29 May 2017 Print Companies

PBL rides automation wave to success

The Durham business has focused on contractual print work, investing heavily in Heidelberg technology, and is now looking to automate the administration side of the business.

Chris Murley points out the Angel of the North from the mound above the PBL factory in Chester-le-Street. Anthony Gormley’s landmark figure is hard to pick out, but not the sign on the side of the factory.

Powered by Heidelberg technology is a statement of intent and a challenge to other would-be press suppliers to the business. None has so far breached the commitment to the German press supplier. But it is more than just the presses, currently two XL75s and Versa re machines that were installed last summer. There is also a Stahlfolder and Stitchmaster. And PBL also uses the consumables and support that Heidelberg provides.

The XL75s meant a move from B3 litho to B2. When it made the switch from fast turnaround B3 litho, the company had three Anicolor 52s. “We were known as the Anicolor Kings at one time,” says sales director Murley.

The company loved the presses: the lack of ink keys means fast makereadies perfect for a business that set its stall on short turnaround and fast set up. The anilox inking system meant that there was no juggling for colour balance. The plates were either good or not. A job would be in colour in a handful of sheets and as a solution for short run litho work it could not be bettered. Or so the company thought.

PBL has focused on servicing the needs of print management, either for the large companies in the sector or for the NHS Trusts where it is a key supplier. Its forte has been short run fast turnaround print, honing its speciality to the point where it is comfortable with the prices that print management involves and positively embracing the cashflow advantages of customers that pay swiftly. If a customer is slow in paying, PBL has the confidence to walk away from a deal.

“Our investment is geared to what our customers want us to have,” Murley says. “That means quality, consistency and the ability to turnaround a job overnight.” Murley’s background had involved filling in the tender forms that this sort of work involves. Once PBL is admitted to the supplier’s list and it has the contract, it need only bid for work or respond when jobs come through. It means that there are no separate sales people.

“Tenders are where I came from,” he says. “The investment we have made is geared to meeting the needs of these customers giving then what they want in terms of quality and consistency, turnaround and flexibility. It is why we run three shifts: otherwise we would not be able to manage next day delivery.”

The investment last year meant a complete switch from a policy of adding further Anicolors. It analysed where its work was originating from, what the trends are and which machines were busiest. Heidelberg helped crunch these numbers coming
up with the calculation that PBL would be better off with B2 machines rather than smaller formats.

At this point it had an SX74 and managing director Eric Stevenson admits that this machine was becoming very busy. “Clients wanted larger runs which suited the larger format,” he says. Murley adds: “We went through various scenario mapping exercises about what might happen if we got rid of the A52s.”

Heidelberg suggested stripping out the SX74 and the Anicolors and replacing them with two XL75s. “We knew about the XL75 and had been to open houses and presentations about the XL75, but thought it was out of our league.”

The package meant that PBL came down from 12 printers to six. Two have been retrained to work in digital, two have gone to another local printer and a fifth found a job at De La Rue in Gateshead. The presses have delivered 25% additional capacity, for the first time giving the business a little space beyond its immediate needs.

The deal that Heidelberg was able to put together proved this and PBL left the Anicolor world, even though one press was just three-and-a-half years old, for high productivity B2 printing.

At the same time it replaced two Ricoh C901s for two Heidelberg Versafire CPs. It also installed a mono press but had to turn to Ricoh for this as Heidelberg does not sell a version of the black-only press.

This is needed to cope with the volumes of mono work needed for NHS work. It has worked for the NHS for more than 20 years, understanding the needs of an organisation that still consumes vast amounts of print. The mezzanine floor holds storage for the pick and pack element of NHS work while the digital room is adjacent, sitting above the open factory below.

This amounts to 2,800m2 of production space. It had previously been a drinks warehouse for a business that had gone bust. At that time Murley and Stevenson had been looking for new premises as the factory it had in Sunderland had become too cramped.

The search was fruitless until the agent called about the failed business and what seemed to be the perfect premises, thanks to the high floor to office ratio.

Contracts were exchanged and the purchase was due to complete on the same day that presses were due to arrive from Heidelberg. In the event these were on the factory floor before the deal was officially complete. But the pair felt justified as the administrator had stripped the place. “They even took the fire extinguishers,” says Murley.

Five years on what was once an empty space is now a hive of activity and the pair are thinking about how they can free up more space should a third XL75 become necessary. The central loading dock might be moved to a factory extension, though this is not yet pressing.

The XL75s have more than lived up to expectations. “The XLs have allowed us to go just a bit bigger with print runs,” says Murley, “though we still work best with short run work.”

The Versifiers have also lived up to expectations. When they first arrived, they needed to handle more than the expected loadings as the litho presses were not fully commissioned. They stood up to the test.

The presses are five-colour XL75s with coater and Inpress Control 2 spectral measurement. “This has been a revelation,” says Stevenson. “Operators are not looking at colour because they know this will be right. When they pick up a sheet they are looking at the white space to ensure there are no marks.”

Equally important has been the Tharstern Primo MIS which handles the scheduling of work coming in, and the estimating of day to day work. A pair of full time estimators copes with the more complicated work, but both can also go in and query the automatically generated price to test options to shave a few pounds from the price if needed.

