Geoff Neal Group is on the next stage of an automation journey that began with installation of a Push to Stop Speedmaster XL106 after Drupa four years ago. Progress picked up pace with implementation of a PDF and JDF workflow, a full Prinect system from Heidelberg and upgrades to its Tharstern MIS last year. It has now reached the next stage with installation of a fully automated plate room.
“We have added Smart Business Intelligence, the extension of Analyse Point, and are able to create our own bespoke reports,” says manufacturing director Mark Croucher. “We now have digital scheduling which allows us to gang jobs by paper type and with post press manager we can bring the new KH82 folder into the scheduling system. The final element of this journey has been investment in plate production.”
The Feltham print group has become the first company in the UK to install and use the W version of Kodak's Magnus Q800 70 plates an hour fully automated B1 platesetter. It has connected the output from the platesetter to a Nela automated plate bender and punch, the first commercial sheetfed printer in the UK to do so. Both sit in a room designed and specifically rebuilt for the purpose.
As the company can go through 600 plates in a day, plate production had become something of a bottleneck, particularly at busy times. The Screen platesetter that had been the mainstay of plate production was capable of only half the operating speed of the Magnus, but this was not the only efficiency sapping issue.
“With the old system we had a platesetter on the first floor in a space at the back of the factory,” says Croucher. Every set of plates had to be imaged, gathered, clipped together and placed in a plate bag to be carried downstairs to the press room. The new plate room is on the ground floor adjacent to the presses. Journey times are reduced.
Plates are fed from a 1,200 capacity Multi Pallet Loader into the Magnus where, after imaging, the plates continue to the Nela system for punching, bending and sorting by job and press, ready for minders to load into the plate changers on the company’s two Speedmaster XL106 sheetfed presses.
The journey and this investment has meant alterations to the workflow and to the building to accommodate the new plate production area. It fills space once filled by an Anicolor press. The platesetter was not the only change: “We needed to find a very stable plate because we wanted to make the room fully automated,” says Steve Anderson, head of repro and integration at the business. The company had to be able to trust the consistency of the plate.
Print production is not the only area affected by this investment, Anderson saying: “Studio staff have been moved to the office area.”
That plate has proved to be Kodak's Electra XD thermal plate which is capable of holding a 10 micron spot that Kodak’s SquareSpot imaging head can generate. “We wanted a plate that would give us benefits in terms of colour management, printing with FM and conventional screens,” he explains.
Which profile and screening is used is selected automatically by the prepress workflow according to customer and type of file. Not every job will benefit from FM screening, Anderson explains.
A customer can be assigned a bespoke workflow in the system so that when a job arrives, it progresses smoothly through to plate production via the Prinergy workflow.
The Nela plate bending technology is more generally used in newspaper, web offset and book printers with the sort of plate volumes that would justify the cost. GNG is thought to be the first commercial printer in the UK to opt for the technology, the Geoff Neal team making the decision visited companies in Holland and Germany to see it running. A similar system has subsequently been installed at Bluetree in Rotherham. Plate production now also conforms to the Covid-19 age by enabling social distancing.
“When we first looked at the numbers, it seemed that the investment was not possible,” Anderson continues. “But we realised it made sense if the room could be fully automated with no people involved. We knew that was the way we had to go.
“It was a decision we had to make there and then because of the changes we were making to become fully automated across the business rather than revisit the plate bending question one or two years later with the disruption that might cause.”
The two items of equipment are communicating with each other to identify the plates and how to handle them as they are imaged. Similar data is fed back to the Tharstern MIS to automatically update the job information and assign the appropriate costs to each job.
Production progress can also be monitored through the remote camera system that has been installed in the plate room. This is accessible across the internet for a quick visual check that the room is operation even if the viewer cannot see which plates are being produced.
Of more use is Kodak's Mobile CTP app that does provide this information. It will also allow remote operation of the platesetter, checking the progress of a job and changing set up via a smartphone. GNG will also be testing the new version of the software running on a handheld tablet device. This will allow the press operators to order a plate to be remade without calling up the studio to release a replacement set of plates.
“It will be possible to order a rerun for the plates from anywhere by anyone authorised,” says Anderson, “including the press minders. We are changing the way that work progresses through the business.”
Other changes have been forced on the company. Those that do not need to be present in the factory have been working from home. The studio team had been moved into the office to bring administration and account management together as part of the plate project, with lockdown forcing these teams to work from home, using technology to keep in touch, not least because people were in a small space.
It is the way that the company aims to maximise the potential of the Heidelberg Push to stop technology, that is part of the latest press. Part of the strategy to increase efficiency is to avoid complete makereadies by scheduling similar jobs in sequence, using the same papers or types of coating, for example, and running to the numbers on the press, which in turn means controlled consistent prepress and platemaking. Already the approach has created additional capacity for the presses to handle more work, which in turn had been increasing pressure to do something about plate production capacity.
A barcode is imaged on each plate to identify each one and download data about the settings for the job to the press. The barcode also enables the company to track progress of jobs. The role for a paper job bag is further eroded along with problems caused when updates are not recorded or are mislaid. It edges the business towards a more data driven, automated and lean print business. This does not mean that Geoff Neal is about to become a lights out printer.
“There’s more out there than simply printing to the numbers,” says Croucher. His background at Westerham Press and then Pureprint has been about high quality print as well as production efficiency. The journey in west London so far has been about eliminating unnecessary errors and removing the human touch points where errors can be introduced.
A trip to Drupa to check that the company is on the right course was on the cards before the pandemic. It has already looked hard at inkjet printing and, says Croucher, “the quality has been phenomenal”. It has run the tests on various machines, including Landa. “We ran a job for the launch of a prestige car with high density of inks which we printed with 20 micron FM on the Landa. The first sheet off on bespoke Japanese paper was spot on - without having calibrated that paper. It’s proof that there can be life after litho.”
It’s not a suggestion that the printer is about to take the plunge in this direction. Its litho presses are up to the mark and the automation that is now being introduced will lead to further evolution. “We have to think outside the existing rules,” says Croucher. “It is building nicely for us.”
It has not been a blind choice. Managing director Sam Neal points out: “Automation is awfully expensive to put in, getting the Tharstern to talk to the workflow and to the press to work properly is a huge outlay in cost terms, man hours and expertise.
“The only thing that scares me about automation is that the human skill may get lost. You need those human skills when a job has four throw outs, two paper stocks, different coatings and then the paper does not want to go through the press. You can’t put a value on that. The creativity of print like that must never suffer. We have to retain those skill sets.
“That said; automation is coming whether we like it or not.”