Finishing first for 21st century print

It is the second decade of the 21st century, but many printers are using finishing technology suited to the 20th century. It is mechanical, slow to make ready, designed for speed and needs to be guarded constantly. But today the industry needs short runs, automation, unattended running and connectivity. 
And a new generation of suppliers is bringing in new approaches to tackle these challenges. The key difficulty to full automation is that finishing is by its nature a physical process, cutting, folding, stitching and the like, which means moving a sheet of paper which post-printing may no longer be the size it was when arriving at the printshop’s door. This is one reason why old style equipment has persisted. 
Another is that electro-mechanical equipment is relatively easy to maintain and can go on forever. The demand for Heidelberg’s windmill platen demonstrates this, not as a letterpress machine (though the trend for artisanal letterpress printing is increasing) but as a foiling machine. The platen can apply the pressure needed to transfer foil to sheet and with the addition of a heater and foil transport, the result is a hot foil unit for greetings cards, small boxes, covers and so on. But this is old style thinking. 
The new style thinking is digital. Use a dry toner press in conjunction with a thermal laminator to soften the toner and press the foil to this. There is no need for an expensive dye, and the foiling can be entirely digital, a name for a birthday card or wedding stationery for example. Adding the foil first opens a host of creative effects through overprinting silver or coloured foils that are becoming available for this sleeking process. Experimentation is needed to understand the combination of substrates, laminates and temperatures that work best, but the old way also needed skills to operate.
Similarly guillotines are a staple of any printshop. And apart from replacing the blade, a guillotine can give many years of service – too many years perhaps. Most printers will have discovered that lifts, joggers and pushers will improve productivity and reduce the strain on an operator. But many will not have updated beyond this. The newest programmatic guillotines feature visual interfaces to demonstrate the cutting sequence, either as blocks of colour for separate jobs, or as low resolution images of the stack to be cut. It eliminates the risk of a mistake and with barcode identification linked to a workflow database to download an optimal cutting sequence can go a step further.
Where multiple jobs, perhaps taken through an online storefront, are ganged to a sheet, the increase in throughput that is possible using this type of automated set up, will ease an inevitable bottleneck and perhaps ease the need to invest in additional machinery and personnel.
But cutting is not restricted to a guillotine. For instance the multi finishers that Duplo has pioneered in its DC range can run automatically from digitally printed sheets, slitting, perforating, creasing and folding if required. The machines can run unattended and are frequently located alongside a digital press, creating a short run production cell for simple products. 
The machines include camera to adjust the sheet position as it registers on the image to compensate for any image shift in the digital press. The technology is also essential where a sheet has had a raised spot varnish applied as this would result in an uneven stack for conventional guillotining. 
The Duplo technology has been joined by Horizon, supplied in Australia and New Zealand by Currie Group. The Japanese developer has had time to consider how to make such machines more operator friendly. The result is the Smart Slitter for B3 formats and the Smart Stacker to run with the B2 format HP Indigo and other digital presses at this size.
Laser cutting is an even more digital process for cutting, with almost limitless options for shapes and variety in cutting. These clearly have a place in producing high value social stationery where the intricacy of what can be cut out is impossible with more traditional techniques. There is also a role in short run cartons where laser cutting is part of the Highcon technology for cutting and creasing short run cartons. The creating is also achieved digitally, applying a UV hardened paste to a pre mounted backing sheet to create a forme that is ready to go in minutes. 
Laser cutting, either as standalone or as part of another process, is a technology to watch as it finds a place in the next few years. It is not difficult to conceive of laser cutting sitting in line with a digital press for example. There is certainly plenty of investment money backing laser cutting, including long term Heidelberg partner Polar. It has shipped a number of small units and at drupa showed a more industrial solution that included a robot to pick items from a laser-cut sheet and stacking these ready for shrink wrapping and distribution.
Robots are also helping out in lifting, jogging and presenting a stack to be cut. While only the most intensive high volume print businesses can justify this sort of investment, analysis of one installation at a web offset plant in Denmark where robot handling is deployed in this way, shows a big productivity lift. 
