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Apr 1, 1995 12:00 AM

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Automated material-handling systems reduce labor costs and worker strain, but not every web shop is a candidate

How is material handling conducted at your web printshop? In many firms, printed product coming off the press delivery is stacked automatically, then employees haul piles of printed work onto a pallet that sits on the floor. Then they do it again. And again. And again.

Perhaps your workers become bored. Even more serious, they might fall victim to one of those repetitive motion injuries that threaten to become a major business liability. Or suppose some of these staff members wind up leaving your employ. Experts say you'd have a shrinking pool of entry-level workers from which to pluck replacements.

Those are some of the reasons commonly put forth for investing in automated material-handling equipment. Another is lightning-fast press speeds. It's nearly impossible to manually handle products streaming off today's press deliveries, especially on wide webs that may be rated as fast as 3,000 feet per minute (fpm).

But, it's one thing to hear experts list reasons to buy. What advantages have been reaped by printers owning the equipment? What configurations do they find most useful? How do they cost-justify such systems? Finally, what alternatives exist to help small printers achieve similar benefits more inexpensively?

The last question is significant because automated material handling isn't ideal for every printer. It depends on a firm's products, run length, volume, labor rates and more. The best candidates seem to be directory, publication and other printers. These firms churn out large volumes of fairly standardized products and are better able to afford the hefty investment.

Since the mid-1980s, such automated equipment has been employed in rotogravure operations due in part to the process' fast speeds, reports Tom Thompson, commercial sales manager for KBA-Motter Corp. (York, PA). Although its introduction into web offset has inched along more slowly, various levels of automation can be seen throughout web offset plants.

For instance, unmanned AGVs (automated guided vehicles) and SGVs (self-guided vehicles) whisk rolls from warehouses to pressrooms, as well as carry work from pressrooms to bindery lines, storage, etc. In addition, stackers, bundlers, palletizers and roll systems handle printed product from press delivery. A range of configurations is possible, from semiautomatic setups to fully automated, robotic scenarios with no human intervention.

The trend is toward the latter. After all, in some cases, printers have no choice but to automate. The Heidelberg Harris M-3000 press produces nearly 200,000 24-page signatures an hour, relates Jack Hobby, vice president of marketing for the Dover, NH manufacturer. Even typical web presses churn out 120,000 16-page signatures per hour, he adds. Employees at the press take-away simply may not be able to keep up, and printers are loathe to slow these high-tech wonders.

Material handling also is a key area for automation because "the work is boring," laments one contributor. "It's very methodical and there's no job satisfaction involved."

Not surprisingly, therefore, scrounging up workers in this area can be challenging. "The labor growth rate in the U.S. continues to fall, from 36 percent in 1986 to a projected figure of 18 percent by 2000," according to Ric Mayle, vice president of sales for IMC America (York, PA), the North American representative of FMC/CAT. "The quality and numbers of people available in the next 10 to 20 years is continuing to drop."

Printers are experiencing effects of the decline. "Material handling is an entry-level position, and, for whatever reason, fewer people are available to fill these jobs," relates Bruce Howe, corporate industrial engineer with Banta Corp. (Menasha, WI). The firm is taking action - one Minnesota subsidiary, The Printer, recently equipped its wide web press with an automatic bundler and automatic palletizer, and plans to install an AGV later this year.

Other firms are climbing onto the bandwagon. The Santa Barbara (CA) News-Press, a 50,000-circulation daily newspaper, recently opted for two SGVs as part of its move to a new facility. The acquisition dubs the News-Press the first newspaper application for these vehicles in the U.S., claims David Harvey, plant manager for the newspaper, which uses approximately 600 tons of paper a month.

Rolls are brought by hand from trucks to the newspaper's receiving dock, and an SGV transports them to the warehouse, relates Harvey. Then they are brought to a semi-manual stripping station in the press laydown area.

"When press operators need paper, they hit a call button on the reel (all press runs for a given day are preprogrammed into a central computer system, including roll brand, width, type and other information, for each reel)," he continues. "Next, the second vehicle with forks transfers the paper, stripped of its wrapper, to the press."

The SGVs (laser-guided machines) operate from bar-code targets affixed to various points in the plant. (AGVs, on the other hand, travel along a floor guidance system, such as a wire embedded in the floor.)

