We can talk all we want about marketing services and the value of data and online and mobile marketing, but let’s face it: If your print quality stinks, none of those are going to make much of a difference. The ability to find, keep and advance highly skilled press operators who can produce quality print jobs with minimal disruption (thereby minimizing on-press waste and downtime) is gold in the printing business.
Fortunately, there is a surprisingly underused (at least in the United States) option for training and evaluating press operators. It is called press simulation, and it allows press operators to experience real-world press situations in a safe, highly realistic and low-cost environment. Each simulator works much the same way as an airplane or shuttle simulator, allowing press operators to train on real-world problems and situations without using valuable press time or live consumables.
Pressroom trainers can use the “out of the box” exercises, or they can create their own. Thus, trainees can learn or advance their skills without creating press waste or incurring downtime.
Currently, French company Sinapse Print Simulators is the only manufacturer of press simulators for heatset and sheetfed, flexo and gravure. Sinapse offers licenses for schools and single-site companies; groups of licenses for small, multisite companies (for example, Paarl Printing in South Africa has three licenses shared among several plants); and huge blocks of hours for large companies, such as RR Donnelley & Sons Co. In the United States, print manufacturers and others interested in simulation can work through competence centers such as the Printing Industries of America (PIA) or the Institut des Communications Graphiques du Québec (ICGQ) in Montréal.
The value of print simulators can be seen in their widespread use around the world. More than 1,700 printing Sinapse simulators are installed globally by printers, suppliers and educational institutions. According to Sinapse, more than 220 (about 40 percent) of the world’s print schools use simulators in their training programs. Some have a single simulator, while others use 30 or more.
One of these programs is at the Community and Technical College at West Virginia University Institute of Technology . It operates all seven print simulator modules in its Montgomery, W.Va. location. In its Eastern Panhandle location, it operates five. “There is no substitute for a live press, but in a training environment, there are things you cannot do on a live press because it’s not practical,” said Jack Nuckols, professor and chairman of the printing department. “In offset, for example, if you don’t watch your water and ink balance, your plates will start scumming. But if you were to recreate that on a live press, it would take two hours to clean up. On a simulator, you can ‘shut down’ your water and show the same results without the mess.”
In the world of commercial printing, this translates into serious dollars saved.
The value of print simulators can be seen in their widespread use around the world. More than 1,700 printing Sinapse Print Simulators are installed globally by printers, suppliers and educational institutions. According to Sinapse, more than 220 (about 40 percent) of the world’s print schools use simulators in their training programs.
Early Adopter, Key Innovator
RR Donnelley (RRD) is among the largest users of print simulators, with 40-plus production sites currently in the simulator training program. Among them are licenses for Sinapse’s WebSim-Heatset EXPERT and SHOTS Sheetfed, as well as Flexo press simulators.
RRD’s first simulator installations in the United States were in the 1990s. Since then, RRD has purchased more than 20 licenses for heatset, gravure, sheetfed and flexo simulators. To stay up to date and avoid separate licenses for widely varying sites, Sinapse and RDD have gradually moved to a different usage model. RRD now purchases massive blocks of simulation hours and can thus run any number of simulators anywhere at any time. Reporting is centralized, while training is distributed.
Among the locations using WebSim-Heatset EXPERT is Glasgow, Ky. The investment was made as part of a push for employee retention. At the time, the decision was driven by the plant’s desire to boost its employees’ experience level and improve its overall production quality.
This effort continued with the establishment of multiyear “pay for performance” training programs a few years later. Glasgow divided the program into three levels. Entry-level employees were placed into the Skill Block Program, material handlers were placed into the Material Handler Program. Press operators were placed into the Apprenticeship Program.
The simulator is a central aspect of the training. Employees use it for several hours per month to train on a variety of different courses. “It shows our pressroom employees how to recognize and troubleshoot problems with tension, paper, ink/water balance, dryer and folder,” Glasgow’s manufacturing pressroom manager said. “It also provides a basis for refresher courses and complex folder problems like wrinkling, dog ears and uneven folds.”
One of the many benefits of the WebSim Heatset EXPERT is that it eliminates the waste of materials and the threat of damage to equipment. “We have successfully [used the simulator to accelerate] the learning curve of our press crews,” the pressroom manager said. “It has enabled them to produce good quality months earlier than any other training method.”
Eliminating Waste Materials and Equipment Damage
In 2007, Glasgow had 86 employees using WebSim-Heatset EXPERT for its initial round of training. Four years later, all of its original trainees have completed the program and its trainers continue to bring new employees through. As of August 2011, RRD Glasgow still had 42 (different) employees undergoing simulator training.
• The Skill Block Program currently includes courses dealing with introduction to the simulator, fold setting, defect identification and similar production issues.
• The Material Handler Program consists of about five courses dealing with folder problems, blanket/plate, color setting, ink and water balance, register setting and similar issues.
