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How commercial printers hamstrung over new kit

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Some commercial printers who invest in new production equipment don’t necessarily get the returns they should reasonably expect, says CHARL VOGEL, head of Commercial and Industrial print at Ricoh SA, but the reason is a complex layering of factors that accumulate around skill.
“The challenge is that customers make a big investment when they buy any production equipment but very often the machine is under utilised,” says Vogel. “Perhaps not in volume but often in features and that impacts the revenues they ultimately get. Maybe they’re not using the additional colour stations. Maybe they don’t explore the full range of media options available to them. These machines require a degree of creativity to use all their features.”
Customers typically invest anywhere between R500 000 and R2 million in digital cut sheet production devices. They are exceptionally capable, a list of features and benefits that continues to grow rapidly in a digitally disrupted world driven by innovation both creating emerging, and trying to support evolved, markets.
“There’s more focus on operators today,” says Vogel. “They have to be trained, knowledgeable, and skilled to get the most out of the equipment. Poorly trained operators can cause maintenance issues as well as significantly drop the potential for machines to generate revenues.”
Vogel says training is an industry standard supplied with every new machine. The standard, type, and delivery of that training vary, though.
“Sometimes the operator spends just two hours with the vendor technician,” he says. “That’s not training. That’s an introduction to the device. But the environments are highly pressured these days and operators are supposed to be skilled. The problem is that the two hours is often all the operator gets. Then he doesn’t touch the machine for a week and then he’s suddenly expected to start running jobs on the device when it’s installed. It’s unfair to him, the equipment, and the business owner. That machine is destined to fail and the owner may begin to think he’s bought a dud.”
Vogel says operators need access to training material. It can be online, Internet-based instruction. It can be provided onsite by qualified technicians. And it can be conducted in offsite classrooms with vendors, industry bodies, or private institutions.
“Time is a luxury commercial print shop owners seldom have and we regularly have to train operators at night and after hours,” says Vogel. “It demonstrates the owner’s, the operator’s, and the vendor’s commitment to ensuring the equipment can perform and get the returns the owner should expect.”
But Vogel cautions that not all operators are equal to the task at hand.
“Operators must have the knowledge, the skill, and the behaviour necessary to get the most from the equipment because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones putting it to work,” he says. “If they don’t know how to use the security features, the ultra violet, neon colour, metallic print and all the other features, then the business owner can’t sell those services to the customer.”
Vogel adds there can be a dizzying array of features in modern digital production equipment.
“It can do so much even I’m impressed and excited by it,” he says. “Today there’s digital cut sheet, fifth colour stations, flatbed, printing directly on bricks, glass, wood — on extremely thick material and just the same way you print on paper. That’s huge if you’re a contractor and want to, say, revamp a kitchen. You can print straight to the melamine cupboard doors. There’s even direct-to-garment for digital shirt, cap, and other clothing item printing now. The sophistication of these devices has progressed to the point where there’s no feasible way you can drop the box and leave customers to their own devices. And it goes beyond the devices because the printers need to know how to sell the new services and products they can offer. They need to expand their markets.”
Sometimes operators have to learn new foundational skills to cope with industry innovations and advances, says Vogel. Printing South Africa (PSA) offers standardised instruction for digital printers. EFI offers it too for its Fiery product range that is an industry standard digital front end. There are others. There are courses for colour management, calibration and more.
“These are high value courses because they show results,” says Vogel. “Unfortunately I’ve seen some operators who wouldn’t pass these tests but they’re using the equipment commercially. Their employers do themselves a disservice. They sacrifice the millions of rands in revenues the machines should generate for their businesses because they don’t want to invest a few thousand rand or operator hours in training. It seems short-sighted.”
But he says the common complaint is that trained operators often leave for other employers as soon as they have their certifications — paid for by the previous employer now unable to recoup the investment.
“That’s a problem for any business in any industry,” says Vogel. “But the fact is that if the employment conditions are favourable then trained operators will stay just like skilled employees will remain at any good employer in any industry.”