17 July 2017 Digital Printing Technologies

Cork unbottles lean approach to book printing

Printondemand Worldwide wants to be the leading producer of digitally printed books and has implemented lean manufacturing to achieve this.

Andy Cork has a vision: that books will be ordered, printed, bound and dispatched with the lightest of manual touches and in minimal time, perhaps even the same day. “Why can’t I get a book the same day? If we work on optimising the manufacturing, there’s no reason why the vision cannot be realised. We need to challenge the current perception of what is possible,” he says.

The progress of the dream is evident in three factory units on the edge of Peterborough, that is closest to the A1. Here sheet-fed digital printing is giving way to inkjet printing. Printondemand-Worldwide still has two Screen TruepressJet 520 colour inkjet presses, installed in 2015, but the future lies more with the next generation Xerox Trivor that is running inline to a Hunkeler Bookline in turn delivering blocks to be bound on one of two Muller Martini Vareos and then trimmed on the UK’s first Infinitrim variable format three knife trimmer.

This piece of equipment has this year been awarded the Stationers’ prize for innovation following its debut at Drupa last year. It uses a robotic arm to pick up each book and present the fore edge, top and bottom to the static knife blade, leaving a finished bound book or book block ready for case binding. It is mesmerising to watch, precise in its repetition and requires minimal operator supervision. It removes all the variables of pace, accuracy and quality that manual production is associated with. The industry has solved this for long run book production many years ago, however Printondemand is about small batch sizes, about working with publishers to eliminate waste, about the book of one.

Cork has been focused on solving this issue since Printondemand moved to this factory site in 2007 having been in much smaller units in the centre of the city and in London’s West End, home to the inplant printing unit of the NFU. Cork took this on, transforming it into a print on demand operation for functional print items including training manuals and reports for all manner of organisations.

From there it was a small step into book printing. For the last ten years it has been a journey towards sensible automation. “Now the pieces are starting to drop into place,” he says.

Where most book printers that remain in the UK can point to a long heritage, Printondemand is the joker in the pack as a digital-only newcomer. It has never had litho presses, believing that digital is the future for print. It remains at the forefront, one of the first to invest in webfed inkjet and now taking inkjet printing into high resolution colour, something that will help set the business apart again. Cork explains: “We want to be printing colour. That is where there is a massive untapped market.”

The Xerox Trivor has been in place since the end of last year, but has only recently been signed off. It was the second Trivor in the UK, the first in book printing and still among only a handful in the world. Its origins are in Impika, a French company that Xerox acquired three years ago.

Throughout the bedding period, both printer and press supplier remain committed to the vision. “Now it works for our market,” says Cork. “Getting to the sign off has been quite a challenge for Xerox and Impika and its pre and post press partners.” The goal, which is now within reach, is to be able to print in colour using the High Fusion ink that Xerox is introducing on the sorts of papers that publishers want to use. “If I can print with inkjet on this type of paper, it becomes a game changer for books,” he says.

The High Fusion ink takes a similar approach to the latex inks used in large format inkjet printing. The pigment is encased in a polymer which prevents the colour pigments being absorbed into the paper, leaving brighter image on the surface of non optimised papers.

Certainly the samples look the part and have been judged so. Cork took the same job printed on offset, cut sheet digital and inkjet digital to the London Book Fair earlier this year, running a straw poll of visitors to see if they could pick the processes and so whether quality was at the desired standard. Few could discern any difference in quality.

“People could not pick out the litho quality,” he says. “They really could not tell the difference.” There is a difference in cost. But where cutsheet digital colour was a step change in cost from litho, inkjet reduces the gap. It will enable colour book production at acceptable rates, given the other advantages of transitioning to a digital-first approach by the publishing industry.

Cork believes that publishers are ready for that change. They have seen the advantages of print on demand for mono trade and academic books, particularly in the reduction of stock and thus remainders which have to be stored and then sent to waste when they don’t sell. And they, or their shareholders, want the same for a good tranche of colour books.

“They have become lean in their outlook and they understand the process around lean manufacturing. Consequently they are trying to change, driven by shareholders asking about the stock they hold. Printing to stock is a significant risk for a publisher and the shareholders don’t want to face that risk,” says Cork.

