14 June 2020 Print Companies

Mercury Print Productions orbits end to end automation

Mercury Print Productions is on a journey towards full end to end automation, combining investment in Kodak inkjet, Landa and web offset presses towards a flexible future.

Mercury Print Productions is one of the more successful print businesses in the US, building on a programme of continuous investment that has given it the largest line up of Kodak Prosper inkjet presses in the world and now a 48pp Manroland Goss Lithoman web press.

Forty years ago the company occupied a basement in the centre of Rochester as a typesetting business with four staff working at Varityper keyboards. Then the business was managed by Valerie Mannix, growing to a business of 60 staff and sales of $22 million when she retired 15 years ago. Today her son, John Place, is CEO, running the business alongside Christian Schamberger as president.

Today, Mercury is a business with 220 staff and sales above $50 million, occupying a sprawling 35,500m2 factory on the Rochester Tech Park, close to the city’s airport.

When Mercury moved here around five years ago, it replaced three factory units, one for books, one for sheetfed print and one used as a warehouse. “There was a lot of inefficiency from moving work back and forth,” says Schamberger, “so we needed to bring it all under one roof. Here there was lots of space, power and water already – a manufacturing company’s dream.” And should further floorspace be required, there is plenty of empty space on the site.

Mercury produces a vast array of commercial print on cutsheet digital presses, including iGen, Nexpress and Indigo, as well as the Prospers. It has an eight-colour perfecting Speedmaster XL106 as well as the new Lithoman and large format inkjet. Mercury is also the US beta site for the Landa S10P nanographic sheetfed press, now running perfected sheets.

It is happy to be a pioneer for new technology, whether from Landa or before it from local companies Kodak and Xerox. It believes that being at the forefront of technology provides a competitive advantage and the ability to shape the technology to its needs, which is not there once the equipment is available commercially.

If commercial print has been the foundation of the business, and continues to be an important and growing part of the mix, the company’s recent expansion is built on a decision to focus on the educational publishing market. The original decision to add this focus was spurred by a 50% collapse in commercial print volumes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It would focus on the educational sector producing books and teaching materials for specialist publishers which sell into the public education system in each of the US states. Sales are handled directly by Place and Schamberger, aided by an absolute dedication to customer service. And pricing is set so that publishers know what they are paying.

“Digital didn’t exist for us at the point that we decided to sell into the educational world – we had 30 offset presses,” says Place. The potential was there to print these digitally for a faster turnaround than is possible through sourcing from overseas. It has meant that Mercury has printed the initial print runs for new publications and then been able to service the long tail element and top up quantities for this market.

“We split the publishers between the two of us, we have no additional sales force for the educational side. We have set prices so the educational side now runs itself. We ensure that we see them at least once a month. It’s about managing our best customers first, no matter what.” Unfortunately there has been a short term hit with the closure of schools and colleges, depressing demand for books.

As lockdowns ease and schools reopen, demand is picking up again. That journey only began a decade or so ago. When Mannix retired, her son took full control of the business and Schamberger joined as VP operations in 2007, becoming its president five years later.

Not everything has been a smooth success. Schamberger explains: “In 2009 we deduced we had to go into book of one and we looked at the different markets before settling on photobooks, which we saw as complimentary to the sensibility we had in our educational book market. We had to choose whether to be simply a back end supplier or whether to offer the front end as well. Consequently we created Turningpages.com and invested in our own programming team.”

The consumer facing side did not make the breakthrough needed and was shut down. “We found out exactly how Google makes its money,” says Schamberger. It retained the skills in the back end production and delivery and extended the development to more traditional educational publishers and to products other than books.

The eMerx workflow Mercury developed in house to handle orders placed online, has continued and now links directly into customer systems transforming the XML instructions received into JDF to run the print on demand unit.

And the further development of this is planned to be next year’s project when a PrintVis MIS is rolled out to replace an Efi system. EMerx will then connect into Ariba enterprise software, to Prinergy and to the new MIS. As this develops, files will be received through Kodak's InSite portal and Prinergy Cloud, they will be processed to create a proof and then sent to the digital or litho workflows without any touch points. Mercury is heading towards full automation.

“We need to remove labour and the cost of labour in all steps. The data needs to be used to communicate with each process and pieces of equipment,” he adds. This includes the new Kolbus case maker and Muller Martini perfect binder that have been delivered this year. The idea is that all production data will reside in the Cloud and be available for analysis and for use in streamlining production, through the gradual deployment too of AI to aid scheduling and decision making.

“The more we automate with Prinergy at the front end, the better for us,” says Place. “We need to streamline as much as possible. Within the next couple of years we will receive all files through InSite and have the job prepared and delivered as a proof without anyone touching it. We are removing the need for data entry as we install new equipment because we need to remove the manual element across all steps. We need to make sure the data is where it needs to be with all machines able to communicate with each other.”

