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Folders: Smarter, faster, friendlier

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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Automation and delivery options minimize makereadies and maximize turnarounds

In a mechanical sense, folders are very similar to their predecessors 30 to 40 years ago. In an operational sense, they're an entirely different animal.

Folders used to require a skilled, patient operator and a large cushion of time for makeready alone. But a lack of skilled labor, coupled with ever-faster turnaround times, has driven folder manufacturers to automate and simplify equipment operation. They've also found ways to speed the flow of paper in and out of the folder, with perhaps the most dramatic results on the delivery side. The result is a smarter, more efficient, friendlier folder interface.


Prior to the development of automatic controls, setting up a folder required manual adjustment of plates and rollers, a process that demanded considerable understanding of folding dynamics. Aside from being a time-consuming process, manual adjustment also could be inaccurate or inconsistent between operators.

The jobs themselves have been changing, too. “Over the last five years, shorter fold jobs are being asked for,” observes Stacey Porto, marketing supervisor at GBR Systems (Chester, CT), the U.S. subsidiary of Matthias Bäuerle, a German-based folding equipment manufacturer. “This raises the issue of setup of fold jobs. With manual folders, the set-up time is often quite lengthy and cumbersome. Printers are looking for automation in folding to reduce these times.”

Some of the pioneers in the automation area include MBO America (Westampton, NJ), with its Navigator intelligent controls for buckle and combination folders and Rapidset computerized makeready system; Matthias Bäuerle's computer-controlled folding on its CAS 52-B SetMATIC folders (introduced at Drupa 2000); and Heidelberg Stahlfolder's (Kennesaw, GA) activity in the development of zero-makeready buckle plates.

At Creative Impressions, Inc. (Royal Oak, MI), a Matthias Bäuerle Multicaster CAS 52/4/4 folder with preprogrammed folds has helped cut makereadies from 30 minutes to five minutes, and turnaround times up to 79 percent. “In the past, we used to farm out harder jobs. We couldn't meet the customers' deadlines,” explains Joe Gatt, vice president. “Now we can get the job done, when needed, for the customer. It used to be a two-week delivery. Now we're doing three- to four-day turnarounds.”

The $1.4 million printer runs standard folding applications, such as letter and accordion folds, as well as specialty folds, such as gate and roll folds, on the Multicaster. Jobs include brochures, newsletters and flyers for the company's retail, non-profit, manufacturing and agency clients.


Setting up the folder for a job is as simple as pressing a few buttons. The operator loads stock into the feeder, and adjusts the stacking stops, table, airflow and register table. Then, he or she selects a folding program, either specialty, standard or custom; the type of fold; format length; and then presses “enter.” The buckle plates automatically adjust themselves. A few sheets are fed through the machine so it can register sheet thickness; the operator sets the roller gaps and performs any necessary fine-tuning.

While automation reduces makeready time, it doesn't completely eliminate all manual adjustments. For challenging applications, such as gatefolds, the operator still has to consider sheet thickness when adjusting the roller gaps, a procedure that currently cannot be automated. Even in these applications, however, time-savings are still significant. At Creative Impressions, a gatefold job that previously required a one-hour makeready now takes about 30 minutes.

Computer-integrated manufacturing also promises to simplify folder operation. MBO and Stahl-folder offer CIP3/4-compliant models. Stahlfolder's CompuFold technology enables the setup of folders from prepress, offering a streamlined production workflow. The product consists of a hardware and software installation. And, MBO's Navigator control includes the company's patented PLC operating system technology, which reportedly will enable integration of the folding machine into a digital workflow. Matthias Bäuerle is currently working on developing CIP3/4 capability into its folders in response to requests from many of its larger customers.


Automation certainly has its privileges — but you don't have to purchase a new folder to enjoy them.

Global Systems (Dallas), a supplier of bindery automation systems, introduced Global Fold in the summer of 1999. The product, which consists of a motor and movement assemblies, a PC and software, automatically sets plates and the feeder via an interactive touchscreen, and can automate most folders manufactured after 1980. It presents a 3-D, full-color simulation of the folder; the operator touches different parts of the folder to adjust settings. Cost for the system is said to be around $20,000.

Big D Bindery (Dallas), a trade bindery that offers finishing services to neighboring printers, installed Global Fold on four of its six folders in June 1999. Explains production supervisor John Underwood, “New equipment is expensive, and our equipment is in good shape. The only difference is that new equipment has electronics, which save you in makereadies. If you can retrofit, it saves you makeready time for a fraction of the cost.”

Installation of the system on each folder took about three days. During this time, different areas of the folder were equipped with motorization, the automation software was installed and tested, and personnel were trained. Underwood adds that the Windows-based system is user-friendly: “If I want to look at fold plates, I just press the simulation's fold plates, and it zooms in. You can make micro, fine or coarse adjustments,” he notes.

