Production: Taking Inventory of Critical Onsite Parts

Today’s press controls are a complex mix of mechanical and electronic components that can challenge even the most experienced electrician. While drive controls have come a long way and are much more reliable, the complexity adds another layer of confusion for press operators when something goes wrong.

We’ve all had them: the restless nights tossing and turning thinking about if that certain weak critical part is going to make it through the press run or not. Unfortunately, very few of us are lucky enough to have a backup press on site. Some of us are fortunate enough to have secondary folders, and some of us even have an adequate onsite parts inventory that we’ve accumulated over the years. But for the most part, the majority of us are in the same boat. We’ve got a decent stock of parts on hand, yet it seems that every time something serious breaks down, it’s a part the manufacturer has to order, and it’s going to take days or even weeks to get to our site.

I wish I had the magic plan on how to avoid those sleepless nights, but aside from an onsite backup press or a parts inventory that contains each and every part for a second press (not likely), we’re all at the mercy of that one critical part that someday is going to sneak up and bite us.

So, what can we do to minimize the risk? Quite a bit.

Research and Involve Everyone

Start out by sitting down with the press manager and crews to discuss what items are most likely to take you down. Many of the parts on press are items we can “MacGyver:” a little bit of baling wire, some duct tape, gobs of crazy glue, and you’re back up and running. Other parts we can have machined either in our own shop or a machine shop across town.

Broken shafts, even some gears, bearings and various steel parts, can often be picked up or crafted locally. But then there are those specialized parts that we just can’t obtain from anyone but the manufacturer; more than likely those are the parts that are going to break at midnight on a Saturday night.

Personally, what keeps me up at night is the potential failure of electronics, the “drive parts.” Presses today are incorporating more and more electronics. As a result, they’ve become easier to run and quality of the final product is vastly improved, but with those gains come new and different challenges. More electronics mean more points of failure, and one simple diode on a drive can take down multiple units, a folder or even your entire press.

When you start to put together a list, speak with your vendors (press and drives); no one is going to know better what key components you should have on the shelf.

Sit down with your crews and develop a list of critical parts that everyone agrees are the pieces that you absolutely need to have on the shelf in the event of catastrophic failure. These parts should be the ones that have far reaching risk for loss of multiple units or a single point of failure that can render your press inoperable.

Determine Your True Need

Carefully evaluate need.

The tendency when developing such a list is to cover all your bases, yet financially this isn’t always practical. Sure, it would be nice to not have to worry about any single part and have a replacement on the shelf that can bail you out of every issue, but most companies simply are not able to have a few million dollars worth of parts sitting idle on the shelves. You’re going to have to determine cost and value verses reality and arrive at a list that covers the majority of issues that can stop you in your tracks, while being logical about the financial impact on the organization.

As you’re putting together the list of critical parts, you should detail next to each part what areas of the press will be impacted or limited in the event of failure. Not only is this necessary research to develop a solid list, but it will also come in handy when it comes time to request funding and justify the purchase.

Outside of physical need and financial impact, other thoughts that need to go into the process are:

Projected delivery times and product availability. Depending on where your press was manufactured and the vintage of your press, you could be looking at anywhere from overnight shipping of a part up to months (yes, months) for that custom drive part to be manufactured and delivered. Your reaction may be “How can I go weeks or months without this part?” And that should be your reaction. That’s exactly why you need to do an excellent job of determining your critical parts requirements because this isn’t just a scare tactic, it is reality.

Many years ago, we had much more simplistic presses. If there was a problem with the water system, you flush it out, put a new elbow and hose on it, replace a sock, etc. If you could change a radiator hose on your car, you could probably figure out how to repair the water system on a press. Now we’ve incorporated spray bars, turbos, multiple electronics, and very high-end dampening systems that do a fabulous job—when they work. Problem is, like everything else, things break and parts simply aren’t as easy to repair or as accessible as they used to be.

Manufacturing times/delivery times verses other options. I’ve written articles before on contingency and disaster planning. If you don’t have a comprehensive disaster plan in place, I’d recommend reading over “Developing an Effective Business Continuity and Recovery Plan” published in the June 2016 issue of E&P, then putting together a plan of your own (preferably before you need it).

A basic contingency plan. Keep in mind that if you have developed a solid list of critical onsite parts and established that inventory, all this is a moot point.

First, you’ll need to determine how bad the problem is. Is the necessary part sitting on the shelf? Problem solved. Or is it a part that isn’t readily available from the manufacturer?

