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Inline Print Finishing: Part 2

Following on from part one of the series, Russ Hicks takes up the baton to offer further views on the wonders or otherwise of inline finishing in the current market

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Advanced print and finishing technology can today automate almost the entire production process, but while this is possible today, is it the right thing for all established print businesses?

Grappling with efficiency

Taking up the mantle from part one of this series from Print Monthly November, it has been clear from speaking to the great and good of this sector that the trend towards the industry going ‘inline’ is by far clear cut. From business to business it depends on the volume of work they run, their specific customer set they are currently serving, and the overall competitive landscape they currently exist in.

So, without further ado, and taking the bull by the horns, Robin Brown, national sales manager, digital solutions division of Friedheim International, helps to further elaborate on our key question of inline or offline by suggesting that there is quite often a more productive middle way for some producers—with the finishing stages perhaps being separated from the print process but forming their own mini-inline solution. 

“One of the key issues here is the speed of the print engine,” says Brown, who continues: “When moving to the higher end print products speeds are often fixed: it will only produce, perhaps, at 130 meters or 70 meters, and nothing in between. If the desired finishing equipment and the processes involved cannot handle the higher volume of print being delivered consistently, the only option is to literally halve the print speed—a solution unlikely to suit the targeted productivity figures.

“This is likely to make inline a non-starter. Users in this situation would tend to run the print roll-to-roll, with finishing then taking place offline from the print activity. Finishing processes, however, can themselves be run inline, thus dividing production into two halves.”

Run length and job parameters are both key in making the decision. Specific sectors have different needs. Indeed, in high speed book production, for example, Friedheim’s Hunkeler book lines are capable of running faster than most digital print lines can produce, which immediately suggests that post-print actions are better running offline, with maybe two engines feeding one finishing unit, with the print engines running roll-to-roll.

Friedheim International is a specialist in the world of specifying and supplying inline and offline print finishing solutions, suggesting a ombination of the two based on specific requirements is a good route to follow

For direct mail, folding the sheet can also slow things down. And introducing a plough fold solution inline can further help to keep pace with print engine. The important thing to focus on, however, is whilst overall production may be slower, reducing the number of operators and operations can increase the profitability of producing the job.

Whilst overall production may be slower, reducing the number of operators and operations can increase the profitability of producing the job

Brown also highlights a producer of on-demand digital newspapers working with Friedheim: “These products are always finished offline, because of the better control of the jobs and the quality of the finished product.”

The positives for inline are exciting for sure: the potential of reducing production stages and eliminating that most expensive of overheads, operators, are the big benefits, but balancing differentials of speed within the line are critical. Most things are certainly possible to produce in an inline configuration, but does a big investment deliver the savings needed to make it cost-effective?

How big?

Chris Cooper, managing director of Terry Cooper Services, highlights the potential overall size of more complex inline solutions as being a significant stumbling block: “Inline solutions can be difficult to install into pre-existing print rooms. The air-conditioned environment was initially constructed to house the print production units, and only limited thought perhaps was given to the finishing end.

“The skill factor can also be quite high if one operator is asked to handle both print and finishing equipment. The business also needs to consider what happens when a mechanical problem occurs. One problem and everything stops: no printing, no finishing. Who do you call? The print machine supplier or the bindery equipment supplier? Often one will blame the other, so the printer ends up getting two engineers in. With near line finishing solutions, one of the processes can still carry producing.”

The decision to go inline is very much volume dependent. The equipment can require a longer set-up time, but that is fine if the run is substantial. Printers handling a lot of shorter run work tend to focus on offline or near line finishing, because they have more set-ups to perform, but can in many cases manage these without interrupting the print process.

Encore Machinery is another major player in the supply of post-press equipment. It has established itself as one of the foremost suppliers of specialist print finishing products in the UK, with installations across a wide range of commercial offset and digital printers, inplant and mailing companies, and is constantly expanding the already broad range of products offered to bring new and innovative equipment to this area.

The Pit Stop/MB Digital one piece mailer from Encore Machinery offers a fully flexible automatically set one piece mailing solution designed for the ever-changing printing and mailing environment

Encore’s managing director, Paul Davidson, explains his company’s approach: “Encore has been supplying inline folding equipment to interface to digital engines for many years. Near line, however, tends to suit much of today’s digital print output. One finishing solution can cater for the output of several digital engines. There is a cost of putting finishing online, and of course the work has to be suited to it.

“We do find often that conversations might start with inline being desired, but after months of discussions, it ends up as near line.”

Booklet making is one area where inline has great potential. Encore’s combination of MB folding equipment running online with the Hohner Digi Finisher is one popular solution in this area.

Stitch, fold, and trim

Perhaps it might be viewed as the more basic end of inline finishing, but linking a single machine to your print engine to create stitched, folded, and trimmed books certainly presents the most common form of post-press product attached to a digital printer.

Recent developments in inline stitch, fold, and trim by the leading players are providing for increased page counts, with the offerings of both Watkiss Auto-mation and Morgana/Plockmatic serving as ideal illustrations of what is currently available.