Crawford says that while makeready savings aren't as dramatic on a simple fold (“maybe 25 percent”), “from one open plate to four open plates, you can save from 70 percent to 80 percent on setup.” The exec also notes that increased accuracy can be an even greater benefit. “Instead of a person eyeballing the settings, the system puts them within a thousandth of an inch.”


The software features pre-programmed fold impositions; the user can program custom impositions as well. Prior to the installation, makeready time on a Z-fold used to take up to 45 minutes; now it takes 10 to 12 minutes. The folders are networked to Big D's in-plant server via another Global Systems product, Global Link, which enables managers to pull up such folding data as the performance of a particular folder, the length of previous runs and who was operating certain machines.

For printers that do experience a lot of high-volume, repetitive work, however, speed is a key factor when deciding whether to retrofit or replace an older folder. “Older machines with a retrofit can only produce at 70 percent to 80 percent the speed of a new machine,” explains Wayne Pagel, president of KEPES, Inc. (Kenosha, WI), distributor of German-made Herzog + Heymann specialty and conventional folders. “If your machine is six to seven years old and in good repair, you might not want to give it another thought. If it's in poor repair and disliked by operators, consider trading it in.”


Delivery systems also have a significant impact on folder productivity. “As you increase the price of your folding equipment, you have to increase its productivity to make your money back,” explains Luis Campos, sales and marketing manager at Dick Moll & Sons (Warminster, PA), distributors of MBO folding equipment.

“A machine that costs $100,000 must run 20,000 pph to pay for itself,” Campos says. “By reducing the amount of time the operator spends at the end of the folder, he or she can spend more time at the feeder to keep the machine loaded, and then the machine is able to run faster.”

Campos notes that, depending on your folding setup, you could expect a minimum productivity improvement of 25 percent with the addition of an automatic stacker.

“Printers want to know how fast your folders can go, and you can't achieve that without the right delivery system,” agrees Brigitte Cutshall, Heidelberg Stahlfolder product manager. Stahlfolder offers a series of delivery options, including stream, vertical stack and horizontal deliveries, and stacker/bundlers. Cutshall notes that when running a 16-page product on a three-station buckle-plate folder without a stacker, you can run about 8,000 pph but will need help on the jogger end, delivering product. With a stacker, you can run 12,000 pph on a 16-page product — a 65 percent productivity improvement.


EU Services (Rockville, MD) began as a small envelope printer but has grown into a 127-employee, $11.5 million multiservice company offering printing, mail processing and direct-mail production. In 1998, the printer purchased two MBO B26 Perfection-series folders with right angles and split guide attachments, and one without angles to run parallel work. All of the folders are equipped with batch counters, continuous feeders, package lifts and Palamides BA-700 26 × 40-inch automated banders.

The delivery units package leaflets, signatures and brochures in speeds up to 330 packages per hour. EU Services typically uses the banders on the right-angle folders to bundle No. 10-size envelopes stuffed with four-page letters, and a variety of jobs — including signature work — on the parallel machine.

Notes Joe Yarnell, bindery manager, “The bander is very simple to set up. It only takes a few minutes to set the guides and ‘learn’ the sheet on the bander. A little fine-tuning and you're ready to go.”

Since installation, the printer has noticed a considerable improvement in postpress productivity. “The biggest improvement we've experienced is the amount of work that we can get through the bindery now, compared to the time when we didn't have the automated folders,” notes Yarnell. “Bindery was once the bottleneck area in production, but the folders changed that.” Other improvements Yarnell attributes to the banders include decreased labor costs and improved ease of operation.

Cockrell Printing (Fort Worth, TX), a $15.5 million general commercial printer, recently installed a fully automated Stahlfolder B30 28 × 40-inch folder with a VSA automated stacker. The machine also features inline perfing and scoring, as well as quick-set roller tension. President John Cockrell notes that with the addition of the stacker, the bindery does not need to dedicate another employee to the delivery side of the folder on a long run: “Once the signatures come off, they're compressed, which makes it easier in binding.”


That's the advice offered by all of the vendors we spoke with. Most report that customers often don't do enough research into what capabilities they need — now and in the near future. Concurs Roger Mattila, manager of administration and sales at Vijuk Equipment, Inc. (Elmhurst, IL), provider of conventional and specialty folders, “A lot of it is planning. You need to plan and look at different options and opportunities you will run into in the future.” Vijuk offers the T-54 and T-74 series of conventional folders, as well as miniature folders for pharmaceutical applications (see “A rewarding experience,” October 2000, p. 54).

While most vendors offer training and consulting for their customers, MBO America has founded its own folding school. Led by David Trutzenbach, a bindery operations and equipment expert, MBO's folding seminars teach novice operators and supervisors the ins and outs of folder operation. Folding 101 introduces the basics, including folding paper fundamentals and operating machinery and accessories safely. The more advanced Folding 102 delves into mechanical and electrical troubleshooting. The seminars are free to all MBO customers; for more information, call (609) 267-2900.

