The big brain that knows how your press measures up

Will Heidelberg's benchmarking system give press users a tool to improve performance, by comparing their set-up with competitors all around the world, or induce performance anxiety?

Charles Babbage, the 19th century computing pioneer, once made the far-sighted pronouncement that "errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all."

Imagine what Babbage would make of today’s data-driven world and the modern-day incarnations of his ‘Difference Engine’.

Today, data and databases lie at the heart of pretty much every imaginable interaction. And it seems the opportunities to analyse and learn from these data are becoming more powerful and sophisticated on an almost daily basis.

Perhaps it was inevitable that in this connected world, it would only be a matter of time before printing presses became connected in new ways too. Not in the sense of the sort of distribute-then-print model that some people have been using for years. For the purposes of this article we are talking about a performance connection. The sort of connection whereby sophisticated real-time data-gathering allows printers to see how their presses are performing compared with their peers around the globe.

That is the promise of Heidelberg’s Prinect Performance Benchmarking (PPB) system. This concept was previewed at Ipex in May 2010 and Heidelberg began rolling it out in earnest about three months ago. At the moment, early adopters are able to sign up to use the facility free of charge, but come 2012 the intention is to introduce a payment system.
So what’s it all about? Imagine, if you will, a giant secure server somewhere in Heidelberg (the city), Germany. At the moment more than 100 of Heidelberg’s latest generation presses – in use at customers all around the world – are connected to it and the server is collecting data about how these presses are running: how fast they are printing, what the uptime is and the overall press performance.

Worldwide comparison
Users who opt in to the PPB system can, via a simple internet browser interface, see how their press(es) perform against a peer group of similar users in the UK. Or Germany. Or Greece. Or the US. Or indeed, see how their press performance is stacking up compared with users in the whole World.

This stuff has the potential to be addictive. Like checking an ex-partner’s relationship status on Facebook, but far more useful and hopefully less detrimental to one’s mental health.

Heidelberg product manager Gernot Keller says: "It is performance benchmarking; all the presses deliver performance data into a central server, for example makeready times, operational hours and waste. On a daily basis PPB gives overall equipment efficiency (OEE) results – the average situation every day, and then the average of every month.

"The manager of the pressroom, or the business, will now be able to see how he compares with the average of comparable printers. For example, my OEE may be good in isolation, but the peer group leader could be exceeding me by X%."

Customers have to formally opt in to the programme and give Heidelberg permission to download data. Users fill in an application form, then Heidelberg’s German technicians access the press remotely and place what could be described as an ‘app’ on the press control system. Once the press is re-booted, PPB is active. Users are provided with login and password details to access their data.

One caveat is that older presses can’t be linked up to the system. Keller explains that only presses with a certain software level – Press Centre status software version 10A and younger – have the necessary interface. "On pre-2010 presses it’s not possible, although to some extent we can upgrade it," he says.

Another issue is whether users feel comfortable about having their data downloaded to a giant brain in another country. "An accidental data loss by Heidelberg could be very beneficial to another company," muses one Heidelberg user who has decided not signed up for the scheme.

In response Keller points to the level of data security required by law in Germany, which is far more robust than in lots of other countries including the UK. "There are no order details or customer names being downloaded, no ink or varnish details, no staff IDs, nothing that could be used to trace the printer’s customers. The system is based on the high level of data protection in Germany – if we can please our German colleagues then it is safe for everyone," he asserts.

Keller reports that the UK and Germany are what could be described as ‘hot spots’ for early adopters of the system. Here in the UK, 18 presses are already hooked up to it. Unsurprisingly one of those early adopters is Swindon’s ESP Colour, where improving process efficiencies is a constant driver toward its goal of achieving ‘one-touch’ manufacturing.

"It is something we have signed up for and it should be a fantastic tool for us and other users to gain true benchmarking performance data," says managing director Anthony Thirlby. "We run Pressroom Manager which tracks every element of data already so it will be fascinating to see what else we can learn from sharing this information. I hope it gets the take-up it should as it can only be hugely beneficial to the relevant businesses."

Keller adds: "The more people that join in, the more accurate the data becomes. We need a broad volume of printers using it to make it relevant for everyone else. For the first time they really have a chance to see how they are doing."

Data on tap
So what do users actually see? Upon logging in to the system customers can specify a reference group against which they want to compare their performance data. This is not set in stone and can be changed on an ad-hoc basis. Through simple drop-down menu options users can choose to limit their group to certain countries, and/or to certain types of printing: book, folding box, label or commercial. Alternatively the reference group could be all presses of this type everywhere in the world without defining a particular product speciality.

