Processes before machines at RPI Europe
Flow, pace, rhythm: that's what RPI Europe is all about as a basis for personalized digital print production for a variety of customers. Director Paul Adriaans showed PRINTmatters around in his company, where book blocks in carriers are being sent over conveyor belts to the unique cover. 'The books move so that production employees walk as little as possible.' (text Wim Danhof photo's Mees van den Ekart)
RPI Europe: Figures and origin
RPI Europe is part of RPI, which also has three offices in the US and a representation in New Zealand and Australia. In 2018 RPI realized a worldwide sales of $90 million.
In Europe RPI grows faster than the market. RPI produces white label for resellers, including corporate companies (Philips, APS), more traditional retail (Hema), online platforms (Helloprint, Canva, Cloudprinter) and other web shops (Blurb, Pastbook).
RPI Europe is located in a strategic place, right next to Eindhoven Airport: Eindhoven is the logistics hub for print and fulfilment, given the presence of distributors as FedEx, UPS and DHL. Also within company walls little is left to chance.
Adriaans: 'Everything here is tuned to deliver personalized print products to companies all over the world. Do you want to print 10,000 copies of a book or brochure at once, then you'd better find another supplier. Do you want to print one book or brochure 10,000 times then we are your best supplier.
Adriaans is also clear about the power of RPI Europe: ‘Flow in the production and an internally developed, powerful software platform, with which we are able to monitor the established performance indicators in detail and therefore adjust directly. In my office I can see whether someone in line three is doing something wrong and whether the productivity is in order. The KPI's and SLA's are color-marked; green on Tuesday, that's a bad thing.'
'Nice that it's difficult’
Adriaans has been working in the printing Industry since 2008. He started at PARO in Geldrop, which was incorporated by RPI in 2011. 'At the time, we decided that personalization in printed products was the best way to deal with changing consumer behavior and changes in the market. This is due to the realization that we had to be innovative and distinctive by taking on challenges and simplifying difficult matters. Our motto is: "It's nice that it's difficult. After all, if it's easy any one can do it."
We started with the idea of creating a factory in which PDFs and job tickets are processed into thousands of products automatically on a daily basis. Working from a process and flow approach, you can process one stream of unique copies of various types of finished books – big, small, thick, thin, hard cover, paperback, image wrap and various covers. If you do this in a controlled process, with measuring points, translating these data to insights, then you are excellent in your operation. Then you have made difficult things controllable. That makes me excited.'
Via mix to margin
Adriaans guides us through the large production space. Here three main activities take place: books, semi-automatic print production and fulfilment: the assemblage or finishing of products that need an extra touch, such as a wrapper for a packaging, the padding of a box, etc. Adriaans: 'The mix of these three activities, is crucial from a margin perspective and varies from day to day, even almost from hour to hour. The people who work here, are therefore employed flexibly and hired partly via our employment agency. If it's at bit low in production, we can deploy employees at one of the other two departments and vice versa. We analyze this mix constantly, also in view of the longer term. For instance, we will soon have a strategic meeting with regional fulfilment companies to examine how we can strengthen each other. We firmly believe in partnerships."
‘Mass customization in flow’
Showpiece of RPI Europe is the production of personalized (photo) books. Two lines, where book covers and interior pages are produced, physically merge into one bind street further on. To this end, already in 2009 an assembly line system became operational, which according to Adriaans is still unique: 'What you see here is mass customization in flow. No one in the printing industry has these carriers and conveyor belts. We keep equal distances between carriers containing the different prints as much as possible. On fixed points in the process manual labor remains necessary, because you're talking about N1 production with great diversity. Its handling cannot be automized profitably because of the changing formats and the numerous switches. That's why – besides automation - you also see quite a number of employees here. However, this system makes sure that employees have to walk as little as possible. The products move, the employees as little as possible. 'This does not mean all books, or all sub processes take place on the semi-automatic production line. In each sub-process we constantly examine the most cost-effective solution. For example, it turned out that the gluing of books with polyurethane can better be done offline than at the automatic binding street. Cheaper softcover book products are also being processed offline.
Processes above machines
A little further on, we find the semi-automated production of other personalized print-products, including brochures, leaflets, cards, calendars and posters. Thereby, the question arises which digital printing presses have to be used.
Paul Adriaans: 'The mix of our three activities is crucial from a margin perspective.'
Nevertheless, Adriaans finds this hardly relevant: ‘In the printing industry we refer to printing presses with a lot of passion. We do not think in terms of machines, but in terms of flow and pace: total production and processes that have to function as flexible as possible. With this in mind we choose the production means that fit best. We work with sheet printers for the more specific work and, of course, with rotation printers for the high production numbers. Eighty percent of our machines are HP. In addition, we have some other machines– among others from Canon – for special applications. From HP we use the 7900's and 7250's. Many in our line of business are lyrical about hp12000, but we don't use it because that sheet size does not fit into our production process. Then we would need additional post-processing downstream, which leads to less flow and extra cost.'
Farewell book from Eindhoven
Elton John had a special book release because of his farewell tour. In it, various personalized features so that each performance becomes a unique, personalized memory. A London marketing agency ended up with RPI Europe as the best party to produce this personalized book production scalable.
Tens of thousands of picture frames
Further down the hall at the department fulfilment we see various activities, where dozens of employees are involved. One team is working on putting together picture lists, inserting the prints and packing thousands of finished products. Again, there is a wide variety of formats and actions, which makes the business case for automation unprofitable. That's especially the case since RPI customers often opt for more expensive, but customer-specific packaging.
Everything is KPI-controlled
In the office space we continue to talk with Adriaans. 'Flow, flow, flow: that's what it's all about. I immediately notice it if that flow is lacking in production. By walking around daily and by engaging with employees you keep up with what's going on. RPI is a flat organization, where being involved and taking responsibility are being stimulated.' In addition, what is important must also be measurable. 'The performance indicators we are working with are therefore visible to everyone and relate to quality, delivery time and productivity. During the daily walks through the production, there are extensive discussions with employees.'
Don't be afraid
Adriaans does not want to give profit figures but says that RPI Europe is a very healthy company with a healthy margin on a turnover of 13 million euros. This means that the sharp change of course towards personalized digital production in 2008 has turned out to be successful. Adriaans finishes with an advice for other printing companies looking for strategic exits from their current situation: 'We have learned that you shouldn't be afraid. Dare to leave the conventional path as a printing company, but don't go multiple unconventional paths at once." Pm