Understanding that and being able to respond to it is quite different. Mainstream publishers also want global suppliers he explains and Printondemand collaborates with partners in both the US and Australia. It finds these through attending global events. Cork says he was invited to the Inkjet Summit in Florida where printers are invited to attend one to one meetings with manufacturers, and participating in highly focused sessions. He went to those about book printing, these running parallel with sessions on transactional, direct mail and so on.

The networking is important. At the InterQuest Digital Book Printing Forum recently Cork spoke about the need to reduce costs and the importance of collaboration up and down the value stream with process partners.

“Amazon is the biggest competitor we face, the biggest threat to the publishing industry. We have to make buying books very, very easy and a good experience for customers and we need publishers to make a margin because when Amazon can print all the books and control the market, will publishers be making a margin then?”

For Printondemand this means both driving costs down and efficiency up by investing in the technology to enable this. “The p&l is important, but strategy is equally important. The two combined are critical.

“The technology is almost there, the software is there, and inkjet has made a significant difference, but the cultural side of the strategy has not been in place,” he admits. The company had previously taken on a manufacturing expert (even though Cork himself has a masters degree in manufacturing technology) who duly set a series of tasks and actions, involving daily meetings and improvement sessions in a bid to make the company a leader in lean manufacturing. That approach required further development.

Some meetings were seen as a tick box activity to show that a meeting had been held, not that it necessarily achieved anything. “It was not asking: Is this piece of equipment where it really needs to be? and then understanding what needs to change,” says Cork. That individual is no longer with the business. Instead Cork has engaged a local man who had worked at Perkins engines in Peterborough. He comes with all the experience of lean manufacturing from the automotive industry.

Automotive manufacturing in the UK has been transformed by lean concepts and processes, principally the elimination of waste, defined as a process that adds no value to the final product. Consequently experts from the automotive industry have been in demand from other sectors – not always with success as Polestar once discovered.

The impact at Printondemand, however, has been immediate. “He is an inspirational leader,” says Cork. “First he identified that we had become two companies, the day shift and the night shift, competing against each other to hit volume targets. If they did not, they blamed each other, and if one shift had left an order ten or 20 books short of completion, it would not be tackled until the end of the shift because the focus was about hitting volume targets.”

Needless to say that has changed. The focus has been switched to achieving on time deliveries. The adversarial approach has been replaced by collaboration. The company still has a target number for the books produced each day and the charts still show these figures in red when production is below par and in green when more than the target is achieved. “In no small way thanks the harmonious culture we are fostering, there are many more green than red cards on the boards,” says Cork.

Now managers receive scorecards from each process step from both shifts. The effect is to show where the weaker and the stronger areas are, thus which need support to be succesful. It is supported on the shop floor because it is a more balanced approach. Says Cork: “It’s much more empowering and it shows how the culture of the business can change and quickly.”

There is less dictatorship from the top about what needs to be done. In contrast, the understanding of what needs to be done comes from the team and management’s task is to figure out why Cork explains. “The most powerful people in the business become those who are running the devices,” he continues. “The continuous improvement cards that are passed to each manager have to be listened to. It means that the manager who collects the most of these scorecards each month and sorts them out is the most successful because it shows that his staff are engaged.”

This attitude towards optimised production is lacking in the printing industry Cork suggests. “In my view we might take out the word ‘print’. Instead we are a book manufacturer which provides solutions for our customers. For us this is a manufacturing process. And from the point of view of my bank manager, it looks better to be in manufacturing when I need finance; it shows he has a good chance of getting his money back.”

For Printondemand Worldwide the manufacturing process begins with an order placed online. This can come from a publisher’s ERP system, from a book store, an individual or a third party such as Amazon or other online retailer. This can include the business’s own Great British Bookshop website.

The order is logged, calls up files from the Book Vault where the content for 750,000 titles is stored. The order is also sorted by customer location, by delivery date, by premium or standard quality, format, and substrate. These are the parameters that allow the company’s internally developed software to batch the books in the optimal sequence so that books reach the customer on time.

The first decision is whether to print in Peterborough or at one of the partners, in the UK with a Royal Mail postcode, in the US with a Zipcode.

High coverage or premium colour jobs will go to the cut sheet machines, a Xerox iGen or Ricoh Pro C9100. The vast majority of product is steered towards the inkjet machines or the Océ VarioPrint mono cutsheet press. With the arrival of HF ink the standard colour on the Xerox is now very good indeed he says. “90% of books are produced at standard quality.”

