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Going with the flow

Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Case Study

Most people pass by Associates Graphics Services’ (AGS) plant in Wilmington, DE without giving it a second glance. The building’s exterior is nondescript and there’s certainly nothing fancy about the parking lot. But those who venture inside the building will see a pressroom inspired by an automotive assembly line.

AGS embraces lean manufacturing, the team-based systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste that Toyota pioneered more than 50 years ago. The printer launched its lean manufacturing initiative in 1999 when it teamed with Delaware Manufacturing Extension Program (DEMEP) (, a nonprofit organization that helps small and midsize manufacturers improve their global competitiveness. DEMEP provides ongoing employee training on Cellular Flow, total productive maintenance (TPM), Six Sigma and other key lean manufacturing concepts.

The plant’s 50,000-sq.-ft. production space provides maximum “flow.” Production manager Bryan Taylor says the facility was designed to streamline the movement of jobs through the plant. Potential bottlenecks have been eliminated, and there’s almost no inventory sitting on the floor.

“The way prepress feeds the pressroom and the pressroom flows to the bindery, [the manufacturing process] flows seamlessly, eliminating any extra steps,” Taylor explains. “Presses aren’t feeding into walls or dead corners—each has a cutter and folder within a few steps of it.”

Utilizing lean manufacturing techniques, AGS created a dual workflow system to manage information and work-in-process material flows. The system is credited with improving plant productivity more than 30 percent.

Faster turnaround times
“In our old facility, our increased sales volume had us very cramped, which was decreasing our ability to turn work around rapidly,” says Charlie Copeland, president of AGS. “[This] facility has allowed us to ‘pull’ work through the shop resulting in another 15 percent reduction in turnaround times.”

Founded in 1969, AGS has occupied its current building for almost four years. In 2002, AGS also invested more than $4 million in new equipment. All equipment must be CIP3/4- and/or JDF-compatible.

During the past decade, the 70-employee, $11 million operation mushroomed from a two-color shop to one of the largest six-color printers in the tri-state area. The all-Heidelberg pressroom features two Speedmaster CD 74 presses (one perfecting and one straight) as well as two QM 46 two-color presses.

The company’s on-demand evolution is equally impressive. In 1998, AGS installed its first digital press, an early Indigo model. The Indigo has since given way to two Xerox iGen3 110s, a DocuColor 6060, two DocuTech 6100s and a Canon ImageRunner Pro 150.

CTP: springboard to automation
Prepress highlights include Artwork Systems’ Odystar PDF workflow, a Screen PlateRite 8000 thermal platesetter and an HP 5000 imposition proofer. “Our CTP device was the springboard for a lot of [subsequent] automation,” says Tom Gerstley, prepress manager. “Before [installing it in 2002], we were assembling film and making plates and proofs. It was one of our first big steps toward automation.”

AGS opted for automatic plate loading on the PlateRite 8000. “We can load a day’s worth of plates in it, and the system will burn and process the plates as we send the digital files,” says Gerstley. The automation enabled AGS to re-assign two technicians to other tasks while cutting turnaround times for proofs in half.

The platesetter is in a separate room near the pressroom—it follows lean manufacturing protocol by feeding plates toward the presses. Plates are stored in drawers until needed.

“With lean manufacturing, everything is visual,” explains Taylor. “We have a scheduling board so [anyone] can see what jobs are expected to run, if plates are ready and if the paper is there. It’s very easy to check the board.”

The manual board incorporates job ticket information from AGS’ EFI PSI management information system. A blue dot indicates a job has been plated, a yellow one signals the stock is on hand, and so on.

One workflow for digital and offset
Although the digital presses are located five miles away from the main facility, thanks to AGS’ PDF workflow, this distance is transparent. Artwork Systems’ Odystar provides a common workflow for digital and conventional offset production. “Odystar allows us to bring digital and conventional prepress under one umbrella,” says Gerstley. “When prepress operators are working on a job, [it doesn’t matter] if it’s a digital or conventional job. The workflow is the same. The operators can go digital one minute, conventional the next. It’s pretty seamless.”

The postpress department features MBO folders (20, 29 and 40 inches); a Standard Horizon AFC-544AKT folder, two Polar cutters and a wide variety of mechanical binding options, as well as die cutting and pocket folder capabilities.

AGS latest bindery addition is a Heidelberg ST 400 Stitchmaster. The saddlestitcher features automatic format presetting as well as automatic synchronization of the feeders and the stitcher with the saddle chain. “The automated pocket and trimmer settings on this stitcher have reduced makeready times by about 45 percent,” notes Taylor.

The measure of success
Efficiency experts are fond of saying lean manufacturing isn’t a destination—it’s an ongoing journey. At AGS, lean manufacturing is more than a production floor tool. It influences all aspects of the operation, including how production meetings are scheduled, quality control department activities and customer service responsibilities.

Lean manufacturing provides several measures of success: “We gather data to constantly improve our services,” says Taylor. “Monthly, we track three main things: press uptime, on-time percentages for estimates and jobs, and on-time percentages for proofs.”

AGS isn’t just eliminating excess movement and wasted time. The company is boosting quality, productivity and sales. And that’s pretty exciting.

Great digital growth
AGS was founded in 1969 as a typographer. Since 1998, the company has offered both digital and offset printing. “Very few printers can say that,” notes Dave Zamorski, vice president of digital operations. “We didn’t get into it in a small way—we’re talking Indigos and iGens.”

AGS expanded its digital presence in November 2004 when it acquired DocuSource, LLC, a digital printing and variable data specialist. Digital printing currently accounts for about 40 percent of the company’s total work. Applications include preprinted shells, direct mail and a host of other variable-data printing jobs. The company has offered Printable, Press-sense and its own Web-to-print solution for three years.

“Digital growth has been very good,” adds Zamorski. “We added [our first] iGen in December 2005 and another in March 2006. ‘One-stop shop’ is an overused term, but that’s what we are.”

About AGS
AGS is concentrating on key vertical markets for pharmaceutical, manufacturing and higher education clients. “We’re digging deeper into technology to make the tools our customers need easier to access and use,” explains Karen Keenan, director of marketing. “We are focusing on doing more customization for these particular markets.”


Katherine O'Brien is the editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at