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Oct 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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binding solutions play vital roles in short-run digital printing.

No one can deny that digital printing is taking off. Without a doubt, on-demand services offer new opportunities and profitable ventures to printers.

In the midst of the excitement, however, many firms can make a drastic mistake. They may become fascinated with the printing technology and virtually ignore the rest of the process. Often forgotten is the less attractive, but no less important, back-end-finishing operations. Without trimming, saddles/itching, collating or other finishing, the product is incomplete.

"Some printers buy a digital press believing they can tap into the short-run market immediately," relates William Lamparter, president of Print-Com Consulting Group (Charlotte, NC). "They should look at bindery as one element in the print sequence before finalizing a purchase. However, not everyone is doing this. The right press needs the right bindery equipment. Don't think of bindery equipment as a nicety to add on later."

Integrating the best binding solution with your color digital press, such as the Xeikon, Chromapress and Indigo, takes thorough planning. For instance, firms must choose between setting up an in-line or off-line finishing operation, then address who will run the system and the required level of expertise and experience.

"Printers shouldn't be limited by the capabilities of their bindery," contends Graham Leonard, director of marketing for Sheridan Systems (Dayton, OH). "They should be open to a broad range of products since new markets are found every day. After all, you don't want to be forced to capture only 80 percent of the business from a large account because your binding capacity doesn't meet the specifications of the other 20 percent."

"Printers must understand the market needs and the type of products they need to produce," adds Lamparter. "They must have a clear focus on product requirements from a binding perspective and equip themselves accordingly."

How does management decide which binding choices are the most suitable for the needs of the target market? First, consider which features are most important to the specific operation. For short-run printers, quick set-up and makeready are top priorities on many lists.

"Fast set-up and changeover are essential criteria for the on-demand market due to its immediate turnaround requirements," explains Mark Hunt, marketing manager for Standard Finishing (Andover, MA). "Simplicity of set-up and operation is critical. You can't afford to have a mechanic come to a finishing department with tools to changeover from one job to another, which could take 45 minutes. Adding that kind of labor and time in an on-demand environment is unacceptable."

Eliminating or reducing waste is another key attribute for running a productive finishing operation. "In an on-demand environment with personalization and customization capabilities, even one book can't be wasted," stresses Hunt. "Going back into the data stream that is generating a job and redoing one custom book will add enormous cost to the entire job. The equipment must be able to produce a salable product the first time out."

Discussions of waste in the binding market often lead to a debate between off-line and in-line systems. One school of thought believes an integrated in-line operation offers a high level of security and the advantage of no labor added between the printing and finishing process.

However, many users are comfortable using an off-line process, citing the benefit of being more "in control." Also, most bindery systems run faster than today's digital presses. Therefore, due to speed inequalities, an in-line system cannot run at its fastest, resulting in a loss in productivity.

"Short-run, in-line units offer no return on investment because of the slower speeds of most digital printing equipment," notes Werner Rebsamen, professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Printing Management and Sciences, and contributing editor for AMERICAN PRINTER. "Why spend $250,000 on a binding unit when a digital press can only produce two or three copies per minute?"

Tukaiz Communications (Franklin Park, IL) decided to run a Horizon MC-80 collator from Standard Finishing off-line from its new Indigo E-Print presses. "We didn't want to go in-line because if the bindery system is down, then the press is down," cautions Mike Norton, pressroom manager for digital services at Tukaiz. "We wanted the security of running two separate systems to ensure a constant productivity level."

Although the collator fits in well with Tukaiz's marketing plan, Norton stresses the importance of researching your product requirements. "It was a good purchase for us because we produce a great many books," he offers. "However, if most of our work had to be folded in half, we wouldn't need the MC-X0."

In-line advocates stand behind the integration process as the most economical method for finishing. "A large amount of money is spent in plants from the time product is printed until the time the piece is on a binding machine," declares Lamparter. "With in-line, the intermediate handling disappears, which is labor intensive and can result in spoilage. As digital color continues to grow, more printers will move into the in-line environment because it is the most profitable solution."

