05 September 2018 Finishing

The hidden surprise in the automation box

Automation in digital printing makes sense and is relatively straightforward. The justification is more complex in litho printing where companies may baulk at the cost without understanding the full range of benefits.

Some of the most powerful arguments in favour of automation in the finishing area are being overlooked. The arguments about product integrity, about rapid set up and remote monitoring are well rehearsed and may or may not be accepted by printers. Automation has obvious benefits to digital printers, the frequent job changes, ultra short runs and speed of turnaround mean automation is essential.

Unsurprisingly when Muller Martini has decided which business to present its Industry 4.0 Award for making the most of automation, digital printers figures highly. There have been three worldwide presentations to date with the 2017 award going to Printondemand Worldwide where a Muller Martini Vareo binder and Infinitrim are the final elements in being able to produce book of one.

The case for automation in litho printing seems less solid, especially in a sector where finishing is still considered the Cinderella department and where a ten-year-old saddle stitcher is still capable of turning out a decent job. If the company on occasion has to run a few hours’ overtime, this is less expensive than investing in new technology for a meagre return.

Three years ago Stephens & George might be considered to have been in this court. It had reliable Prima Plus saddle stitchers, a new Bolero and older Corona perfect binders and was capable of dealing with the output from its line up of Heidelberg XL long perfectors.

There was a generational gap between the advanced press technology, capable of printing from CutStar reels at 18,000sph and the finishing technology needed to turn those sheets into folded sections and then magazines. The most recent of its stitchers dated from 2004.

Managing director Andrew Jones says: “We always thought ‘why buy something if there is no real difference to what went before?’.”

The company installed the first of two high speed MBO LeMans folders, has added Heidelberg’s high speed TH82s, and then turned to Muller Martini to upgrade the stitching and binding line up. The company had already decided on new Primera MC stitchers and Bolero binders when it visited Drupa. “The reservations we had were over the Industry 4.0 technology and whether the staff would buy into it,” says Marcus Partridge, group bindery manager.

The new machines were replacing a 2004 generation Prima Plus which had been fitted with the first generation of Amrys automation, “We never got the full benefit out of the equipment,” he says, hence the apprehension about the newer technology.

Things became clearer on a trip to the Zofingen factory where Muller Martini was better able to demonstrate its Connex technology to operators as well as to managers. There some of the less promoted benefits of this level of automation because clearer.

Jones comments: “The user interface was very, very easy and that was a massive plus for us: we train our own staff and it would take three years for them to get to the level of competence that now takes three months. The interface is so easy to follow, it has all but deskilled stitching and binding.”

And this has been put to the test. The company lost a key operator and had to put a bindery assistant, albeit one that had shown a willingness to be trained and has the computer literacy needed, on the stitcher. Within six months he was competent enough to run the line on his own. Any issues have related to older staff turning to a spanner first rather than using the touch screen set up. These have been handled.

The introduction of servo motors for the different parts of the line has enabled Muller Martini to include the software to manage set ups without the need to consider that the timing of the chain is spot on. Different parts of the stitching line can be set up simultaneously and independently of each other The automated set ups mean swift changes between A4, A6 and to tabloid that might have taken hours previously.

“We used to take hours to switch from a two-up, up to a single and then back, even with an experienced operator,” Partridge says. That would need careful scheduling to batch similar jobs, reducing the company’s flexibility. That has gone when a complex change is as straightforward as a simple switch over. The company has returned to stitching DL products that it had previously refused to take on because of the disruption created by misfeeds.

Sitting on top of all the equipment is Muller Martini’s Connex management system. It not only uses data from the production network to set up the binder or stitcher, but also feeds data back into the Connex cockpit for a production to check job progress, how the machines are running and to manage schedules. The cockpit also allows the company to drill down and get retrospective data that is accurate and to create any number of reports as required.

This provides the second unexpected benefit that Stephens & George has discovered. There is now a precise audit trail of how many magazines or catalogues have been bound or stitched. This has been a big benefit to Stephens & George.

Jones relates how one customer consistently complained that the copies delivered on behalf of another customer had been 100 copies short of the number expected. Previously a costly reprint might have been needed or overs printed just in case of an issue.

Now Connex can show rather than 100 short, the customer has received 250 above the number ordered. It was the customer that had lost a box of magazines. The data from Connex has a legitimacy that the customer service rep lacks. “It’s very difficult to challenge the integrity of the technology,” says Partridge.

“We had reservations because it is such a large investment,” says Jones, “we had never realised the full benefit of the generation one Amrys that was part of the Prima Plus installed in 2004.” There was some apprehension therefore when committing to the level of automation that is part of the investment. Would the company unlock the benefits this time around?

It has taken the two years since installation of the equipment for those benefits to be fully appreciated. The company has also gone from three stitchers to two of the Primera MCs with one of the older lines held in reserve but rarely pressed into service.

There have been bedding down issues, Stephens & George has written some JDF to bring data from the Muller Martini into its own MIS, details about accurate timings for a job and so on. The MIS used is one that is bespoke to the magazine printer, delivering the sorts of reports that it wants.

The third line has not been used. There has been a big leap in production with just two machines. The peak performance has been production of 151,000 A5 books in an 111/2 hour shift. It was a highly suitable product, self cover on decent paper. Even so this was a throughput of 14,000cph on average without stopping for misfeeds and on the fly adjustments.

Muller Martini’s ASIR page recognition system is proving useful to ensuring that the signatures are in the right place at all times. With different editions of the same title going through with different content, it can be easy to mix up content that outwardly looks the same but belongs to a different book. ASIR, by checking the image, the barcode and the text if necessary, prevents this sort of error.

Next comes the integration between Connex and Prinect, the Heidelberg management system running the presses. That will introduce paperless job tickets and a single cockpit view over the entire business. Currently Partridge prefers the direct information that Connex provides to the mass of detail that comes from Heidelberg when wanting a quick check on progress. That is going to be sorted in the coming months.

Dirk Deceuninck, managing director of Muller Martini Northern Europe, consequently had little hesitation in recommending Stephens & George to receive the company’s third Industry 4.0 award. “Nominating Stephens & George for this award was both easy and not so easy. It is a more complex story than a digital print operation, more involved.

“The take up of automation across the industry is a bit slower than we thought it would be, but we don’t think there is an alternative. More and more business is data driven, which supports automation. It is a bigger step than people think and you have to get over the pain.

“Success is about getting the people behind it as much as the technology and the communication into the business. The people here have been willing to be trained and we are very proud to make the 2018 Muller Martini Industry 4.0 finishing award to Stephens & George.”

Gareth Ward

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Dirk Deceuninck hands over the Industry 4.0 award to managing director Andrew Jones and group bindery manager Marcus Partridge of Stephens & George. “Success is about getting the people behind it as much as the technology and the communication into the business. The people here have been willing to be trained and we are very proud to make the 2018 Muller Martini Industry 4.0 finishing award to Stephens & George," Deceuninck says.

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