Investing a near-seven-figure sum in implementing an unfamiliar production method might seem like a bold move for even the bravest of print businesses, certainly in times of economic uncertainty. But sometimes the potential rewards are too great to ignore, as Berkshire-based KnowledgePoint found out nearly three years ago.
The firm, which specialises in producing digitally printed on-demand training and educational materials for the IT industry, was established by business development director Paul Gibbons and operations director Andre Philpot, who act as joint managing directors of the company, in 1997. By continuing to innovate, diversify and move forward, it has grown into a 100-staff, £8m-turnover enterprise.
With 30 years of experience in cut-sheet production behind both Gibbons and Philpot, the business knew what worked and was doing very well for itself.
But after 15 years as a cut-sheet operation, in early 2012, after much consideration and market research, the firm decided to add continuous-feed technology to its press hall.
“Our volume was growing and we needed to look at more efficient ways to look at the whole manufacturing process,” explains Gibbons. “We’d first looked at continuous-feed production back in 2008 and over the next few years we investigated how we could automate our entire process.”
The company has been a Xerox customer since its inception in 1997. In 2007 it added Canon cut-sheet kit to its line-up by investing in a Canon Océ VarioPrint 6250. The machine quickly absorbed the company’s large mono print volume and, in 2009, a second investment was made in this technology to boost capacity.
With the new printers in place, KnowledgePoint started to look more closely at its existing process for producing on-demand training materials, which at the time was made up of individual printing, punching, cutting and stacking functions all managed manually by staff operating on a shift basis.
The firm began to explore the options of implementing a more automated process to streamline production, increase print volumes and reduce the margin for human error. Satisfied with its service from Canon, the business looked into buying an Océ ColorStream 9440 high-volume continuous-feed device, but not before it had seriously weighed up whether it would be the right move for the business.
“For us the hardest thing was to think in terms of feet rather than in terms of actual printed page. We had to try to change our mentality and understand how that worked to make sure that, when we looked at our costings, we were costing it in the right way. We needed to ensure that the ColorStream 9440 was going to be the right machine for us and was going to make us savings,” explains Philpot.
Satisfied that it would be a worthwhile investment, KnowledgePoint ordered the ColorStream and it was installed in January 2012. But to complete the automated workflow the firm required an automated punching system that would mirror the approach used for that of inline perforation.
“We went to the marketplace to see whether there was any automated inline punching out there and we discovered that it didn’t exist,” explains Gibbons.
Canon helped the firm to consult with automation technology manufacturer Tecnau, which was able to manufacture a bespoke dynamic puncher that would integrate with KnowledgePoint’s ColorStream 9440, along with other third-party cutting and stacking equipment.
“We’d seen the Tecnau equipment at Drupa. It was a perforating device so we’d wondered whether it could be adapted to do punching for us. We explained to Tecnau what our exact specifications were; what we needed was something to punch the holes ready for wire-binding,” says Philpot.
“We produce a number of different sizes of books and we wanted to see whether there was a way of handling those different sizes in different directions as well. Tecnau came back with a solution for us so we went ahead and it effectively made the machine for us.”
With the continuous-feed workflow now set up, KnowledgePoint set about integrating the machinery into the day-to-day running of the business. The firm trained five of its staff on the continuous-feed line, which Philpot reports is a much more complex beast than cut-sheet production.
“With continuous-feed you’ve got to know about the unwinder, the printer and all of the finishing equipment. You need to be able to understand and work with the whole line rather than just the print engine.”
Also crucial was ensuring that other key processes were in place. “It’s not only about the printing or the finishing, but it’s also about the front-end or the back-end systems, so we continue to look at how we can automate those too,” explains Gibbons.
“We’ve got our own in-house development team and we’ve always created our own technology to allow us to improve the workflow within the business.”
The front-end is crucial for KnowledgePoint because the firm deals largely in repeat business and on-demand short-run orders. Philpot explains: “We take on the whole library of a customer’s training materials electronically. When someone places an order we produce it on demand and send it out to wherever that training course will be held.
