Blanks Printing and Imaging's (Dallas, www.blanks.com) fulfillment division gives real meaning to the term "quick changeover." Along with its ability to interrupt one job for another of higher priority, it even keeps some equipment on casters to facilitate quick reconfigurations of the line itself. In this fast-paced packaging fulfillment operation, jobs run from hundreds to millions of pieces, and from business card size to poster size.

Originally a pre-press shop, Blanks Printing has evolved into a multifaceted graphics, production and fulfillment operation. Today it employs more than 100 people. The privately held company still does pre-press work, as well as photography, proofing and color management, offset printing, waterless offset, variable-data printing, binding and fulfillment and shipping. It serves a broad base of regional, national and international customers, including high-end promotional agencies.

Diane Allison, fulfillment manager, says, "One of our keys to growth is that we always assume a customer's needs are changing. We constantly ask about their plans, what they think they'll need and how their operations are evolving. Then we strive to establish the processes that will advance our customers' plans."

Give the customer what it wants
One of those changeable processes— and potential benefits to the customer—is fulfillment. This section of the company started in the packaging department in a small area on the building's second floor. Fulfillment has since taken over approximately 19,000 square feet. Much of the department's work consists of drop-shipping market-specific point-of-purchase material and store signage to support weekly ad supplements mailed to consumers. Turnaround time is nearly real time.

"We may receive materials in the morning, and ship 1,000 collated kits to individual locations that afternoon," says Allison, "combining materials we have produced with those of other suppliers or product samples."

A typical project is tough to identify, but Allison gives the following as an example of what can happen. An order might consist of 1,000-5,000 packages, so the department has to be equipped to shrink wrap runs from 300 to thousands of packages. The smallest items wrapped are business card size; the largest can be 16 inches wide and more than 30 inches long.

"The key to our strategy is rapid response," says Allison, "so changeover time is critical. We have to be able to tear down in the middle of one job, switch over to another, then jump back on the original work and finish it."

She says they often collate material directly onto the lugged in-feed conveyors of the shrink wrappers, which are about 20 ft. long. Then they might do more kitting on the exit side before the conveyors terminate at the case erector. The kitted components are placed in the case, then sealed and labeled by downstream machines.

The fulfillment department started its shrink wrapping with amanual L-bar machine borrowed from the company's bindery department. As business increased,it moved up with the purchase of an automatic L-bar machine. That machine's 33 packagesper-minute output proved insufficient for the growing volume, as well as the quality expectations of one customer in particular.

What makes this fulfillment operation different, says Allison, is that for most printers, shrink wrapping is needed only for shipping and storage protection, or simple convenience packaging for the customer. Her department, however, must also do retail display-quality packaging. That means packaging quality that can influence customer perceptions about product quality.

"We ship retail packs of as few as 25 sheets of paper that are later unpacked by the customer, inventoried at his end, then pulled and shipped to a retail outlet," she says."On these packs, the corners can't curl or puncture after wrapping. There can be no dog ears of any kind. The clarity and even the tactile feel of the film are critical."

She says this customer inspects every package it receives because any returns from a retailer, its customer, are costly. The installation of new equipment are helping to meet this requirement of 100% perfection on received goods. In the long run, she says, it's cheaper to adhere to this customer's higher standard with everything that goes out the door.

Finding the right machine
To meet this requirement and handle additional volume, Allison developed a set of requirements and started research on a second shrink-wrap machine. The research took her to trade shows, talks with other shrink wrap machine users and vendors.

"I'm not a machinery person," she says. "I had no preferences. I just knew my requirements and took them to vendors, working through the selection over six to nine months."

She methodically worked through a sound ROI and considered how long a machine would be viable if the customer mix and needs changed. "We wanted a machine adaptable to small or long items, easy to changeover and maintain, and with output significantly better than the 33 packages per minute," she says.

Another challenge she had was that she had non-English speaking people in her fulfillment center. A machine that would be intuitive to set up was also part of the mix.

