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Newspaper publishing: Survival strategies.

By Tom Andel, Editor-In-Chief

Newspapers are struggling to stay alive in this era of online information resources. Many are finding new life through automation.

A production line divides the orchard of opportunities available to newspaper publishers. On the pre-production side, materials handlers have picked much of the lower hanging fruit. A bigger yield is now being found on the post-production side, where publishers are using state-of-the-art materials handling technology to serve up more precise slices of markets to advertisers. The very survival of this industry depends on how intelligently they harvest the remaining fruit.

"The reason newspapers are having problems is our engine of success has always been built on multi-million-dollar run of press advertising contracts," says Keye Daus, assistant director of operations at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Those big accounts are either out of business or have merged. The merged companies don't spend as much, and the major metros are now replacing them with ma and pa accounts, and it takes a whole lot of ma and pas to replace what they had."

That's why papers like The Plain Dealer, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and The Washington Post are looking to automated materials handling technologies to help them be more efficient on the pre-production side, where presses are fed, and more agile in post-production, from which markets are fed.

Feed the press

Automatic guided vehicles from JBT (formerly FMC) (215-822-4300, ) play a major role in handling rolls of newsprint at The Plain Dealer. They're the physical part of the information infrastructure that supports pre-production at The Plain Dealer 's Tiedeman production facility. Joe Bowman, vice president of operations, says its conversion from wire-guided to laser-guided vehicles played an important part in helping this newspaper improve.

"Our goal is to track many more characteristics of that paper so we can identify runnability and quality issues before they cause a web break or downtime," he says. "We want to identify certain characteristics in the paper and use them on certain types of printing runs. At the same time, we don't want to be putting them in positions that would cause a more difficult press run and lead to more downtime."

Much of the information Bowman's team gets is in bar codes on the rolls' wrappers. They identify the mill, production date, size and position on the paper machine (which can affect quality).

Once a roll is prepared for use, a guided vehicle picks it up and places it in a one-high storage rack. The information system tracks where that roll is as well as its characteristics. When the printing machine calls for a roll, the system will automatically dispatch a vehicle to find a roll with the appropriate specifications for that job. When the vehicle delivers it to the press, it will automatically install it. This newer laser-guided AGV system, which replaced a 15-year-old wire-guided system, has resulted in several efficiencies, Bowman says.

"We're able to store more rolls in our rack systems and concentrate our production on fewer shifts," he explains. "Before, there might have been 12 to 14 inches between the rolls as they sat in the racks; now there's 3 inches because of the sensors these vehicles have. In the older system, a vehicle would attempt to install a newsprint roll into the press and if it weren't perfectly aligned the press would shut down and we'd lose production. With these newer vehicles and the way they're guided, roll installation efficiency has gone up dramatically and cut the number of downtime events we've had."

Also, by going to wireless vehicles, The Plain Dealer was able to add storage capability in open areas.

"Vehicles are low profile so they fit under our existing racks," he adds. "We didn't want to modify our storage system so the vendor was challenged to come up with a vehicle that would fit our printing machines and our storage areas."

The Fort Worth Star Telegram also uses AGVs (Jervis B. Webb, 248-553-1000, ) in pre-production to feed presses and achieved similar results in productivity. Richard Hooper, systems administrator, also likes that there are fewer injuries and less damage to the rolls of newsprint because of automated handling. But he and his team learned an important lesson about the efficiency of battery-operated vehicles along the way.

"Two years ago we had a battery issue, or that's what it seemed to be," he explains. "We've come to understand that because our business was slowing down so much that the AGVs were not being used enough to keep them charged the way they were designed to be. That's why we put two of the nine aside. We also had the vendor rewrite the software so an AGV would go to a specific battery position for charging. Before they were open to go to any station, but we wanted to be able to isolate them to an individual spot. The vendor rewrote the software so the battery would say 'hit me again with a recharge.'"

