If finishing fails to establish standards it risks being commercially unviable

John Charnock
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Such is the prevalence of standards in the print industry these days that you would be forgiven for thinking that even the car parks were subject to some independently verified rules. ISO 14001, ISO 12647, ISO 27000 and a great deal more cover everything within our workflow - security, lighting, colour, process and all that lies in between. However, there is one very obvious exception: finishing.

Quality standards appear to end in the press room. This is highly reflective of the craft-based ugly sister persona finishing finds itself lumbered with in this industry. And from an outsider's view, it appears that businesses involved in post-press are happy to keep it that way. This, however, is not because no one cares.

Take a look at any tender document or specification for a product and you will see that finishing is conspicuous by its absence. There are no, or at the very best few, user forums and no best-practice guidelines to help finishers produce a better product.

Finishers sit in their ‘craft mentality silos' hoping no one notices them. But finishing is an absolutely fundamental part of the process and without specifications and best practice, what hope has any printer of improving the process?

I estimate that, excluding raw materials, 30-40% of the cost of most products is in the bindery - high labour, slow-running equipment. The old phrase of print for two hours, bind for two days, is not necessarily untrue.

Perception problem
So how does a customer know whether a product is good or bad and what is commercially acceptable? I have seen both extremes. At one end you have customers being told pages falling out is acceptable and occurrences of folding that are so far out that they look like a different design. At the other, I've seen customers swinging a magazine around holding just one leaf trying to demonstrate what they say is poor binding.

However, the customers are not to blame. Without documentation and standards, they have no reference to guide them in what is an appropriate tolerance, or what is classed as an acceptable degree of accuracy when it comes to folding.  Standards that solve these issues are considered relevant in the pre-press and press room, so there is no reason why they shouldn't be necessary in the bindery.

The finishing fraternity needs to explain what it is doing to document and improve processes in order to make finishing the most efficient part of the process rather than the least efficient. It needs to demonstrate that it is working towards establishing standards, so that users can judge the quality professionally and independently. Finally, it must move away from the craft mentality and the ‘black art' myth to process-orientated manufacturing.

But who will take up the gauntlet? Who will do what the pre-press and the print departments have already achieved - who will take pride in finishing?

The issue is an urgent one as the consensus is that  finishing is only going to get more difficult with shorter runs and personalisation. Without appropriate standards bodies and development and training groups promoting continuous improvement of this sector, the costs of finishing will simply rise beyond commercial viability. We will continue simply to throw labour at any issues in the hope that the problems will go away.

ISO is willing to establish a standards group for finishing, but it needs representation from users and manufacturers. Both suppliers and users need to invest time in getting a finishing interest group off the ground.

At Ipex, we can see manufacturers starting to realise that finishing is the key to providing total solutions, whether inline, near-line or offline, and this focus on finishing will become more and more apparent.

So come on finishers, get your act together, communicate, collaborate and break the craft mentality that you know exists. If you don't, it will be to the detriment of both finishing and print as a whole.

John Charnock is the managing director of Print Research International


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