"In-line is the way of the future," agrees Rick Trapilo, executive vice president of C.P. Bourg (New Bedford, MA). "As finishing equipment becomes more sophisticated and compact, firms will create a job in prepress, print it and have a finished document. They will not want to unload finished sets, transport them, reload them and bring finished product to the mailroom.

"Also, in-line eliminates waste," Trapilo adds. "How often does a shop misplace a document, re-feed it and re-spool the file."

Hybrid systems, however, are starting to emerge. Standard Finishing bridges the gap between in- and off-line operations, for example, with its DocuFeed system, which automatically feeds precollated stacked book sets into booklet makers, perfect binders, shrink wrappers or any downstream device. "A shop with four Indigos could line up all units and drop output from them into the DocuFeed hopper, which is connected to the downstream device," explains Hunt.

After deciding whether your firm should adopt an in- or off-line process, the next practical concern is determining who will operate the system. Although machines may feature simple controls, knowledge of the printing process and an understanding of what is or isn't an acceptable finished document remain fundamental operator skills. Should press operators also handle the finishing chores?

"We've had some difficulties with bringing bindery operators up to speed due to a lack of press operating background," relates Glen Foster, bindery supervisor for Banta (Needham, MA). "They need more than just computer skills. They must know how to deal with a printed sheet." The company employs digital press operators as well as bindery workers for finishing operations.

Uarco Impressions Document Centers (Chicago) assigns its bindery personnel the unique title of "material technicians." "We use sharp, skilled employees with a bindery background and educate them on digital technology," relates Dan Pitkowsky, general manager. "We expose them to the digital arena and train them on how to handle the equipment."

Operator guidance and programmable control features allow the Polar 66 cutter from Heidelberg to fit in well with those shops that may be unfamiliar with bindery equipment. Designed to handle short-run formats to 14 3/16 X 20 1/2 inches, the cutter produces quick-turn work for off-line operations, according to Robert Kuehl, Polar product specialist for Heidelberg USA.

Duplo USA's DBM 200 bookletmaker offers quick changeover and allows operators to program eight jobs for automatic retrieval. "This unit is suitable for color houses and other plants that don't have bindery experience," clarifies Bob Massa, regional manager for Duplo USA (Santa Ana, CA). "Operators can press a button, and in 55 seconds they are ready to make a book. They don't need to be skilled in finishing."

Massa also advises getting operators involved in the research stage of purchasing to find potential problem areas in bindery systems. "It is important to put each unit you look at through a demonstration test, running various applications and stocks," he says. "Get operators involved in timing changeover. Speed is irrelevant if productivity is not there. If the collator misfeeds or doubles, the DBM 200 rejects sets on-the-fly and continues operation, with no time lost."

Many shops realize the necessity of anticipating likely post-press problems the hard way--after the installation. Banta ran into numerous obstacles following the purchase of its Xeikon press and finishing equipment. "The mechanism that cuts paper from the roll in the press sometimes cuts an inconsistent size," explains Foster. "Some sheets may be longer than others. Therefore, when attempting to trim them prior to binding, the crop marks line up incorrectly.

"Also, heavy toner coverage buildup could turn into a finishing problem," he continues. "If you have a solid black image, and stack paper six or seven inches high, one corner of the images will be higher than the rest of the paper due to toner build-up. The job must be trimmed in small groups because the clamp may hit a thick corner and the paper may shred."

Other shops report a variety of frustrations with paper, including inconsistencies among stocks, static between sheets, and problems with folding and grain direction. Although some post-press errors are not inherent in either the press or binding system, they still cause lapses in production. "Our folder requires users to set paper completely square to the rollers and maintain squareness throughout the run process," explains Fred Bergen, project engineer for Xerox Corp. Color Lab (Webster, NY). "You want it to be consistent, but there is a great deal of variability among folded sets. Consequently, our scrap rate goes up drastically and productivity is down. We can't afford to print thousands of overruns with our Indigos."

Digital printing has brought much excitement to the industry, but the technology also has created new challenges. Top-quality finishing operations continue to be the essential elements in creating a successful document. As long as companies possess the forethought to consider binding options when going the digital route, they will continue to prosper.