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Apr 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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An inefficient sheet-fed makeready is similar to driving a car with a flat tire. You can bump along for awhile on the rim, but you'll run up huge repair bills. Plus, you will probably cause a massive traffic jam as fellow motorists slow down either to savor your misfortune or shower you with abuse for slowing them down.

Efficient makereadies, on the other hand, are like a pitstop at the Indy 500. "It would take you 30 minutes to change a tire on the side of the road," notes Mick Robbins of Robbins and Associates (Chagrin Falls, OH). "It takes a pit crew 15 seconds to change all four tires."

The consultant adds that makeready times represent both a problem and an opportunity. If you don't address the problem, you can damage productivity and profit margins--especially if your production runs are getting smaller. On the other hand, streamlining your makeready procedures can enable you to expand your capacity while improving your competitive position.

Here are 10 ideas for improving sheet-fed makereadies. Many also apply to web presses--we'll be offering more specific ideas for efficient web makereadies in our May issue. *Management support. When it comes to more efficient makereadies, "there is no one magic thing you can do," claims Robbins. "The best programs include visible management participation, getting the right people involved and helping draft action plans that cut across all departments." The consultant cites the example of a senior vice president who paid an unannounced visit to the pressroom to check on his new project--at 2 a.m. "There was no questioning his interest," recounts Robbins.

"There must be a total commitment from managers and production employees," agrees Ken Rizzo, senior consultant, technical/quality systems, Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF). "Management attitude and leadership are ultimately responsible for premakeready success. You need to focus on using objective, problem-solving techniques, communicating clearly and proactively supporting premakeready practices."

*Define your terms. What does makeready mean at your plant? Rizzo's definition is "what happens between the printing of the last good product sheet of one job and the first good product sheet of the next job on a particular press." Therefore, makeready participants include CSRs, prepress employees, schedulers--all of the people responsible before, during and after a job gets to the pressroom. (See "Going from Good to Better," on p. 44.) According to Rizzo, pressroom makeready usually includes washing up and cleaning the press, changing plates, checking plate to blanket squeeze on each unit, setting up press feedinking system, setting up the dampening system, changing coater blanket (if required), making trial impressions for register and color, matching job specifications and getting approval to run.

*Get SMED. Both Rizzo and Robbins apply single-minute exchange of die (SMED) principles to the makeready process. SMED, originally developed for the auto industry, classifies all tasks as internal or external (see "Finding Hidden Profits," american printer November 1998). Internal tasks can only be done when the press is stopped; external tasks can be done while the press is running. The goal is to convert as many tasks from internal to external as possible.

"SMED is a framework that tells you what to look for and how to analyze it," submits Robbins. "Videotaping makereadies helps you identify what's happening and discuss it with your employees."

Both Rizzo and Robbins encourage printers to ask the real experts--the press operators--to analyze the videotape and offer suggestions for improving the process. Rizzo uses three questions to guide the discussion. What is the purpose of each step? Must the press be stopped for that step? Can the step be converted from internal to external?

*Get employee buy-in. "It's important that everybody who touches the job before makeready be involved," declares Bob Scheier, executive vice president of manufacturing at Bert-Co Graphics (Los Angeles). Several years ago, the firm participated in GATF's Quick Response Makeready Program. Participants included "platemakers, film assemblers, manufacturing coordinators who write up the jobs, press people and supervisors and the quality control department. Eventually, bindery (diecutting and gluing) got involved, too. Everybody has to see how their responsibilities impact those downstream," counsels the exec.

*Never underestimate the importance of good scheduling. "The way scheduling can help you with makeready is if you have the opportunity to print one job behind the other for simplified makeready," offers Don Merit, contributing editor and graphic arts consultant. "If you are printing a four-color process job and the rotation of colors is black, blue, red, yellow and the next job is the same, you do everything you can to put that job right behind the other job to save on wash-ups. If you start the day knowing you're going to print a number of jobs on a one or two-color press with different color inks, don't start with black and wash up yellow--you really have to wash the black out. You start with your light colors and work yourway to darkest. If you wash up the yellow and don't do it well, the black covers it."

Of course, while the scheduler may be aware of these wash-up tips, it's possible some operators don't study the schedule with the same keen eye. This is where company-wide training pays dividends.

*Make CSRs the first line of defense. Organization, communication and attention to detail all contribute to smooth makereadies. At Rolin Graphics (Plymouth, MN), a job card is prepared as soon as the work order is written up. Cards are prioritized and placed in a wall unit visible to the whole company. A preflight department, together with weekly production meetings, also identify potential problems--before they get to the pressroom. A quality control checklist on the back of each work order further helps CSRs ensure jobs are properly organized. "But the main ingredient is on-time communication," says Nora J. Boulden, a Rolin account executive.

