Competition, profitability, and the trend towards just-in-time manufacturing and delivery are just a few of the factors that are making pressrooms more hectic each day. “High production/low scrap” is becoming a mantra. Profit margins are getting slimmer and slimmer, forcing companies to find ways to reduce costs. Customers are reducing their inventories, all but eliminating their “safety cushions” of stock and increasing the number of rush jobs in printers’ schedules. Remaining competitive means finding ways to squeeze more production out of every day of printing.
Perhaps the most obvious way of producing more in a given time is to increase average press speeds. Higher speeds do tend to translate into higher productivity. However, it takes more than a mere mandate or the twist of a knob to sustain increases in productivity. Besides, the likelihood is that only marginal improvement is likely to be realized through speed alone. A broader approach to the problem must be adopted, and increased average press speed is only a part of this approach.
The first step in the process is to address the concerns of your operators. No matter how noble the cause may be, press operators may seem to resist efforts at raising the level of production in the pressroom. Often, operators will commiserate and complain that they’re not paid enough, didn’t always have to work so hard, are already doing all they can, lack the proper equipment, etc. They may equate an increase in productivity with an increase in their efforts, alone. They may argue that they lack support from management and/or other areas of the company, such as pre-press and material handling. Whether the objections are real or perceived, they must be addressed, or morale can deteriorate rapidly.
On the product side of the equation, there is the challenge of raising production without lowering quality standards or increasing scrap rates. For example, some presses may be operating at the limits of their drying capabilities and colors may not trap well or rolls may offset or block due to insufficient drying if we increase speed alone. Some may lack video inspection, increasing the risk of missing quality problems with the unaided eye at higher speeds. On others, the dials may already be set at maximum and increasing speed is not an option. Finally, often even the most well executed of plans may realize only marginal gains in press speed.
So, how does one address, let alone solve, these and other obstacles to increased productivity? The good news is that the best way I’ve seen to improve productivity and morale at the same time requires business owners and managers to become “the good guys”. They must become the greatest advocates for their crews and strive to have the best possible resources available to them at the right times. They must involve them as much as possible in the process by actively seeking their input. Printing crews are more likely to buy into the improvement process if they feel that they are active participants in it.
Company leaders also must create a support system whose goal it is to allow the printer to more closely monitor print quality, and focus on shaving minutes and seconds off of set up times. Getting the job right the first time, and reducing downtime alone account for the greatest potential for improvement. A key component of this system is what I’ll refer to as “support staff”.
I define support staff as those involved in delivering the resources printers need in the proper condition at the proper times. They may be referred to as utility personnel, material handlers, printing assistants, etc. The resources they handle include mounted plate cylinders, fluids, substrates, and the press parts that require cleaning between jobs. These members of the team can contribute significantly through reductions in downtime by coordinating their efforts with those of the press operator.
The best analogy to the relationship between press operator and support staff that I can think of is the relationship between race car driver and pit crew. Can you imagine a driver getting out of his car to add fuel, change tires, and clean windshields? He’d have no chance at winning the race. Similarly, when an operator must leave the press to get ink, mount plates, or clean press parts, valuable time is lost forever. Pressroom “pit crews” must insure that “drivers” have all the necessary resources at their fingertips when they need them. They should closely coordinate their efforts with the needs of the operators and consult with them on timing of preparation and delivery. With practice, the flow becomes seamless, allowing operators to focus on the set up and operation of the press and the quality of the print. They are less distracted by peripheral issues such as gathering parts and supplies, and can closely monitor the effects on print quality, while experimenting with increases in speed. Gradually, they can develop ways to reduce set up times.
Besides reducing downtime, adopting this philosophy sends a positive message to operators. It tells them that what they do is important to the success of the company, and that the company is in the race with them. Operators will take greater ownership of the improvement process and take pride in what they do. I many cases, operators that are supported in such a fashion begin to test the limits of press speed and look for ways to reduce the time it takes to perform each task. They become interested in increasing their productivity. They want to “win the race”.
Management also plays a key role in the process. Their role in enabling and maintaining a positive environment where everyone feels that his or her role is valuable is essential. A good line of communication between manufacturing and management should be fostered.
One practice that I have found particularly useful is having a weekly meeting with all operators and support staff in a circle in the center of the pressroom for about 30 minutes. In it, we discuss our accomplishments during the previous week and our goals for the future. In preparation for each meeting, I keep a document open on my desktop where I log comments, suggestions, etc. that I feel might benefit the rest of the team to discuss. I print this document before our meeting and go over each item with the whole team. After the meeting, I file the notes in an archive. The topics may range from keeping ink can lids clean to properly setting doctor blade pressure, to a productive technique an operator may have discovered during the previous week.
The members of my team appreciate the opportunity to contribute to our collective knowledge and look forward each week to learning from and sharing with the rest of us. Moreover, by acting on many of the ideas discussed in our meetings over the past year, we’ve succeeded in increasing our average production significantly and reduced waste as well. We’ve improved on quality, and will soon have enough material to assemble a manual of department practices to supplement our company policy manual. New hires will have access to the manual and will benefit from the discussions of the past. Those 30 minutes a week have yielded great returns.
Properly managed, a program aimed at increasing productivity need not come at the expense of morale. It needn’t be characterized by an increase in the already hectic pace of the pressroom, either. Operators are willing partners in a plan to improve productivity including increases in press speed when they feel fully heard and supported. Operators will find that they produce more with the same or less effort, with everyone working smarter, not harder. It is through more complete support of press operators and better coordination of the steps involved in the set up of print jobs that the greatest improvements in production efficiency will be realized. Few operators will disapprove of a program that takes such an approach.
*For a discussion on assembling resources and staging them for production, see “Increasing Productivity Using a Checklist”.