The 59 elephants in the press room
Giant new printing press fills three-storey warehouse
Sunday, Mar 03, 2013 06:00 am
It’s been almost a year since the Gazette moved into its new office. Staff members have settled in, but for months there’s been one big part of the paper missing: the press. A whole wing of the building was dedicated to it, yet that wing was empty, without even a proper floor.
Not anymore. The big blue beast of a machine finally arrived earlier this year, and crews have spent the last two months putting it together. What was once a dirt floor is now home to a steel juggernaut the size of a three-storey house, one that will soon eject up to 80,000 newspapers an hour and print both this paper and the Edmonton Journal.
It’s a big step up from the old press, says head pressman Brian Rasmussen, who’s worked in the press department for 26 years.
“It’s basically going from the Stone Age to the space shuttle,” he said.
Great West Newspapers decided to replace its current press at Chisholm Avenue because it was at capacity, said CEO Duff Jamison.
“The demand for colour in particular grew beyond our capacity,” he said. “At many times of the week, we couldn’t take on another job.”
The old press, with parts of it dating back to 1989, is very labour-intensive, adds plant manager Evan Jamison. Right now, if crews want to change paper sizes or tweak a setting, that means having workers climb up ladders and run along catwalks with wrenches to twist dials, throw levers, haul plates and fill ink wells.
The new press came in 20 shipping containers, leaving Germany by boat in December, sailing through the Panama Canal to Vancouver before being trucked to St. Albert. It arrived Jan. 14. Crews needed a giant crane to hoist some of its larger components into place.
Before that crews spent months pouring some 30 truckloads of concrete to lay the five-foot-thick slab needed to support the press and keep its precision parts from going out of alignment.
The new multi-million dollar machine was built last year in Würzburg, Germany by the Koenig & Bauer Group. It weighs about 356 tonnes when loaded with paper – equivalent to about eight Leopard tanks or 59 African elephants.
“It’s a massive piece of equipment,” Evan said.
The printing process starts when lasers burn images of each page onto aluminium plates. These plates are then bent so they can be put onto a roller, and are shipped 500 at a time in a trolley to the press. This is similar to the old press except the plates are now bent automatically, Evan said.
Crews then mount the plates onto large rollers on the second level of the press that will be covered with ink. Crews used to have to scoop ink by hand and clean these rollers, Evan said, but the new press does both on its own.
Once a crew member hits the print button in the control room, paper streams off a roll the size of a monster truck tire at speeds of up to 43 kilometres an hour.
“It’s fast,” Evan said.
The paper whizzes from the ground level up one level through the rollers, which print images on it, then up again to the third level. Here, Evan explained, the paper runs through a series of knives and rollers that slice it into ribbons and chop it into bits, forming finished pages. Tiny cameras track the paper’s alignment as this happens, letting computer-controlled motors react to problems within milliseconds.
Periodic sprays of mist spurt out of pipes along the ceiling above the third level.
“Static causes lots of problems with the printing process,” Evan explained, and you can get lots of it when you have paper moving at high speed. These misters, similar to those used to cool patios in Texas, will keep the press at a constant 50 per cent humidity to reduce static cling.
Finished pages travel along the third level to a folding machine, where they are assembled into newspapers. A chain of grabbers snaking along the ceiling ferries finished papers to an adjacent warehouse-style room – the inserting department – where they are bundled for delivery.
All this automation means substantially less waste, Evan said. All adjustments on the current press have to be done with eyeballs and wrenches and because the paper keeps flowing as the pressmen are doing those tweaks, up to 15 per cent of a print run gets wasted.
The new system reacts so fast that it should cut waste to as little as three per cent, Duff said.
“We buy the newsprint at full price and we sell the waste at half the price,” he said, so this should save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The new press is about three times as fast and has four times the capacity of the old one, Duff said – enough to print the Edmonton Journal and more.
“Readers expect to see colour in everything they view these days,” he said, and the new press has more than double the colour capacity of the old one.
“The Gazette will become full colour from front to back, as will the Edmonton Journal.”
Sharp-eyed readers will notice another change as well: smaller margins.
“We’re going to have a slightly narrower paper,” Duff said, as the new press can cut narrower strips. The layout folks have already made the adjustment, which is why the Gazette has had extra-big margins since January. This change should cut the company’s paper use by about seven per cent, he said.
Crews are finishing the final electrical and plumbing connections, Duff said, and plan to do the first test runs by May. He hopes to have the press fully operational this summer.
That won’t mark the end of the changes, though. Duff said he plans to add an ultraviolet ink-drying system next year that should keep newsprint from rubbing off on your fingers.
The new press will mean a cleaner, less physically demanding job for staffers, Duff said.
“For our readers and our advertisers, it will mean a crisply printed, full-colour paper,” he said.
Switching to the new press will mean that press operators will have a lot less hands-on work to do, Rasmussen said, but it will also mean he won’t have to go home filthy with ink every day.
“The labour part of it? No, we won’t miss a bloody thing.”