Automation in Offset: Simplifying Production and Increasing Profitability
It’s no secret that companies are having a tough time finding good labor these days, with many people discovering the benefits of working from home during the pandemic, and others not seeking full-time jobs or interested in learning a new skillset.
In the printing business, finding people to work on machinery has been a challenge even before the pandemic, as many younger workers find the industrial environment less desirable, hoping for some sort of high-tech position. Plus, working on older machinery without automation or high-tech control systems is not as desirable to new hires.
That’s why companies working on offset printers for packaging and labels have looked more than ever at ways to bring in automated tech.
“Automation has allowed the offset print process to remain competitive in today’s shorter run and faster turn time market,” says Lance Martin, vice president of marketing at Komori America, headquartered in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. “Quality of print and methods of embellishment remain high. And now with the proliferation of UV curable inks (LED), even post-press finishing gets a boost.”
Clarence Penge, executive vice president of product management for Heidelberg USA, headquartered in Kennesaw, Georgia, notes the labor shortage surrounding print is not new, but it had higher visibility during COVID-19 and the rebound, specifically in the packaging and label segment that had strong growth.
“Printing margins vary by segment, but higher cost of manufacturing due to labor shortage, raw material cost, and inflation is further driving automation,” he says. “Automation is a key to driving consistency in a manufacturing process, and when you have repetitive tasks, and the labor price is higher than the value, you should consider adding automating.”
He sees many offset printing companies progressing from automation to adding artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous manufacturing.
Marco Boer, vice president of IT Strategies, Inc., a digital print consultancy in Hingham, Massachusetts, says the lack of labor has caused enormous complexity in the printing industry, and automation is needed for offset printing jobs of packaging and labels because there’s not enough workers to do the job the way it used to be done — especially for second and third shifts.
And with wages up 15% across the board, investing in automation just makes sense as it will save a company money over the long haul, he says.
“The real cost isn’t the investment in equipment; the real cost is the learning curve,” Boer says. “The sooner you come up that learning curve, the more competitively advantageous you’ll be compared to your peers who have yet to go up that curve.”
In the face of labor and margin issues, growth can be stunted without a change in the process. After all, older non-automated processes require more labor to get more throughput.
“Today’s business model is all about how we do more with the same labor we have, or possibly even less labor,” Martin says. “Automation is the key to increasing productivity for the offset press. Only on an automated press can color setup, plate changes, and format sizes be set up simultaneously without additional labor.”
Pat McGrew, managing director of the McGrew Group, headquartered in Aurora, Colorado, explains automation in the printing industry is usually driven by software suites that capture and manage one or more processes, and capture data to feed dashboards and business intelligence processes.
“Automation can apply to a single process or to an end-to-end workflow that begins when a job is entered into the system for projection and continues to delivery into the shipping or mailing process,” she says. “For some shops, complete automation is still on the roadmap but not quite reality. They may have automation in their prepress for imposition, ganging, and nesting, but manual color management or approval workflows.”
Yet, automation starts before a job is even sent to the press — as automation software interfaces prepress, press, and postpress to give the user a more complete picture of the workflow. Through the data collected and presented, companies can target funnels or weak areas of the process and make them more efficient.
“On the press itself, automated functions move print jobs through makeready much faster and eliminate waste,” Martin says. “The press controls even have the capability to learn about systematic differences and make faster and better settings in subsequent runs. Self-learning, quality inspection, and register control are all working together to make the process more efficient.”
When optimizing a production process, the goal is to make sure the machinery is performing live production work as much as possible, at the highest rate possible, with the least amount of human input.
“Automation is required to perform simultaneous functions that would otherwise not be possible without multiple people on a press crew,” Martin says. “Komori presses now offer fully automated systems, performing simultaneous setups. It is not unusual to have real production data show 50-sheet makereadies or less, in six minutes or less, on presses that run up to 18,000 sph for the entire run, regardless of length.”
Process automation like this allows the print provider to turn an artful process into a true industrial manufacturing workflow with consistency and very high productivity.
Some of the biggest benefits of utilizing automation are the speed to market, consistent output, and reduced labor cost.
For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106 can produce more than 80 million sheets annually in the packaging and label segment, which would not be possible without a high degree of automation.
“This press can replace two machines at a time when our customer can’t find labor to add a second shift,” Penge says. “To me, this is a perfect example of why automation is a key for the future.”
Morrisette, based in Browns Summit, North Carolina, provides packaging, design, and automation solutions for some of the world’s biggest brands, with most of its folding carton packaging done utilizing the offset printing process.
“We serve food, firearms, personal care, electronics, and a wide variety of other industries,” Robert DeFeo, a company spokesperson, says. “We are typically doing offset printing packaging for high speed and high print applications.”
The company uses automation equipment for industry-specific or product-specific automated folding cartons to increase output. “It provides a level of speed to customers, and is less labor intensive while maintaining consistent output,” DeFeo says.
Rise of the Robots?
The use of robots in the paper and printing industry is not widespread. According to IFR industrial robot statistics, the annual number of robots newly installed in the industry just exceeded the 1,000-unit mark for the first time in 2019, and current estimates are around 2,000 units worldwide.
“Offset printing is a highly-automated process, but it involves special purpose machinery,” says Christopher Müller, director of the IFR statistical department, in Frankfurt, Germany. “Robots are not used in the core printing process, but rather for machine tending, and packaging and palletizing the output of these machines.”
With labor shortages, he adds that robots can support workers by relieving them from unpleasant tasks. And at the same time, the worker becomes more productive, which means the employer can now offer a higher wage, thus making the job more attractive.
McGrew notes that robots, co-bots, AGVs (automated guided vehicles), and AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) have been in printing plants for a long time.
“AGVs are a common sight in large plants to move raw material to the press and to pick up printed work to move to the next station for finishing,” she says. “In the beginning, they required complex infrastructure and were guided by wires, but today’s solutions use more locational intelligence and programming to become valued members of the team.”
In addition to AGVs, there are a variety of robot arm solutions, working alone or in groups, that can do everything from loading and offloading paper, to boxing of finished goods.
The investment into highly automated equipment does not stop after purchasing the iron. Just because the press system can perform robustly, it does not mean it will do so if not run properly, e.g., if the scanners are not used properly and regularly, the system will not learn, and the benefits will
“We hear over and over from customers that they must be vigilant to change their internal processes to best use the new technology,” Martin says. “For example, press operators with a lot of experience on old presses have to train just as heavily to run the new automation as do lesser experienced operators or beginners. They cannot operate the new machinery in the old way and get the correct result.”
McGrew warns that before companies invest in automation or robotics, they need to understand their current processes.
“We know companies that had strong automation solutions in place before the COVID shutdowns fared better than those who were relying on manual processes,” she says. “It still takes careful planning and calculations to understand what the breakeven point will be for any automation project or the addition of robotic solutions. That will be different for every company, but another hurdle is the level of understanding in the market about how automation and robotics can help optimize a business.”