Poor Organization Cause of Low-Level Production?

  • Most composing rooms, except trade typesetters, probably operate at loss
  • Composing room should be efficient assembly line from office to pressroom
  • Here are a few suggestions for replanning your own composing room

Everyone who has ever worked in and around composing rooms has experienced a working conditions which would be considered intolerable by anyone acquainted with efficient operation. Sadly enough, in our craft-minded industry such conditions appear to be the norm rather than the exception.

Profit and loss statements produced by the International Typographic Composition Association indicate that even composing rooms operated for the trade, and hence on a fairly efficient basis, solo show more than five per cent profit. It is reasonable to believe, then, that a great many composing rooms–for which no concrete figures are available–operate at a loss.

I do not intend, at this time, to investigate the pros and cons of the operation of commercial plant composing rooms as compared with trade composition plants, a subject which has long been controversial among printers. However, I would like to discuss some of the problems of the printer whose basic philosophy is that profits are made only in the pressroom and who is interested only in obtaining greater efficiency in that department by increased rpm’s.

Composing Rooms Just “Grow”

Except what a successful organization plans expansion, very few printing plants spring full-grown from a blueprint. It is perhaps natural, then, that poor organization is the principal cause of a low level of production. Most composing rooms just “grow,” and quite effectively look the part.

A glance around such shops quickly locates the remains of a dozen or more systems of organization, begun in high hopes but forgotten after a short trial. Such signs of erosion are easily recognized: a bank of cases containing a series of type bought for a publication long since departed; a saw stuck in a corner because a working foreman wanted it next to his frame; a dusty rack containing bastard-size wooden furniture for job which was lost 15 years ago; worn-out equipment no longer used but placed against a blank wall because nobody wants to throw it away; and so it goes, every shop having its own set of ghosts.

There is also, of course, the dead type piled on every flat surface, including the floor, obstructing access to cases and galleys. Because there are no spare galleys, these jobs are placed on chip-board and are so difficult to handle that no one bothers to look for sorts passed the fourth page on the pile.

The loss of production resulting from such conditions is serious, but even more critical is the attitude of the personnel. Printers as a group are quite reactionary, tending to reject changes counter to their training or experience. Furthermore, because most apprentices are trained in the plant, with little opportunity to be affected by broadening outside influences, they tend to perpetuate this attitude. Even a well organized plant, this factor may seriously affect the now critical problem of a broadly trained labor supply.

I recall the plant owner who once stated that he had been operating under a system which he termed “planned disorganization.” When he found himself month by month losing his taste for the printing business, he sat down to figure out the cause of his growing dissatisfaction. The result was that he closed his plant for five days and proceeded to reorganize the “pi thinking” of everyone in the shop.

It takes a ruthless type of mind to tackle this problem—ruthless toward conditions, not for personnel. No one wants to throw anything away, including the job waiting ten years for a reorder, not to mention the old galley proof press now used to pile cuts upon.

The first task in any reorganization is to pare down to essentials, unloading the accumulated debris of the era of pi thinking. When this is completed, it is surprising how easy the remainder of the job will be.

Need to Rearrange Equipment

Any composer room is necessarily an assembly line from the front office to the pressroom. The layout of the department will depend upon the type of operation, but no matter what that might be, the thinking will be essentially the same. Exact emulation of Detroit’s system will be impossible, but so far as possible the production path should follow a straight line. This probably means, in most plants, rearrangement of equipment placed originally where space was available, with little regard for convenience of operation. Only strong-backed assistance will be needed for this project, except in the case of moving power equipment.

Greatest disagreement concerning method occurs in this area. In any one plant, lack of wide experience may limit the effectiveness of a change in plant layout. The wise printer will consult trade publications or charts of equipment manufacturers. Although no layout meets all requirements, a small committee of supervisory personnel can modify plans to suit the situation.

Visits to other composing rooms can be helpful, too, from the standpoint of discussions with disinterested persons.

Few printers are engineers, and in the matter of planning an assembly line for composing room they don’t necessarily have to be. Tolerances in printing are mighty fine, so we printers are at least acquainted with precision in some aspects of our business. The first step in planning is to make a rough layout of the composing room and then to discuss the position of major equipment. After revision, the layout should be drawn on graph paper, using quarter-inch squares to represent each square foot of floor space.

The best plan is to make cardboard templates of frames, banks, stones, and machines. These can be moved about on the graph paper until a permanent arrangement is agreed upon.

Watch Storage Rack Locations

Particular attention should be given to the location of galley storage racks, and storage space for leads and slugs, quads and spaces, and furniture, to ensure that the material is in proper sequence.

The nature of the work handle will dictate the exact layout method. For example, a shop which handles slug machine composition will differ from one which is primarily a Monotype plant. A firm specializing in publications will require a workflow varying from that of a standard commercial establishment doing job printing.

Some modern shops have experimented with portable storage racks. An amazing number of steps can be saved in transporting galleys from machine to make-up bank.

All sides we hear demands that printers employ engineering principles to increase production. This argument is undoubtedly true, particularly since mounting hourly costs of production continue to bring pressure to establish more modern procedures. Small plant owners, however, need have no worries about precision engineering if they will just apply sound basic thinking.

Printers have never been accused of lacking intelligence. The problem generally has been more the desire to maintain craft standards in the face of rapidly changing technological advances. All of us realize the strides made in the last ten years, and without any doubt the next ten will multiply these scientific advances. However, there is little cause for worry that the industry as we know it will cease to exist in the immediate future. The invested capital and present equipment is too great to want any sudden change, but the modern printer does have to be concerned with method and procedure if he is to compete successfully in the expanding market for the printed product.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the March 1956 issue of The Inland Printer.

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