Me & my: Horizon SmartStacker

By Barney Cox, Monday 26 March 2018

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Rotherham is the site of the Advanced Manufacturing Park, home to high-tech firms specialising in areas such as additive manufacturing.


Swain: “There’s nothing on the market that compares to it”

The Yorkshire town is also the location of an exemplar of advanced manufacturing techniques applied to printing; the 10,000m² factory of Bluetree Group location of the world’s first integrated B2 digital printing and cutting line, which delivers ready to despatch jobs without any operator intervention.

Bluetree Group started out as a screen printer in the late 1980s moving into wide-format digital a decade later. In 2012 it merged with Instantprint an online print sales site and started developing a single production site feeding multiple brands. 

The factory is divided into three cells, one for litho, one for digital and one for large-format. Products and services are offered under the Instantprint, Instantprint Pro, Route 1 Print and Bluetree Connect brands. 

Route 1 Print specialises in quick-turnaround trade printing, with many of its products produced and shipped on the day the order is received for next-day delivery. As such, much of its work is produced digitally and the firm aims to automate and integrate as much as possible, reducing human intervention and manual handling wherever possible.

The integrated digital production line, comprising the Horizon SmartStacker inline with an HP Indigo 10000 B2 press was installed in the summer of 2016 after Route 1 Print saw the configuration at Drupa earlier that year.

The SmartStacker is an automated X-Y cutter, which takes a whole sheet and passes it through two sets of knives set at 90˚ to each other to enable perpendicular cuts to turn the sheet into multiple smaller jobs. With 14 cutters in the first unit and eight in the second a sheet can be divided into up to 28 items with a gutter between each. The smallest individual item that can be produced is 100x105mm enabling the creation of formats down to A6. The cutting wheels are moved by servos, allowing for an infinite range of different sizes of cut products to be produced. By taking job information via JDF the machine can automatically change formats, a process that is almost instantaneous, enabling very quick changeovers between jobs. 

The machine delivers cut items in stacks for packing and despatch. 

While the ability to run inline to the press was key to the firm’s aims to maximise automation and minimise touch points the SmartStacker can also be configured with a sheet-feeder for offline use, for instance if taking work from a number of different presses.

For Route 1 Print orders that have artwork approved before 5pm the firm has a six-hour window to ensure all production can be completed and on a truck by 11pm for next-day delivery. 

Hands off

While the six-hour window is long enough to enable many products to be produced litho and finished offline it wanted to ensure the highest level of automation and the minimal manual handling of as many jobs and processes as possible. The combined HP Indigo 10000/Horizon SmartStacker production line can handle flat work up to B2 that isn’t laminated, allowing operators to focus on more complicated work.

“There’s nothing on the market that compares to it,” says operations director Jim Swain. “The SmartStacker is the only one capable of handling a B2 sheet that is servo-driven.”

There were no issues with the installation. In addition to the physical connection between the Indigo and the SmartStacker, with sheets coming directly from the press into the cutter, the SmartStacker is also integrated with the Indigo’s front-end and with the MIS to ensure it is set up for the right sheets and that production data is passed back to the management system.

“The thing that is particularly neat is the artwork is used to configure the Horizon, meaning it automatically adjusts the cutters to the job size,” says Swain.

“It processes mostly flat work – posters and leaflets. Jobs are stacked and ready to shrink-wrap off the back of the machine. It enables us to process work in minutes rather than hours. We have had a job go from artwork approval to despatch – through the Indigo and the SmartStacker – in 23 minutes and 17 seconds.”

The number of cuts determines the speed. For simple work it can handle up to 4,600 sheets per hour, which is faster than the HP Indigo 10000, which runs at 3,500 sheets per hour simplex and 1,750 sheets per hour duplex. On complex cuts, such as DL and A6 formats it slows down to 1,700 sheets per hour, so it does slow the press down marginally.

“It has been pretty reliable,” he says. “We got an early machine and it has continued to be improved. We’ve worked closely with IFS and Horizon. We’ve probably put more work through our machine than anyone else in the world. 

Hot topic

“It has had some issues; one was with one of the motors overheating in the summer due to heavy usage. The engineers modified the casing to improve air circulation, it was a small change that was fairly straightforward and has removed that problem.

“We get a same-day response from IFS. The uptime is good; generally we may have an issue once a month. It’s due a service at the moment, when we will replace the drives and the belts. Some of the spares, especially the cutting blades are fairly expensive, we’ve been in discussion with IFS about the cost of the blades. They will do millions of products before they need replacing but we do that volume fairly quickly and get through a lot of blades. We never get to a point where a blunt blade causes a problem with cut quality – we’ve never had a customer complaint. It’s more likely to cause a jam than impact product quality, but it’s rare and we manage through preventative maintenance. 

“The best thing about it is that it is effortless when everything is working as it should, which is a good proportion of the time. It’s a good quality product that integrated with our MIS. Turning a job around in minutes shows the art of the possible.

“The downsides are when it does go down we lose a lot of capacity and we have to be able to absorb that within the rest of the factory. We can handle that well; we went through drills early on to make sure that we could safeguard customers against any downtime. As it handles 100s of jobs a day we keep a spare guillotine.

“If it could crease that would add another dynamic, but that also adds more opportunity for things to go wrong. In terms of all the things it does already it is a decent balance in that it does a lot reliably. For integrated production lines you need high confidence in the reliability of the equipment,” Swain adds. “It demonstrates our forward thinking approach; that we’ve invested in a solution to make sure we’ve got the best technology in place.

Would he buy another? “I have been looking at a second SmartStacker in advance of us filling the capacity, which we expect to do later this year. But we’re also looking at other completely different production options. 

“It would be fair to recommend it, we believe we maintain a competitive advantage irrespective of the equipment other companies use.”


Technology Servo-driven automatic X-Y cutting

Speed 1,700-4,600sph depending on stock and cut complexity

Max sheet size 762x530mm

Stock weight range 81-370gsm

Number of cuts X: 2-14 (up to 7 columns) Y: 2-8 (up to 4 rows)

Feed Inline from press or via 920mm high feeder

Delivery Merge stacker with 10mm offset.

Price In-line £235,000; Near-line (with feeder) £274,000

Contact IFS 020 8997 8053

Company profile 

Route 1 Print is the trade print arm of web-to-print specialist Bluetree Group. Bluetree has in excess of 250 staff based out of its 10,000sqm factory in Rotherham, Yorkshire with three production cells producing litho, large-format and digital print for its four brands, which in addition to Route 1 Print includes Bluetree Connect, Instantprint and Instantprint Pro.

Why they bought it 

“With the number of jobs that go through each day we need to ensure that our processes are as seamless and high quality as possible,” says Swain.

How it has performed

“The best thing about it is that it is effortless when everything is working as it should, which is a good proportion of the time,” says Swain. “Turning a job around in minutes shows the art of the possible.”

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