When we talk about optimization, what comes first?
As we went through the process of developing the presentation format for FORUM 2020 (which then became Virtual FORUM 2020), it occurred to me that there were a lot of technical experts out there who have presented a ton of information on the subjects of the various input variables (materials or tools) and processes of developing optimization trials and evaluating data.
We were asked specifically to provide tips and tricks on this subject from a printer’s perspective, and as I reflected on this, it occurred to me that much of what we learned over the years of developing our current methods and practices (that provided the most value in the long term) didn’t involve input variables at all. It was the foundational elements of operations. I will touch on a couple of those here. Some of this may be common sense to many, but may provide some insight to others.
All photos courtesy of Transcontinental Robbie
In any optimization program, I believe there is an assumption of some level of consistency going in and certainly coming out. This is how we know we have made a step forward. We can measure a difference in the results of our work. If a level of day-to-day consistency is lacking when we start trying to optimize specific input variables, it can be extraordinarily difficult to put your finger on the net results of that work. Quite simply, they may be different based on the day. This makes truly optimizing your output very difficult.
Optimized today may not be optimized tonight or tomorrow. We began looking at what was causing this day-to-day variability and discovered some key learnings that, once changed, resulted in a solid base of consistent operations that allowed us to build from.
To start, we looked at the tools themselves—the presses. The press is always there doing what it does. Most consider these things monuments, meaning they don’t get moved and they don’t get significantly modified from their original form. It is easy to assume that the mechanical things, as long as they are not “broken,” are a constant. I’ve learned this is certainly not the case.
As the condition of the press changes, so do the behaviors of the people running it in order to accommodate changing performance. Most organizations consider routine press maintenance (PM) a necessary operation. Regular PM from our maintenance teams is completed and we address motors, drives, bearings and lubrication activities, etc.
What may not get the attention it needs are the functional components that contain/control the ink and the deck movements themselves, that the operators rely on to get the ink where it needs to go in a controlled way. What I have found is that this is an area that can yield big improvements in consistency of print and the behavior of the people operating them. On a weekly basis, we break everything that contains ink and controls movement down to component parts and get them as close to new as possible. This allows them to function as intended by the OEM. Yes, it takes time, but this is planned downtime.
The benefit is that every seven days, we start from square one and between intervals, we experience very little unplanned downtime. We eliminate the “noise” in the process that comes from overloaded chambers and funky metering angles on the blades themselves. These are things that can cause back doctoring, chatter and all manner of issues around ink control, and leaking chambers that result in ink buildup in places it should not be, all of which can ultimately cause binding and a general need to force things to comply.
A side benefit in this methodology over time is that our operators start to see the world differently in terms of what “acceptable” looks like. They start to use their attention to detail as a reference by which to compare other things—including what they are producing. They start to be less tolerant of imperfections in the systems and outputs by default. Right is right. Anything less is a work-around.
Another area where we found a lot of opportunity was in a lack of specifications around some of the inputs and handling of operational variables. Not all organizations have buttoned these things down and instead rely on tribal knowledge and experience to manage them. This can drive in a lot of variability that is hard to chase out. General understandings in place of precise recipes are easy targets. The mounting department “generally” mounting combination plates on a given type of stickyback, for example, might be a red flag. “Our press operators typically do ‘this’ or run like ‘that’ on those jobs” are the kinds of words or expressions that signal there is opportunity for improvement.
That tribal knowledge, however, can and should be a part of the development of best practices. In fact, that is the best way to eliminate tribal knowledge to begin with. The shop floor isn’t a place where you want opinions or generalities to be the norm. It is a place where a prescribed combination of input variables and operational practices take you to an expected outcome. Color, for example, is an area where our industry has good tools and expectations around match, but it can be a bit of a mystery how we get there, and the “how” may not always be the same from one day to the next, if we haven’t gotten these things under control.
Developing a method of specifying all the inputs and operational variables from prepress through finishing can go a long way to providing day-to-day consistency that we need to build upon. When those things are done with consistency from job to job and our output results settle down into a tighter range, we can then better measure the results of an optimization program.
Optimization can provide a path on how to get the results we need, but our people need to understand the process, what is needed from them, and be able to support the need for precision and repeatability in the way that they accomplish their day-to-day tasks. We are not placing less value on our team members’ skills or knowledge, but instead are valuing those skills and that knowledge in a different way.
Once upon a time a great operator may have been described as a person who could take whatever he was given and make it work. Today, a great operator is one who can tell you that what he has to control is, in fact, in control. The press is set up per the recipe, they are on color and hitting the curves applied. If there is a problem, it must exist somewhere upstream. Or potentially that the press is set up per the recipe and they are on color, but cannot hit their curve expectations, etc. This doesn’t mean pull out all the stops and force things to work. It means we have to dig in and find the input variable driving the result and get it addressed before moving on. In the end, changing the way people see their role in contributing to operational consistency can significantly influence your ability to go down the path of optimization and truly get a measurable result.
Once we have addressed these fundamental basics and have a consistent base of day-to-day operations, optimization can be focused solely on the materials themselves.
McLeod presented this information as part of Virtual FORUM 2020 in the session titled Press Optimization: Straight from the Mouths of Printers. FTA members can watch all five presentations from this session, as well as presentations from the other five Virtual FORUM 2020 technical sessions, on MemberConnect.