Doing More with Less in the Pressroom

By: Gretchen A. Peck

Doing More with Less in the Pressroom

Efficiency is precisely why Dow Jones & Company, Inc. prints The Wall Street Journal at strategic points across the nation. The obvious benefit is that it gets “the Journal closer to our customers,” according to vice president of production Larry Hoffman. There was a time when the publisher operated its own printing plants—17 back then—but today it relies more heavily on print suppliers, bringing the total number of sites printing The Wall Street Journal—and a mounting volume of commercial print—to 26, Hoffman said.            

What that means—having manufacturing closer to the customer—is shorter truck routes for distribution, and in some cases, a later edition.            

Several key people within the organization attained Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts, and the publisher leveraged their skills and perspective to look at particular projects—quality valuations and energy consumption, according to Hoffman, who clarified, “We used Six Sigma methodology to get to the answers.”            

As color became increasingly important to the newspaper itself, it became a production challenge to double the number of color pages. It required adding some equipment and working with contract printers to figure out how to leverage color technologies without burdening the workflow or introducing new costs.            

Hoffman says there are a couple of simple strategies to minimize production and manufacturing waste and cost: “Understanding the press control systems and how to get the most out of those. We spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to get people to understand them, to know how to manipulate them, change the settings. Our goal is, when we start a press, the press operators don’t have to touch ink and water. It starts up. It goes to its stable point. We get good-looking grey bars, and the product looks good. There’s as low waste as possible.”            

For multi-site manufacturing, Hoffman says that it’s smart practice to build redundancies into the workflow—same equipment, same inks, same newsprint and commercial printing media. It helps from operational and purchasing perspectives, but it also ensures brand consistency, no matter where the print manifests.  

The Business of Print

Freedom Communications, based in Santa Ana, Calif., got into commercial printing somewhat by happenstance—“by accident,” recalled vice president of operations Rick Sant. Back when it was vogue for newspapers to produce companion magazines devoted to TV and television stars, Freedom invested in some commercial-grade print and bindery equipment to produce publications of that ilk.

When Freedom later acquired some weeklies, it also acquired those titles’ legacy equipment, including Goss Community presses.

“By 2004, we were doing about $3 million in commercial print business,” Sant said. “And we realized that we were actually good at it. When I became vice president, I said, ‘I think we can make a lot more money than $3 million a year if we really focus on this.’ ” More print equipment was brought in, along with a perfect binder. 

“So fast-forward a few years later, and we’re doing about $27 million in commercial print business. … All kinds of stuff! We do glossy magazines, short-run stuff, and six dailies. In total, we have about 150 customers that we’re printing for monthly. We’re busy. We’re very, very busy.”

Balancing the workloads and workflows for newspaper production and a diverse range of commercial print output has introduced some challenges for the company print team. Despite that, the benefit of $27 million in revenue from all those projects for the news organization is noteworthy, to say the least.

“Downtime is death to any manufacturing environment, not just newspapers,” Sant said. “If all you’re producing is your own newspaper, you probably have a ton of downtime. And most newspapers don’t even realize how much downtime they have.”

It’s not just the commercial print work that’s been growing for the publisher. Sant said that The Orange County Register, its flagship newspaper, has proven the most challenging to produce and manufacture, though it’s thriving. Freedom has sold its Desert Dispatch and The Daily Press newspapers in recent months to New York-based New Media, while continuing to expand on its publishing product line, including the launch of The Los Angeles Register last month.

“We’ve come to recognize that commercial print is a really valuable part of our business, so there’s always a question of balancing resources and determining the most effective way to use the resources that we have,” Sant added.

To ensure that the print arm remains healthy and profitable, it must also remain vigilant about its operational efficiency. There are daily dilemmas about how best to schedule presses and how much color to use in the newspaper and for commercial jobs, which naturally raises other concerns about efficiency, usage and waste in plates, chemistry, inks, media, and more.

It’s important to “micro-manage” these details, because waste and inefficiency gets expensive. And sometimes manufacturing facilities need a little extra help to make sure that it’s all being managed well. For Freedom, having a third-party waste management vendor that helps ensure little to nothing goes into a landfill has been both “environmentally smart and smart business,” Sant said.  

People Power
When being “lean” includes being lean on team, it’s even more critical that publishers have the right, highly skilled people in production and manufacturing positions, according to Christopher Apel, vice president, production and financial planning and analysis at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.            