The system required nearly a year to debug and ran well by July 1993, explains the plant manager. Previously, rolls were brought to the press-room with a clamp truck, laid on the floor, then rolled onto carts by hand. Operators then would push the carts to press and into the reels.

According to Kosh Miyao, senior vice president for Komori America (Rolling Meadows, IL), a great deal of other automation is available once guided vehicles have brought rolls to the press area. Equipment, he says, is available to automatically remove wrappers and end pieces from rolls, whereupon guided vehicles transfer paper to presses.

But, bringing rolls to press is only one use for guided vehicles. World Color (Dyersburg, TN) has other ideas for its one SGV and 11 AGVs.

The publication and catalog printer will employ drum stackers at the deliveries of its presses and manually transfer lifts onto pallets, which will be taken by forklifts to a compression bander for weighing and strapping, offers Ron Ferguson, director of engineering for the 1,000-employee company. The pallets of signatures are transferred manually to carts, which the SGV will transport to work-in-process drop locations. The AGVs then move products to work-in-process storage, binder lines, finished good storage and shipping.

But, why select one SGV and 11 AGVs? "We've had several building additions and have expansion joints on the floor between one addition and another," relates Ferguson. "Un-smooth or cracked floors could produce problems with wire-guided AGVs." AGVs, therefore, remain in the bindery, while the SGV has more freedom to roam.

A plethora of other material-handling equipment besides guided vehicles exists to take product from press delivery. For instance, shops could invest in stackers or bundlers, and utilize palletizers to transfer stacks or logs onto pallets. Printers also can roll printed work onto a disk (a format more popular in Europe). Each type boasts various levels of automation - palletizers may or may not have an automatic dispenser to lay down a fresh pallet when a previous one is filled. Likewise, bundlers may or may not automatically feed endboards at the beginning and end of a log, according to Bill Milkofsky, marketing manager for Muller Martini (Hauppauge, NY).

In fully automated or robotic systems, printed product coming off press deliveries "would be counted and stacked and placed on a skid - all automatically. When the skid was filled, a new pallet automatically would be inserted," relates Hobby of Heidelberg Harris. He adds that virtually all the firm's M-3000 presses have this type of approach on the delivery end.

The Printer is one such company. Its M-3000 and M-1000 presses each are outfitted with an automatic bundler and automatic palletizer, says Howe. "We take the shingle off the press delivery and a conveyor transfers it overhead, then drops it into an automatic bundler. Next, a short conveyor transfers work to the palletizer and, when a pallet is full, it's ejected and a new one is put in its place."

What advantages are reaped by firms such as The Printer, Santa Barbara News-Press and World Color?

Ferguson of World Color anticipates its AGVs and SGV will offer labor reduction as well as better control of work-in-process. "Without the automation these vehicles offer, pallets can get lost or work may spill," he reports.

"We'll have much better control of product inventory because the software driving the guided vehicles will give us a computer-controlled inventory," comments Howe of Banta, whose The Printer subsidiary plans to install an AGV to transport product from press delivery to work-in-process storage and the bindery. "With lift trucks, we only have manual records of what products employees took and where they put the work."

"In the past, our warehouse employee drove a truck, pulled paper out of the warehouse, etc.," offers Harvey of the Santa Barbara News-Press. "Now that we have purchased the SGVs, that worker can tackle other warehousing tasks instead of solely handling paper."

Another firm, Great Eastern Color Lithographic Corp., a Poughkeepsie, NY magazine printer, runs its presses 300 to 400 feet faster after investing in the Muller Martini Print-Roll to wind its printed product onto disks or rolls and feed it to a stitching line. Five years ago, the 115-employee firm equipped two of its presses eight- and five-unit machines - with the roll system. "Previously, employees complained they couldn't keep pace if we speeded up the presses," recalls Larry Perretta, president.

Finally, automation allows printers to provide safer working environments. "We definitely gain a safety factor," Howe says. "This work is labor intensive and injury-prone; our unemployment compensation has been dramatically affected since we automated."

Harvey agrees. "We haven't had back injury claims in the pressroom since the SGVs were installed and debugged in July 1993."