Blanks evaluated a SW-3000 shrink wrapping machine and ST-900 shrink tunnel from Lantech (Louisville, Ky., www.lantech.com), shipping several cartons of product to Lantech's factory for an on-site evaluation of the machine's capabilities. Following that evaluation, Allison says, the new system was immediately pressed into service.

"The ability to store 16 recipes in the control made it easy to transition into this machine at the outset, when we were still learning our way around," she says.

The SW-3000 is a flight-lug machine capable of wrapping up to 75 packs per minute, with on-thefly film tracking adjustment and side-seal/cross-seal systems that never need cleaning. The flight-lug in-feed provides tight control of unstable products and accepts a minimum package of 3 x 1 x 1/8 inch up to a maximum of 40 x 15 x 6 inches. The adjustment-free rotary sideseal system cuts and seals simultaneously at the minimum temperature to avoid melting film on components that could degrade performance or cause a stoppage. The seal head can be threaded and checked "cold" for operator convenience. Cross sealing is maintenance-free, with a seal bar that cuts and seals with separate surfaces.

The machine has proven user-friendly to non-English speaking staffers at Blanks. "The film carriage uses logical settings based on package height and width, with inch-denominated scales on the machine for carriage height, inverting bars, etc.," Allison says. "All settings are related to package dimensions in a systematic way."

Once the package dimensions are determined, the scales, conveyor speeds and thread film are set, and it's ready to run. This gives operators great flexibility with little downtime, adds Allison. "Best of all, the machine typically uses a roll of film two inches narrower than required for the same work on the L-bar. This nets a savings of about $20 per roll of film. We're able to use six-inch rolls now, where eight-inch was our smallest in the past." =

A case of labor savings
With high volumes of drop-shipping every day, this business has a big appetite for cases. Managers used to dedicate four to six people to erect cases for the kitting line. These human case erectors were given several hours' head start to build boxes. Those towers of boxes, however, were a nuisance that could fall like dominoes. And they took up lots of floor space. To resolve several problems, Blanks purchased a Lantech C-2000 case erector, which was also subjected to an extensive pre-purchase evaluation.

"Our cartons ship individually by FedEx ground, so they have to withstand real-world conditions," says Allison. "They absolutely positively have to arrive in good shape. Reshipping and re-do's are out of the question with the schedules our clients work on".

She says FedEx testing was crucial. Some case erecting machines that they evaluated could not make a box that would pass without additional taping prior to shipping, or customization by the corrugated manufacturer. If something was a little askew on a case, or the center seam overlapped, it destroyed the integrity of the tape and created a bursting situation.

The case erector is sited at the discharge end of the shrink machines and makes boxes on demand. Packers can efficiently build kits and feed the cases downstream for sealing and labeling. "We've saved tremendous labor and even brought more work in from other departments. If the bindery has a shipment of millions of pieces that go 2,000 to a box, for example, they can bring the skids up to our conveyors, and we can handle the job much more quickly."

The last stop before the FedEx truck is a Lantech Q-300 stretch wrapper with integral scale, embedded into the floor so the table is flush. This machine, too, was vetted extensively. Pallet volume varies from 20 up to100 loads per day, with the fulfillment, bindery and shipping departments sharing the wrapper.

As Blanks ramps up on its variable data printing, the fulfillment department expects demand to grow. "We'll be supporting another product, so changeovers will be even more frequent," Allison says. "This machinery has eliminated our weekend work and greatly reduced our overtime. We've reduced our material consumption, and built capacity to absorb a growing workload. No one would like to go back to the good old days."

A key competitive strategy for Blanks Printing is rapid response, meaning changeover time is critical. It's not uncommon to tear down in the middle of one job, switch over to another, then jump back on the original work and finish it.

The flight-lug machine can wrap up to 75 packs per minute, with on-the-fly film tracking adjustment and side-seal/ cross-seal systems that never need cleaning.