Advancements for an Enhanced Supply Chain
For packaging converters to become preferred suppliers to their brand owner customers, it’s imperative to find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition and provide better service in a challenging industry, says Jan De Roeck, marketing director, industry relations and strategy for Esko.
But as the technological playing field has leveled on the hardware side, printers are finding it challenging to differentiate themselves on print quality alone, leading them to seek out solutions that can aid their production processes and supplement their print quality with speed, reduced costs, and added value. These solutions, De Roeck says, are often found in the highly-advanced software offerings now available for all packaging segments.
“Everything we do in terms of integrating prepress software with what’s going on around the printing press and prepress department is all driven toward speed improvements — helping our customers deliver jobs faster to their customers — quality, and cost reduction,” De Roeck says. “If you translate that into something more concrete, it’s about avoiding waste throughout the process.”
In an industry that continues to be impacted by consolidation, leading to more companies with multiple facilities, as well as a burgeoning labor shortage and increased speed to market pressures, connectivity has become an essential attribute of a successful package printing company. And through the latest in software, printing plants are able to increase connectivity among their machines, their facilities, and with their customers.
Why Software is in the Spotlight
While the packaging industry continues along its upward trajectory of growth, demand, and opportunity, printers and converters have come face to face with multiple trends that have increased the complexities of packaging production.
In many cases, the rise of short runs is chief among these trends, and can largely be attributed to the proliferation of SKUs within a brand’s product line. While this short-run trend is not exactly a new phenomenon in the industry, it still presents challenges to printers and converters who need to manage more jobs than ever before.
According to James Nelson, EFI’s Productivity Software product marketing manager for packaging and corrugated, as the production plant becomes more complex, software solutions have emerged to assist printers in a variety of ways. Order entry processes are of particular importance, he says, as more jobs need to enter the production system and be turned around quickly.
Additionally, he explains that with more work being pushed through packaging plants, printers and converters are learning to rely on automated processes. Whereas in the past, Nelson says printing companies may have been able to lean on a production employee who had been scheduling the same job for years, safety nets need to be put in place for situations in which that person is out of the facility for a day, or if the job parameters change.
Through scheduling and automation tools such as EFI’s PrintFlow and iQuote, some of these challenges can be met head on, Nelson says.
“It gives owners and companies some business continuity, as well as helping to tackle those challenges where you have smaller-run SKUs with more press changeovers, and you need to keep more inventory and have an accurate inventory count,” Nelson says.
While an increase in job quantity has led to package printers and converters assessing the software solutions they are utilizing to assist in their production, this same trend has also led to the rise of digital printing being deployed throughout the industry. The emerging print technology’s ability to effectively produce short-run work, while also opening up new creative opportunities for brands, has enhanced the need to efficiently and accurately produce these jobs.
De Roeck explains that an awareness of automation has emerged in the industry, and as business managers are feeling the speed-to-market pressure on short-run, complex jobs, confidence in automation software’s benefits has come to the forefront.
“With a continuously increasing volume of jobs going through a plant, and with digital printing as a means to provide new services for their brand owner customers, converters need to do things much more efficiently,” De Roeck says. “They need to rethink the way they are working, and advance on their journey of digital transformation of the business, and I would say this message really resonates with the managing directors and decision makers at our converter customers.”
Connecting and Communicating
While many of the prevailing trends in the packaging industry have led to a need for increased automation within a facility, other trends are impacting the packaging space, driving a need for more connectivity.
Industry consolidation is one of these trends, and as the packaging industry continues to see companies grow through acquisition, more facilities in different geographic locations will have to operate under the same corporate umbrella. With different personnel, equipment, and workflow practices, continuity can be put in question, but with the right software at the ready, multiple plants can more easily share data to maintain consistency for their customers.
In these situations, Mike Rottenborn, CEO of Hybrid Software, explains that it’s important for these facilities to develop standard operating procedures, and that can typically begin with the indexing of files stored in a facility. One of the benefits of Hybrid Software, Rottenborn says, is that it is based entirely on the native PDF format, and focuses on the content and metadata of files, which can provide much more information about the file, rather than just its history. This allows the files to become searchable, he says, comparable to how Google indexes websites.
