Keeping it all running

Simon Creasey
Monday, March 1, 2021

While an older machine might still be the perfect tool for a particular job, they are more prone to breakdown, and finding parts will only get harder and harder.

In the old days printing machinery was built to last. The technology underpinning robustly built machines would be pretty rudimentary meaning they would be cheap and easy to maintain. Manufacturers could make a decent profit from selling service contracts and margins were good on spare parts.

However, times have changed. As automation has increasingly been introduced to machines and as manufacturers have pushed customers towards upgrading to newer, faster, more efficient versions of existing models, many older machines have effectively become obsolete. At least in the minds of manufacturers, but not necessarily in the minds of customers.

For many printers these reliable old workhorse machines are an integral part of their business, so they are prepared to do anything to keep them ticking over.

So how do you manage obsolescence of machinery and make sure you can get these older machines back up and running if they encounter a problem? And how do you make the decision of whether or not you should carry on repairing an older machine or replace it with a newer model?

Jerry Curtin, managing director at the eponymous used printing equipment supplier, says many companies he visits are using machines on a daily basis that are long past their expected life for a whole host of different reasons. “Cost of replacement is usually the first reason given, then questionable ability for something new to do the job any quicker or better,” he says.

These machines that are still being used decades after they were initially bought tend to be ‘metal driven’. They are therefore more durable and have a greater life expectancy than newer models, which have a greater reliance on automation, adds Mark Sheldrick, managing director at Direct Press Marketing (DPM).

“Most of the manufacturers still make a lot of money on their spare parts business for what is considered to be obsolete equipment,” he says. “The margins they make are exceptionally good. There’s also a massive after market around the world in places like India and China where they are producing copy machine parts or even parts under licence. So if you’ve got something like a sheetfed press or a guillotine they’re pretty bulletproof going forward.”

He adds that there are printing presses 30-40 years old in the UK that are still running and still being serviced by the likes of Heidelberg. The problem is that although these older machines were well built and are pretty reliable they do break down more often than their modern counterparts and it’s not always as easy for manufacturers to get these older models up and running as swiftly as newer machines.

“We had an incident recently where somebody had a 15-year-old KBA that had a problem and the replacement part had a six-week lead time from Koenig & Bauer,” recalls Sheldrick. “We happened to have a machine in stock and we took the part off it and lent them it for six weeks. When their new part came in they gave us the old one back.”

However, some printers are not going to be so lucky to find a company as accommodating as DPM to help them out and if they don’t plan for these eventualities they could find themselves caught short if the worst happens. It’s an issue that’s all too commonplace, according to Curtin.

“I think most customers only really address or realise about machine obsolescence when a key piece of equipment breaks down and they find it is no longer supported by the manufacturer or cost of replacement part is greater than the machine value,” he says.

David Lenehan, managing director at Northern Industrial, says this is a scenario that is all too familiar to him. “Every single day, we’ll get a phone call saying ‘have you got one of these in stock? I can’t get one from my machine manufacturer and I need one now. Can you get me one today?’ It’s kind of an after-thought. Nobody really thinks about it until they get to the point where their productions stops.”

Lenahan says Northern Industrial fields as many as 200 calls a day of this nature and his company keeps tens of thousands of parts in stock for any and all eventualities. However, a lot of the time the issue is that printers don’t know what’s inside their machines, so they don’t have a list of parts that they might need.

“Some of the companies we deal with are big multi- national companies and they don’t have an asset register,” says Lenehan. “We ask them have you got a register of what’s in your machine and they say ‘no’. We ask if they have got backups of what’s on their machine – for instance, operating software – and they say ‘no, we don’t have that’.”

He adds that anyone who has a machine that’s more than 10 years old needs to have an asset register and needs to constantly review availability of spare parts to make sure the machine is repairable should the worst-case scenario occur. Thanks to the sheer volume of companies approaching Northern Industrial on a regular basis asking for help in sourcing spare parts for older machines the company decided to launch its own managing obsolescence programme.

“Managing obsolescence for us is a relatively new thing because for a large period of time we were geared up towards solving emergencies rather than being proactive about it,” says Lenehan. “We were saying to people ‘oh, we can get you one of these parts on the same day’ and we’d rush around, but that approach doesn’t really make sense. If somebody rings up and asks us for a part it means they don’t have a plan. So we thought about that and said ‘what can we do to help companies?’

“What we do now is if someone sends in a repair of an obsolete unit, or they buy an obsolete unit we’ll say ‘do you know these are obsolete? Have you thought about putting a plan in place because that’s going to cost you a lot in downtime?’”

