Newspaper Handling and sortation system lets the courier-Journal keep Up with New Presses

Feb. 1, 2008
This case history about The Courier-Journal comes courtesy of FKI Logistex. It has been selected and edited by the MHM editorial staff for clarity, content

This case history about The Courier-Journal comes courtesy of FKI Logistex. It has been selected and edited by the MHM editorial staff for clarity, content and style.

In Louisville, Kentucky, home of The Courier-Journal ( newspaper, stopping the presses was a more permanent threat than the chance of missing one day’s big news. Founded in 1868 and a member of the Gannett Co. ( newspaper chain since 1986, The Courier-Journal’s 53-year-old presses were operating beyond their useful life, struggling to produce the day’s news. The old presses were slow, prone to breakdowns, and increasingly unable to produce issues in quality color or black and white print. The presses were jeopardizing the paper’s operations and its competitive viability; they needed to be replaced.

For Michael Przybylek, The Courier-Journal’s vice president of production, the decision to replace the presses was a nobrainer. “We were working in an environment where we could not produce good quality printing,” says Przybylek. “Printing with the old presses was like driving a horse-drawn stagecoach when everyone else was driving automobiles at 60 miles an hour.”

In late 2001, Przybylek and his team at The Courier-Journal announced plans to build an $85 million, 135,000-square-foot plant expansion. The facility, to be built next to the existing plant, would house three new state-of-the-art Colora® double-wide offset newspaper presses from Koenig & Bauer AG. The new, faster presses, capable of printing 75,000 papers per hour per press in high-quality color on nearly all pages, would shave two hours off the print run. News staff would have time to cover more news, advertising staff could take more four-color advertising orders, and transportation crews would have more time to meet the paper’s goal of having its product on customer doorsteps by 5:30 a.m.

The Material Handling Decision
Installing the new presses would add a material handling challenge to the project. Now, the paper would have to revamp the plant’s newspaper handling system to ensure the investment in the presses was worthwhile.

“When you buy a high-speed press, you don’t want the downstream equipment to slow it down,” says The Courier-Journal production director Tony Smithson. “What a lot of newspapers are doing is buying a handling system that’s slower than the presses and using a buffer system to compensate. Our goal was to find a way to exceed the capacity of the presses and avoid the need for a buffer, which would save on space and cost.”

The Courier-Journal mailroom and transportation manager Steve Eichberger, along with Smithson, had the task of evaluating potential material handling vendors to build the new plant’s newspaper handling system. Eichberger, with 33 years at The Courier-Journal, and Smithson, a Gannett veteran with experience at USA Today’s South Florida print plant, initially talked to a variety of newspaper industry equipment companies before choosing FKI Logistex® ( to design, build and integrate a custom-built material handling solution. FKI Logistex delivered a sophisticated and innovative conveying, sortation and controls system that would accurately, quickly and efficiently direct the paper’s bundle flow — all within the very tight space constraints of the new facility. The FKI Logistex system enabled the paper to as much as double the speed of its print runs.

Going with FKI Logistex was not an easy sell at first.

“I was not initially attracted to FKI Logistex,” says Przybylek. “In the newspaper business, you typically buy from newspaper industry companies, who have equipment and systems that are proven. A couple of my guys here saw some FKI Logistex systems and tried to convince me that they had a better mousetrap. In the end, I decided that FKI Logistex was proposing a system that was different than anything out there, and that it was better than anything traditional newspaper companies could supply.”

Bucking Newspaper convention
At the heart of the FKI Logistex material handling solution is the company’s leading-edge UniSort® XV sliding shoe sorter. The FKI Logistex UniSort XV gives The Courier-Journal a zero-impact, high-speed, single-unit sortation system that accurately and quickly routes newspaper bundles to their shipping destinations.

Competitive solutions from traditional newspaper industry companies offered dual pushers for sortation. Pushers use air power to “push” a steel plate against the bundles to direct their flow.

“These systems were, in my opinion, not any better than what we already had,” says Eichberger. “Our old system used air-powered deflectors that channeled the bundles to their destinations down spiral chutes. The bundles were banged half to death on the way down. We wanted a new system that would do what the old system did but without damaging the bundles. The newspaper industry systems that we had seen used a lot of pushers, and when you changed the direction of the bundles, the integrity of the bundles was compromised. We also saw some tracking issues with these setups.

