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Mar 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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Embracing technology helps one sheetfed printer grow its business and transition smoothly into CTP

When RGC Communications went CTP in 1998, it was using one of only 2,000 platesetters at work around the world. The Roselle, IL, printer was also part of an even smaller minority: fully digital sheetfed printers.

Two years later, only one-tenth of domestic sheetfed, four-up commercial printers have CTP, compared to half of U.S. commercial web printers, according to PIA's “Vision 21” study.

“I guess that sort of makes us pioneers,” says Sandy Chlebos, who, with her husband, Rich, runs RGC. “Building in CTP when we did goes along with our long-standing practice to keep up with technology.”

The company has always embraced leading-edge technology — whatever was on the digital horizon, the printer raced to meet it. “Maybe we were just too na├»ve to know any better,” remarks Sandy Chlebos. “Many of our colleagues were afraid of computers, telling us they were the enemy of traditional printing. We treated technology as an ally that could make us more competitive. Rich was always researching new tools, even before they came to market.”

Thus what began as a basement business in 1968 is now housed in 80,000 sq. ft. of production and warehouse space. RGC offers a full range of printing services — including traditional offset and digital printing, binding, mailing and fulfillment, as well as Internet services — for its Fortune 500 clientele. It employs 135 full-time and 40 part-time workers, and keeps its two Heidelberg Speedmaster and two Heidelberg MO presses running constantly over two shifts.

PUTTING PIECES TOGETHER

Instructional and user manuals, and kits for such items as cell phones and electronic devices are RGC's bread and butter, as are directories and annual meeting presentations. The latter two products comprise close to half of its business. The company's growth, however, comes from transactional printing, such as blank billing and benefit statements. RGC also prints specialty books from 20 to 200 pages, such as technical manuals.

Rich Chlebos, a printer by trade throughout high school and college, learned the ropes while creating and running an inside graphics and office services department at a corporation. He brought RGC out of the basement in 1977. He developed the business into an instant print shop and became a xerography specialist, ironically at the same time that the franchised quick-print industry began taking off.

The company deftly exploited the need for on-demand printing during the mid-1980s, offering copying and reproduction work to schools, offices and corporate education centers. After another printer left Motorola's Training Center in the lurch, a quick turnaround on a large job won RGC a loyal customer.

Along with traditional camera and platemaking, the company adopted desktop publishing before it was popular. It expanded its use of computers with Macs and integrated Quark in 1993. At the dawn of CTP in 1995, like large web printers, RGC was on the verge of putting all the pieces together.

GATEKEEPING

“The company already was digital to film,” explains Alan Visser, a former RGC prepress manager (now with Michigan-based Grandville Printing). “We made the transition to digital files in 1996, so going to CTP could only enhance workflow. And since RGC supported and encouraged its customers to supply digital files over the course of two to three years, there was no major shock to the system.”

Visser recalls that the growing complexity of electronic files and longer RIP times were producing a bottleneck. Film was the culprit, and he was looking to speed up his just-in-time supply of “gated” work. In gated work, a customer might order 50,000 user manuals over the course of a year but have an immediate need for only 5,000. Plates are imaged, used and re-hung repeatedly over the course of a job.

“The traditional printing model where you work on one job at a time doesn't work for us. Gating jobs gives us a huge amount of flexibility,” explains Sandy Chlebos. “If a job comes in with more immediate turnaround requirements, we can take the longer-term project off press and start it back up later.”

But gating jobs successfully required shorter makeready times. RGC saw CTP as a way to handle shorter runs more economically, but initially discounted the technology because of proofing problems. Press operators were accustomed to using Matchprints.

LIMITED PLATE OPTIONS

After learning about CreoScitex's Spectrum option, which produces a Matchprint along with the plate, Visser began to search for a CTP plate. His options in 1998, however, were limited.

“At the time, we were aware of only one big thermal plate manufacturer,” the prepress manager recalls, “so we went with its product. It gave us a mixed outcome. I know of many operations that use this vendor's products, but for us, consistent results just didn't materialize. With our gated processes, the pressroom also had its share of issues.”

Remakes rose, as did makeready times, paper waste and ink waste. Sometimes it took 45 minutes for jobs, either left on press after a shift or reusing archived plates, to come up to color. Moreover, the prebake oven used to finish the imaging became an issue.

“I was spending the money for the heat and planned to spend more to get rid of it,” Visser remarks. “It cost $400 per month to run the oven. I would have paid another $400 for the postbake oven, and then another $30,000 for air conditioning.”

Visser, a participant on PrintPlanet.com's CTP Pressroom Forum, began searching for alternatives and read posts about thermal bimetal Prisma plates from Printing Developments, Inc. (PDI) (Racine, WI).

TECHNOLOGY FOR HAPPIER EMPLOYEES, CUSTOMERS

Curious, Visser visited PDI during Graph Expo ’99 and soon after, brought the company in for a demo. Testing on the copper-and-aluminum plates began in early 2000. By July, PDI's processing unit was installed.

“We got quicker makereadies and began noticing a reduction in ink usage,” reports Visser. “I was surprised by the controllability and how the plates allow us to take waters and inks down. We ran less ink, but got greater densities. I had more control over different areas than I ever had before.” The plate's copper printing surface reportedly reduces paper waste and ink consumption.

While processing time was virtually identical — the Prisma plates could be processed in three to five minutes, and required no pre- or postbaking — Visser reports that he had an easier time matching color to Matchprints, and gained significant time in reusing the Prisma plates. (The plates are said to be able to handle run lengths of more than two million impressions.)

Though RGC hasn't tracked exact savings on makeready and waste, the firm's current electronic prepress manager says restart times are half of what they once were. “Using PDI plates lets us easily break into our longer-run jobs,” observes Bill Berigan.

Staying on top of technology has also helped the Chleboses retain productive employees. “If you say you're concerned about quality and dependability, you have to follow through,” Sandy Chlebos says. “If we can make our press operators' jobs easier through better equipment and tools, they'll be more satisfied and stick around longer. That's good for them, and it's good for us.”

After 33 years, it looks like RGC will remain a family-owned business. The Chleboses' three children and their spouses are involved in the firm, and Sandy and Rich Chlebos are certain the children will continue the business upon their parents' retirement.

“IT'S NOT ABOUT TECHNOLOGY FOR TECHNOLOGY'S SAKE. IT COMES DOWN TO GIVING THE BEST CUSTOMER SERVICE.”

“If you don't embrace technology and make it your ally, you cannot and will not keep up with the rest of the field,” Sandy Chlebos says. “It's not about technology for technology's sake. It comes down to giving the best customer service.”