This benefit is an important one because repetitive motion injuries frequently rear their heads in the material-handling arena. In fact, the two major problems are back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome, according to Herman Hazen, vice president of the Mid-Atlantic region for Ferag (Bristol, PA).

While the list of advantages is lengthy, this equipment isn't for everyone. "Most printers in the U.S. don't have automatic material handling - only the large shops do," points out Milkofsky.

That's not surprising. After all, this stuff is expensive. "A printer's initial SGV system, including the computer, bar-code targets, SGV, etc., is approximately $250,000," offers Mayle. "Each additional vehicle ranges from $90,000 to $150,000, depending on application, and AGVs are slightly less expensive. A typical forklift truck, on the other hand, costs $40,000."

Also, a fully automated material-handling system for two press deliveries on a high-speed wide web, with full-blown automation on stackers, conveyors and palletizers, can total $1 million.

"Whether or not shops will benefit depends on their products, run length, volume, labor costs, etc.," explains Hazen of Ferag. "For instance, if you have cheap, readily available labor, the cost of automated equipment may not be justified. The higher the labor rates and the greater the volume of work produced, the more automation tends to pay."

It also depends on type of product, according to Muller Martini's Milkofsky. Thin, light products are much easier for employees to handle than are thick, heavy products.

In addition, "small printers producing very short runs and changing formats will have a great deal of difficulty automating," comments Joe Abbott of MAN Roland (North Stonington, CT). "However, directory printers who never change size, paging or paper have an easier job."

Your facility and layout are other factors to consider. Some small printers or firms with older buildings may lack the necessary space for automated machinery. For instance, a folder with two deliveries and two vertical stackers and palletizers can require 400 sq. ft. to 500 sq. ft., estimates Abbott.

Even if your firm meets the criteria, "there must be a reason to automate," insists Hazen of Ferag. "Is your current system very costly? Are you unable to get the product out on time?"

"People say, 'everyone has to automate,'" he continues. "However, some shops just can't cost justify a great deal of equipment based upon their process and labor rates."

How do printers cost justify this machinery?

"Our $3 million investment included 11 AGVs and one SGV, as well as developmental costs such as engineering time," divulges Ferguson of World Color. "We expect a return on that investment in two and one-half to three years. That's just bare manpower replacement, not including lost loads, damage to the racks from manual forklifts, etc."

Banta's The Printer, proud owner of an automatic bundler and automatic palletizer as well as an overhead conveyor system, cost justified its purchase based on economic payback. The equipment should pay for itself in three years, relates Howe.

"We considered the investment from a workmen's compensation standpoint, in which workers wouldn't be handling rolls and therefore experiencing back injuries and other problems," adds Harvey of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

What about firms that can't justify a great deal of costly automation? How do they gain labor savings, reduce injuries and produce a higher quality product?

"They have components of automated systems," explains one exec. "Small web printers may, for example, have a conveyor going to a bundler. The functions inside the bundler may be fully automated, but instead of product transported to a palletizer, employees will push it onto a gravity conveyor and manually operate a vacuum lifting device to help transfer product onto pallets."

Hydraulic cranes and other "ergonomic assists" are available, concurs John St. John, president of Baldwin Stobb. "If you're brick stacking down to a pallet, shops can invest in lift tables that remain at a constant height so employees don't bend over to drop the printed product onto pallets."

Experts offer a final word of advice. "As you acquire more system components, maintenance and operator skill requirements grow," warns St. John. "More complex equipment has more interlocked sensors, programmable logic controllers and other items that didn't exist with older systems, so a higher technical level is required for trouble-shooting."

"We experienced a learning curve because the press operators and production people weren't familiar with automated vehicles," notes Harvey. "There were some startup problems, such as software difficulties and frustration, but we made it over the hump. We underestimated the amount of training we should have had; we needed more up front."

What about instructing your workers on operating stackers, bundlers, etc.? According to Milkofsky, training on this equipment isn't difficult. "Generally, one shift is enough to train a group of people," he asserts.

All printers want to reduce labor costs and the incidence of repetitive motion injuries, as well as match press speeds. Automated material-handling equipment very well may be your answer, but before you make the leap, examine your products, volume, labor costs, etc. If you're still prepared to invest, ensure proper training for employees and prepare to reap the benefits.