MIKE'S COLUMN

Reprints of comments included occasionally in the LOADTAKE  regular FAX-OUT

Issue 2   Issue 3   Issue 4   Issue 5  Issue 6  Issue 7  Issue 8

 

No. 1 - 7/7/2002

During my many visits to mailing houses round the country it never ceases to amaze me at the number of enclosing machines that are under-performing. Although true of all types of encloser this is especially true of the so-called intelligent machines. Most of  this expensive equipment with advanced electronics and operator ‘aids’ is being used as basic enclosing machinery, for various reasons rarely processing  more than 2,500 envelopes per hour. How it makes economic sense to run machines in this way beats me.

However to general principles, productivity in the production area depends on 3 main  factors :-

         serviceability of equipment

         skill of operator/setters

         workflow organisation

Serviceability of equipment.  To operate effectively and reliably a machine must be looked after, it should be kept clean, lightly oiled,  regularly maintained and repaired when necessary. It does not make sense to pay a lot of money for a machine, neglect it and then expect it to run properly. A machine cannot be operated effectively with worn suckers, detection bulbs gone, detection adjusting knobs with stripped threads, frayed drive belts, bent insert hold-down ‘skis’, hold-down strips bent in all directions, rust around the water drain etc.etc.etc. Would you neglect your car in this way ?

Skill of operator setters. This is an essential element of productivity, if a machine is not set up properly and ‘tweaked’ to get maximum sustainable throughput then money is effectively being thrown away. Skills are not acquired from mid-air, they must be taught and re-enforced by experience on the job. It is no good taking a youngster from the warehouse or hand enclosing section and expect them to be able to operate complicated, dangerous and expensive machinery. Some of them (especially those with a mechanical bent) will eventually make it but most will not and will cost you money. It is worth investing in your operators by training them and when they prove themselves pay them appropriately - a good operator is worth his or her  weight in gold ! 

Workflow organisation. This is no less important than the other two items. Especially when processing large jobs it is essential that work is fed to the operator and removed after processing in as efficient a way as possible. There is nothing worse than a machine surrounded by higgledy-piggledy heaps of boxes of material, postal sacks and envelopes,  for hindering operating efficiency and lowering morale. On top of that it is dangerous! If you are going to run a machine with 4 inserts consistently at 4,000 per hour you will need plenty of room and almost certainly two operators. You could probably just about get by with one but throughput would suffer owing to hoppers running out and envelopes stacking up on the conveyor. 

We can help with the first two items - the third is down to you !

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No. 2 -  20/10/2002       top of page

We all know of the current shakeout of companies in the mailing business with some well-known names disappearing. It is unfortunate for everybody involved but in the long run it should mean that those which are most efficient will survive and will emerge leaner and fitter.

One feature common to most failures is over-investment in equipment during the ‘good times’. Companies investing in ‘state of the art’ equipment, especially using finance, lay themselves open to cash-flow problems when the inevitable  downturn in business arrives – there is a recent prime example of this which we all know about. Generally the investment is aimed at trying to achieve  extra machine throughput, however the amount of money invested to try and achieve an extra 1 or 2000 envelopes an hour can easily be offset by an increase in the number of operators required to run it at high speed and by increased downtime because the machine is so complex it is not simple or quick to repair by in-house personnel. How long do you have to wait for an engineering call-out or spares to arrive from the manufacturer/distributor?

Why is it I wonder that manufacturers (and some re-builders) of enclosing machines are installing more and more electronics in their products? The cynical among us would say that they would only do so if it were to their own advantage. What could  these advantages be ?

The main one must be the enormous increase in price they can demand by convincing the customer that 'it can only be to his advantage' – it will increase the throughput - (not necessarily), the operators will have more control over the machine - (not true), it is easier to control the machine from a screen or LCD - (not true), it will be easier to diagnose faults - (not true), with more electronics there is less to go wrong - (not true).

The fact is that operators have less control over the machine, find it no easier to control from a screen, do not need electronics to diagnose faults and with them there is actually more to go wrong!

The other main reason is that it helps to lock users into the manufacturer's maintenance and repair services. It does this by including many (unnecessary) PLC  functions on Printed Circuit Boards and then by the manufacturers either refusing to supply them to users or 3rd party maintainers or by making them prohibitively expensive to purchase. So what, you might say, until of course you realize what their maintenance service is costing you and also when you come to try and sell the machine and nobody will buy it because of on-going maintenance difficulties and costs. This is why whenever we buy-in a used machine we discount any electronic so-called improvements, offer a price based on the condition of the underlying machine and then strip out any fancy electronics, before rebuilding it.

The disadvantages for the user are the converse of the above - the machines are needlessly expensive, over complicated in construction, expensive to maintain and difficult to sell.