“We didn’t see these issues with the FKI Logistex UniSort system. It uses the sliding shoes to change the direction of the bundles with no bundle impact, moving the papers as smoothly as turning a vehicle. FKI Logistex even did a successful test for us with the UniSort sorting unstrapped (unbound) bundles. The bundles went around the turns and didn’t turn over. Our old system couldn’t do that.”

The ability of the FKI Logistex UniSort system to route from any input line to any output line was another big factor for Eichberger, giving his mailroom the capacity to more effectively and flexibly direct bundle flow. The Courier-Journal’s old handling system sent papers only to specific destinations.

“If the old system didn’t work for any reason, we would have to manually toss every bundle across the plant,” says Eichberger. “That’s not possible when you have a big operation.”

Visits to FKI Logistex installations at United Parcel Service (UPS) and solidified interest in the UniSort at The Courier-Journal. “They were moving so many different sizes and shapes of packages with their UniSorts and were doing it so successfully that I felt FKI Logistex could easily handle our more or less uniform newspaper bundles,” says Eichberger.

The UPS and visits also gave Przybylek the confidence to recommend FKI Logistex to Gannett’s normally very cautious upper management, despite the company’s low profile in the newspaper industry.

“You don’t continue to sell equipment like this to major companies like UPS and without it working for them,” says Przybylek. “With all the information given to me by my employees and by FKI Logistex, I was comfortable recommending to management that we had to take this risk.”

“We needed a system that wasn’t going to shut down on us,” adds Eichberger. “That was another thing that impressed us when we went to UPS with FKI Logistex. I thought that as big as UPS is, if it will handle their load, then it will certainly handle ours.”

fitting into a tight space
For Smithson, working within the space constraints of the new production facility was a critical issue. The new production facility would go up on the Fifth Street side of The Courier-Journal’s property. From the second floor of the Fifth Street side, where the presses were housed, papers would be conveyed to the first floor through inserting, stacking/compensating and strapping machines. They then traveled by gripper conveyor to a second-floor mezzanine before crossing over to the existing Sixth Street side of the property through the sorter, where the papers would be sorted to be loaded onto the trucks.

“Space was a big concern,” says Smithson. “The cart loaders that feed the docks were already in place. The presses took up a fixed amount of space, as did the mailroom, and the handling system got what was left.”

But Eichberger and Smithson wanted a system that would work better than their existing handling setup — a two-tier belt system built somewhat ahead of its time — which had worked reliably for 40 years.

“The drawback to our old two-tier belt system was that certain lines had to run on certain belts,” notes Eichberger. “If you made the mistake of putting bundles on the top and the bottom that were going to the same destination at the same time, the risk of a jam increased greatly.

That’s an important advantage of the FKI Logistex system — it achieved the speeds we need with just one belt. Some of the other systems we evaluated required two belts to handle the number of lines we were working with. I knew the problems we had with two belts and didn’t want to go back there again. A two-belt system would also demand a larger footprint.”

Successful integration of the conveying and sorting system required careful project, engineering, installation and space management by FKI Logistex, as the conveyor system feeding the sorter is suspended overhead. “They had to control the vertical space like air traffic controllers,” says Smithson about the FKI Logistex project engineers.

A seamless transition
The switchover to the new system needed to be a seamless transition. “We couldn’t be down,” notes Smithson. “We had to move from our old system to our new system overnight. That could have been very daunting but FKI Logistex came up with a plan that worked very well. If there was any point to not have a hitch, the switchover was it.” On the first night with the new system, the paper successfully got out all three of its editions — Kentucky, Indiana and Metro.

In building each of these editions, The Courier-Journal runs approximately 56 pages during the week in six sections and in excess of 100 pages on Sunday in 12 to 15 sections. It prints 30,000 copies of the Kentucky edition, 35,000 copies of the Indiana edition, and 180,000 copies of the Metro edition each weekday; on Sundays, the circulation total is closer to 325,000. On average, more than a third of the weekday paper’s pages are changed between editions.

Getting copies out is the name of the game. Print runs start with the Kentucky edition at 11:30 p.m., followed by the Indiana edition at 12:30 a.m. and the Metro edition at 1:15 a.m. The press runs wind down between 3 and 3:30 a.m. When they’re not printing the daily paper, the presses and insertion stations run inserts, circulars, and special sections.

During the print runs, papers come off the blazingly fast presses and move from the press room on a belt conveyor. Gripper conveyors grab the papers and bring them down to the first floor, where the papers are sent to the stacker/compensators to be stacked and rotated to form bundles. Finally, the bundles head to the strappers.

