Rick Trapilo about hybrid solutions, the convergence of offset postpress and digital finishing technology, and the products their companies are showing at Print 05.