Getting the Most Out of Your Packaging Center

By: W. Eric Schult

Getting the Most Out of Your Packaging Center

Ask a simple question and expect a simple answer:            

Why, if preprint revenue is down, is packaging labor not also down?            

If you’re satisfied with the response, There’s not necessarily a direct correlation between those two things, then read no further.

But if you really meant to ask, How do I know we’re getting the maximum productivity we can out of our packaging center?, then let me help you peel back the layers of that onion.            

Having been exposed to multitudes of experts in this area over the last quarter century as a production manager and operations director, I’ve found there are as many ways to run a packaging center as there are packaging managers to run them. However, as you compare and contrast methods and machinery, staffing and statistics, and pick the brains of people who seem to be squeezing just a little bit more out of their equipment and people than you are out of yours, it’s possible to assemble some best practices and more-or-less universal truths that are applicable almost anywhere.            

Chain newspapers have a built-in advantage in an endeavor like this, in that they have peers with whom they can compare notes, and a corporate parent that can, and will, provide reporting guidelines that assure as close to an apples-to-apples comparison between properties as possible. Gannett and McClatchy, for example, benchmark packaging productivity with a “pieces-per-hour” metric. It’s a macro method of capturing productivity: total pieces for the month divided by total hours of all packaging center personnel.            

“We count every single piece that goes through the packaging center, be it an insert or printed product,” said Marty Barlow, packaging manager for The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., a Gannett newspaper. “It’s the only accurate way to tell how you’re doing, month after month.” The statistic includes “all the people who are not touching inserts—such as supervisors and managers. All hours in packaging payroll are counted.”            

Capturing metrics this way, there’s some seasonal fluctuation in productivity. “February’s a tough month, because inserts are down and there are x number of full-timers to pay,” Barlow noted.            

Another tough month is July, the height of summer vacation season. As a method for benchmarking your packaging center’s productivity against itself—month-to-month and year-to-year—it can inform in a general way whether productivity is trending in the right direction. Barlow acknowledges that tracking productivity shift-after-shift is harder, since the quality of a jacket and the insert count for a weekday prepack versus a Sunday prepack will net different throughput results.            

And, since not all packaging centers are created equal, comparisons between papers may have limited value due to dissimilar inserting equipment and peripherals, packaging center layout, product mix, and a myriad of other operational differences.

The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for example, benchmarks itself against other McClatchy papers in Lexington, Sacramento, Kansas City, Fresno, Charlotte, Columbia and Miami. Few of those peer papers, though, are running the same inserting equipment as in Raleigh (three GMA SLS-3000’s—one with a capacity to insert 40-into-1 and two with a 28-into-1 capacity), said Janna Allison, senior operations manager.            

The paper’s heavy use of pocket loaders and an automated cart loading system downstream from the stackers gives it an envious pieces-per-hour stat and throughput speeds that most packaging managers could only dream about. The paper’s Sunday pre-packs—with 24-34 inserts—run at cycle speeds of 20,000 pieces per hour and net 15,000-16,000 pieces per hour over the course of the run, said Tim Fentem, the paper’s packaging manager. This is with sub-zip zoning that would slow most packaging centers to a crawl.            

The added productivity comes with some offsetting expenses for maintenance and repairs that would fall outside the experience of those of us less “equipment-endowed” and more dependent upon manual labor. It’s these differences that make it harder for papers like The News & Oberver to compare notes with their peers. “We’re a lot different from all the other papers in our network,” Allison acknowledged. “Trying to find somebody like us, that’s tough.”  

Doppelgänger Inserters
A useful exercise for independent papers, and chain papers that don’t have a comparably equipped packaging center in their network, is to reach out to machine or parts vendors for the names and contact information of papers that run the same equipment and configurations. K&M Newspaper Services president Mark Jacobs hooked me up with my newspaper’s (The Fayetteville Observer) packaging center doppelgänger—this person’s newspaper has two 630 inserters with a maximum insert capacity of 29-into-1.            

A 30-minute phone call with my counterpart at that paper produced a bunch of useful comparisons and contrasts, and several tips and tricks worth investigating. His newspaper was, for example, running a very tight gap of 15-20 empty pockets between insert zones. Other packaging centers with which I have had first-hand experience run gaps of 100, and it’s not uncommon to spend a minute or more clearing the entire inserter between zones. The difference might not seem significant, but with 50-60 zones, it can add an hour or more to the run time of a packaging shift, reducing throughput speed by 1,200 pieces per hour.            

Tightening up the gap between zones may not be possible without shifting or adding staff downstream from the stacker. For some, a tighter zone gap might also be hard to accomplish depending on the layout of their mailroom and how separated by distance the inserter is from stack-down. The biggest difference between my packaging center and its doppelgänger, however, is the presence of redundant, in-line stackers and strappers, minimizing for my counterpart the likelihood of downtime due to equipment jams.            