• The Apprenticeship Program deals with advanced color setting, register and troubleshooting courses.
In all three programs, employees train on the simulator at a rhythm of two hours per month.
What do employees think of the simulator training? The following quotes are employee descriptions of their experience: “highly motivating,” … “certainly helped my problem-solving skills,” … “makes me think about what I’m doing before I do it.”
Learning Cost Management
Another powerful benefit of simulators is the real-time cost calculator that runs while students are “on press.” This teaches them the value of materials and how their decisions impact their employer’s bottom line.
“Every time you touch the press, there is a cost associated with it,” Drake said. “for example, one of our students was printing a four-color job on the simulator and thought one of his blankets was bad. Rather than take the time to check each blanket individually, he changed all four. All of a sudden, the counter jumped by $800. The counter teaches students that you can’t just throw money at the machine. As an employee, a big part of your job is to make sure you don’t waste materials. The simulator helps them become conscious that their decisions cost money.”
When asked about the one thing that surprised him the most about the simulator, Drake said it was the realism that it brings to the process. “A press is heavy iron, and it’s different. But i think Sinapse Press Simulators have done a great job making it as realistic as they can on a computer,” he said. “it’s a great tool. i’ll definitely be using these simulators in the classroom until i retire.”
It Isn’t a Video Game
Lest you be tempted to think this is little more than some kind of video game, just ask the manufacturing manager of The Nielsen Company, an RRD company in Florence, Ky. “When asked about the press simulator, my first reaction was that we do not have time to play games,” he said. “Our pressroom is fast-paced and busy all the time. We have many customer OKs, and I was unsure we had the time to allow employees to sit on the computer "playing’ with made up press scenarios.”
But years earlier, this industry veteran had seen the press simulator at a trade show and left impressed. This created openness to seeing the system in use. “You could imagine my surprise when we began testing the latest version and saw that the system had been refined and developed into a comprehensive and practical training approach for all levels of pressroom employees,” he said.
The first difference that stood out to him was the use of the dual screen. If two monitors are hooked up simultaneously, the user sees the press console and print units on one monitor and the print copy on the second monitor. If only one screen is hooked up, the user must click on the stack to see the print copy. The display of the print copy occupies the screen until the user asks to return to the press console/print unit view. This change allows for a very realistic press experience for the simulator operator.
The second difference that stood out from earlier versions is the use of workbooks, which adds guidance and structure to the program. This makes it possible to measure the progress and development of employees. Each lesson plan builds the necessary skills to complete the next lesson in the workbook.
The goal of each practice lesson is to make it easy to learn about and practice a specific skill or task, such as pulling register or adjusting ink and water balance. The tools allow for use of a loupe and manual or scanning densitometer.
Practical, Profitable Tools
Nielsen’s pressroom manager sees these as practical tools used every day by press crews in the real world. But most important is the company’s ability to make money using the simulator. “Press operators learn how to further their press skills without wasting precious time and paper on our presses, and they learn how to use the tools of their trade in the correct way,” he said .
Nielsen finds the following uses for the simulator:
Helps train and develop employees
Provides a realistic press experience without wasting press time and materials
Provides structure and guidance so employees can move through the exercises with minimal interaction with supervision and they can learn at their own pace
A number of companies licensing the simulator — including Nielsen — have used it as part of customer tours. This allows them to see how their print provider develops and retains highly skilled employees. “We have found that many old and new customers alike love to see exactly how we continue to train employees and develop our staff for the future without compromising the work we do,” he said.
Particularly exciting was when he heard employees talking in the break room, not about deer hunting or the score of the previous night’s ball game, but the challenge of lesson six on the simulator. This really drives home how SHOTS can help change the culture of the shop. “One thing is for sure,” the industry veteran said. “This is not a video game!”
View from Columbia, S.C.
Another RRD location using the simulator is State Printing in Columbia, S.C.
“I highly recommend all pressroom operators and assistants go through this program,” the Columbia location’s pressroom manager said. “I’m a 27-year veteran on the sheetfed side, and this program is as close as it gets to the real thing. I have gone through all of the workbook exercises and found it to be challenging, [even] to me. It takes some getting used to working on a virtual press as opposed to the real thing, but you quickly overcome that after a few workbook exercises.”
The feedback from both current participants and successful graduates of Columbia’s program has been all positive. Those who have been through it have come back and reported how it has helped them with their daily jobs on press. “Sometimes when a problem occurs, they remember going through an exercise in the simulator, and it has helped them recognize the problem faster and helped with a quick solution,” the pressroom manager continued. “Those who have not been on a computer much are a little apprehensive at first, but once they get started it becomes contagious. They like the challenge.”
He also likes that you can add custom media (such as might have resulted in a very costly error at the site) and use it as a training tool to prevent from making that error in the future. “Think of the dollars you save with quicker response, less waste and reduced spoilages from a skilled team.”
