From the Magazine: Press Automation Advancing the Packaging Industry
The word "automation" conjures visions of purposeful robots, lights-out, people-free manufacturing, and autonomous machines conversing silently with each other in the digital dialect of Industry 4.0. While some of this may be occurring in a few corners of the printing industry, it doesn’t reveal much about the effects of automation on the day-to-day realities of packaging production.
Wanting a more realistic picture, we interviewed representatives of four leading suppliers of offset lithographic presses to find out how their companies are bringing automation to the packaging segment. They were asked to discuss what their packaging customers expect from automation; what an “automated” press for packaging looks like; how software fits in; how to measure ROI; where automation runs into resistance; and what the rise of automation is doing to the traditional role of the press operator.
Benefits to Customers
The manufacturers are mostly uniform in their assessments of what they believe their customers expect from press automation. Walter Chmura, vice president of technical sales, Koenig & Bauer (US), ranks the benefits of automating an offset press for folding carton production in the following order of their importance to printers:
- Faster job changeovers
- Built-in, continuous quality inspection/quality control
- Reduced waste and rework
- Less labor; fewer touches
- Improved machine utilization, expressed as OEE (overall equipment effectiveness)
- Ability to produce short runs economically
- Job data feedback to MIS / ERP
Doug Schardt, director of product management, Komori America, points out that his top-ranked benefit, operating with less labor and fewer touches, is the outcome of achieving all the others. Reducing labor through automation will become all the more urgent as veteran press operators retire, he adds.
The ability to produce short runs economically is “almost mandatory” for packaging producers striving to keep up with their customers’ speed-to-market requirements, advises Clarence Penge, vice president - sheetfed, Heidelberg USA. Continuous feedback of job data to the plant’s MIS and ERP infrastructures “has to come with all the others” as a dividend of automation, he adds.
Essentials for Press Automation
There’s also general agreement about the basic features that define a packaging press as “automated.” A machine with onboard color control and fully automatic plate loading would be “a very, very well automated press” for many packaging applications, according to Chris Manley, president of Graphco, the distributor of RMGT offset litho equipment in the U.S.
He says that RMGT offers fully autonomous production in the RMGT 970, the newest in its line of Series 9 presses. Automated job setup and plate changing, CCD camera inspection for quality assurance, and advanced feeder and delivery controls are among the features that enable the 25x38˝, LED-UV curing press to move continuously from job to job, Manley says.
“Having the machine do the mechanical steps the press operator used to do” is the overall expectation for presses in folding carton production, according to Schardt. Means to this end include automated plate changing, sheet pile logistics, camera inspection systems, and sheet counting. But, how much automation a packaging printer is willing to invest in “depends on the appetite of the customer, and what he’s doing,” Schardt observes.
In-line color control, quick changeovers from color to color, fully automated plate changing, and simultaneous roller and blanket washing are Penge’s sine qua non capabilities for press automation in packaging. He points out that long-run work also requires press elevation and an automated logistics system to keep tall piles of substrate moving continuously into the feeder, eliminating stoppages for loading.
According to Chmura, a basic Rapida sheetfed press for packaging would consist of seven printing units (four process colors, three PMS) and a coating tower. To this configuration can be added an array of Koenig & Bauer technologies for enhanced productivity and quality, such as traditional UV and/or LED UV plus an energy-saving infrared/hot air drying system; simultaneous plate changing; a camera-based plate identification system to verify that the correct plates are being used; automated color control systems such as in-line ink density measurement; and simultaneous washup of ink rollers, blanket cylinders, and impression cylinders.
Central Place of Software
Underlying almost everything that happens in an automated press run is software — the digital programming that substitutes for craft skills as press machinery becomes more self-directing. Schardt says that although an “iron guy” might argue otherwise, software now furnishes much of the intelligence that tells the press what to do and how to do it.
Longtime press operators may have “a lot of experience in their heads,” but they take most of it with them when they leave, Schardt explains. Then, “that void of knowing what to do has to be filled by something, and software takes that role.”
According to Penge, Heidelberg’s press operating systems can adapt to varying levels of operator skill, enabling the software to “set up the machine for individuals based on their log-in.” He says that by giving a more extensive set of controls to experts and letting the software take over some of the functionality for novice operators, it’s possible to maintain consistency of output no matter who is running the press.
Chmura says that Koenig & Bauer has pursued the goal of “Zero Waste, Zero Setup Time” for nearly 20 years with software innovations like ErgoTronic AutoRun, which automatically manages makeready, initiates job changeover and production startup, and provides color and register control.