Having traded notes with no fewer than five papers running 630/632-style inserters with similar inserting capacities (some of them on the condition of non-disclosure or anonymous disclosure), I managed to collect anecdotal comparisons of cycle speeds and net speeds that, for the most part, confirmed the reasonability of achieving or surpassing a set of goals I had set for my own operation. There were correlations, too, with papers I talked to running carousel-style inserters from 1372s to 2299s, both machines to which I had abundant exposure at another paper.            

For Bill Langman, director of operations for The Day, an independent daily in New London, Conn., the priorities involving packaging performance have evolved in recent years with the scope of its packaging operation. The paper discontinued printing and inserting its daily products, contracting with The Providence Journal, an A.H. Belo paper, to perform those services, but it retained its 20-into-1 capacity 630 inserter to continue producing its Sunday pre-pack and take on inserting and labeling for The Journal’s quarter-million circulation TMC. It also handles packaging for 15 weeklies.            

With the elimination of daily deadlines, throughput speed was de-emphasized and bundle quality and insert accuracy became the overarching preoccupation of the paper. “We quit measuring rate per hour. It served no purpose for us,” Langman said. Instead, he’ll budget a fairly liberal five hours for the Sunday pre-pack (28,000 circulation), forgiving the run speed for the first hour while the machine lead “tunes in” all the hoppers. Then, they’ll hit a consistent pace for the remainder of the shift that’ll get the necessary work done in the available time. “We’re not using the muscle the machine has,” Langman acknowledged. But with their 1990 inserter “showing its age” at least part of his goal is keeping it alive. That, and receiving zero complaints from the field.

Langman credited his former post-press operations manager, Michael Flaig, with running the packaging center “like a Swiss watch”, prior to the outsourcing of the daily packaging. “I always tracked the machine throughputs,” Flaig said, by shift and by lead operator. If one was achieving 11,500 per-hour net speeds with three inserts, and another 10,200 for the same setup, he’d watch the underperforming shift, make observations, and correct deficiencies. “Downtime is what the killer is,” he said. If there’s a stacker jam and “someone downstream is not reacting quickly enough,” it’ll show.            

For their daily, running lighter insert loads, Flaig said The Day ran cycle speeds close to 18,000 per hour, netting 13,200. On the Sunday run, with 12-13 inserts, the throughput might slow to 8,500 pieces per hour.            

For the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., with its machines loaded for its Sunday pre-pack, the center runs at 12,000 pieces-per-hour cycle speed and nets about 8,000 pieces per hour, according to Jake Livingston, packaging and distribution manager. The paper produces its packages with a 2299- and a 1472 carousel inserter, both modified with a Kansa Twister to add to the total inserting capacity. They can achieve 24-into-1 on the 2299 and 17-into-1 on the 1472. A lot of that throughput result is due to heavy zoning, and a delay of 60-90 seconds between zones to clear out the machine.            

The Post and Courier is another paper that practices self-benchmarking, regularly reporting the throughput on individual runs. “I look at it, and it goes to a group of people,” said Ron Cartledge, president of shared services for the paper. If there’s a deviation from the norm in anticipated throughput, it generates follow-up scrutiny, usually pointing at “a particularly bad insert,” he said.

Self Benchmarking
The disclaimer in all of the above is this: Your results may vary.            

The more similar your packaging center is equipped and configured to another, the easier it may be to compare apples-to-apples on cycle speeds and net throughput, but the information you’re collecting is still anecdotal. We’ve touched upon jacket quality, insert load, zone gap and zoning complexity, bad inserts, the machine age and condition.       

The variables go on and on, such as:

  • lead operator setup skills
  • tolerance for misses & multiples
  • training for the employees who feed insert pockets
  • staffing levels on the inserter and downstream from the stacker            

Any comparison to another newspaper is at least somewhat imperfect. The benefit of networking with their staff is the little takeaways that happen while you’re exchanging notes or visiting each other’s plants.            

Even the more analytic ‘pieces-per-hour’ metric is better for general self-benchmarking and trend-watching than for identifying a model packaging center to emulate. Unless you’re swimming in capital funds and plan to match their investments in equipment, that’s more of an exercise in performance envy.            

So how do you answer the question, How do I know we’re getting the maximum productivity we can out of our packaging center? My bias is to set yourself a sliding goal for net-throughput speed by asking your best operator (or looking at your most productive runs) to determine the range of speeds you can expect for the minimum and maximum insert loads on each of your insert line.

From that, a little bit of Excel magic (use your controller’s mastery if it’s not your strong suit) will help calculate throughput speeds for every increment between one insert and the maximum load your equipment can handle.

From there, it isn’t much of a task to enter actual results from individual runs against the sliding yield goals, by shift and operator to produce a scorecard that is actionable. Need help? Drop me a line.  

Eric Schult is the operations director at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. Contact him on or at

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