The lessons which we should all learn from this is that ‘profits’ generated by an expensive new machine may, when examined closely, be illusory and although sustainable in good times, finance costs may come back to haunt us in the bad.

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 No. 3 - 28/03/2003        top of page                        

Well, those of us who went to Earls Court will have seen the latest offerings from the major (and some minor) manufacturers of mailing equipment. The most puzzling thing from my point of view is how on earth are they going to persuade an industry in recession, with Mailing Houses going out of business every week, to spend the sort of funny figures they are asking for ever more expensive machinery. From a practical point of view I cannot see the sense in installing ever more ‘complex’ electronic functions into what is basically the very simple mechanical operation of putting paper into envelopes! 

Needless to say the maintenance charge for any machine which uses a PLC or does complex things with electronics has got to be high because  once you have made your decision and bought one you are stuck with it. This is because the manufacturer is the only source of maintenance or repairs. Why is this you might ask ?  Well, there are three reasons, firstly, some companies flatly refuse to supply workshop manuals and spares to third parties (e.g. Mailcrafters, PFE, Steilow, Opex), secondly, when they will cooperate and supply direct they charge exhorbitant prices for spares, exchange units etc., and thirdly,  when there is a local distributor their profit is added onto the ‘factory’ price or they refuse to supply third parties, “because you are a competitor” (e.g. Mailcrafters).

Another puzzling thing is the number of Mailing Houses which purchase ‘office mailers’ expecting them to handle ‘production machine’ workloads. The main attraction seems to be online folding. The trouble is that these desk-top and office-type mailing machines are just not built to take any volume throughput. They are flimsily made, highly electronic and generally rely on friction feed rollers which are prone to problems caused by laser toner and ink deposits, ‘curled’ laser paper, general wear and physical damage. In addition these machines performance is markedly affected by the quality and consistency of envelopes and inserts - if they are not exactly ‘on spec’ there are problems!

Finally, why do people insist on believing that machine cycle speeds are anything like the speed they actually achieve in real life? I am frequently told that the Buhrs BB300 consistently ‘runs at 8,000 per hour’, but every now and then someone admits that taking setup time and other factors into consideration this is really not the case.

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No. 4 - 02/09/2003        top of page 

Well, as I return to the office after visiting the second Mailing House in a week in receivership I wonder why history keeps repeating itself. It is the same old story of firms overstretching themselves financially buying highly complicated, supposedly operator friendly, electronically stuffed machines to try and achieve the illusory gains of increased production without addressing the fundamental reasons why they are not getting the throughput they should on their existing ones. The ‘reasons’ for poor throughput boil down to un-motivated or unskilled operators, poorly maintained machines, and poor workflow organization – all of which can be remedied by management.

 In the course of a year I visit many operations where machinery is running at half speed or less, the excuse being that if the speed is increased then more ‘crashes’ occur. This need not be the case if machine maintenance is kept up to scratch and the operators are positively trained to make adjustments to avoid them.

 Training for operators is essential to get the best from any machine. If a trained operator can get an extra 500 items per hour out of a machine then over the course of a year this would add up to a considerable saving in costs. We offer training courses at £290 per day + travel.

 Machines can also be updated to make the operator’s task easier and to reduce the amount of machine timing to go out of sync. Take the envelope flap openers on Phillipsbergs and Mailcrafters where timing (mechanical and vacuum) has to be perfect to run at better than half speed. If you were to install our envelope flap opener (£98 or £247 - a 45 minute job) then you would do away with any moving parts (and timing) and also the need for vacuum (and timing) in this vulnerable part of the paper path. This enables even the most inexperienced operator rapidly (1 minute max.) to adjust flap opening to achieve maximum throughput. Additionally if you were to install our electronic detection (£42 per arm) the time spent adjusting for insert doubles and misses can be reduced to 1 minute or less per arm. We recently installed both items on a Phillipsberg which was running poorly at a maximum of 1,500/hr. When we had completed the 2 updates, the speed had been increased to 3,500/hr. (name and address can be supplied)

 As regards maintenance it is necessary for any machine to be regularly maintained either by a good in-house maintainer or by a contract maintainer like ourselves. You would not expect your car to run without regular servicing!

Finally, it is essential that work is fed to the operator and removed after processing in as efficient a way as possible. There is nothing worse than a machine surrounded by higgledy-piggledy heaps of boxes of material and envelopes for hindering operating efficiency and lowering morale.

 Perhaps the above will give those concerned in mailing production food for thought as they consider buying a glossy new machine with ‘loadsa noughts’ on it’s price tag.