“There are not many industries that have been as affected by technology as printing has,” says Schamberger. “We view ourselves as a tech company with print as one output channel.”

Place adds: “Fifteen years ago we started to hire people from the Rochester Institute of Technology as we wanted to sell into the education world.” That policy has continued with programmers on the team, working in an area that owes as much to tech start ups as to print production. At this point the company operated a fleet of cut sheet digital presses. It needed to invest in a more powerful production platform.

“In 2012 we had looked at the HP T300 and then went to see a Kodak Prosper. For a number of reasons, we decided to go with Kodak. We felt that the technology had greater room to improve and that the HP was more limited.” That certainly proved to be the case when the move into continuous feed inkjet printing proved to be anything but a smooth transition. “There were lots of night time discussions,” says Schamberger.

Both sides, however, were committed to the success of the technology. It has led to a strong partnership and to Mercury becoming one of the largest digital print operations in North America thanks to six Kodak Prosper inkjet presses, five Prosper 5000s and one mono-only Prosper 1000. “We are trying to achieve 70% up time on the Prospers to get to more than 30 million impressions a month and the only way we will do that is in partnership with Kodak,” he continues. “The Prosper do not like stopping.”

“We had lots of devices up to the point, but the only product we had from Kodak was a Prinergy workflow and Kodak plates. Our digital print relationships were with HP and Xerox,” says Schamberger. Now as the companies have been forced to work closely to develop the applications that could be printed on the Prosper, the relationship has deepened. “We are looking forwards to using Prinergy Cloud,” he says. “We want to be the company that Kodak wants to work with. The more that we can automate at the front end the better for us.”

The job mix can go from copy of one orders in a print on demand production cell, copies of 600pp tomes and now into longer run books.

Place is also looking forwards to firing up the web offset press, which had been due to run its first job by the middle of May. “It felt a step back to previous generation of printing, but that technology has come a long way. We have needed to offer a full service to our customers,” he says.

There will be a move for some of the longer run work from the Prospers to the web press, creating more capacity for short run and customised work. It makes sense for the digital presses to continue with high pagination jobs, where a job can be collated on the run.

“Installation of the web press will mean that a publisher will never have to move a title from us again,” says Place. “We have worked on the initial print runs and the end of life. Now we can produce the high volumes publishers want.”

The investment in automation will reduce costs so that the US printer can compete, if not head for head with overseas printers, then at least come close enough that supply chain security will outweigh a price discrepancy. Supply chain will be a growing issue for all manner of printers in the ‘new normal’.

There will also be a swathe of closures from smaller less viable print businesses, continuing the consolidation that has enabled Mercury to pick up further commercial print work. This is equally part of the strategic plan, with plenty of space in the litho part of the building to accommodate additional presses.

The company has installed a Magnus Q800 platesetter to produce the 8pp and 24pp plates that the company needs for the litho presses. It has switched to running Sonora plates “because we didn’t want to deal with chemicals”. The Kodak process-free plate was not an automatic choice. “We tested some different plates on a head to head basis against the Sonora to check performance,” says Schamberger. “And Sonora came out ahead of the competitor by far.”

There is expansion on the display print part of the business, focused on an Agfa Anapurna, as the core customers want single source supply across their print needs. Likewise, there is an expanding enclosing and mailing operation.

The Landa S10P fits in this strategy. It is not about taking work from the Prosper, but enabling greater efficiencies on how some products are printed. The job at the centre of this are boxed sets of colourful reading cards. The Landa can cope with the collation on the fly, completely removing the need to hand sort cards to make up the packs. The customer gets a better job, Mercury becomes more efficient and achieves a greater margin. Quality is not an issue.

The company will retain the hand finishing department despite the plan to automate as much as it can. “We are a bit like Baskin Robbins with 33 flavours of ice cream – we do not like to say No if someone asks,” says Place.

Covid-19 notwithstanding, the timing of investment in the large web press could prove ideal. Work is being returned to the US, prompted by the country’s trade dispute with China. Books were at one point subject to sharp tariffs and even if these have gone, the uncertainty remains. Publishers need security or they will face lost sales. It also comes as other very long book production capacity in North America is being retired or closed down.

The investment also represents a step up in revenue potential thanks to the sheer number of pages it can print. If sales today are around $50 million, in ten years Mercury can reach $300 million going from 220 staff to 300 employees. “We need to ask ourselves how we can compete as part of global supply chains,” he says.

That will mean integration between Mercury and its key clients, passing job orders from an inventory system directly to the printer and into production without touch points.

There will be work with Kodak to exploit the potential of artificial intelligence to group jobs, to eliminate production bottlenecks, to cut the waste and costs of production. The journey from a basement in the centre of Rochester has not finished yet.

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Mercury Print Productions moved into spacious premises on the edge of Rochester five years ago, beginning its drive to automation.

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The Lithoman will enable the company to expand into longer run book production as well as increasing scope for commercial work.

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