“You’ve got to have individuals who can step up and lead a department. In many cases, our management staff is fully cross-trained to lead multiple departments,” Apel explained. “No longer can we have the mindset that supervisors, for example, are in charge of only a pressroom, or only a production department. They’ve got to be able to manage both. They’ve got to be able to know what’s going on, every minute of operations, from the number of copies coming off the presses, to where jobs stand in inserting, to what’s on trucks and ready to go.”            

At the Journal Sentinel, management is continually mindful of employees with “all-star” potential, who step up and demonstrate leadership skills, according to Apel.            

No matter how much attention has gone into creating the most seamless production workflow imaginable, when it comes to commercial print, every job has its own set of challenges. So questions about how best to manage content; how to maximize pressroom time and technologies; how to get print through post-press processes and out the door as quickly and as cost-efficiently as possible, are pervasive.            

Apel offered an example: Is there a way that two inserting lines, rather than three, might be deployed for a specific job? Can it be done, and what’s the savings potential?

Often, it’s the folks in the trenches who are best informed to solve problems like these. “To have them present ideas gets them engaged in the business, and really thinking about operations,” he said. “You’ve got to keep people motivated and engaged in the business, because when you’re lean in your operations, turnover can kill you.”

There is a heightened sense of urgency when a paper is due on press, and that culture serves plants well as they take on growing volumes of commercial print.

“Mid-day, when we’re running dozens and dozens of commercial products? We still have those stringent deadlines,” Apel remarked. Suffice it to say that smart, ambitious people are desirable in print production, but when they’re paired with highly automated technologies, the volume of print they can create is remarkable.

“The newspaper industry is very hesitant to invest,” Apel said. “Sometimes these are large cash outlays, and if you don’t know how long you’re even going to be in print, people get very nervous. But you’ve got to find equipment and technology that will produce an ROI for you.”            

The fall of 2013 marked the installation of the Journal Sentinel’s sixth inserting line.            

Investing in equipment doesn’t have to mean buying it new. In fact, the market is replete with used presses and finishing equipment, Apel noted. He and his colleagues constantly scan news about sales of this kind and have frequent conversations about what they may need to be even more efficient and more profitable. And if the equipment adds some new capability to their offerings, attracting new business, new types of print work? All the better.            

“The bottom line is that you want to purchase equipment to become more efficient, to reduce downtime, to reduce labor hours, as well as costs—but also to be able to bring in new business. We were able to do that when we reduced a bottleneck we had in our packaging department,” Apel added.  

Preventative Maintenance  
To get the greatest return on equipment investments—and to keep the machinery running as efficiently as possible—budgeting for “preventative maintenance” is wise, he said Too often, striving for lean manufacturing has meant taking a more on-demand, defensive stance: More troubleshooting than maintaining. That’s expensive, he pointed out.            

Another tip to maximize equipment? Build redundancy into the floor plan. Having redundant print and finishing equipment ensures that if one line goes down, there’s a back-up. There’s less of a learning-curve challenge for operators that have to learn diverse technologies from many manufacturers. And there are fewer parts to buy and keep on hand.            

Another way that print production can be more efficient and cost effective? Negotiate contracts—vendor contracts and union contracts—in a new way, Apel suggested.            

“Contract negotiations do not always have to mean cutting wages or cutting people,” he said. “Some of our most recent contract negotiations, for example, have been in partnership with our union. They’ve resulted in creating more flexible schedules, which reduces overtime. We put together our most recent contract with our press operators, which actually added some full-time positions.”

Another strategy that Apel recommends is to shorten contracts with vendors. It means more frequent analysis about operational efficiencies, and sometimes inspires a little healthy competition over pricing and service.

“We’ve done that with many contracts within the past year, with some of our major vendors, and that has really helped us drive our prices down—for consumables, in particular,” Apel said.            

A sure-fire way to trim operational fat is through continual process improvement, he noted.            

“We are an ISO-certified operation,” Apel said. “We’ve done a lot of work with Six Sigma lean manufacturing. … And you have to be committed to process improvement, because what was efficient six months ago may not be today. We have someone on staff, and part of that person’s role is to tackle various segments of our business, flowchart it out, and find where we’re inefficient. Where can we save anything, from an hour of someone’s time to a significant amount of money? Right now, this person is mapping out our ad ordering process between advertising and finance.”

Asked if he had any advice for colleagues in newspaper production, Apel said,  “Constantly monitor your processes, from front to back, on an everyday basis. You cannot afford to be complacent and think that just because you looked at operations three months ago, you’re still doing the best you can do. Things change so rapidly.            

“You can’t maintain status quo—or a term we use around here, ‘past practice’—in an economy like this. If you’re doing well, it’s flat. If you’re not, it’s eroding, and you’ve got to find strategies and ways to help manage your costs”

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