Heeter in the News: Labor Frustration? Try Automation

Bob Neubauer, Printing Impressions

When Heeter opened its new $4 million Digital Print Center in November, stocked with the latest digital printing technology — including the world’s first Ricoh Pro Z75 B2+ sheetfed inkjet press — it capped a period of tremendous growth for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based commercial and direct mail printer.

“Since 2019, we’ve grown 57%,” proclaims Kirk Schlecker, president of Heeter. That growth could have been even higher, he acknowledges, except for one complication. “We’d like to run a full third shift, but we can’t find people,” he laments. “We’ve got 25 open positions.”

The Heeter leadership team stands with the company’s Ricoh Pro VC70000 inkjet web press. From left: Thomas Boyle, executive VP of sales and marketing; Tim Thomas, VP of operations; Blake Leduc, president, Duke Printing;
Kirk Schlecker, president, Heeter; Scott Heeter, CEO/owner; and Barb Kilgore, executive VP of finance.

His is a dilemma familiar to many in today’s printing industry, as a pandemic-inspired national labor shortage combines with an existing decline in interest in print production jobs. As Schlecker sees it, though, there is a solution. “The goal is to simplify our manufacturing process. We don’t need to hold out for somebody with 25 years of experience to miraculously come into our market,” he says. “When we simplify our workflow, we can then do more with less in the future.”

This simplification is evident in his company’s transition to automated digital presses like the cutting-edge Ricoh Pro Z75 and a trio of Ricoh Pro VC 70000 inkjet web presses, as well as an HP Indigo 7900 and three Ricoh Pro C9210 toner-based presses. Thanks to the automation on these devices, one operator can run multiple machines, unlike with the company’s more labor-intensive offset printing presses.

Productivity Investments Counteract Shortage

Schlecker’s experience mirrors an industry-wide trend, as evidenced in the new “2022-2023 State of the Industry Report,” published by PRINTING United Alliance. Its 336 respondents shared their investment plans, business concerns, and labor challenges.

“Eighty three percent are concerned about labor shortages,” notes Andy Paparozzi, chief economist at PRINTING United Alliance. “Throughout our survey, the participants mentioned that ‘we do need to automate because we’re not able to attract young employees; our folks are getting older. They’re retiring.’ And 52.3% said they are investing in capital equipment specifically for automation purposes.”

What’s more, Paparozzi reports, respondents say they are looking into automation company-wide, from job submission through billing, all driven by labor shortages. Automation, he insists, has become essential to address increasing competition.

“Despite consolidation, the industry is getting more competitive, and you have to be constantly increasing productivity, squeezing steps out of the process, and increasing production speeds, or your margins are going to suffer,” he says. “The gamut of opportunity is expanding but the margin for error is shrinking, so you’ve got to continuously be maximizing efficiency, and you can’t have inefficiencies and bottlenecks created by a [labor] shortage or high labor turnover.”

Automation addresses these issues, Paparozzi maintains, and lets commercial printers do more work with fewer people. Those businesses still trying to compete with older, labor-intensive technology, he adds, are in trouble.

“They are putting themselves at a distinct competitive disadvantage, and they’re really jeopardizing their long-term profitability,” he says. “There’s no question about that.”

‘A Constant Automation Effort’

“If you try to rely on equipment that you have this year next year, you’re going to get passed by your competitors,” agrees Mark Popp, VP of technology, research, and development at Imagine, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “So there needs to be a constant automation effort … in all areas of our business.”

The $400 million company employs 1,200 people in its four locations, and recently beefed up its Charlotte, North Carolina, commercial facility with automated equipment, including a Screen Truepress Jet520 HD inkjet web press, a high-speed Bluecrest inserter, and a Tecnau cut-sheet stacking device. Though the company runs 15 offset presses, including a Koenig & Bauer Rapida 205, it has inkjet presses at all four of its production facilities.

“There is always an automation aspect to everything we buy these days,” Popp reveals.

Fueling this is the need to reduce touch points so the company can do more work with fewer people. Though Imagine has hired more than 240 people over the past year, Popp says — more than a third through internal referrals — “there are definitely positions we still have open … and therefore, we have to come up with methods and machinery that eliminate the need to have that number of bodies.”

And eliminating bodies is something automation excels at, contends Pat McGrew, managing director of the McGrew Group. “It can take people out of processes they shouldn’t be doing so that the people that you do have can be applied to things that a person really has to do,” she says. “Every step that you automate can eliminate one to five people.”

McGrew acknowledges that some printers are reluctant to invest in workflow automation, getting hung up on the expense and implementation hassles, but she is quick to point out the ROI.

“The investment that you make is going to pay it back in FTEs and in optimization many, many fold,” she insists. “The current generation of workflow automation tools … they’re not expensive to get into. The SaaS (Software as a Service) model works.”

