Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Bringing the Mailroom On-Line: Newspapers Turn to Computer Systems, Other Industries to Solve Manufacturing Problems

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Bringing the Mailroom On-Line: Newspapers Turn to Computer Systems, Other Industries to Solve Manufacturing Problems

Article excerpt

ONCE UPON A time, newspaper operations directors thought they worked in a unique industry.

Newspapers are not like other manufacturers, they would say.

We have to produce massive numbers of ever more sophisticated products in an ever decreasing amount of time, they would say.

And what other manufacturer has to do all that we must do to make a product with a shelf life as short and final as a daily newspaper?

Newspaper operations workers proclaimed their very special place in manufacturing even with the nickname for their product: the Daily Miracle.

Nowadays, though, more and more operations people are coming around to the idea that there basically is very little that is unique -- and nothing miraculous -- about manufacturing a newspaper.

Increasingly, newspapers are turning to other industries for the solutions to their most vexing manufacturing problems.

"It is time, really, for newspapers to catch up with what is already routine in other industries," said Barry Evans, vice president, systems engineering, for Ferag Inc.

Unfamiliar partners

At this year's Nexpo in New Orleans, Ferag was among a few traditional newspaper vendors that announced partnerships with companies experienced in other manufacturing industries.

Other vendors announced products that liberally borrowed from the manufacturing philosophy of other, more automated industries.

These new players bring a good news-bad news message: On the one hand, they are saying, newspapers do not have unique manufacturing problems; on the other hand, they add, newspaper manufacturing thinking lags behind other industries.

Mark Fernandez is one of those outsiders who has come to the newspaper industry.

About three years ago, his company, Intek Integration Technologies Inc., investigated whether the automated software and distribution systems it had developed for the food, automotive, aerospace and other industries would work in the newspaper industry.

"What we found is they are very similar. Even though the newspaper industry did not want to look at itself as a production industry, it certainly was," Fernandez said.

The problem was that the newspaper industry had not automated sufficiently, he said.

"Data was communicated person-to-person. Product information had to be manually input into a machine, then manually retrieved, and then manually input for accounting," Fernandez said.

"In effect, there were many inefficiencies being introduced into the system," he continued. "It is clear manual entries will introduce error into the system."

Postpress pressure

Nowhere is that more true than in the mailroom and the entire postpress process.

Increasing demands for ever more precise zoning--and the looming prospect of the tailored newspaper-- have put more pressure than ever on the back shop.

"If you have more than 150 [press] starts and stops in a night, it is nearly impossible to handle manually. You need a computer system," said Dieter Koch, head of the Baden, Switzerland-based printing control firm ABB Process Automation Inc.

Koch was speaking from the perspective of a vendor to German newspapers which have as many as 150 zones.

In addition to zoning, North American papers are also feeling the pinch of labor costs, which remain stubbornly high in the postpress area.

"The labor component in the U.S. was not that important, whereas in Europe the craft unions have been well-established for a long time," said John C. Jellovitz, vice president and general manager of ABB Process Automation.

New systems?

However, just as the mailroom and postpress environment is changing, so is the equipment.

For several years now, vendors have laid on ever more sophisticated computerized controls and management report capabilities.

This equipment has evolved in much the same way front-end systems have over the years: Proprietary controls have been replaced by standard platforms; touchscreens and mouses replace keyboard and buttons; and reports and diagnostics are detailed yet laid out to be meaningful at a glance. …

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