Go to markets

The slowdown Richard Hooper mentioned at the Fort Worth Star Telegram is an industry-wide phenomenon. It has inspired survival strategies such as less-than-seven-day-a-week schedules and consolidation. Now single facilities are putting out multiple newspapers.

"This makes it even more important for the papers to assure the advertisers who are still using them as a direct marketing tool that they're getting the correct ad to the correct house," says Doug Emmons, account executive for HK Systems (800-457-9783, ). "Chicago divides the market into 500 zones and you want to make sure you have that ad for Rolex watches going to the North Side and not the South Side. That's where software comes in. Just tracking and receiving those inserts is a warehouse management system type application."

Several newspapers are now using RFID and bar codes, not only to validate what came off a line, what got on a pallet, and what went in a truck, but to verify via cell phone or GPS connection that a pallet made it to the correct DC.

"Right now HK is doing this with a materials tracking and control system developed with 30 man years for the newspaper and commercial printing industry," Hooper says. "It's tracking the unique characteristics of newspaper demand, making sure the inserts go into the right paper, on the right pallet and to the right location."

He says The L.A. Times paid for this system on the first day because they eliminated 11 expediters who used to do that tracking.

The Washington Post has implemented a "microzoning" initiative for inserted preprints to better serve advertisers. The first phase in this project transitioned distribution from a centralized bundle by bundle dispatch at the manufacturing plant to pallet distribution of product to 30 smaller DCs ringing the capital beltway.

To enable pallet dispatch, the Post upgraded its aging palletizers to three new ones (FKI Logistex, 877-935-4564, ) in its night run operation. Kevin O'Neill, manager of packaging and distribution at the Post likens this to a crossdock operation.

"We have a couple staging locations we use as we move trucks around, and some of the advance Sunday product might sit for a day, but for the most part we try to move everything out of the building," he says. "We don't want to store finished product."

The second phase of the project increased the number of preprint sales zones from 250 to just over 500. The Post inserts more than 1.6 billion preprints a year. Volume, zoning and advertiser versioning have dramatically increased the complexity of ordering and tracking preprints from warehouse to collator or insert machine.

"Preprint packaging has been a big problem for the newspaper industry," says Jenny Rymarcsuk, plant manager at The Washington Post . "They are varied in size, shape, page count and they can be very slippery. We use collators for our Sunday package because they can handle more preprints than most other insert equipment. We schedule products that go to the collators to maximize the efficiency of job flow on the machine and minimize the downtime for job changeovers."

Another benefit of the collator, she says, is that you have a plastic-wrapped preprint package that can palletize well, can be transported well, then be inserted into a Sunday newspaper very neatly.

To manage the order fulfillment to and from the machine, and track palletized finished goods, the Post purchased HK's MTC system. HK's IT people worked closely to make sure the MTC system receives the pallet build information it needs from the palletizers. The Post started phasing this system in last May and is currently building the reports needed to analyze productivity in different areas.

"Initially the transition was a huge challenge for us because our original system was so dated. It took us a while to get used to it," says O'Neill. "Now that people are familiar with MTC we find there's a lot more information there. If a product is missing they can easily find it on the floor. We anticipate an increase in savings with the new MTC system with fewer lost products and more efficient materials handling."

Opportunity's knocking

The bigger issue for newspapers is finding more things to do with their excess capacity. Business is slowing down and consolidation is speeding up. Twyla Cummings, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology's School of Print Media, thinks materials handling might be a nice side-business for newspapers.

"Newspapers have gotten to the point where things are underutilized, not just their presses, but their distribution mechanism and processes," she says. "When I look around I see a great deal of excess space and they would be a perfect venue to start a warehousing business. They could also do fulfillment. But the newspaper mindset is that's not our core. Newspapers are sacred and they would not entertain doing something that doesn't relate to the printed page. That has to change."
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Author:Andel, Tom
Publication:Modern Materials Handling
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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