Another educational resource is the R&E Council's Bindery, Finishing and Distribution Seminar. The 2001 conference will be held April 5-6 at the O'Hare Marriott Hotel in Chicago. It will feature discussions led by printers, vendors, educators and consultants on mechanical and digital productivity solutions for the bindery. For more information, call (804) 436-9922.

For more information on folders, search for these articles on

  • “Attracting interest: the state of FOD,” February 2001, p. 40

  • “Drupa 2000: Strong to the Finish,” September 2000, p. 34

  • “Boosting bindery productivity,” July 1999, p. 62

On-demand folders go high-tech

Automation isn't just for high-speed folders. Machines designed for the quick-print, on-demand and digital markets are beginning to offer the same preprogrammed folds and automatic setting, for quick makereadies and turnarounds.

“The biggest development for the digital, print-on-demand and quick-print markets is higher levels of automation,” notes Mark Hunt, director of marketing for Standard Duplicating Machines Corp. (Andover, MA), a distributor of the Japanese-made line of Horizon tabletop folders. “In a digital-print environment, the objective is to offer operators an intuitive, user-friendly way to select settings and make adjustments.”

Folder manufacturers' more recent offerings include:

  • Baumfolder Corp.'s (Sidney, OH) 714MP Autofold tabletop folder with preprogrammed and programmable fold settings, batch and total counter, jam detection and on-screen messaging. The folder, which the manufacturer deems ideal for digital print applications, folds paper sizes from 3 × 5 inches to 14 × 20 inches.

  • The Challenge Machinery Co.'s (Grand Haven, MI) British-made, floor-model Morgana EZ folder (left) is designed for digital and on-demand applications. It folds up to 17,000 sph of 8.5 × 11-inch stock, and handles long and short runs of 5 × 7-inch to 11 × 17-inch stock. A digital display presents “dial-a-fold” plate positions that can be changed without removing the covers.

  • Duplo USA Corp. (Santa Ana, CA) offers the DF-520 tabletop unit with six preprogrammed folds and two memory functions for custom fold impositions. The folder also features jam detection and a control panel, and folds up to 150 spm. Paper sizes range from 5.0 × 7.2 inches to 11.7 × 17 inches.

  • The Heidelberg Stahlfolder (Kennesaw, GA) Quickfold tabletop folder offers preprogrammed folding impositions, batch and total counter and adjustable speed control. The air-feed unit handles laser-printed, coated and wavy stocks, and can be continuously loaded.

  • The Standard Finishing Systems Div. of Standard Duplicating Systems Corp. (Andover, MA) just introduced its Horizon AFC-504 floor-model folder line, which includes a color touchscreen control panel that displays fold formats and sheet sizes. The units also feature precise stepper motors to drive end stops and fold plates.

Specialty folding: the new frontier

Pharmaceutical brochures, direct mail, CD-ROM cases: Until a few years ago, trade binderies pretty much had these products to themselves. But with conventional folding offering modest — if any — profit, many commercial printers are pursuing specialty folding as a means of differentiating themselves and to bring finishing completely in-house.

“Commodity work — standard signatures going to stitchers, brochures, letterfolds — isn't a very profitable business,” says Wayne Pagel, president of KEPES, Inc. (Kenosha, WI), distributor of German-made Herzog + Heymann specialty and conventional folders. “A tremendous number of people are competing for that work. Anyone with a conventional folder can run those jobs. Margins in direct-mail finishing are much better in dollars per hour billed.”

Yorkville Printing (Toronto), a division of Transcontinental Printing, has been active in the direct-mail market for about 25 years. “We could see a potential for providing a broader range of services to our customers,” notes general manager Marc Fortier. “We had to farm out components for finishing, and that added to the investment [in specialty folding].” Fortier adds that the printer, which has 315 employees, focuses almost exclusively on providing direct-marketing solutions; migrating to equipment that would enable more complex finishing was a natural step.

In 1999, Yorkville purchased the first components of a Herzog + Heymann M7 special direct-mail finishing system, and since then has added capability for personalization; timed slitting and perfing; remoistenable, permanent and fugitive glue application; tipping; buckle and plow folding; pressing; batch counting; and postal sorting. “As we've expanded our product offering, we've added to the finishing unit,” Fortier notes. Applications include mailers with product samples and CD-ROM packaging.

With the new machinery and products came new services, including “creative engineering.” A Yorkville estimator and product specialist meets with a customer who wants to develop a new marketing piece, and assist in its physical design. The printing professionals make recommendations on the best way to produce the product, keeping in mind the printer's special finishing capabilities.

The same consultation of expert and customer is important in the vendor-printer relationship. “There are many ways to finish a product, and [your vendor] may have a better way,” notes Fortier. Often a different configuration of finishing equipment can mean the difference between a cost-effective, innovative piece that generates customer response, and one that is unnecessarily expensive and fails to impress.

“The more knowledgeable you are and the broader the support from your vendor, the more efficient your finishing becomes,” concludes the exec. “It's all about efficiency: For finishing, that's the determinate of success.”