McGrew points to one client that was utilizing 10 people to examine incoming files and fix problems like duplicate embedded fonts and resolutions issues. Then the company added automation software to handle job onboarding, optimization, and preflighting.

“That took 10 people out of the looking-at-files adventure,” she says. “The cost of the software was less than 1/3 of one of those 10 bodies.”

McGrew encourages commercial printers to start with front-end automation like Web-to-print, preflighting, and print MIS.

“Where automation comes in is that the files … get uploaded to a portal. At that moment, they are preflighted to make sure everything is as it should be. A person doesn’t have to be looking at it to make those decisions,” she notes. As a bonus, “It eliminates terabytes of email-attached files, which are the bane of workflow processes. So, if you can automate that file upload/optimization/flight check kind of thing and then it goes into prepress, arriving with all the pieces it’s supposed to have, you’re five steps ahead of where you would have been if it was manual.”

A print MIS system can further compensate for labor shortages by simplifying job scheduling and providing data, for example, on how many jobs are being reprinted due to errors.

“An MIS system will help you do that in a way that people won’t because nobody ever wants to admit they did anything wrong,” she points out.

“If you just [automate] the front-end process, you can free up a lot of people,” McGrew concludes. “The more automation you apply down in the later processes, the more bodies you’re going to have to work with.”

Automated Machine Setup

Those “later processes” include not only digital presses but bindery equipment, which has become much easier to run due to automation. The in-plant at CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Health System in Tyler, Texas, for example, recently added a Duplo DC-746 slitter/cutter/creaser specifically for its automation features. Job setup requires little manual intervention. Operators simply scan a bar code and the DC-746 adjusts automatically for the new cuts.

“We see the handwriting on the wall of … not being able to find experienced and qualified people,” says Del Shankle, director of operations for Print Services at CHRISTUS Health.

This easy-to-operate machine has eliminated the bindery bottleneck in his shop. Cutting 1,000 business cards, for example, used to take 20 minutes. “Now we’ve taken that down to two minutes per thousand,” Shankle boasts. “Adding the Duplo really has given us almost a full-time [person].”

Popp has seen the same thing with the automation on the new high-speed BlueCrest inserter installed in Imagine’s Charlotte facility. “It can produce twice as much as the technology from 10 years ago,” he notes. “These days in the printing industry, there’s no such thing as treading water. You are either getting better or you’re getting passed.”

Imagine’s arsenal of cutting-edge, automated technology is the result of an intentional effort to stay ahead of the competition. Popp’s full-time job, in fact, is to focus his staff of engineers on researching technology and increasing innovation.

“We have people dedicated to innovating and automating. Ten years ago, somebody did it as a part-time job,” he says. “Ten years ago, we would have asked suppliers what they had to sell us and figure out how to make it work in our business. Today, we tell them what they need to make if they want to sell me that equipment.”

Beyond machinery, though, Imagine employs automation in other areas of its business, such as in its successful kitting operation. The company has invested heavily in pick-to-light systems to reduce the skill set required to make kits. These systems use lights to guide employees to the items they need to pick. This increases efficiency, productivity, and picking accuracy.

From Offset to Inkjet Conversion

In Pittsburgh, the addition of automated inkjet presses has certainly changed the dynamic at Heeter, which also runs eight- and six-color 40″ offset presses. When the offset pressroom is at capacity, Schlecker can now move work to inkjet without worrying that customers will be disappointed with the quality.
“When I look at a piece and it’s hard for me to tell if it was printed inkjet web or sheetfed offset, or on an Indigo, I know it’s going to be very difficult for a customer or salesperson to differentiate,” he says.

This new reality is sure to impact Heeter’s expansion plans when it comes time to add a new press into the Digital Print Center.

Jani Viczian, lead digital operator, runs one of Heeter’s automated digital presses.

“When we add that, we won’t need to add another employee,” Schlecker says. “We look at buying equipment that doesn’t require us to add staff. If I was to buy another offset press, I’d have to add four more people. That just tells me we’ll have to reevaluate our offset press strategy relative to the digital.”

Popp acknowledges production workers might have some trepidation about automation, concerned that technology will replace them. He tries to set them at ease by explaining how automation will
enable the company to do more work, fostering growth and opening up advancement opportunities.

Popp points to more than 115 promotions at Imagine over the past year or so, evidence that automation is bringing in new business and new responsibilities. “You’re going to end up with a better job,” he tells employees — not no job. This messaging is increasing employee enthusiasm about automation.

For Schlecker, the proof that automation is working is in the company’s bottom line. “Our sales per employee have gone up significantly,” he reveals. And he’s determined to keep them going in that direction with the help of automation.