Although it can’t be tightened like a plate clamp or packed like a blanket, software has at least one thing in common with the physical components of the press. That is the obligation to perform as reliably as the hardware it drives. Manley notes that besides being smart, “software has to be redundant and robust. It has to work every day, the same as a bearing, or a gear, or a cam follower.”
Obstacles to Automation
As hands-free as offset press operation is becoming, some aspects of it continue to resist being automated. Chmura points out, for example, that it’s still necessary for a press crew member to manually scoop excess ink from fountains during color changes. The step will be needed even if the fountains have quick-clean, anti-adhesion properties, and the press uses automatic ink fountain levelers to minimize ink waste during washup.
Schardt also points to ink fountain washup as a task “where you still need the guy.” He says that although the task can be automated and accelerated up to a point, scooping out fountains by hand will remain part of the drill — especially when the press “hasn’t seen the color before.”
Sometimes, however, obstacles to getting the most from automation have nothing to do with mechanical limitations. Integrating customers’ standards and specifications — for example, food safety requirements — into packaging production workflows can turn a high-performance press into “a rocket ship you’re holding back the brakes on,” Penge observes.
Nevertheless, the press manufacturers’ quest for tomorrow in the capabilities of their equipment goes on. Manley notes that one of RMGT’s primary objectives is to achieve a “zero failure” rate in press performance with the help of automation and related technologies. He says an innovative step in this direction from RMGT “puts a pair of glasses on a pressman” with wearable CCD cameras that let remote technicians see what the operator sees while performing maintenance and diagnosing problems.
Return on Investment
Automation, the manufacturers agree, is an investment with a return that customers should have little trouble measuring. Penge points out that because presses have the highest budgeted hourly costs of all production equipment, the principal payback will come from replacing two or three older presses with a new one that prints more sheets with less labor. His formula for press ROI is “more output in fewer hours with lower labor costs,” along with waste reduction as “the icing on the cake.”
Manley similarly notes that when one new press replaces multiple legacy machines, “the ROI is apparent within the first 120 days of owning the press.” Counting the labor that its automation features save, “you see the ROI almost instantly.”
In Chmura’s estimation, “net sheets per hour per square inch is the main indicator of creating an ROI of the customer’s presswork.” Crucial to achieving higher productivity, he says, is printing multiple images up or gang-running jobs on a large-format press. Combining this with proactive and predictive press analytics enables a packaging printer to be competitive in all run lengths, according to Chmura.
Schardt cites reduced job cycle time as a clear indicator of efficiency-driven ROI, although he notes that very long runs tend to absorb some of the time saved. He says another good sign is seeing fewer error reports from the feeder, thanks to help from the automated pile logistics system that supports the press.
Automation and Operators
No appraisal of automation for packaging production would be valid without considering how automation is changing the nature of what press operators do. As presses come closer to being sentient enough to act as members of their own crews, they consequently depend less on human supervision. But, this doesn’t necessarily diminish the need for human participation — and may even enhance the roles that talented operators still have to play.
The chicken/egg question here, according to Schardt, is whether automation is changing the operators, or whether the operators are the ones driving advances in automation. He says that in either case, automation helps print personnel by giving them more “brain time” to inspect sheets and assure quality — “and that’s what we want them doing.”
A shift in responsibility along these lines probably is inevitable. Printing, as Penge concedes, is a shrinking industry that loses non-transferrable knowledge as veteran personnel leave it. He thinks part of the answer to working with more modestly qualified employees in the future lies in AI (artificial intelligence) software that “takes over the task for the less skilled operators, and thinks for them.”
But, this could be a step up in stature for the job description, not a diminution of it. Chmura compares the operator’s evolving role to that of “a commander in a space shuttle,” where the automated Rapida press is the launch vehicle and its ErgoTronic control console the “NASA” guiding the flight. Keeping watch over the “shuttle’s” monitors, the operator becomes “the number one supervisor” of the entire sequence, intervening only when something is wrong.
Manley similarly notes that because RMGT Series 9 presses, including the new 970, can be crewed by just one person, “these press operators are actually becoming more valuable” as they turn out the work that once took three or four people to complete. Automation “gets a lot of stuff out of the guy’s way,” enabling the operator to focus on quality instead of machine issues.
A more personally relatable plus for operators is the fact that while automation enables them to produce more volume in a given amount of time, it doesn’t make them work harder to do it. In fact, Schardt observes, “they’re less tired” at the end of the day after crewing an automated press that puts in a lot of the manual effort for them.
Manley also notes that press automation leaves operators feeling “a lot less tired,” physically and mentally, by freeing them from the repetitive, high-touch chores of non-automated presswork.
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