In the case of print runs for preprinted sections of the paper and other inserts that are added to the papers later, the strapper operator places a “zone” sheet on each bundle before sending it through the machine to be strapped. The sheet tells the delivery drivers and distribution centers which specific zone of the paper’s circulation area get the preprinted sections and inserts in that bundle.

The Courier-Journal has approximately 150 zones that cover anywhere from a fraction of a zip code to multiple zip codes. The zones let the paper’s advertisers send inserts to selected circulation areas. Independent contractors haul, deliver and add inserts to the Kentucky edition and parts of the Indiana edition. The city portions of the Indiana edition and the Metro edition are taken by The Courier-Journal drivers to a network of 15 distribution centers, where delivery route contractors pick up their papers and add the day’s inserts.

sophisticated controls Programming
Newspaper bundles leave the strappers and ascend spiral conveyors up to the mezzanine level, where they are fed to a series of FKI Logistex newspaper Accumat® conveyors. Accumat is a rollerless, zero-pressure, no-impact accumulation conveyor that uses a modular plastic belt for its conveying surface. Accumat raises and lowers the belt-driving mechanism below its belt to convey or accumulate. In The Courier-Journal installation, the Accumat conveyors accumulate a “slug” of 6 to 10 bundles without the bundles contacting the running belt, and then feed the slugs to the UniSort sorter.

Unlike typical sortation systems that sort based on a bar code or RFID tag on each item, The Courier-Journal’s UniSort sorts its newspaper bundles to its dock destinations without any external identification on the bundles. Instead, the FKI Logistex custom-programmed controls system is managed by The Courier-Journal staff, who key in each print run’s information. As the bundles wind their way through the conveyor system into the sorter, the controls system maintains a detailed counting and tracking of the bundle slugs. Remarkably, throughout the whole process, the segments of each edition’s print run are identified solely by their status as they move through the production process.

To do that, The Courier-Journal advertising and circulation staff enter zone details for each day’s circulation into the paper’s in-house prepress/production computer software. The software generates the print zone reports that are input into the FKI Logistex controls system ahead of the print runs. Together, the FKI Logistex controls and in-house systems also let The Courier-Journal production staff monitor how efficiently the system is running.

Advanced sortation technology
Once information is entered into the FKI Logistex controls system, the sorter determines the destination for each slug of bundles — either the dock area for the independent haulers, or the cart loaders that stack the bundles on carts to be loaded onto The Courier-Journal trucks. The cart loaders keep track of the bundles going to The Courier-Journal trucks, and a set of bundle count displays installed by FKI Logistex at the independent hauler dock area keeps track of the number of bundles going to each hauler. Together, the systems prevent unnecessary overages.

The combination of a stacker/compensator and a strapper is called a tie line, and the UniSort at The Courier-Journal is fed by eleven of them — eight in the new facility and three at the old plant that merge into two lines. From these ten input lines, the UniSort outputs to nine destinations — five cart loaders and four extendable conveyors integrated by FKI Logistex at the independent hauler dock area. The sorter, with a maximum sortation capacity of 132 bundles per minute, can sort bundles from any tie line to any destination with no restrictions on rate or destination. Competitive solutions that offered pushers would run at maximum speeds of 60 bundles per minute, requiring two sorting lines to come close to the speed of one UniSort.

The FKI Logistex UniSort solved the issues The Courier-Journal project team had with conventional newspaper industry solutions. Instead of damaging the newspaper bundles, the UniSort’s sliding shoes provide gentle, zero-impact handling. The UniSort also offers total flexibility in bundle routing, which gives The Courier-Journal a safety cushion in case certain destination lanes go down. And since the UniSort can accommodate the speed of The Courier-Journal’s new presses with only one machine, it saved the paper on initial equipment outlay while fitting into the close quarters the paper had for it to be installed.

The new production plant, complete with the FKI Logistex material handling system, improved The Courier-Journal’s ability to cover and deliver the news, and gave the paper the capacity it needed to boost advertising and circulation revenues.

For the staff, readers and advertisers of The Courier-Journal, that means the presses can keep on rolling, turning out the news. For the shareholders of Gannett Co., that reads like a fantastic story of business success. welcomes relevant, exclusive case histories that explain in specific detail the business benefits that new software and material-handling equipment has provided to specific users. Send submissions to Clyde Witt([email protected]), MHM Editor-in-Cheif. All submissions will be edited for clarity, content and style.