Learning on the job

By Barney Cox, Monday 05 June 2017

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In reality TV the contestant’s journey – the struggle to become the best possible them – is a device to increase the entertainment value. In business there’s a more serious side to going on a journey, which is to drive higher profitability through continuous improvement.


Firms taking that approach, aware of the TV cliché, describe the process as a journey, wincing while acknowledging there isn’t any better way to explain it.

Anthony Thirlby was one of the earliest superstars of continuous improvement in print. During his tenure at ESP Colour in Swindon, the company became synonymous with the use of data and continuous improvement to wring profit from the presses. Having joined Heidelberg last year as Prinect general manager, Thirlby is now helping its customers to do the same, showing other printers how to use the tools available and developing the next generation of machines and software to make maximising efficiency commonplace.

“At ESP we were one of the first companies to embrace Heidelberg Pressroom Manager and Analyse Point, my job now is to show the commercial benefits of these tools as much as the production benefits,” says Thirlby.

Some of the tools and techniques needed to implement continuous improvement have been around for a long time, but there have been barriers to their widespread adoption. Thirlby even makes the point that Heidelberg wasn’t the pioneer in this field, stating: “Manroland was there years ago with Pecom but the industry wasn’t ready.”

In today’s market price pressure focuses printers’ minds more. However, while many of the benefits of continuous improvement cost little or nothing to implement, and can deliver rapid results, the tools available aren’t as easy to use as they could be. The problem at the moment is you need to expend additional effort to collect and analyse the data.

“To really take advantage though the data has to be there,” says Thirlby. “You have to prompt people with the numbers rather than making them have to go and pull it together.” 

In the digital realm HPs tools to prompt people with data is Print Beat, one of the core components of the PrintOS concept that it unveiled at Drupa 2016. Print OS is on its own journey. Updates every quarter mean it has just reached version 5. Testing by 100 Indigo customers began before the show. Another 200 signed up at the show. One year on, and according to HP Indigo PrintOS business manager Gershon Alon, there are now 2,300 firms signed up, making it on target to get the whole Indigo user base signed up by this time next year. Other HP customers can now also take advantage with the support for Indigo and PageWide inkjet presses extended to include Latex and Scitex kit at Fespa last month. 

Use it or lose it

According to Alon, the important metric for success is usage, which is growing faster than sign ups, both in terms of numbers accessing the tools, and the frequency that they do so. Across the 2,300 firms using PrintOS there are 5,300 users. Some 2,600 log in monthly, 1,500 weekly and a rapidly growing cohort of power users – some 850 – are active daily users, a figure that has grown by 60% since the start of this year. 

“Absolutely it’s working,” says Alon. “We know because we can see customers react to the reports. For example, some customers are measuring operators using a Print Beat score. If customers are relying on that score then we know that it matters. 

“People take action based on the Print Beat score, especially bigger customers. They increasingly rely on it to plan training and investment.”

The firm is also eating its own dog food: in The US its engineers are incentivised by their customers’ Print Beat scores. 

ProCo was one of the early customers and is now a daily user; chief executive Jon Bailey has a screen in his office showing the status of its Sheffield and Stansted digital print sites.

“The great thing about Print Beat is the live view,” says production director Graeme Parry. “Anyone on the system can see what’s happening now, or historically, and can look at a global or an individual level.”

One of the first things the firm used it for was measuring its Indigos’ productivity.

“When we started (using Print Beat) we were running 24 hours but there was a lot of dead time,” says Parry. “Uptime was about 50%-60%, now its is 80%-90%. So we’ve seen a 30%-40% improvement.” 

That sort of improved productivity is equivalent to an additional machine or operator.

Another benefit has been extending the consumable lifespan on its Indigos, for which it has recently won awards from HP. 

“That is good for us and HP,” says Parry. “We pay for consumables within our click, so the lower costs go to HP, but we get a higher uptime. It isn’t about pushing for a lower click; this is a symbiotic relationship from which we both benefit.”

Parry and ProCo were no strangers to continuous improvement before Print Beat, he has been a long time fan of the KPI and adheres to the adage of what’s measured is managed. Having had a lot of experience of attempting to measure and manage the kit in the factory, and often waking up from his “JDF dream” to find that reality was a bit of a nightmare, he appreciates the seamless simplicity. For the rest of the factory the firm uses shop floor data collection (SFDC) terminals feeding data into its Tharstern MIS, from which it extracts the data into Excel to create the reports required.

“We have all the basic figures in a ProCo style,” he says. “One of the challenges with a multiple supplier system is getting a common interface. The good thing about Print Beat is that it is all one vendor.”

While a single vendor system may make things simple it isn’t the only option, and can create a challenge if you have machines from multiple vendors. Depending on the press and the MIS it is possible to get varying levels of information across for analysis. You may currently be unaware of or underutilising the systems on your presses. 

“When analysing new litho presses the sites that we visited didn’t seem to be as keen to make use of the available tools for data collection,” says Parry. “There seems to be a different take on the use of data in the business between litho and digital printers.”

With the company’s recent Ryobi purchase he found the machine had the data collection and analysis capabilities he wanted, but only through a proactive approach on his part.

There are some third-party tools. For digital presses, US firm SpencerMetrics offers a standalone tool, which Xerox is in discussions about offering in the UK.

Another problem with any tool tied to a single vendor or type of press comes if you want to analyse how the press’s performance ties into overall business objectives, which is the next development according to MIS vendor Tharstern and Thirlby at Heidelberg. The argument is that the press doesn’t operate in a vacuum and with even the slickest possible printing if you’re manufacturing the wrong thing, targeting it at the wrong market or getting your estimates and your prices off, then you’re in danger of going broke while being a busy (albeit highly efficient) fool. 

Both firms’ solution to this is what can be called business intelligence (BI) tools. Basically, with a big enough bucket of data about production and administration and the tools to interrogate it you can get to the root cause of any issues and investigate the remedy. BI isn’t new, and neither is coming up with the metrics to measure, what is new is the advent of smarter and more flexible software. It has typically been the case that establishing KPIs and building the tools to crunch the data was a custom project undertaken by the MIS vendor (unless you were happy with their off-the-shelf options). According to Tharstern’s pre-sales consultant John Murphy the cost and time needed made many such projects prohibitive. Some assumed it would be too expensive to try, while those who looked at it baulked at the price. 

Now new technology is making it possible to create pretty much any report on anything you like on the fly; if you’ve got the underlying data. 

“Filtering is fundamental, it allows you to create a report and look at what you want to at the moment it is relevant,” says Murphy. “For example, you can look at the impact of a change in materials.”

Tharstern has begun rolling out its BI tools but says it is too early to report on the results. Meanwhile, Thirlby promises that Heidelberg has something up its sleeve slated to launch later this year that will be more open than previous products, making it easier to analyse mixed equipment environments. 

Whatever your business’ back story a new era is dawning where the reality for printers is that it is becoming easier than ever to become your own production superstar. If you’re going to get going on that journey you may be confused as to where to start. 

According to Thirlby the global print industry average overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) – viewed by some as the gold standard in improving manufacturing productivity – stands at just 26%. That suggests that for even the leanest and meanest operators there is plenty of room for improvement. So, in a suitably theatrical style for reality TV, start the show right here. If you’re confused about where here is, then get your hands on those tools that measure and analyse productivity, preferably ones that serve the data up to you without too much leg work and let them serve you as map and compass as you take your first steps. 

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