Finishing's Essential Role in the Packaging Workflow
Package printers, like all printers, are constantly on the lookout for ways to drive efficiency within their business, researching the latest and greatest technology and determining if they might be able to improve turnaround times and reduce bottlenecks. But is the press itself too often the headline act, while finishing and converting solutions are consigned to the supporting cast? After all, finishing and converting are areas where many of the slowdowns take place, yet when taking stock of a production line, they may not be at the top of the list of priorities. Packaging in particular is a challenging sector for workflow efficiency and connectivity, thanks to the complex and fragmented nature of the supply chain, which makes it easier for silos to develop.
So what does the industry think about the importance of finishing and converting in a harmonious packaging workflow? Tom Hauenstein, global VP of sales for S-One Labels & Packaging, extolls the virtues of digital print in the industry, but acknowledges limitations within finishing: “The introduction of digital print for the label and flexible packaging industry has really revolutionized the way the industry looks at production efficiency,” writes Hauenstein.
“While it’s true that some digital presses run at slower run speeds than conventional flexographic or gravure presses, we’re seeing that run speed isn’t the only consideration. Any time a converter changes over a job, it can slow production. This is where digital printing shines. It has made moving from artwork to artwork seamless. But, there’s one place where converters are still getting tied up. Material changeovers can logjam production and cost valuable time.” Hauenstein advises customers struggling with this issue to standardize film offerings and incentivize their customers to choose those with better lead times and better cost on the products.
Simon Lewis, VP of marketing for Highcon, says that digital print continues to outpace digital finishing, and argues that incredible leaps forward in printing won’t truly drive an efficient workflow if finishing is left behind. “It makes no sense to drive the digital revolution, and then sit and twiddle your thumbs while the job is queuing for two days to get 20 minutes on the diecutter. If that’s the situation, it’s crying out for re-engineering.” Highcon’s digital cutting solutions utilize laser technology, eliminating the need for traditional diecutting tools.
The same question as to whether there is perhaps too much focus on the press aspect and more attention needed on the efficiency of finishing and converting was posed via email to Tony Caudill, senior account executive at enterprise resource planning (ERP) software provider Advantzware. “Absolutely!” comes the response. “Printing is only one part of the packaging workflow. Diecutting, folding, gluing, and palletizing are all complex processes that need to be planned and scheduled efficiently.”
The logjam issue is one that the Advantzware platform is designed to alleviate. “Our Advantzware scheduling system has sophisticated algorithms to help you plan the work in the most efficient manner for on-time delivery to your customers,” continues Caudill. “Our system shows you the bottlenecks in your plant and provides options for adding overtime, additional shifts, or moving jobs around to relieve the bottlenecks and optimize your delivery schedules.”
Caudill adds: “There are a lot of moving parts when you have numerous jobs in-house, each with multiple processes taking place on different machines. It requires a great software solution to link all of the processes on any one job and fit them in with all the other jobs on the machines in the best possible way to meet deadlines.”
Software is certainly at the heart of a seamless packaging workflow, so much so that it drove BOBST to develop BOBST Connect and position it as the central tenet of the company’s vision for a fully connected packaging production line.
BOBST, a business with a well-established expertise in conventional diecutting for folding cartons, is acknowledging the current challenges and trends facing brand owners and businesses and has devised a vision for an entirely connected production line focused on digitalization of the value chain. Connect is an open architecture, cloud-based platform that delivers solutions for prepress, production, process optimization, maintenance, and market access. Ensuring an efficient dataflow between the digital and the physical, the platform coordinates the complete production process from PDF to end product.
BOBST Product Marketing Director, Business Unit Printing and Converting, Bodo Junge, writes: “According to the BOBST vision, BOBST Connect will orchestrate the entire production process from the client’s PDF to the finished product. This means BOBST Connect will automatically extract the job data from the client’s PDF file, which provides the instructions to all the machines required and then drives the entire production process. It will help converters utilize the maximum potential of their machines, providing complete confidence in the process.”
While software is the axis around which a seamless packaging production workflow revolves, it is far from clear cut. Lewis of Highcon says, “Software is essential, because that’s how you get a hands-off workflow. However, it’s not straightforward. PDF is a file format that can carry the content, the diversity, the needs, the parameters that are required, and there is no similar file format that covers everything. When we talk to partners about workflow automation, in terms of getting the digital file for cutting and creasing, they’re not exactly standard files; digital diecutting is not the same as the analog diecutting.”