Obviously, the first thing to do is exhaust your contacts. I’m sure no one really needs this advice since this is what we all do immediately. Call around, reach out to vendors, ask for advice and alternatives, search the internet for refurbished parts, etc. Be vigilant and aggressive.

Next, you should have a list on-hand of any/all other print sites with similar equipment and have pre-established reciprocating agreements with them; i.e. if they need a part you have on the shelf (and can spare) you share that part with them and vice versa. One of the many things that make our industry a great one is that despite competition between publications the camaraderie and brotherhood between print sites still remains strong.

Next, if you still haven’t located the critical part, you’ll need to clearly determine the far reaching scope of the issue; i.e. have you lost a single unit, a tower, multiple units, a folder, or entire functionality of the press. Determine if you have limited availability on press or are up against a hard fail of all components.

If you’ve lost a unit or two, you’re going to have to split runs, have multiple section runs, drop color, drop page counts, adjust deadlines, etc. Simply put, you’ll have to do what’s necessary to get the paper out.

If you’re facing an extended period of downtime, you’re going to need to contact alternative print sites that you have a backup/contingency agreement established with. You’re also going to have to move forward with a plan of how to handle any commercial work you have on the docket.

New press consoles allow operators to control printing units from a central location rather than running up and down ladders and darting from one end of the press to the other to set ink and water. There are tremendous advantages to the newer equipment in addition to less wear and tear on press operators.

When a Breakdown Affects Your Commercial Base

Keep in mind managing your commercial base is key at this point. Many of our properties survive on outside printing.

While everyone understands that breakdowns happen and problems arise, you need to show your accounts that you are still in control and that their product is the primary concern to everyone involved. They need to be confident in your ability to deliver and you need to follow through on any promises you make. Customer service really needs to take a front row seat, and you need to make sure you are clearly and truthfully communicating with your customers throughout your whole situation.

When it comes to managing these important commercial accounts through a breakdown, you must remember that to each client they are the only customer, and appropriately, they will expect to be treated as such. Have a solid plan and if things veer off track as the TV commercial says “Don’t let them see you sweat.” Remain professional, and remain confident in your ability to manage despite the challenges.

Not only is the repair going to result in an unanticipated expense but during these hard times, there is a major risk to revenue as well.  Last year, following a serious fire on a press, I took on a couple small commercial accounts strictly to help them out. Its times like this that my concerns move to helping my printing comrades out of a hole and assisting with any commercial jobs so that they can continue publication. It’s not a time to capitalize on other’s misfortune and not a time to swoop in to steal jobs. If you win a job fair and square based on quality, price or similar issues, that’s fair game, but if you’re truly a steward of our industry, you have to play fair. My point is some of these customers, after working with a new printer for a period of time, discover that they would rather do business with the new shop, either based on price, location, quality or customer service, and as much as fairness does come into play, most of us will take on a new customer if it is their wish. The best way to keep a customer on the front-end is to deal with them honestly and fairly, and keep their best interest in mind. Normally, if you follow the path of treating the customer as you would want to be treated, you will retain their loyalty and their business even through the turmoil of a press breakdown.

Above all else, if you find yourself helping out another property through their challenges, remember the difference between “earning” a client and “stealing” a client. Integrity is everything in our business.

Capital Funding

I’ve always been a firm believer in spending (or preserving) the company’s money like it was my own. If you carry this process into capital projects and you’ve done your research and homework, I find the chances of successfully obtaining funding runs about 100 percent. If you need funding and you’re truly striving to protect the company’s best interest, get your facts in-line and seek approval with a vengeance—you’ll be successful.

Detail the need, outline the scope of the project, present options, present challenges, analyze and detail financial risk, clearly outline gains (increased profitability, new revenue streams, increased productivity and reliability), calculate and clearly explain any return on investment, etc. The list is endless. The better, more detailed case you can make for the expenditure, the better your chances are for approval.

Depending on your press, I continue to believe the primary need is for replacement components within the electronic drive panels and controls of our newer presses. These drives are the communication system and the heart of our presses. Failure of any one of these components can severely limit availability of specific sections of a press and may lead to further communication issues within multiple units of the press.

In the end, keeping the necessary components in-stock will minimize downtime, is critical to continuous seamless operation, and can reduce or avoid any overtime or temporary help needed if you are forced to do split runs due to reduced page capacity.

As our presses age, components are more likely to fail, increasing the need for us to strategically stock our shelves with critical components. At the very least, you’ll get a good night’s sleep. 

Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on or at

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