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No. 5 - 27/02/2004        top of page

In the Direct Mail Industry there is a lot of pressure (mainly from the manufacturers) to invest in ever ‘faster’, more electronic machines, but what does not seem to be taken on board by those who do so is that while higher speeds are desirable, to benefit from the heavy investment at all, these machines must be run at nearly full speed. Sadly, this is not the case, most only being run at half speed or less in some cases.

 

 

I recently spoke to the Production Manager of a Mailing House who had invested £80,000 + in a Buhrs BB300 and was very proud of achieving double the throughput that he had been getting from his Phillipsbergs. Great you might say, but when I asked at what speed he was running the BB300 – he proudly replied 3,000 per hour. This is a company that has been running Phillipsbergs for years apparently at 1,500 per hour. As you and I know, if you are not getting at least 4,000 per hour from your Phillipsberg there is something wrong somewhere !  By way of comparison, a customer of ours recently bought a Phillipsberg from us and despite not having ever seen a mailing machine before, had it running within a week, albeit with an easy job, at 7,000 per hour!

 

The former situation is not an isolated one, very few Mailing Houses run their machines at anything like the speed they should. In my opinion there are three reasons for this :-

 

1.      their machines are in a poor state of repair and cannot be run efficiently

2.      their operators are poorly trained and motivated

3.      throughput is not measured by management

 

Why is it that (with a few notable exceptions) machines are in such poor condition when for a Mailing House it is these machines which bring in the revenue? Would you not think that it would be in the managements’ interest to make sure that it is getting the best out of them. For some reason Production Departments always seem to be the ‘poor relations’ with vast sums of money being spent on items such as computers. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of management to spend even modest sums getting and keeping their mailing equipment ‘up to scratch’. This ‘penny pinching’ attitude is illustrated when I get calls enquiring about the cost of such basic things as sucker cups (32p each) and getting orders for 10. These are such basic items affecting the way a machine runs, it being essential to change them regularly, that to have to worry about spending £3.20 shows a curious approach when in comparison it costs at least £5.00 per hour to employ anybody. Just ask yourself what effect do you think it must have on the Production Departments’ morale and enthusiasm always to be last on the investment list, having to operate clapped-out machines, desperately trying to keep them going to meet deadlines?

 

******* We maintain, repair & overhaul mailing equipment *******

 

Why is it the case that operators seldom receive formal training when these are the people whose skill at setting up machinery will ultimately decide whether a Mailing House is successful or not? The setting up of a machine is a skill which can be learnt ‘on the job’ providing the instructor knows what he is doing and the pupil is allowed to experiment with the multitude of possible adjustments, so later he can decide which one will be most suitable to cure a particular problem. These two essentials seldom come together. Motivation can only be addressed by management, but attention to the two areas above would go a long way to help. It should also be borne in mind that in a lot of  cases operators deliberately run their machines at low speed so they do not have to ‘run about’ too much.

 

****** We run training courses *****

 

Lastly, in my experience most Mailing Houses do not have a clue about the throughput of their production department and when asked at what speed their machines are run, are wildly optimistic. It is a relatively simple, but vital  task to measure throughput !

 

****** We supply combined speed & total counters *****

 

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No. 6 - 06/05/2004        top of page

Just a couple of points in this months issue.

Back in this column in issues nos. 3 & 4 I mentioned the cons (there aren’t any pros unless you are a manufacturer of course !) of having a PLC embedded in the workings of  a machine which doesn’t really need it. Well a case in point came up a while ago when we bought a LARA polywrapper from one customer and installed it in another. Owing to time pressures we were unable even to run this machine up before collection and delivery and sure enough when we did there was a problem with the PLC. - no great problem one might hope.

Because of this problem the PLC had also lost it’s program. On contacting Lara’s manufacturer in France  we were told a) that the Telemechanique PLC was no longer available and b) even if it were, they did not have a copy of the program. Also the program and wiring had been completely changed  when they replaced the PLC model in later Laras. The only thing to do was to try and locate one of the original PLCs possibly languishing in a distributors stock cupboard, upload a copy of the program from a Lara still in use and then download it into the replacement PLC.

We managed, during the course of a number of days, to locate a PLC and a user with the old program only to find that the device for up and downloading on this model PLC was obsolete and not stocked any more. After hours of searching on the web and by telephone a 2nd hand device was obtained – very fortunate we thought - and we got the machine up and running.

Well alls well that ends well you might say, but we managed this only after we had spent the best part of 6 man-days and well over £1,000 on this Lara! And this case involved a machine only about 6 years old. This is an illustration of why we do not like PLCs and do not use them in our machines and also why it is almost impossible for users to sell Pitney Bowes 8300, Series 9 or later, the later floor-standing PFE machines, BOWE Systecs, to certain extent PostStars, any AIMS systems etc. and why Phillipsbergs are still in demand and making their owners money even though the original ones were made in the late 50s.

