I troll the hallways at GraphExpo, looking at the many booths showing exciting technologies to potential customers. There are people selling software, hardware, firmware, middleware, and usually – pretzels. This year there was no pretzel vendor, nor an ice cream vendor, both sorely missing in the vast space of McCormick Place.
And, I confess that having trolled these halls since the mid-1970s, I have become jaded. It takes something pretty cool to get my attention.
I appreciate the new models of the presses, and the newest expansions of capabilities. Last year at the Print show, I was really excited about the two ink-jet-and-laser label printers from EFI and INX/Komori. Both of those were really cool, and I could see an obvious market for machines like this.
I often envision myself as a younger man, an entrepreneur walking the show floor, looking for the perfect machine or techniques to differentiate my business from my competitors’ businesses. I remember lusting after the Heidelberg DI press a decade ago. I thought often about how a solid small business could be made with one of those, a paper cutter, and a folder. Small, easy to operate, insanely profitable, and a business that could be run entirely by one or two people.
This year I searched for such a technology, for the machine that could be used to set up a solid small business.
I didn’t find it.
But I was directed to a couple of booths where I saw truly exciting technologies that will change the industry. When I say “directed” I mean escorted by my dear friends Craig Kevghas and Elmo Sapwater to the booths of companies they felt I would like to see. These two gentlemen said, “I really think you need to see…” and walked with me to one or the other of several booths.
At the annual shows in Chicago there are a number of technologies or systems that are awarded Must See ’Em status by a secret panel of judges who let us in on the secrets of the show in advance. These folks spend the summer, I am told, evaluating press releases and web sites of the manufacturers who plan to attend Print and GraphExpo with their wares. They scrutinize and evaluate, and finally give their thumbs-up to a number of products they think we should see.
The product I saw in booth 1177 was not a Must See ’Em product. It wasn’t a big, flashy new machine making glossy folded cartons, or putting colored foil onto printed sheets with glitter (more on that in my next blog).
In booth 1177 was BDT, a company from Rottweil, Germany showing the most boring, but exciting machine component that I have seen in many years.
It’s a paper feeder.
This is an illustration of the BDT Tornado feeder module, at almost full size. The device lifts a sheet of paper and feeds it into a printing press. (Image courtesy of BDT)
For anyone who has ever run a sheet-fed printing, folding, or other machine, it is the feeder that causes the most difficulty. Paper feeders are a necessary part of any printing machine that uses sheets of material, and while absolutely necessary, these feeders are also the source of many a headache, and lots of time trouble-shooting problems that come up before the sheets are printed.
Feeders have the tedious but all-important job of picking up one (only one!) sheet of paper, and forwarding it to a pinch-roller where it is tested for thickness (and failed if that’s not right), then pushing or pulling – or otherwise cajoling that sheet of paper along a conveyor to the side-guide and gripper where it begins its journey through the press. Feeders are amazing devices; watching one work is an amusement tantamount to watching a fine mechanical clock work. When feeders work, they work perfectly; when they don’t work, they cause incredible trouble for the press operator.
BDT has developed a feeder so good, so delightfully simple, so wonderfully effective, that it belongs on every sheet-fed press in the world.
This photo shows a row of the Tornado modules in a feeder on a press. Each one is about 4 inches in width. The green “tractor-tread” belts propel a sheet at amazing speed into a press or other device with tremendous precision.
The company’s small Tornado module lifts a sheet substrate, then forwards it to the next station in a printing or post-press device with what appears to be 100 percent effectiveness. The Tornado device is so clever and effective that I suspect we will start seeing them on many major brands of presses. I was told that new models of the HP Indigo press feature these feeders. I am jealous of the operators of those machines because they will never get to experience feeder jams, doubles, or misfeeds like all of their forebears. Lucky dogs!
To watch the Tornado with an experienced pressman’s eye is like watching a gymnast who is perfect in her execution. This is mechanical poetry in motion. And all it does is pick up a piece of paper and push it to the next station on a printing press!
Heidelberg! Komori! MAN Roland, Mabeg, Mitsubishi, Polar, Müller-Martini, MBO, et al – take a look at this! You’ve never made one this good.
Words like “foolproof” and “unbelievable” and “wow!” were running through my brain as I watched the gentlemen from BDT demonstrate their diminutive mechanism as it picked up sheets of material (and they demonstrated a wide variety of substrates) and shot them out into a corrugated box.
As I walked away, I thought, “there’s a technology that most people would never appreciate.”
A paper feeder.
I am glad I had a chance to see it, because in its very small way, it will change the world of printing.