Bridging the Productivity Gap
When machines are not running and production comes to a halt, money, of course, is not being made. It’s a common refrain in the manufacturing world, and in printing in particular. But for package printers and converters, uncovering and eliminating productivity gaps wherever they may be lurking is a continuous process, essential to maintaining profitability.
The combination of increased demand for fast speed to market, along with a reduction in run lengths as a result of SKU proliferation, has introduced new challenges to the package printing process. But understanding areas where efficiency is impacted can paint a picture of how adjustments in behavior, equipment, or both, can lead to the productivity boost a package printer needs to stay competitive.
But because each package printing environment is different, with various customers to satisfy, market segments to serve, and run length quantities to produce, shoring up productivity gaps is not necessarily solely about operational efficiency, explains Aleks Zlatic, GM for packaging software at EFI. In addition to production speeds, converters who understand their customers’ specific needs, and address ways to improve their processes to satisfy them, will be at an advantage.
“Productivity is dependent on not only producing as much as you can, but making sure you’re facing your customer and complying with your promises to the customer,” Zlatic says. “If you let the customer down, you lose your customer. And today, companies compete on trust. Not necessarily on price.”
Uncovering Data, Increasing Productivity
Regardless of the company, however, one universal element of any production environment is goal setting and rallying the team to achieve those objectives, explains Jay Foster, founder and CEO of FlexMetrics. When thinking about productivity objectives, Foster says that implementing a “dashboard” that provides meaningful performance feedback is a good starting point for companies seeking to dig deeper into their productivity.
FlexMetrics, which Foster founded in 1998, provides a software-based solution that integrates directly with machines on the shop floor as well as front-office planning systems, and offers real time insights into metrics including overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), and its three main components of uptime, speed, and yield. These metrics, which are presented in a user-friendly interface, can be posted on screens throughout the facility, on the equipment itself, and can even be accessed by mobile devices.
True to its similarity to a car’s dashboard, the data points are presented as gauges, and each has a green, yellow, and red zone, configured to match the converter’s desired productivity goals. This easy-to-understand presentation, Foster explains, allows each team member to see precisely how they are faring within the organization’s overall objectives and expectations throughout their shift.
“Part of what makes real-time feedback so powerful is it’s not just displaying raw data directly from the equipment, but it is also providing that feedback in the context of expectations that align with operational goals for each specific cost-center,” Foster says. “So, we’re able to combine that feedback into a scoreboard or a dashboard that’s simple and easy for people to see — specifically for us we try to focus in on classic green, yellow, red — as a way for people to quickly understand that if we can keep it in the green, we’re hitting our targets and doing well and we’re going to be successful.”
In addition to real time data reporting, implementing a technological platform that can help users identify precisely where downtime is occurring can help printers zero in on the cause of that downtime. For example, Zlatic explains that a common realization among converters when implementing productivity software, which EFI offers to the packaging industry in the form of the Packaging Productivity Suite and the more specialized Corrugated Packaging Suite, is that their operation may not be running quite as efficiently as they may have thought.
By capturing this data and then coding instances of downtime accordingly, Zlatic says that converters can zero in on these newly uncovered productivity gaps, close them, and ultimately see some recovered revenue.
“Capturing the downtime codes is very important in the problem solving process and being able to implement the necessary measures to correct those,” Zlatic says. “I think productivity starts once you’ve figured out what happens before the work comes to your shop, and then you can figure it out in terms of prioritizing it.”
Gathering Equipment Insights
As the demands placed on the packaging industry have changed, the capabilities of the equipment used to print and convert labels and packaging have also evolved to increase efficiency. With reduced run lengths and more SKUs to produce, converters have naturally found their operators having to contend with an increase in changeovers — a time consuming process on legacy equipment.
For example, Steve Schulte, VP of sales and marketing for flexographic press manufacturer Mark Andy, explains that changing over a print station on a typical legacy flexo press can take approximately 15 minutes per print station. And with complex jobs requiring up to 10 colors in some instances, these changeovers can significantly bog down the production process. While a well-maintained older press can certainly produce the print quality brand owners require, converters contending with this increase in job quantity can benefit from addressing these inefficiencies.
Through studies comparing legacy equipment to modern day flexo presses, Schulte says that Mark Andy has found changeovers on newer equipment can take about 10 minutes less per print station. And with improved automation with features including automatic impression settings and automatic registration, the efficiency gains new equipment can bring to the table are sizable. A conservative rule of thumb is “2X production gain with 50% waste savings,” he says.
