How Much Automation is Right for You?
Automation has transformed the assembly of automobiles, consumer electronics and production of many packaged goods. It saves time, reduces labor costs and improves efficiency. Many of the same benefits can be enjoyed in label and package printing, where manual and automated processes are often blended to deliver measurable benefits. But automation comes in many forms, and one size definitely doesn’t fit all.
At one large producer of perishable grocery products that requested anonymity, automation has provided a clearer view of the entire operation while improving productivity, flexibility and on-time delivery. The company produces labels that are shipped to retailers and food distribution hubs for placement on various products. The information on the labels is based on contractual agreements with retail outlets and driven off of an enterprise-wide SAP system that works in tandem with an EFI Radius ERP system in the company’s package printing operation to ensure each label is correct.
With a steady stream of jobs arriving every day, the printing operation needed a way to gather shop floor data to help in scheduling jobs and maintaining optimal productivity. According to the company’s manager of printing services, EFI Radius automation software was selected because it offered more flexibility than was available with homegrown software that had been developed by a local converting partner. SAP integration was especially important for connecting with the internal corporate ordering systems that provide the data the EFI Radius MIS/ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software needed to support shop floor management and provide automation for label production.
“For example, the label for every product has a price and material ‘part’ number,” the shop manager explains. “When an order is submitted, the requester puts in the part number, the quantity, and a purchase order is generated automatically. The pricing for the item is in the data stream of the print file that comes to us.”
Where EFI Radius adds real value is when a global change needs to be made. For example, a change in the cost of the label substrate could raise the cost of the label: a significant issue when it involves a quarter million or more labels. Incorporating that change into SAP takes multiple steps, but when a job order comes into the EFI Radius system, the change can be made there and then applied to other applications of that label moving forward.
What has made the EFI software especially valuable is that it gives the shop manager and his team the ability to look at the schedule and see how many hours of press time are booked. This makes it easier to balance the loads on each press, and moving a job from one press to another is a drag and drop function.
This overall visibility helps in cost analysis, but more importantly shows how accurately the production team is estimating the time required for different types of jobs. Knowing set-up and run times shows whether they are allotting the correct amount of time for each job, letting them be more accurate in their planning.
The system can also provide information that is a little more esoteric. For instance, the company routinely collects raw material roll-tag data, including the type of material used and the lot number from its manufacturer. This lets them trace back any material that proves defective at the retail level, such as a label that does not properly adhere to a package in a store. While defects are rare, being able to backtrack can be useful if problems arise.
Leveraging skill-based knowledge
Automation for shop floor visibility and measurement is one way of streamlining workflows and processes, but another level is that supported by MyrPress Consulting of Toronto, a global provider of custom automation services for package printers and converters, especially those using Esko software. Very often, the goal is consistency in the work produced. “This is often more important than cost savings,” says MyrPress President Mircea Petrescu.
According to Petrescu, large converters often place a high priority on automating skill-based operations so that the specialized knowledge that often resides only in the heads of skilled workers is incorporated into the workflow. In the big picture, this helps ensure consistency, whether the job is produced in plants across the United States or in other countries. It is especially important in achieving consistent branding, ensuring that colors, for example, will look the same wherever they are printed.
“The people in prepress or color management in the US never meet their counterparts in Poland, where the packaging for the European version of a product is being produced,” says Petrescu. “But automation can ensure a job will run correctly and deliver predictable results. That is a real advantage for a company.”
Additionally, large operations can have many–even hundreds—of what Petrescu calls “mini-workflows” that each do certain things—and in multiple locations. Some of these may be obsolete and no one knows them all. “Automation allows companies to consolidate these into a few new workflows, or even a single one, so jobs will run properly in every location,” continues Petrescu. “So with automation, companies can dramatically downsize and consolidate complex workflows while achieving reliable, predictable results.”
This improves operational efficiency in general and helps embed levels of deep expertise into automated systems. The specialized knowledge then becomes part of a company’s IP (intellectual property) and provides value even when skilled employees leave the company.
Distillation of knowledge
As comprehensive automation distills the knowledge of a company’s “process experts,” it becomes a shared resource. Then, as people learn to use the system, the knowledge bar rises and more people can have similar skill levels. As this happens, it becomes easier to scale up an operation because the specialized knowledge is more widely available.
Petrescu recalls contacting a client some months after a project had been completed. The person he spoke with in production was new, having been hired and fully trained after the automation process had taken place—and was fully up to speed on all the necessary processes.
MyrPress Consulting’s primary focus is in customizing installations of Esko software, the multi-faceted and widely used suite of software for packaging and converting. But every client is unique, and each installation is tailored to the client’s individual requirements.
“They are all different in many ways: equipment, workflows, cultures, how they use the technologies, their markets, how they approach customers. And their customers also have different expectations,” says Petrescu. “The knowledge and experience we bring in are important, but are always used in different ways.”
Some engagements may be limited to creating bespoke workflows based in various Esko software solutions while others reach further afield and also integrate MIS systems.
“We help them properly use the MIS they have,” explains Petrescu. “Once the different operators’ specialized knowledge is in the system, automation will pick up the information about which type of press is being used from the MIS, and will then select the type of profile and proofing needed, information on separations, even the order in which the press will lay down the colors. This way press operators and prepress people will know—wherever they may be located—how a job is supposed to print.”
Yet however sophisticated an automated system may be, there can still be snags. And some of them are internal. Petrescu notes that in many companies the deepest levels of knowledge can be limited to a handful of people. Others may lack sufficient training in prepress or color management, and when asked to use a new system, avoid the learning curve and use the processes with which they are comfortable—losing the efficiencies that would be realized with adoption of the new processes. And in some companies, he says, this tendency extends to managers.
“This is why it is very important to focus on a company’s needs,” asserts Petrescu. “It’s easy to make cookie-cutter workflows and procedures. But those can be so different from what people are used to that they will never use it. So we make workflows that are more like what they are accustomed to doing, so they are as compatible as possible with existing workflows. Make it almost invisible. That is hard to do. But it is also the most successful approach.” pP
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