*Get a "smart cart." John Geis of A.J. Geis Associates offers a material-handling tip from his book on the subject. "Have a makeready cart in the platemaking department so that when all plates are complete you just put them on it. It's an A-frame on a rolling cart so the plates can be stacked up for bending or punching and the job ticket can be put there. The CSR should probably be called after the plates are made and he or she could go into the plate department, see that all plates are on this cart and that the job ticket and proofs are there. The CSR can wheel the cart to the press and tell the lead press operator 'Here's the job ticket, here's the proof and I picked up the special inks you'll need. We've got everything, 100 percent complete and accurate.' "

*Preparing for premakeready. "Equipment operators and staff need to stage everything necessary for the next job, including information, materials and tools, on or around the equipment before the last job is done," says Rizzo. To determine if your premakeready is complete, ask three questions. Are all items and materials needed to perform the makeready correct and compatible? If yes, are they staged and easily accessible? Finally, are all items and materials needed operating correctly?

The idea is to avoid having the right tool in the right place but then belatedly discovering the tool doesn't work. You might have the correct plate wrenches ready to go at the press printing units, explains the consultant, and then find out the wrenches are worn out, resulting in slower plate changes.

*Automate, automate, automate. John Dempsey is president of Shannon Printing Company (Deep River, CT). The 18-employee, $1.2 million operation started out in 1979 with small duplicator runs of letterhead, envelopes, business card and brochures. Gradually, Shannon moved into four-color work with a two-color 19 x 25-inch Komori Sprint. Dempsey wanted to give his press operators an alternative to climbing on the scaffold of the press to adjust 40 ink keys. In 1996, he got a Key Color remote ink control system from Essex Products Group (EPG). "We've learned how to play it almost like a piano," he enthuses. "You really become part of the console. We're able to set up jobs in 15 minutes that previously took one- to one-and-a-half hours to achieve color. Half of our business is repeat--we'll be back on the press the next month with same newsletter or periodical. We can save the settings on disk--the next time a job comes up, we put in the floppy and we're 95 percent there."

The exec credits productivity gains with enabling Shannon to install its first four-color press--also a Komori Sprint. Dempsey plans to run this press off the same Key Color console used for the two-color press.

*Don't do too much at once. Analyze your makeready and target one specific area or areas for improvement, suggests Robbins. Maintaining company-wide support for the program hinges on participants observing tangible results, the sooner, the better. "Early initial impact begets enthusiasm," explains the consultant.

Finally, don't lose sight of what really counts. "Production does everything it can to satisfy the customer," counsels Merit. "You will purposely do somet hing inefficiently if a customer absolutely needs it. You're not running the pressroom in the most effective way, but you are maintaining a good relationship with your customer." The consultant adds that such decisions must also take into account your shop's other customers--you cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. "You must be willing to satisfy all your customers."

"We were good--we just got better." That's how Bob Scheier, executive vice president of manufacturing, describes Bert-Co Graphics' experience with the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation's (GATF's) Quick Response Makeready (QRM) program. The $45 million, 225-employee printer has two Los Angeles locations and specializes in publication, direct mail and catalogs as well as folding cartons and point-of-purchase work.

"If it's a carton, we print it," notes Scheier, citing cosmetic, video, games, automotive and food clients. The Hollywood Reporter as well as eight other publications keep the web pressroom busy, while the sheet-fed side handles labels, posters and other work "up to eight colors," according to Scheier.

Bert-Co's management learned of the QRM program through the company's participation in the Printing Industries of America (PIA) and GATF. Ken Rizzo, GATF senior technical consultant, technical/quality systems, was onsite at Bert-Co one week a month from September to December of 1996. The consultant had his work cut out for him. "A lot of people--including supervisors--said 'he can't tell us anything'," recalls Scheier.

Rizzo quickly won over the skeptics, however, by helping employees help themselves rather than implementing inflexible procedures. "He showed us by letting us do it ourselves," recalls Scheier. "Ken acted as a facilitator leading people in the right direction. He asked questions, but the group came up with the solutions by themselves. By the second week, people started saying, 'Hey, this is going to work.' "

After six weeks of the program, the company had cut its makeready times by one-third. At the end of five months, overall makeready time had been cut in half. Scheier reports the company has improved its competitiveness, especially on short-run jobs. "The program paid for itself," notes the exec.

"The program forced us to look at our scheduling differently than we had before," says Scheier. Employees learned to think of makeready as "last good sheet to first good sheet." "Everything in between from one job to the next is makeready--a lot of people don't count that as makeready," relates Scheier. Under the QRM program, makeready has three key components: Premakeready 1 (management, preproduction and prepress support), Premakeready 2 (staging of all information, tools and equipment) and, finally, the actual preparation of the press.

Videotaping makereadies on various equipment helped Bert-Co operators identify areas for improvement. "Before, we didn't understand where we could cut time," notes Scheier. "By videotaping, we showed ourselves."

For more information on the QRM program, contact Ken Rizzo of GATF's Technical Service Group at (412) 741-6860.