A series of bar charts are then displayed showing press performance based on five different formulas. They are: average good speed production, which is the mean speed during the printing of good sheets; a speed index during production of both good and waste sheets; a quality index showing the mean amount of good sheets produced; a time index showing how much time the press is actually producing during the periods it is switched on; and finally an OEE chart combining those elements.

On each chart, coloured lines highlight the peer group average, the individual printing company’s own personal average, and the average performance of the peer group leader or best in class. And if that company is itself the peer group leader, this is also highlighted.

Keller is tremendously excited by the potential user benefits of the system. "People are already thinking about things differently and appreciating the information," he says. "It is up to the printer to take the information and consider optimisation internally. Every time he logs in he gets an overview, and the opportunity to go back in the history and see whether any measures applied have been successful. With fine adjustments you can drill down to a level that gives interesting feedback.

"The first step for a customer is to realise whether he is doing better or not as good as he thought he was. It gives you information to help you make decisions. There could be a training requirement, or maybe an investment is needed, for example using handheld devices versus ImageControl. Customers can really see if a change in working environment is improving – or worsening – performance.

"Even if you save a minute every hour, it is so much money over the course of weeks and months," Keller adds.

One of the other fascinating aspects of this direct machine data collection is, as Keller puts it, "you cannot trick the press". "I talk to people who say ‘I have only 3% waste’, but when you look at the data that comes directly from the press it is actually 7%," he notes.

And because all the data are downloaded from the press automatically, the only manual input from a user’s point-of-view is logging in and defining what they want to see in terms of how the resulting information is presented.

Keller is already conjuring up a Babbage-like vision whereby it would be possible to extend the data gathering to include other manufacturers’ machines. "I wish we could also connect to our competitors. Maybe in the future when our competitors are able to provide this information that will be possible," he muses.

Rival set-ups
This begs the question, what are competitors doing in this space? Surprisingly for a high-tech nation like Japan, it seems that Komori doesn’t have anything comparable. Or, if it does, it isn’t available outside of Japan yet.

Heidelberg’s German compatriots KBA and Manroland do have systems that allow press performance data to be analysed, although not on the sort of country or worldwide group-review basis provided by the Prinect system.

"KBA Logotronic Professional captures data from the press, and allows customers to assign different parameters and customise it to the information they want. So Printer A doesn’t have to have the same definitions as Printer B," explains KBA UK managing director Christian Knapp. "The difference is we don’t report it into a central database because the definitions differ from business to business. We believe every account is different, so it’s not really possible to have true comparisons. Customers are unique, they all have a unique setup."

Manroland also focuses its system on a customer’s individual requirements. "Every printer is different, everywhere in the world. It’s difficult to see how meaningful comparing them can be because they are so different," says Manroland GB commercial sales manager Adam Robotham. "I visited two printers last week, one of them had an average run length of 1,500 the other’s was 25,000-30,000."

Manroland’s Integration Pilot Plus takes info from the press and records all the actions on the press such as makeready, good sheets, wash up, etc. It also logs time for ‘undefined events’, so if the machine is stationary the operator specifies why, for example waiting for plates or paper.

This information can be fed back into a printing company’s own MIS or used for further analysis with Manroland’s PreAct consultancy service. This includes monthly OEE reports allowing users to identify weak points in their operation and understand where the potential for improvement lies. Although this is not compared against a peer group, Manroland does set a benchmark for each press.

"We have a big project with one particular  customer at the moment, it’s been retro-fitted to all his presses, and some of them are up to eight years old," Robotham adds. "With new equipment this is really popular now. I think it’s the customer’s ability to interpret their own data that’s proving really popular."

So, depending upon the press supplier the options are individual performance stats versus the potential to compare with other printing companies from Telford to Timbuktu. It will be fascinating to see what the uptake is for Heidelberg’s Prinect system come the end of the year.

"It’s so exciting and there are so many possibilities to evaluate," Keller enthuses. "Selling presses and equipment is not enough anymore. It’s about providing consultation and information that helps people improve."

In such a hyper-competitive environment, any system that helps printing company owners derive greater insights about the performance of their business, and about how to improve it, must surely be welcomed. With the sort of foresight that comes with genius, that man Babbage had something to say in 1864 that is as relevant today as it was then: "Whenever a man can get hold of numbers, they are invaluable: if correct, they assist in informing his own mind, but they are still more useful in deluding the minds of others. Numbers are the masters of the weak, but the slaves of the strong."