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Bindery Bottlenecks and How to Eliminate Them

Posted by Andre Palko on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

paper piled on man200One frustrating aspect of a bindery supervisor’s job is that you often get a lot of responsibility yet have limited authority. You might be tasked each day with finishing dozens of jobs worth many thousands of dollars. Yet you have little or no say over how much time will be given your department to produce the work. Your bindery staff is probably limited, overtime spending or extra hiring requires painful authorizations, and buying additional equipment is nearly impossible. 

The good news, if you’re facing such a bottleneck situation, is that your company is busy. The bad news is that as a front line supervisor, it’s your job to make sure that production happens smoothly and efficiently despite any authority you may or may not have.

There were days during my years as a bindery supervisor where I felt I was stuck in a no-mans-land, squeezed between the demands of management and the needs of the bindery production staff. Any cushion in the production schedule at the start of a job was used up by the time it got to us in the bindery.

Of course the deadline rarely changed and Murphy’s Law dictated that people would call in sick on the day you needed them most. But I learned that if you want to be effective, then you must not get lost in the struggle. Instead, it was far better to focus on what could be done that day with the resources immediately at hand.

A successful friend, colleague, and mentor once shared a valuable tip that’s helped me overcome numerous production and business problems. His advice? Look at what the ‘big boys’ (successful companies in any industry) are doing and then see if you can make it work for you.

One such idea that you can use starting today originated in Eliyahu Goldratt’s book, The Goal—A Process of Ongoing Improvement. The concepts discussed in the book are central to modern manufacturing techniques such as Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma and are in use by the successful businesses around the world. Although these concepts should be incorporated throughout a business to be completely effective, you can take these macro ideas and apply them in a ‘micro’ environment such as your bindery or post-press department.

The idea I’m referring to has to do with production bottlenecks, something we’re all too familiar with in bindery work. The idea put forth by Goldratt is that to maximize throughput in any system, you must first identify the bottleneck, then do everything possible to maximize efficiency of that bottleneck until it’s no longer a bottleneck. Of course a new bottleneck forms and the process starts again. (This is a simplification. If you’re interested, pick up a copy of the book for the full, easy-to-read story.)

Your bindery department is certainly a system in its own right and as supervisor you want to maximize throughput in your system. To make it more interesting, your bottleneck can change from day to day depending on the equipment you have. The first step then, is to identify the bottleneck.

Let’s say one day you have 50,000 64pp 8.5 x 11” self-cover books to stitch, comprised of 4 16pp signatures (200,000 signatures total). You have one 6 pocket stitcher and one folding machine. The stitcher can complete the job in one shift. The folder will need four or five shifts. Thus the folder is the bottleneck.

Another day you have the same job repeated, except this time it gets 3-hole drilled. All you have is one off-line drilling machine which will take twelve shifts to complete. The drill is now the bottleneck. Your clue that you have a bottleneck in a particular area is that work is piling up or there are long wait times in a certain spot.

So what would the ‘big boys’ do to eliminate a production bottleneck? Here are some simple things to examine which can have a big impact on your bindery throughput.

  1. Never let the bottleneck be idle, even during break times.  Let’s assume that during each 8 hour shift a machine is idle for 1 hour due to breaks. Eliminating that downtime gives you a 14% increase (1 ÷ 7) in throughput. Of course you’ll need to juggle operator schedules but the increase is significant. If it becomes idle, start asking “Why” and fix it so it’s not. Remember, your bottleneck is limiting the output of your entire system. That’s why it’s so important to do what you must to improve production at that point.
  2. Put only the best workers on the bottleneck machines. Hey, I didn’t say you were going to make any friends doing this!
  3. Reduce setup times on the bottleneck. Question everything about why and how you set up your machine. Then implement the changes.
  4. Make sure you don’t run out of material for the bottleneck. In our 64pp book example, you wouldn’t want the presses to leave the folding machines high and dry.
  5. Make sure there are no quality issues with material arriving at the bottleneck. You don’t want to idle the folding machine because you suddenly have to sort through a form for bad sheets.
  6. Work only on what is actually needed for customer orders. Don’t waste time at a bottleneck producing something that will sit on the warehouse floor.
  7. Find additional capacity. Buy or rent an additional machine if possible. Outsource portions of the bottleneck job.
  8. Change or remove part of the bottleneck process or its components and give it to other machines. In our book example, maybe one form could be laid out as 2 8pp signatures because you have several small folding machines available that could handle that size. Or perhaps a form or two could be printed and folded on a web press.

Of course bottlenecks can originate outside your department where it is out of your control. That’s one reason why Lean practices work best when applied to an entire organization. And there is a lot more to the story of bottlenecks as told in The Goal which we'll cover in future articles.

Nevertheless, you can still accomplish a lot simply by examining the eight items listed above, as well as by constantly asking yourself questions. If your company is not practicing any type of ongoing process improvement, then you will start to shine by practicing your own. The resulting sense of accomplishment will surely lift that feeling of frustration!

We welcome your bottleneck stories below. If you like this article, please share using the social media buttons at left or above.

Tags: Bindery How-To Tips, Bindery Business Tips, Lean Manufacturing