How to Avoid Bottlenecks in Short-Run Print Finishing

Baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the phrase, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” To borrow and adapt the expression for the printing industry, “It ain’t finished till it’s finished.” A commercial print product doesn’t come to life until it has been through the finishing department, and from a business perspective, money isn’t made until the job is out the door.

Commercial printers have been diversifying their offerings over the past few years as they seek to provide customers with a “one-stop shop” for their needs, and add value with a wider range of applications. The intensifying competitive landscape — combined with continuous developments in technology — is driving increasingly impressive, unique, and distinctive commercial print products, designed and created to grab attention in a crowded marketplace. With a wider range of job types and shorter runs, is the modern commercial printer’s shop floor primed for bottlenecks, and how can print service providers (PSPs) eliminate the problem?

Thinking from Finish to Start

The very beginning may be a very good place to start, but when it comes to reducing bottlenecks, starting with finishing is a worthwhile consideration, according to the experts. “More digital press manufacturers are now pushing customers to look at the finishing first and work their way back to the printing, whereas as recently as three or four years ago, the finishing was almost an afterthought,” says Paul Steinke, director of sales, Standard Finishing Systems. “Look at the finishing first. Look at all the applications that are required. Work with a print provider that also partners with finishing partners as well.”

Similarly, Rick Salinas, VP of marketing, Duplo USA, says, “Everybody should always think of when they print something big with the end in mind, because the finishing is almost always the bottleneck. So, if you think about what’s going to be done at the end, it makes every step of the way much easier.”

The “finishing first” mindset seems to be something of a consensus among the manufacturers, with Chris Raney, VP of postpress, Heidelberg USA, sharing, “Because the press costs a lot of money, everybody focuses on saving time on the press. But the biggest bottleneck in everybody’s factory is always finishing, because once you start to break the product down, and you want different folding or different cutting, then there’s a lot more work to do. And in spite of that, all the energy has gone into automating up front, and less downstream.”

“We have a saying around here in postpress: ‘It always starts with finishing,’” adds Angelo Chapa, postpress product manager, Heidelberg USA. “It’s great to have a press running 18,000 sheets an hour, but if it’s putting all this work on your floor, you’ve lost all that efficiency in the finishing if you don’t have a smart finishing department.”

Susan Corwin, marketing director, Rollem USA, echoes the sentiment, adding, “While finishing is the final step in printing production, it should be addressed early in the design process so the proper finishing features are built into the product correctly.”

Rethinking Legacy Equipment

As Raney highlights, focusing too strongly on the press can be detrimental. “It’s no good being super efficient on the press if you’ve got a 20-year-old folder that takes you 45 minutes to makeready,” he explains. There’s no denying the temptation to pay more attention to the charismatic frontman of the band, the press itself. However, perhaps a more pertinent analogy would be an orchestra, in which every element works together to create a symphony.

Just as the musicians in an orchestra wouldn’t fine-tune one instrument and expect to hit the right notes, PSPs shouldn’t expect their legacy finishing equipment to work in harmony with a new press. Commercial print products are closely scrutinized, so there is no excuse for PSPs not to do the same with their finishing setup. Simply expecting the legacy finishing equipment to pick up the slack won’t cut it as PSPs work to accommodate increasingly shorter run lengths from a cost and capacity perspective.

Indeed, Corwin explains that the winners in finishing will be the PSPs with an in-depth understanding of the abilities and limitations of their finishing portfolio. “The more efficient managers conduct a review of their existing finishing capabilities to make sure the equipment is adaptable to the new press, including not just sheet size, but special inks, textures, and coatings,” she says. “Speed is an important consideration. If the press has an output speed of 3,000 sheets per hour (sph), but the finishing device can only output 1,000 sph, then bottlenecks will certainly get worse. Alternately, a lack of attention to finishing details in advance of the press investment can leave the printer in an unfavorable position if they cannot convert the sheets properly and are left having to ‘send out’ the products for finishing to complement the new press.”

While “finishing as an afterthought” remains a challenge, the tide may be turning, according to Steinke. “I would say that still exists; it’s probably not as challenging as it used to be. As businesses moved from offset to digital, many thought they could just have legacy finishing equipment take care of the work, but they realized very quickly that you can’t approach it that way — you have to definitely look at the end result, the end product, and work your way back to the best way to process it,” he shares. “It’s more critical in the commercial print segment, probably than anywhere else, that PSPs really closely look at the finishing and ask, ‘Can my existing legacy equipment handle that?’”