The robot can lift and prepare 3.4 tonnes of paper an hour. A human operator can lift, jog, cut and stack around a 1 tonne an hour, slowing down towards the end of a shift. Its staff were used to going home exhausted at the end of the day, now report that they have time to enjoy for other activities in the evening.
Robotic handling is making greater inroads in large format cutting, where again the speed of larger inkjet printers means that printers need to maximise throughput on their flatbed cutting tables, using robotic handling to lift sheets into position. At drupa, Kongsberg showed how one robot can be positioned between two tables to speed up throughput and save labour.
Smaller robots are worth looking at to replace labour for receptive tasks, say lifting stacks of folded sections from the delivery of a folder on to a pallet, or as demonstrated at Hunkeler, to lift a book block from one conveyor into that for a binder or trimmer. 
One UK printer is using robots in its fulfilment department, loading personalised tickets, letters, promotional items into a tray before mailing. This can also validate that the correct items have been loaded to the package.
Muller Martini’s Infinitrim three knits trimmer takes in another string use of robotics. The trimmer is built around a robotic arm which twists and presents each edge of the book in turn to the cutting device which does not need to move, so can be the same heavy duty unit perfected over the years. 
It is developed for book of one production, one of the areas where the trend towards digital print on demand has rendered old style bindery set ups out of date. Automation is essential and will become more commonplace as developments in other industries, encouraged by Industry 4.0, migrate into print.
Such developments are not restricted to specialist applications. This year Horizon has introduced the StitchLiner MkIII. The first version of this folder/stitcher arrived as litho press technology was enabling short run and fast turnaround printing, and with it a need for matched finishing equipment.
At one point every Heidelberg Anicolor installed seemed to be paired with a Horizon StitchLiner. The finished product was better quality than produced on a booklet maker and was easier to run than a conventional saddle stitcher, not least because it operated from flat sheets held in collating tower, consequently prefolding sections was not necessary. The StitchLiner MkIII improves paper handling, particularly for smaller products, and it can deliver an A4 landscape product. 
Muller Martini, having taken over Heidelberg’s saddle stitching arm, is easily the dominant supplier. It has built in technology on its Primera MC lines to automate set up, to identify problems and to communicate via Muller Martini’s Connex production control system, back to a production network.
Heidelberg is left with folder technology which many might have thought had reached peak efficiency in terms of using servo motors to move plates and rollers into position. At drupa however, it unveiled a new technology based on sheet feeding ideas from its sheetfed presses. The incline sheet is shingled for speed, is overlapped for the first part of its journey through the KH82-P folder and kept separate from following sheets using air blowers. It is not Heidelberg’s first folder with shingling, but the previous machine was limited in terms of the impositions it could support. The new machine can deliver a standard 16pp section from a B1 sheet at speeds which match its 18,000sph XL series presses with which it shares a feeder design.
MBO’s answer is the LeMans version of the K8RS, a more conventional design with high speed folder, again intended for high volume standard folding, for a magazine printer perhaps. Conversely automation can be deployed to reduce set up times for shorter run jobs. MBO has developed automated set up folders for running on inkjet web presses, switching from tabloid to broadsheet newspaper formats almost instantly for example. MBO is not alone, MB’s folders increasingly appear as part of inline finishing processes.
As with the StitchLiner, Horizon has taken the lead with the AF-406F, a folder which is ready to run in less time than it takes to load a fresh stack at the feeder. A key feature is the Score Navigator to automate the position of the scoring wheels. It makes it possible to run a few hundred copies on an industrial folder rather than having to compromise with one designed for lightweight digital print. 
Horizon has made a speciality of brining green button automation to industrialised print. Duplo is gradually following suit with highly automated equipment that can be set up through a touch screen or from a barcode. 
The approach results in equipment that is a long way from the finishing equipment that dominated the end of the last century. This is the 21st century, the finishing technology exists to cope with the trends and demands of the printing industry today. Ultimately this will reduce the amount of handling any job requires. It may be combining what used to be two or more processes to cut out the cost of labour; frequently it will be about fully integrated and fully automated finishing lines.

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