But, Schulte says that equipment alone is just one component of addressing productivity gaps, and converters must look at their current processes, measure each process, look for improvement, and set standard work. By combining improved procedures, which can be learned through data collection and benchmarking, with new model production platforms, converters can increase their margins to a degree that justifies the investment rather quickly.
“The key is faster changeovers, so your press is up and running and making money for you,” Schulte says. “In a typical flexo operation, we see a 2X increase in productivity and 50% waste savings per year if you have the proper procedures along with the new technology, versus the way you’re doing it today.” This is the same for one shift or multiple shift operations.
While the advantages of a new press can be low-hanging fruit for an operation seeking to increase its productivity, Zlatic explains that in some instances, upgrades in prepress and postpress processes can be the catalyst to increased productivity.
For example, Zlatic says that in a recent conversation with a folding carton printer, he was told that the company can still make money on its 20-year-old offset press on runs as low as 200 copies, as a result of upgrades they had made in computer-to-plate and other prepress technologies. To pinpoint precisely where upgrades may need to be made, Zlatic recommends that companies take on a value stream mapping exercise, which can help to uncover areas where productivity gaps are prevalent. In some cases, he says, converters will find that the press is hardly the culprit.
“You need good visibility in your production,” Zlatic says. “You need to know what your capacities are and where the bottlenecks are in the schedule. Maybe you shouldn’t buy a new press. Maybe you should buy a new diecutter, or maybe your problem is gluing. Maybe you’re outsourcing too many windows in your folding carton work and you should really buy one of those machines yourself. Having software that can give you that insight is really important and key in making these kinds of decisions.”
Productivity as Culture
While locating and minimizing productivity gaps requires a critical exploration of a company’s hardware and software platforms, without buy-in from the full team of employees, achieving these efficiency advancements becomes much more challenging.
One of the key reasons real time data collection and product efficiency tools like FlexMetrics works is that it “depersonalizes” the productivity gaps that a printing operation may be facing, explains Karla Andersen, operations manager for FlexMetrics.
“Operators may be telling managers ‘It’s this, it’s this,’” Andersen says, “But managers may be reluctant to commit remedial resources based on people’s feelings or suspicions. Having hard data that says ‘here’s the problem’ makes it easier for managers to both confirm where the problem really is and commit valuable resources. They can then see performance improve in real-time. Operators love it because the Flex data confirms what they intuitively know is going on, in a way that makes it easier for management to act on and resolve issues. They feel much more empowered in the decision-making process, which inspires an upward spiral of team collaboration from the shop floor to the top floor.”
The direct flip-side of that benefit of buy-in from the full team, Foster adds, is the damage created by the perception that the tools are used as a system that could lead to punishment or be used against employees in any way. When employees are operating in fear of the consequences of their productivity dipping below expectations, Foster says it often leads to a negative mindset of compliance and doing just enough to keep production at an acceptable level.
“Where this works extremely well is where leadership says that it will never be used as a punitive system — ever. Its most effective benefit is to incentivize and reward the key role of the front-line workers in providing accurate, actionable data by means of celebrating successes, encouraging them to continually improve their productivity, and providing the accolades that go along with that,” Foster says. “If you catch someone doing something right with this system and celebrate the high performers, then you’ll build a culture of discretionary effort, which naturally leads to higher productivity.”
In addition to encouraging the team to embrace productivity initiatives, adding to the production team can help shore up productivity gaps, Schulte explains. While package printers in the current business environment may be hesitant to hire new production employees, he says that a press helper whose responsibilities center on assisting a press operator, can tackle the time consuming jobs an operator has to take on when running a press solo. And because a press helper is a lower-paying position as compared to a full-fledged press operator, Schulte says that these hires tend to produce a quick return on investment.
“If you have a press operator on one press, the best way to get gains on a legacy press is to invest in what I call a press helper,” he says. “If you’re running a job, usually the press operator can run the press by itself. But when you have to stop that press and changeover anilox rolls and plates, if you have a press helper, they can come over and help change over the press … Typically an investment in a helper around the press to help with changeovers pays for itself very quick.”
But while productivity improvements stem from an engaged team putting in the work to improve their processes, Zlatic says that change is often a top-down approach. With a management team that extolls the virtues of improved efficiency, the stage will be set for a production team to enthusiastically commit to the cause.
“At the end of the day, it’s the team or the people that make or break a company or make or break a project like this,” he says. “You really have to have a good change management strategy in terms of how you’re going to put that out to your team and how you’re going to implement that.”