Understanding the Impact of Automation
Throughout the package printing and converting process, automation can mean a number of things. Beyond the actual production of a job, tasks such as cost estimation, prepress file verification, assigning a job to the proper press and preparing a job for shipment, can make for a cumbersome path to turn a packaging concept into the final output.
While package printers are constantly seeking out ways they can boost their efficiency, implementing automation elements can be daunting. But according to Sagen de Jonge, CEO of Tilia Labs, a developer of multiple automation software solutions for the printing and packaging industries, the best place to start is by taking stock of systems already in place.
“Take inventory of your systems, and where they are now relative to what’s available,” de Jonge says. “If you buy the fastest digital press and have the finishing to keep up, that’s great. But how are you going to feed that data into the system? You need an optimized workflow to make it profitable. How much is lights out and how much still requires manual entry?”
Similarly, on the production side, understanding the steps that require the most time from operators is a great first step in determining where automation processes will be most effective. According to Rodney Pennings, sales director for Paper Converting Machine Co. (PCMC), a manufacturer of flexographic presses that automate steps such as drum cleaning and impression setting, strategic reduction of human intervention can lead to immediate results for a business.
“I recommend converters observe their facilities and identify which areas require the most operator intervention,” he says. “Where are your operators spending the most time? Converters should track the number of steps and the time spent by operators throughout the printing process and analyze this data to see where inefficiencies currently exist. By focusing on these areas and introducing automated technology to minimize the human intervention required, converters will begin to see an immediate impact on their business.”
Automating Outside the Box
While targeting current software, equipment and capabilities make for logical first steps for printers and converters seeking to automate, it’s not always a straightforward process. For example, Christopher Dillon, VP of operations for the Retail Marketing Solutions Division of Meyers, a Minneapolis-based label and packaging printer, explains that his company has taken a customer-centric approach to automation.
For example, he says that investing in an automatic waste stripping machine resulted in huge time savings for Meyers’s operators, allowing them to focus on other, more profitable areas that benefit from the human touch.
“Our approach to automation really develops through collaborating with customers,” Dillon says. “We are constantly working with them to uncover needs they might not even realize they have, and looking at how we can help them automate in unique ways.”
By remaining customer-focused, Dillon explains Meyers has been able to take a calculated approach to become more automated, pinpointing the aspects of the business where automation will be most beneficial. Instead of taking an ‘all-in’ approach, Meyers has stepped gradually into automation, reducing costs and improving accuracy.
“We really focused on incremental wins for our clients, rather than swinging for the fences,” he says. “That approach allowed us to build momentum. Reducing labor costs and eliminating errors has really been our focus.”
According to de Jonge, one often overlooked aspect of a printing and converting business that could benefit from automation is storage and organization — especially in diecutting.
“They have difficulty keeping up with dies and reusing them efficiently,” he says. “We can help automate that process.”
de Jonge explains that package printers can use Tilia Labs software to catalog the shape of every die in the company and where it is stored. Then, when an imposition is generated, it will automatically check the inventory and alert the operator if there is an existing die that can be reused and where it is located.
“Those dies are expensive, so this saves them a ton of money,” he says.
Beyond the Basics
As technology in the printing and packaging industries continues to become more automated and efficient, printers and converters should keep an eye out for the latest developments that will be most beneficial to their businesses.
“It takes time to stay up to speed with rapidly changing technology, but it is critical,” Dillon says, adding that companies that embrace the latest technology may also find that it gives overall morale a boost.
“Our CEO has an old military quote he shares, ‘The best way to improve morale is with firepower,’” Dillon says. “The same is true in the manufacturing world. The more tools employees have to do their jobs better, the happier they’ll be.”
According to Pennings, the development of artificial intelligence being implemented into printing presses is poised to have a significant impact in the flexo world. Printers that embrace AI, he explains, will likely see improvements in both the quality and consistency of their output.
“The latest generation of flexographic presses features artificial intelligence technology that has been integrated directly into the equipment,” he says. “This has helped to create machines capable of more consistent printing with less variability. Over the next 12 to 18 months, I think we will continue to see an acceleration of AI technology integrated into, or retrofitted for, printing equipment. With that, I think we will also see further advances in existing products and components already on the market being utilized within the flexographic printing industry. … In terms of the next three to five years, I believe we will continue to see this automated technology becoming further integrated as AI takes an even larger role in flexographic printing. I don’t see the adoption and advancement of this technology as a linear curve. It’s a steep ramp, and it is going to continue to be introduced and adopted at an even faster pace.”
Another important aspect of automation is that in an industry that has struggled to attract young members of the workforce, the latest technology can serve as an incentive for younger generations to enter the print industry. In addition to making package printing an attractive field for young workers, automation can also help to fill in the gaps, doing the jobs those same workers aren’t interested in picking up.
“One of the greatest struggles of converters today is finding and retaining an educated and reliable workforce,” Pennings says. “As the aging workforce continues to advance toward retirement, we are beginning to see a labor shortage and few younger operators entering the industry. This means converters need to operate their facilities and machines with less manpower.”
According to de Jonge, shorter run lengths and mass customization are putting pressure on package printers to do more, do it faster, and for less money, while at the same time losing expertise and experience as their current workforce retires.
“That is tribal knowledge no one can replace,” he says.
At the end of the day, says Dillon, automation is more about staying ahead of the technology, than investing in any one solution. It is about shops making strategic decisions about where and how to implement new solutions on a regular basis, rather than just committing to something once and never looking at it again.
“It may seem intuitive, but just keep up,” he says. “Technology and automation are critical for success in today’s environment. You need to be profitable to upgrade, but you need to upgrade to maintain profitability — it’s a chicken and egg situation. If you’re looking for something that stretches your current capabilities, then it’s time to invest and taking that approach also helps ensure you don’t buy something that might look cool, but that your clients don’t care about.”