The Watkiss Power Square 224 is a unique and innovative complete book making system for digital and offset print applications. It is available in three configurations to match common workflows: inline, nearline or offline. Versions of the machine are available to interface to Canon, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, and Xerox equipment. It produces folded square-back books up to 224 pages thick and heavy duty stitching heads can insert up to six stitches, giving potential to produce smaller jobs two or three up.

The Watkiss Power Square 224 hooked up to a Xerox iGen can help any printer improve their overall competitiveness when it comes to digital print and finishing

Commenting on its partnership with Watkiss, digital engine supplier Ricoh summed up the benefits very succinctly: “Finishing can be a crucial factor in streamlining the production cycle. The Power Square 224 allows print service providers to tailor the way they deliver solutions to their client, to expand production capabilities, tap into new markets, and increase their range of offerings.”

The multiple stitching heads of the Watkiss Power Square can produce three-up small format work

The purchase of the Morgana business by Plockmatic has assisted in adding further products to the Morgana portfolio in the booklet making arena. For instance, high-capacity booklet making products can handle publications of up to 200-pages are amongst the latest additions to Morgana's offline range, incorporating high quality feeding technology capable of using either friction or vacuum feed.

Plockmatic is an industry specialist when it comes to inline booklet making

The products supplied by Morgana are an offline adaptation of a very successful inline solution manufactured by Plockmatic and sold to interface to Canon, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, Sharp, Xerox, and Ricoh to produce booklets with the mid-production digital print engines supplied by those companies. As OEM partners, these firms market Plockmatic’s booklet making systems under their own name as an integrated part of a printer system.

Brought to book

Steve Giddings of Perfect Bindery Solutions agrees with regard to the run length issue: “You have to have volume to make inline worthwhile. As an illustration of this, I was recently at a printer and the finishing team were producing a high-volume job, but were only producing 200 to 300 an hour running offline, because the operator had to stack the books once bound, before taking them for a final trim. An inline system could almost double this output, because the books then automatically go directly on to the three-knife trimmer.

The Smyth digital line from Perfect Bindery is an integrated production system specifically for digitally printed books and combines folding, collating, and thread sewing

“Every time you put a book on a pallet it costs you money, and there is also a risk to product quality. It could easily lead to damage to books. Inline though is not suitable for small volume. You also might need a lot more space for inline.”

Perfect Bindery Solutions specialises in supplying quality machines to the bookbinding and finishing industry, catering for both inline and offline requirements.

Which is better? Giddings highlights a recent conversation with a printer who was asking for an inline three-knife trimmer to connect to his binder, in the belief that he would be able to produce more books. Giddings rightly observed that a trimmer would trim faster than the binder binds.

He also pointed out that such an inline configuration would require two operators: one running the binder and one to take off the books at the end of the line. Working in an offline configuration, one member of staff could quite happily handle both tasks and be just as productive. An illustration perhaps of understanding the detail in the process before selecting the right solution.

Technology has, of course, provided ever more sophisticated techniques to aid the inline approach. Barcodes, for example, can assist in print recognition, driving the correct sequence of operations to take place for a specific job.
Giddings again provides the detail: “A barcode on a book cover, passing through a checking system, can trigger the placement of the correct book block, similarly barcoded, in the binder for that specific cover. No human intervention needed.”

Incorporating processes

Processes such as laminating raise similar issues. Inline advantages abound: increased productivity, faster job turnaround, less chance of human error from additional handling of the work, “all adding up to less cost in production,” says André Hilkens, manager at Komfi Europe, suppliers of laminating equipment distributed through Friedheim International in the UK.

On the flip side of the coin, however, he also adds: “If sheet size and lamination film type is different with every job then an inline solution does not make sense.”

If sheet size and lamination film type is different with every job then an inline solution does not make sense

The company has incorporated sophisticated communication between the printer and the laminator, so that if the laminator runs out of film a message is sent to stop the print engine producing. The laminator can, as you might expect, be by-passed if not needed for a particular job.

So, where do you go from here? Analysis of the work to be produced is an essential of course, along with the potential equipment that might assist a business in creating a more efficient, and profitable post-press solution.
Moving to 100 percent inline is going to cost, but if the solution is sufficiently efficient and robust, the payback can be significant. Reduced personnel, reduced handling, elimination of errors, and faster, more streamlined production can be the result.

O Factoid: Hunkeler AG is one of the original pioneers of inline print finishing and paper processing. Founded in 1922, it remains today an independent, owner-managed family business that employs some 250 staff worldwide. O

A split solution: printing separated from a near-line finishing production line can reap rewards if there is a danger of the print engine being slowed by complex or variable post-press operations, or indeed of the finishing solution being capable of handling much more than the output of one print engine.

After investigation, offline may still be the winner. The potential of one element of a system breaking down, and bringing the whole factory to a grinding halt, can often be the concern that persuades management to stick with the status quo. 

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