“Our system automates that process so that when an order comes into our system, we then select the order to be printed, the files are automatically sent down to the printer and then the job’s printed and goes through the whole process. We’re not having to handle files for every single order, it’s all handled automatically in the background.”
Philpot confirms that adding highly automated continuous-feed printing to its operations has been a great success for KnowledgePoint: “It allowed us to continue to grow without having to continue buying lots of cut-sheet machines and it has made us a lot more efficient.
“From a reel of paper we now have a book that’s punched, cut to size, stacked and ready to be bound, so it has cut out two major processes.
Gibbons adds: “It’s also made us more reactive. Even though we already offered 24-hour turnarounds previously, it’s allowed us to manage that a lot better.”
Around 80% of the company’s print is now produced on the continuous-feed line, which it has found to be much more cost-effective than cut-sheet production.
“Most of our training materials are produced on 80gsm bond paper so because we basically had a one paper platform, we were able to move them to the continuous-feed line. It would have been so much harder if we’d had lots of different weights and different types of paper,” explains Philpot.
“The cut-sheet machines are used for more specialist work and as a back-up now. Some of the work that’s left on those presses is a different weight such as 90gsm or 100gsm or if there are different colours involved.”
And KnowledgePoint has also found that the continuous-feed technology has allowed it to diversify further by expanding into the short-run publishing market. The firm has since installed finishing kit including a three-knife trimmer, a perfect binder, saddle-stitching equipment and a laminator to support its new publishing service.
The company’s next move will be to ramp up its continuous-feed colour production. 85% of its work is still currently black-and-white but it is anticipating a swift growth in colour over the coming years, and has imminent plans to invest in inkjet technology.
“Colour is growing quite quickly. Most of the colour that we’re winning is currently run on our iGen’s but we do see colour continuous-feed production as a great new market for us,” says Gibbons.
And as a company constantly striving to expand and diversify, increased colour work will likely be just one of many strings that KnowledgePoint will add to its ever growing bow over the next few years.
Location Winnersh, Berkshire
Inspection host Business development director Paul Gibbons and operations director Andre Philpot, joint managing directors and co-founders of the firm
Size Turnover: around £8m; Staff: around 100
Products On-demand digital printing of training and educational materials, variable data publishing and book publishing for customers in the IT learning and training sector
Kit Canon Océ ColorStream 9440 continuous-feed printer, digital cut-sheet kit includes Xerox iGen 3, iGen 4 Diamond Edition and DocuColor 8000 and two Canon Océ VarioPrint 6250s
Inspection focus Adding highly automated continuous-feed production
Consider how useful it will be to your market. “You really have to understand true on-demand manufacturing to be able to use a continuous-feed machine efficiently in our type of market, or it could become costly when it comes to batching orders and the manufacturing process,” says KnowledgePoint business development director Paul Gibbons.
Ensure you fully understand the costings. “If you don’t understand how much each page is going to cost you then you’ve got no comparison against your cut-sheet or whatever else it is that you’re currently using and you could make a very costly mistake,” says operations director Andre Philpot.
Ask equipment manufacturers to help you with your needs. Tecnau developed a bespoke automated punching system for KnowledgePoint because there was nothing on the market that exactly suited its requirements.
Remember to focus on the front-end and back-end as well as the production line to maximise the effectiveness of a highly automated workflow.
Play to the strengths of each production method. “We still have some work that is better suited to the cut-sheet machine than the continuous-feed, such as work made up of multiple types of paper,” says Gibbons.
Exploit new business opportunities that the technology offers. “The equipment we’ve put in has allowed us to become very cost-effective short-to-medium-run publisher,” says Gibbons.
Diversify your services to maximise the ROI. “Over the last three years we have continued to develop new services outside of print. We try to go as far up and down the supply chain as we can, both to add value to the business but also to add lots of value to the customer,” says Gibbons.