The inkjet presses are set to run inline to the Hunkeler Bookline which delivers book blocks in staggered formation so that they can easily be picked up and stored in brightly coloured trolleys indicating what happens next to these books.

The Vareo binders have replaced other perfect binders which performed well but do not have the same level of automation or robustness as the Muller Martini machines. The Vareo is Muller Martini’s book of one and print on demand binder, comprising three individually driven single-clamp units running within the same machine. This means that the clamps can move at different speeds relative to each other, running quickly between stations to give maximum dwell time in the nipping section for example.

It also leaves time for the clamp to adjust for a different thickness of book as it progresses around the binder with no need for operator intervention. The settings for each volume are read from a barcode printed on the block to identify this and match each with its cover and to adjust the binder and later the Ifinitrim robotic trimmer. The barcode is used to track every order through the production process.

The books are taken from the binder and onto the conveyor for the Infinitrim, with its work completed, delivers the books ready for dispatch. Books wait until the full order is collated, at which point the individual delivery label is printed ready for the distribution services.

One customer moved its work from Berforts when it closed in Stevenage. At the time there were 7,000 items held on pallets and shelves to be gathered as the separate orders came in. The customer’s products have largely been migrated to print on demand and now holds just a few items on the small mezzanine area of the Peterborough plant.

Most of the upper floor is designated for offices with an open space for “All Employee Meetings” and training in front of a huge display stressing the company’s values and brand. The data that is gathered from machines and the passage of work is used as part of the lean manufacturing approach, consequently analysis and understanding the data is key.

Cork holds up a chart indicating the time a book takes to produce and the interventions needed. Areas which are green are where the company adds value and are therefore good; every other process is considered a waste in lean manufacturing terms, has no value and needs to be optimised. This may be about having the right tools to hand, having equipment that is fully operational at all times, removing work in progress. The company’s paper store is marked with papers that are assigned to jobs, and those that are surplus.

Everything is measured, recorded and analysed, triggering interventions when the numbers dip below targets, either for people or the machines. It means that machinery suppliers need to have a different attitude says Cork. “We can pull off all various efficiency reports thanks to the intelligence built into the machines,” he says.

“We are trying to get to the point where the suppliers can log in as well for transparency and we will collaborate with them on preven- tative maintenance programmes so that this minimises the effect on production. Where many manufacturers get it wrong is by getting customers to ‘Buy the Box’. For us it is not ‘Buy the Box’ but ‘Invest in the Solution’.”

Xerox has clearly taken this on board over the last few months. Muller Martini too is willing and will use its Connex 4.0 to link to and monitor the performance of its equipment at the plant. “Muller Martini understand the SLAs we are working to. They understand the collaborative approach and that we are process partners who need to work together,” he says.

The cost of inkjet technology is, he believes, a problem. “The capital cost of inkjet has become onerous. Manufacturers must find a new way to fund this, especially as banks do not want to finance inkjet investments.”

Earlier, Printondemand had worked with Kolbus on creating a cell to automate case making for book of one production. “We use this for high value academic books which can be ordered in single copies. We used to have six team members making the cases across two shifts. Now the machine does this work in less than half a shift. Every book is spot on and now the lead time for case bound is exactly the same as for perfect bound books.

“As an industry we have been talking about this sort of idea for years, now the technology is coming of age and the pieces are coming together.”

Cork does not, however, want to be restricted by adopting the software that the suppliers use. It would make the business too dependent on a platform that he does not control. “And it means that I cannot sell on equipment that needs a service contract from the supplier. They hold the key.

“Manufacturers are talking to mainstream publishers about the sort of presses their printers should use, and are trying to deliver the software that can control production of a book all the way through the process. If we accepted, we would be with them for life and we would lose control and that is not part of the strategy. This is why we have developed proprietary software that links to each device and global partner if required.

“We will use the manufacturer’s software when it suits us. We want to be in control of the software, rather than have the software control us.”

“With the technology now in place, the challenge is about developing our people and challenging the culture of those who work in the business.” It has taken the business ten years to get this sorted out. The cultural change to ensure that the machinery is used to its best is now in place. “We are now one company,” says Cork. “The change has been amazing. Our lean journey is well underway.”

Gareth Ward

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Andy Cork

Andy Cork

"We need to challenge the current perception of what is possible,” says Printondemand Worldwide chief executive Andy Cork. He has a vision that books will be ordered, printed, bound and dispatched with the lightest of manual touches and in minimal time, even on the same day.

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