View from Crawfordsville, Ind.
Even traditionalists have been impressed with the realism of press simulators. This includes the pressroom supervisor at RRD in Crawfordsville, Ind.
“For an old press operator, I must say, I was impressed,” he said. “Cool stuff! I’m anxious to get rolling on more sessions. It’s not the same as running a press, but it’s a pretty good representation. It sure is nice to learn some troubleshooting techniques without actually dumping sigs at 2000 fpm.”
The seasoned manager also found sessions regarding register, density and slurring to be extremely impressive. “I’ll continue to go through the sessions and hone my own navigation and operation skills, but I can already tell that this is going to be a useful tool for a variety of press positions,” he said.
To do it right, he highly recommends using the dual-touch screens in the lab.
Enthusiasm from Atlanta
RRD’s location in Atlanta is an enthusiastic user of the system, as well.
“Our goal here at the Atlanta West plant is to put all of our operators through the press simulator program,” exuded the plant manager. “We intend to start with the feeder operators and move up the ladder. We have even shared it with one associate in our scheduling department. Our pressroom manager supports this program 100 percent. This has the potential to be one of the best in-house training tools we have seen in a long time.”
Hiring and Skills Evaluation
Among the uses for press simulators beyond the pressroom is skills evaluation. Some locations have used simulators to evaluate the skills of potential new hires. Others use it to refine the skills of new hires in a low-cost environment. Among the latter is Shorewood Packaging in Denbigh, Va. “Once we train someone inside the plant, we have very good results,” said Myron Braggs, gravure shift coordinator at the Denbigh plant. “But trainees need a lot of experience and a lot of help. This makes the process that much easier.”
In the Glasgow RRD location, WebSim Heatset EXPERT is used, not for initial hiring, but for skills evaluation in the promotion process. Training has always been one of the most difficult tasks to measure accurately, and the trainers feel that the simulator allows them to document and measure current training skill levels based on hands-on performance.
“After the press crews learn how to use it, the simulator is a self-trainer and you don’t have to babysit it,” RRD Glasgow’s pressroom manager concluded. “You can even generate training/progress reports for employees or evaluations. We have it tied to all of our programs, and it works great without generating waste or materials.”
Whether the view is from South Carolina, Indiana, Georgia or all points in between, the reviews are unanimous: Press simulators are one of the best, most cost-effective tools for training and skills assessment for pressrooms hands down.
Press Simulation in an Educational Environment
Students at Fox Valley Technical college (pictured) in Appleton, Wis., part of the Wisconsin Technical college system, have discovered an expected characteristic of press simulators. They are addicting.
Fox Valley is the largest educational user of Sinapse press simulators in the united States. it has five offset simulators — one heatset and four sheetfed (SheetSim-SHOTS) — and is currently in the process of installing SHOTS number five. It uses the simulators to train students in problem-solving and troubleshooting, as well as to reinforce the live press experience.
Dale Drake, an instructor in Fox Valley’s printing and publishing program, was exposed to the simulator as a training tool for pressmen. ultimately, however, he justified the purchases based on its value for troubleshooting and problem-solving.
“A lot of problems we see on press are hard to recreate because it’s bad materials and such,” Drake said. “in our programs, i believe in setting students for success, so we use very good plates, ink and paper. i try to build confidence by making sure that students aren’t fighting the press. consequently, there is not a lot of opportunity to build troubleshooting skills. With the simulator, i can give them scenarios they don’t get on a live press.”
The other justification is that, like most educational institutions, Fox Valley doesn’t have enough presses for every student. The school offers two press courses and has seven small-format offset presses. The students pair up on press, so printing classes are limited to 14 people. “Eventually, however, students do projects on their own, so one works on press and the other on the simulator,” Drake said. “So it’s also a lab management issue.”
In the first semester, each student spends eight to 10 hours on a simulator. At this time, they learn basic skills, such as ink/water balance and registration. in the second semester, they spend five to six hours on the simulator learning advanced issues such as color and quality control. in the printing and publishing program, heatset is introduced in the second semester.
“On the simulator, I can expose them to more advanced press work without having to expose them to raw materials,” Drake said. “it also eliminates the issue of safety on press.” not surprisingly, Fox Valley graduates have a reputation for moving into press operator positions very quickly. “in the industry, it’s standard for someone to be a press assistant five to seven years. We’ve had students make press operator in a year,” Drake said. “They’ve never come back and said SHOTS made the difference, but there is no question that having the additional troubleshooting has helped. it gives them the skills to work through problems in a real-world environment.”
Simulators are not just learning tools. They are also just plain fun. Most of Fox Valley’s students are right out of high school, and there is the video game element to the training that they enjoy. “At the same time, you have to watch to make sure they don’t just solve problems by pushing buttons,” Drake said. “you need to ensure that they are actually attempting to solve the problems.”