NHS work comes straight into the system from a web portal, via Primo, and is already priced up. “We try to automate as much as we can,” says Murley. “Automation has been a progression since we first installed a platesetter.”

That was also the company’s first contact with Heidelberg. “Our experience has been great – the service we get is excellent,” he adds. It is why PBL has no trouble turning away other suppliers.

Now much of the production workflow has been automated. There are no touch points between the arrival of a file and production of a plate. The MIS sends the job details from the MIS on Stevenson’s desk to the press. Should the operator need to alter the sequence of jobs, a quick intervention makes this possible without fuss.

The challenge now is automating the imposition of different jobs on the plate and tracking these. Tharstern has changed its policy on this, creating the software itself rather than linking to a third party, hence the settling in period.

The Primo generates the work to list for the Ricoh’s as PBL has decided not to take Heidelberg’s DFE for ease of continuity and there is no strong JDF connection to the Fiery Rip used. Operators nevertheless need only press a button to begin a job. “And this works fine for the moment,” Murley continues.

Otherwise the scheduling screens are evident everywhere showing in different colours the progress of each job, whether on time, whether plates are made, whether in the finishing areas. It helps with communication when the emphasis is on fast repose and shorter production runs. “In this day and age there has to be efficiency across the board,” says Stevenson. “People have to make sure that the press is continually fed with plates.”

And the XL75s certainly swallow them quickly. One recent job involved sheets of postcards. There were 25 makereadies, 96 plates to load and change and the full job to complete inside a shift.

Fortunately, while testament to the skills of the operator and the press technology, that is not an everyday occurrence. The company runs to ISO 12647-2 and has Heidelberg’s certification to show this. Consequently after 75 sheets, makeready is complete.

It also runs the presses at 15,000sph on every job around the clock. This is except for a six-hour slot each Friday afternoon when maintenance is carried out. The press stops at 6pm and then until midnight maintenance takes place.

It pays off. “It’s about making sure the press will run for the rest of the week, printing to the optimum standard,” says Murley. As the first machine has printed around 35 million impressions in its first year which included the month long bedding in period, this routine is proving its worth.

“The printers are now completely comfortable with the machines. At first some were convinced they were better than the technology, now they trust the machine completely,” he adds.

It is not entirely clockwork. “The biggest factor affecting makeready is the organisation ahead of the next job, where some operators are a little better than others,” says Murley. “The technology and procedures mean there is no difference in quality.” Not everything can be automated, though this is no reason not to try to integrate everything through JDF.

Finishing, however, requires flexibility and that can mean handwork, either for applying glue to pads of forms or inserting printed work into bags for distribution to high street pharmacies.

Some deliveries are made directly to the stores, some to hubs where the work that PBL has done joins display work for the next leg of the journey.

It can mean different combinations of literature according to the destination store and delivery to 12 different distribution sites. It is a question of organisation. “If you had asked me to do this three years ago, I would have said ‘How am I supposed to do this, I’m a printer?’,” says Murley. “Now it’s a matter of course. It’s what we do.”

The company has to be strict about how it packs up work and that it is clearly labelled. It is about matching the booking instruc- tions with the labelling, something that the company takes great care over. “The labels need to carry different information for each company and each hub,” he explains. “It is key that the job looks good and having the correct paperwork is crucial. It all comes out of the Tharstern.”

PBL has increased the number of finishing services that are supplied in house.

A Heidelberg Cylinder is producing die cutting, and an Autobond laminator handles this aspect. “We simply did not want to lose control over finishing. We tried once to send binding out – it didn’t work.”

Heidelberg has also provided two Stahlfolders which replaced a pair of Horizon folders that could not cope with the volume of jobs. One is set for standard formats, one is used to switch between jobs.

With the stability offered by contract work, PBL also negotiates the price of paper, striking deals with the merchants it uses every six months. They are paid as smartly as the company itself is paid so building the trust to achieve a better price.

“We aim to have good customers and good suppliers,” he says. “We want people to pay on our terms because we know we are good at what we do so they have to pay us at the right time. It means we will walk away from those that do not pay and we have had no bad debt of any significance for five years.”

Stevenson adds: “One print management company offered to pay 90 days after the end of the month. We can’t do that. Cashflow is critical to us. Fortunately we can afford to be a little choosy: work to our terms or we will walk away.”

The company can supply the ISO reports to show that printing has been within specification through the MIS. “It is about automating the administration side as much as we can. All the IT is backed up off site, which proved its worth last year when we picked up a virus.”

The company is now in the throes of completing a business to consumer web to print site. This has been developed to its speci cation over the last 18 months and is now close to launch. This will absorb some of the additional capacity that last year’s investment has created.

“It’s not about business cards,” says Murley. “We will offer a lot of templated jobs that can be personalised, beer mats, banners, invitations and so on.

“Part of the impact of automation is that it has freed space in the studio so that we can cope with extra web to print development. We already have 4,500 templates.

“`It is extra to what we already do rather than a replacement, so that any work we generate is work that we didn’t have.”

There is also a strong chance of printing in another print management client. If it does any tentative plans for a third XL will be moving up the agenda sharply.

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Chris Murley and Eric Stevenson

Chris Murley and Eric Stevenson

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