The other point I wish to make is that I am forever amazed at the way people who would never dream of buying a car from a 2nd hand car dealer operating from a used car lot down the road and doing business from a mobile, are perfectly prepared to purchase a machine from a similar ‘type’ supposedly ‘at a good price’ when the performance of the machine will decide whether the company is going to make any money with it.

Bear in mind that a user rarely sells a machine which is in good condition – most of them are in a poor state not having had the tender care and money spent on them over the years that should have been. Obviously he sells to another user or a dealer ‘as seen’ and without a warranty for a reason, just like the dealers I have mentioned who saddle up and ride off into the sunset with the unwary buyers money.

A large proportion of our income comes from picking up the pieces after deals of this sort.

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No. 7 - 16/09/2005        top of page

Sorry but I am still banging on about the same subject – cost effectiveness on the production floor.

From time to time I speak to customers  who think that the way to cut the cost per filled envelope is to invest huge sums on state-of-the-art machines with lovely ‘go faster’ covers, when in reality all they need to do, at a fraction of the cost, is to maintain their existing machines properly and train their operators similarly. 

So many times I see mailing houses who really cannot afford it, paying out fortunes on modern electronic PLC driven machines in a desperate attempt to improve the throughput they are getting on their existing machinery. Production speeds of 7, 8 even 10,000  per hour are bandied about for these machines and this seems like the answer to all their prayers. However, what is not appreciated is that the ‘humble’ old standard Bell & Howell Phillipsberg when running properly can easily clock up 6,000 per hour and some are run consistently at 8,000 per hour. To achieve this ‘proper running’ condition all you need to do is lubricate frequently, maintain regularly, fix any mechanical problems as soon as they appear and avoid leaving temporary ‘bodges’ to ‘fester’. 

The key to making money on machine enclosing is not to spend a fortune on new, expensive machinery but to run existing machines more efficiently. All inserting machines are doing is putting paper into envelopes, not sending envelopes into space. Unless you are matching and/or selecting you do not need any PLC driven functions – they do not speed the machine up or make it more reliable. All they do is make it more complicated electrically and mechanically. OK, it is obviously impressive to see a machine with touchscreen controls but the bottom line has got to be does it work faster, more efficiently with less crashes.

The main thing to remember is that any machine of this nature is only as good as it’s operator. No matter how fast it’s cycling speed is, it is not going to run quickly if it is not set up properly. This means you need an operator who is interested in his job and therefore well-motivated, also he/she must be mechanically minded, able to sort out situations where, for instance,  the envelopes or inserts are not running correctly. On-going training is essential if you want the best from your operators, even good self-taught operators do not know everything there is to know and would benefit from another’s experience.

Finally all mailing houses should measure the output they are getting from their machines – if this is not done then how will they know whether they are getting value for money from their equipment ?

 Loadtake repairs, overhauls, maintains, updates mailing equipment and trains operators  

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No. 8 - 01/06/2008        top of page

It never ceases to amaze me, when visiting prospective customers around the country, to see the number of enclosing (and other) machines which are under-performing. Although true of all types of machine, this is especially true of the later more electronic machines. Most of this very expensive equipment with so-called advanced, (mainly electronic) operator ‘aids’ is being used as basic enclosing machinery and for various reasons rarely processing more than 2,000 envelopes per hour (a third of the speed on which the salesman encouraged the MD to make his profitability calculations). How it makes economic sense to run machines in this way is difficult to understand.

 Leaving aside the skills or otherwise of the operators/setters and general organizational workflow failings, the main reason for poor equipment productivity is down to Serviceability of equipment.  

 To operate effectively and reliably a machine must be looked after, it should be kept clean, lightly oiled if applicable, regularly serviced and repaired. It does not make sense to pay a lot of money for a machine, neglect it and inevitably end up not getting a profitable return on the investment.

 I am amazed that a lot of machinery I see actually works at all, it being the repository of empty coffee mugs, odd discarded inserts, empty (and full) boxes, rubber bands (some so old they have become brittle), tools, pencils and a couple of kilos of paper dust. Some machines have bits missing or broken, have been poorly repaired, others have safety switches taped up, safety covers broken or missing and bare wiring exposed. Would you neglect your car in this way?

Some machines are left running, but not actually producing anything, for long periods because operators can’t be bothered to switch them off. Others, especially folding machines, are not only left running for long periods but when actually in use are only run at one speed – flat out! This obviously causing increased wear to mechanical and electrical components.

 Loadtake  repairs, overhauls, maintains, updates mailing and paper handling equipment and trains operators

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