When it comes to an efficient workflow, taking the entire process into account ahead of time is a tried and tested method for smooth and seamless production. Considering how each element of operations coordinates with the others will help eradicate easily avoidable slowdowns and errors. Caudill of Advantzware explains: “Higher efficiency is achieved by better planning in advance rather than fighting fires in production daily. Using a good software solution like Advantzware allows you to look at the big picture and plan all of the processes in the packaging workflow from end to end.”
Junge of BOBST adds: “Package printers can target better efficiency by taking into consideration the converting production process before the printing process. This means planning the full workflow — from printing, embellishment, diecutting to folding/gluing — to optimize the production.”
As BOBST demonstrates, conventional finishing can benefit from digitalization and automated processes; the focus on boosting finishing efficiency isn’t limited to digital finishing platforms. For Highcon’s Lewis, however, the combination of digital print and digital converting is a winning formula. Lewis explains: “Not all jobs on a Highcon need to be digitally printed, they of course can be printed conventionally. However, the perfect storm is: Web-to-print or pack, digital print, followed by digital converting. This is how you can start thinking about really short cycle times. And when you combine that with what’s happening upstream with digital visualization so you don’t actually need to get proofs or have a three month design cycle, you can do amazing things; just because something was done one way in the past doesn’t mean that needs to be the case in the future.”
Lewis asserts that efficiency within the converting process may be hindered by the fact that it has remained largely unchanged for some time: “We have progressed to a time where jobs can be submitted and processed digitally. The level of automation, even if you’re doing printmaking and mounting analog plates on an analog press, is still a pretty automated, seamless process. But when you get to converting, you can’t help but go back 50 years, because if you’re going to go use an analog diecutter, you need a die.”
Junge reaffirms why the business is focused on a bigger picture for connectivity within the packaging production line, rather than conventional versus digital processes: “Finishing equipment development is independent of the offset technology development. However, customer demands in terms of productivity, costs per packaging unit and zero-fault quality remain the same within the folding carton segment. This is why BOBST is working on the industry vision.”
As shifts toward shorter job runs, shorter time to market, customization and personalization, and the ongoing rapid growth of flexible packaging continue, it’s important to consider how to meet these evolving customer needs while remaining agile and efficient. Solutions such as S-OneLP’s Cellcoat T-Series high-speed thermal laminators provide an immediate cure, which allows jobs to go from the machine directly to slitting and pouching, offering a speedy time to market as well as cutting down on material waste.
On meeting customization requirements, Hauenstein of S-OneLP advises: “An important thing that a flexible packaging converter can do is create mass customization on sizes. It’s a no brainer for your customer and a win for your efficiency. For example, if a customer chooses their pouch size from a limited menu of offered sizes, instead of creating a custom size, they can get their product sooner and at a lower cost because you are reducing the amount of changeovers required on the pouching line.”
“Versatile machines and highly efficient and automated changeovers/set-ups are the key to shorter runs to reduce machine downtime,” adds Junge, referencing developments such as the MASTERCUT 106 PER, which aims to drive efficiency with significantly reduced changeover times, high levels of automation including setting the diecutter from a single point of control, and minimal operator intervention during settings and changeovers.
Lewis acknowledges that major brands with huge volumes are better placed to look to conventional diecutting, but argues that for many businesses, the digital route comes with myriad advantages. He explains: “Go to many places and look at the amount of warehousing that they have for dies, and ask them honestly, what percentage of the dies in the warehouse were single use or dual use? How long since they were last pulled off the shelf? Essentially, if they had a choice when they made that die, would they have made a die, or would they have digitally converted the job?” Highcon technology such as the Euclid 5 replaces traditional die-making and setup with a controlled digital system designed to provide folding carton converters with operational flexibility and efficiency, as well as differentiation opportunities.
Without a doubt it is crucial to consider the end-to-end packaging production process and the interaction between each component, particularly in a fragmented value chain, as well as being careful not to overinflate the importance of the press itself when compared with finishing and converting. After all, the best technology on the market is only as efficient as the one which precedes and proceeds it in the workflow.
Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.