“A real common thing would be a customer that has prepress in a couple locations, and has been told to scrap or edit a file because an ingredient has changed,” Rottenborn says. “We have a simple common interface where they can find every version of that file with that ingredient in any plant, and immediately handle it.”
As the need for sharing files and job data has made communication between production facilities increasingly important, improved internal communications is key to efficient production within any facility. At PRINTING United 2019, held Oct. 23-25 in Dallas, HiFlow Solutions showcased its packaging MIS and MES software to the North American market.
Jack Lafler, the company’s VP of technical services, explains that a key component of HiFlow’s Solutions is its messaging functionality. For example, he says that if a press goes into downtime, end-users can input a specific code into shop floor data collection indicating that the press has gone down. The system then will automatically send an email message to personnel in the plant designated to receive this type of message, such as a press room manager. Knowing when the occurrence takes place, those key people can then take appropriate action. The plan as it stands, Lafler says, is to expand the library to at least 90 action items, based on user demand.
“We’re going to flesh that out a little further, because we’re expecting people to do some kind of interface off the shop floor,” he says. “We want those shop floor messages, like downtime or repair time, to be an action item for a foreman or supervisor.”
And this is not limited to production. “It can be anywhere an action item can take place, for example, pre-press, and really any part of the cycle from estimate to invoice,” Lafler adds.
Another way in which communication is ramping up in the packaging industry is by taking a page out of the commercial segment to enhance communication between printers and customers via an online interface. At the recent CorrExpo event held Oct. 14-16 in Denver, EFI launched a new software solution called MarketDirect PackCentral, which Aaron Tavakoli, EFI’s product marketing manager for Web-to-print and marketing solutions, explains is largely based on MarketDirect StoreFront, a product that EFI has seen significant success with in the commercial space.
The concept behind MarketDirect PackCentral, Tavakoli says, is to streamline the ordering process for customers by making it the packaging converter’s customer facing portal for orders, procurement, distribution, and e-commerce. By adding commonly ordered SKUs to an online product catalog, the ordering process becomes automated for customers, as they can log on and find their products prepared to be ordered with their logos and artwork at the ready.
“When I’m logging in from one company, I’m seeing my own brand, and I feel like I’m in a portal that’s part of my organization and part of my web property,” Tavakoli says.
One of the key areas in which MarketDirect PackCentral is differentiated from its commercial counterpart, MarketDirect StoreFront, is PackCentral’s 3D modeling capabilities. Tavakoli explains that customers can model their artwork in a flat mode onto a die file, but then via an animation, they can see how the product folds along the dielines into its final form.
Embracing the Software of the Future
Throughout the printing industry, when looking at ways to improve speed and automation, hardware solutions such as faster presses with automated functionality are often the go-to solution. While there’s little question that today’s equipment is significantly more advanced than legacy presses, printers and converters are seeming to come around to the concept of leaning on software as an efficiency tool.
Rottenborn explains that when introducing Hybrid Software’s solutions to printers and converters, he often leads by asking them what the biggest source of mistakes is in their facility. The answer, he says, is often that an old version of a file gets printed accidentally — a problem that could be solved via production asset management.
“A centralized production asset management system will solve so many problems early in the process by giving you a software solution to know that ‘Yes, this is the right file and it’s where it needs to be, when it needs to be there,’” Rottenborn says. “To me, that’s the gate to any automation at all. Otherwise you’re printing bad files or printing wrong files, and that happens far too often.”
According to De Roeck, the more printers and converters get comfortable with software and the improvements it can bring to a business, the better off, overall, the industry will be. “There is definitely hesitation in endorsing and adopting IT solutions to further digitalize the business, but at the same time I also sense a lot more openness for the idea that it’s not just a printing press or an investment in printing or finishing equipment that will actually make the company more effective,” de Roeck says. “There’s a lot more acceptance of the idea that it is upstream in the workflow where we can actually make a difference. That is a very positive observation if you would ask me."