The company takes the strain out of managing the obsolescence issue by sourcing and holding spare parts in a SparesVault on behalf of customers so “when they do have a problem, they can just ring us up and say ‘can you send an engineer – we’ve got this down’ and we can just turn up with the unit and get them back up and running”.

Signing up for a obsolescence management deal with the likes of Northern Industrial is one option available to printers who rely on older pieces of equipment. There are also DIY options that companies can pursue, says Peter Flynn, managing director at IGS Digital.

“When we are looking for a part on a CTP device that we haven’t got in stock there’s two avenues we use,” says Flynn. “One is, believe it or not, eBay. You would be amazed at the spare parts you can find on eBay. The other avenue if, for example, you’ve got a broken motor, is you can take the serial number or the manufacturer’s details on that motor and go into RS Components. It’s amazing the number of times that you’ll find that motor and you’ll also be amazed at the price difference between what you can get it for on RS Components compared with what a manufacturer would charge you for exactly the same part.”

A further option that Flynn has come across on a number of occasions in the past is customers snapping up old scrap machines online or at auctions for spare parts. He cites the example of one customer based in Mexico that has a Luscher VLF CTP who purchased a back up machine from IGS.

“We bought a machine in Spain, and sold it to this company in Mexico purely as a spare parts machine,” says Flynn. “They didn’t strip it down or anything like that. They kept it as it was so that when anything went wrong with their production machine, they had some guys in the factory who knew where the part was and they would take it off the spare machine and put it in the one they were using and it would work. It saved them investing another £200,000-£300,000 pounds on a brand new machine.”

While finding replacement parts either directly from a manufacturer, online or from a spare machine is relatively straightforward for some pieces of kit, things get more complicated on machines that were the first generation to have computerisation introduced to them.

“We are now seeing machines from the last years of the third industrial revolution that were fitted and controlled by the first computers,” says Ryan Williams, an engineer at Jerry Curtin. “In reality it is one big ticking time bomb for obsolescence of a scale not yet fully understood. This will be where newer machines are removed and scrapped due to an obsolesce of electronics whilst older simpler ones will still be in use. Machines from the mid-1990s, which is the point that it became common to have a PLC, PC or machine operator interface with small LCD screens. Some manufacturers used their own software, which may still be available to upload into replacement screen assemblies, others used early windows operating systems such as NT or XP.”

Although this presents a potential headache there are options available to companies that find themselves faced wth a situation where the PC has broken on their device and it will only run on an older version of Windows that you can’t source for love nor money.

“What we’ve been doing – and liquidators think we’re crazy when we do this – is when a [printing] business is being liquidated we will go in and we will buy all of the old PCs that were going to be chucked into the bin,” says Flynn. “And then someone will call us up and say ‘I’ve got a Luscher CTP device and the server has gone down’ and we can say to them ‘we’ve actually got one for you in stock’.”

While the life expectancy of newer equipment – and particularly digital devices – appears to be getting shorter and shorter, there are plenty of printing machines out there that were built 30 or 40 years ago that are reliable workhorses, and with the right amount of TLC and preparation printers can potentially keep these machines running for many decades to come.


Case study: First 4 Group

Late last year, Blackburn-based First 4 Group commissioned Northern Industrial to undertake an obsolescence report and provide an obsolescence strategy for its plant list.

“As a leading UK print finishing company, producing half a billion door drops per year, it is essential that we keep productivity at an absolute maximum and the potential for downtime as minimal as possible,” explains, Lorenzo Fardella First 4 Group financial director. “Managing our extensive plant list and ensuring it delivers us the highest level of value throughout its working life is also crucial for the profitability of the businesses.”

The printing company’s engineering team had identified that a number of machines were reliant on ageing automation technology and Northern Industrial was tasked with ensuring an adequate spares provision was in place and helping to identify which units were more likely to fail resulting in production downtime.

A Northern Industrial engineer visited the site and took photographs of the units also taking a note of all the part numbers.

“This report consists of detailed lists of the automation equipment found in each machine, along with whether they are obsolete, and how much availability there is for each part,” explains Northern Industrial area sales manager JohnJoe McGonagle.

Having drawn up the list Northern Industrial was then in a position to work out how much it would cost First 4 Group to replace potentially vulnerable parts based on current market prices. Following completion of the obsolescence report First 4 Group now uses Northern Industrial’s SparesVault service to ensure it has access to vital spares available at all times.

“Balancing the profitability delivered by our plant in order to ensure we can invest in new plant as necessary in a carefully managed manner is the sweet spot of running a successful, leading print business and so having a strategic approach to obsolescence makes huge business sense for us,” says Fardella.

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