FREMONT, Calif. - The future of U.S. newspaper production might be in an industrial office park, hard by the roaring traffic on the Chester W. Nimitz Freeway.
Here, five months after Transcontinental Northern California flipped the switch on the $230 million plant constructed to produce the San Francisco Chronicle and other products, TNC's Montreal-based parent company, Transcontinental Inc., is eager to determine whether its production outsourcing strategy - and its associated operational and training philosophy - can take root in the United States.
It's a work in progress, said Ted Markle, Transcontinental's senior vice president, newspaper group.
"We have high expectations in Fremont, and we've seen some good progress," he told News & Tech in mid-September. "We continue to work with suppliers and everyone involved in the quality-control chain to get the quality up to our overall goals. We're not there yet, but hope to be there fairly quickly."
Chronicle President Mark Adkins said Hearst Corp. officials are equally optimistic. "Every startup has its bumps, but overall the new plant has been a positive enabler for us. Consumer response has been very strong, and from a satisfaction level, we moved from 1950s press technology, and although we did a very good job, we are now going from marginal color and reproduction capabilities to the latest and greatest. It's been a huge leap."
Transcontinental's U.S. entity, Transcontinental Northern California Inc., began printing the Chronicle in early July, about 30 months after it signed a 15-year, $1 billion contract with Hearst to produce and distribute the paper.
For Hearst, assigning production to Transcontinental meant the publisher didn't have to upgrade the Chronicle's aging production infrastructure. And for Transcontinental, Hearst provided the opportunity it was seeking to expand its Canadian-centered newspaper production services to the United States.
"This agreement came into effect because of the decision of the Chronicle's management to exit the printing and related components of their business," said Transcontinental CEO and President Francois Olivier in 2006. "Our production model gives publishers the tools they need to help them maintain and strengthen their market position."
By early 2009, however, it was unclear whether the plant would open at all. Hearst, in seeking wage and benefit concessions, threatened to fold the Chronicle as the publisher wrestled with the sharply deteriorating newspaper economy.
Transcontinental had its own bumpy row to hoe as it was forced to lay off 1,750 workers and close business units in Canada as the recession slammed the printer's revenues.
By late spring, however, financial pressures appeared to ease, and on July 5, the first copies of the redesigned, 66-inch-wide Chronicle - produced on 11-inch-wide pages - rolled off the three presses anchoring the 338,000-square-foot site.
"These are challenging times for the newspaper industry," Markle said. "But we are still committed to our philosophy and the regional production concept, and we'll make the appropriate decisions as the economy and advertising markets turn around."
There's a lot at stake for Transcontinental as it assesses whether other U.S. publishers - not only in northern California but also in other U.S. locations - will opt for its production services.
The Fremont facility, anchored by three manroland Colorman XXL 6-by-2 presses, is cloaked with software, technology and equipment designed to ensure optimal performance, said Project Director Gary Hughes. Hughes, along with his Transcontinental implementation team, local architect and general contractor, helped designed a LEED-compliant facility that is utilitarian, but attractive and far from threadbare, and constructed to reflect Transcontinental's team-based production approach (see sidebar, page 13).
Lots of 'firsts'
"It's a brand-new concept," Hughes said about Transcontinental's Fremont strategy. "There are a lot of 'firsts' here, and reorienting all of these developments to a new workforce takes time."
Among the so-called firsts are the presses themselves, each configured as three towers with 24 printing couples per machine.
Although Transcontinental initially ordered the presses as coldset only, the firm subsequently added a Megtec Dual-Dry TNV dryer to each machine in order to permit heatset production on one of the 6-by-2 webs. In addition, the presses are designed to interleaf webs from one press to another if there are demands for larger page counts, Hughes said.
The dryers were delivered as single units, transported by 126-foot-long semi-trailers that drove directly into the facility where overhead installation cranes picked the dryers directly off the back of the trailer.
Inks - from Flint Group and US Ink, which provide the coldset and heatset formulations, respectively - travel to the presses through a series of below-floor piping and conduit.
Manroland engineered the 21-inch-cutoff, 90,000-copy-per-hour presses with variable web width capability, the first time the vendor has added that level of flexibility in a triplewide format machine, said Ron Sams, manroland's vice president of newspaper sales.
"When we first began working with Transcontinental they wanted a foundation that would enable them to produce a lot of different products," Sams said. "It was important in developing the solution set for Transcontinental."
Each of the four-former presses can produce up to 36 broadsheet pages in full color or 48 broadsheet pages with 24 in full color, depending upon production runs. Each is outfitted with a 2:5:5 folder - one with a quarterfolder - and in another unique application,
the folders are positioned at a 90-degree-angle from the presses.
The design allows for a "more effective approach" in how angled ribbons travel to the folder, Sams said, adding that the presses also feature wider-than-usual formers to give press operators even greater latitude in altering web widths.
Pecom control software is used to manage the presses, which are also equipped with Power Plate Loading, Auroload reel loading and Websys automatic web-in software.
Q.I. Press Controls, meantime, was tapped to supply its IDS closed-loop color and mRC color register control systems across the machines. In total, QIPC installed 18 IDS and 18 mRC scanners, as well as its IQM monitoring software.
Transcontinental was the first North American customer to purchase the mRC system, which employs micro-register marks and a digital camera with an integrated microprocessor to ensure that measured data is processed in real time.
The QIPC systems are completely integrated within the Pecom press control software, allowing operators to monitor color, color register and press performance through the same console.
Share quiet room
In a neat twist, operators at the six Pecom consoles share the quiet room with TNC's prepress foundation, which consists of three Kodak Generation News thermal platesetters and three Burgess Industries Inc. punch/bender systems.
Hughes specifically designed the facility so that prepress and press operators would share the same workspace.
The three platesetters can each output up to 250 singlewide plates per hour, Hughes said. BII software manages how the plates are routed, and through a series of cross-over conveyors, plates traveling down the lines can be assigned to different benders as needed.
Once the CTP system images a barcode and other identifiable information onto the plate, it's punched and bent. The plate then travels to any one of 36 bins - across three BII sortation systems - that correspond to a specific tower on one of the three presses. Operators then pick up the plates and load them into a cartridge that's automatically locked into the press. PPL cuts by half the amount of time it takes for crews to change out a press for a new run, according to manroland.
TNC uses a 3-up plate workflow, putting three images across each 36-inch plate. "We have four plates that cover the entire cylinder and just adjust the image position of the plates to handle variable web widths," Hughes said.
The printer uses about 5,000 Kodak plates per week.
As much time and effort TNC managers spent specifying the plant's printing requirements, the facility's postpress infrastructure attracted equal attention, Hughes said.
The 200,000-square-foot packaging area of the plant houses no fewer than seven inserting lines, a mix of Goss International and Ferag equipment.
Integral to the mailroom are five Ferag buffering systems, which allow TNC to disconnect press operations from postpress, Hughes said. "The ability to buffer lets us sever the relationship between press and postpress. If a press goes down, we still have the capability to continue working."
Another element of TNC's postpress strategy is separating Sunday from daily postproduction. To that end, two Goss Magnapaks, each linked to three Quipp Systems Inc. Packman stacker/wrappers, anchor Sunday production. For the daily Chronicle, Transcontinental has in place five identical 45,000-copy-per-hour Ferag RollStream lines. All seven lines - two for Sunday and five for daily - link to an RFID-enabled Cannon Equipment cartloading system on to which the papers are wheeled to the loading dock for final distribution.
"It's a great hybrid solution," said Joe Colletti, president and CEO of Ferag Americas Inc., citing the Goss and Ferag technology in place. The inserters and buffering systems, in concert with the miles of UTR conveyor criss-crossing the plant, gives TNC the flexibility it needs to more effectively manage postproduction, Colletti said.
Circulars earmarked for insertion are stored in an HK Systems Inc. ASRS, from which pallets are transported to feeding stations. The 5,000-bay ASRS also stores TNC's newsprint, which is ferried to the presses by five LGVs that ramble through the press hall.
HK software that monitors how the inserts are stored is integrated with Goss' Omnizone postpress management app, which TNC uses to oversee its entire postpress operation. The Omnizone app is also linked to controls running the Magnapak, Ferag, Quipp and Cannon postproduction systems. Finally, Omnizone is also integrated with the manroland printnet software that drives the presses, which gives TNC managers a central conduit through which to monitor performance on the production floor.
"Omnizone is the key software for the entire postpress operation," Hughes said, "and with printnet and the Omnizone interface, we are able to create common reports."
Automating operations across disparate systems is a critical element of TNC's foundation, Hughes said. "We are a high-tech manufacturing facility, and yes, we save on the labor needed, of course, but by incorporating an integrated approach, there is much less chance for error" in the production of the Chronicle and other periodicals.
The technological underpinning also supports how TNC manages its employees, allowing workers to master a number of skill-sets across a broad variety of operations, Hughes said.
"The opportunity for workers to enhance their careers here is phenomenal."
With three presses capable of printing almost 300,000 newspapers per hour and a postpress foundation engineered to package almost as many, TNC has more than enough horsepower to print the Chronicle.
Yet the Chronicle has been a poster child for the newspaper industry's overall decline. The paper, which in fall 2000 had a daily circ in excess of 450,000 copies, is now printing about 251,782 copies each weekday, according to the Sept. 30, 2009 Fas-Fax. Sunday distribution, meantime, has declined from 552,000 copies nine years ago to 306,705.
More than one
But TNC wasn't built just for the Chronicle. Transcontinental has made no secret of its intentions to aggressively court additional customers.
Many observers are already speculating that MediaNews Group, whose northern California papers already pepper the Bay Area, and with whom Hearst already has a close operating relationship, might be the next publisher to move production to TNC.
"We don't disclose negotiations with prospective customers, but we certainly intend to do more with that facility," Markle said, " The focus right now is getting through the shakedown period and to make sure we exceed the expectations of our main customer. Once that phase is completed, we'll see what else we can do there."
MNG execs didn't return calls seeking comment about their northern California plans.
The plant's centralized location in Fremont, just north of San Jose, means it's relatively easy for drivers to distribute papers across a wide swath of the Bay Area.
In addition to its close proximity to the Nimitz Freeway, the plant is only blocks away from the I-680, giving drivers easy access not only to San Jose, but Oakland, Richmond and other East Bay cities. Drivers can also catch U.S. 101 and I-280 on the west side of the Bay to funnel papers to cities adjoining San Francisco.
But before TNC can cast its net to snare other customers, Hughes said it's critical that Hearst is happy with the quality and production options TNC is able to provide.
"It's imperative that the Chronicle is successful, because its success is our success."
Clearly, TNC has the technical infrastructure to handle as much production as it can get, and the plant - which already can accommodate as many as two more triplewide presses and additional CTP systems - also has enough room on its 24-acre site to expand even further, Hughes said.
"We can grow as we need to," he said.
And growth is exactly what Transcontinental hopes to achieve for its U.S. offspring.