Evaluating the Workflow in Its Entirety

As important as it may be to start with finishing, taking a holistic view of the entire workflow and finishing’s role within a seamless production setup is certainly key to stamping out those bottlenecks for good. For Heidelberg, providing a platform that encompasses prepress, press, and postpress allows its customers to embrace end-to-end thinking. “That’s the goal of our strategy, we call it a smart printshop,” explains Raney. “Not everybody wants the entire process to be controlled by the same company of course, but our design works best that way because it’s been designed to work together.”

This end-to-end approach links together all the necessary hardware and, of course, the software. Successful integration of finishing equipment and software is key to highly automated, error-free production. As Salinas makes the point, “When run lengths are so small, a mistake in the finishing department can destroy all the value in the job very quickly, so the right software tied into the finishing devices means the finishing is laid out from prepress. Your efficiencies just go through the roof, and it gives you the ability to have the team multitask.”

Increasing the accuracy in the finishing department is a vital step to reducing bottlenecks in production, and reducing manual touchpoints through heightened automation is a sure-fire way to boost consistency and reduce human error. Salinas continues, “Now, you just need the press operator to drop the job into the finishing device. If you’re doing all of the finishing throughput in prepress, and that person lays it out correctly, and it’s going all the way through finishing, you no longer need to worry about what’s going to happen when this box gets to finishing, or about running blind samples.”

Similarly, Raney explains, “With automation, you run faster, because the more predictable and consistent your output can be.”

Increased automation in the commercial print segment has been underway for a number of years, as digital print technology drives convergence between segments, run lengths get shorter, and turnaround times get tighter. Add the pressures of COVID-19 and the subsequent supply chain challenges and labor shortages into the mix, and workflow automation is even higher on the agenda for many PSPs, and often the finishing area is a good place to start.

However, Lance Martin, VP of marketing, MBO America and Komori America, sees commercial print as an area where automation is a continuing challenge, due to the variable nature of the workload. “A commercial print shop doesn’t know what they’re going to be doing from one day to the next most of the time, and it gets very hard to automate something like that,” he explains.

Automation Amid Labor Shortages and Evolving Needs

The topic of labor shortages remains top of mind for many PSPs, as shared in the Economic Outlook in the PRINTING United Journal’s Sept. 2021 issue, in which Andy Paparozzi, chief economist, PRINTING United Alliance, focused on protecting businesses from those shortages. This challenge will continue to drive automation throughout the commercial print workflow. Raney comments, “Finding skilled personnel is a challenge, but conversely many of the jobs in finishing are fairly manual. While they aren’t complex, they need to be done correctly. As suppliers, there are levels of automation that we can bring right through the process.”

When it comes to automating the finishing line, the question of in-line versus near-line solutions inevitably crops up. On the face of it, near-line offers the flexibility required for eliminating finishing bottlenecks as PSPs diversify their offerings and market segments converge. Martin explains, “If you put a very complicated finishing line in the press, and you have some jams — because it’s a complex process, or it runs slower because it’s got a lot of steps that cannot run at full speed — you take the efficiency of the press down immediately if the finishing is in-line. And if you make it near-line, that’s not the case.”

For Steinke, however, the decision is driven by a number of factors, including type of application, printing process, and typical run lengths. “Are they running cutsheet digital devices, [or] are they running continuous-feed digital devices? The other thing is turnaround time, not only run length, but how quickly do you have to turn the job around the finishing area, or how inconsistent are deliveries on the job? For example, are there many situations where all of a sudden the job that was due on Thursday has to be done by Tuesday now? The frequency with which that’s occurring will often dictate in-line versus near-line.”

As the commercial print segment continues to evolve, with ever-growing demands for shorter runs, faster deliveries, high quality, and unique end products — along with a competitive market that drives diverse offerings — eliminating those bottlenecks, which are often in the finishing department, has never been more pivotal to a PSP’s bottom line. There is no doubt that a commercial shop looking at its finishing capabilities first and being realistic about the efficacy of its legacy equipment can make a significant difference. Software’s role in a seamless, automated workflow also cannot be overstated; finishing equipment manufacturers are increasingly partnering with software providers and adding dedicated workflow and software personnel to their teams. Therefore, reaching out to partners for support with boosting end-to-end production to sidestep easily avoidable logjams that can bring throughput to a standstill is a worthy complement to any production upgrades shops have made or will be making.

Karis Copp
Karis Copp is a journalist and communications specialist based in the United Kingdom. With a background as an editor and public relations professional in the printing industry, she now covers industry news, trends, and events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers.