The Building Blocks of Process Control
The all too common refrain of “We’ve always done it this way,” can be an immediate obstacle along the path toward implementing meaningful process controls in a package printing workflow. Old habits are hard to break, explains Catherine Haynes, director of digital solutions and training for All Printing Resources (APR), a Glendale Heights, Ill.-based provider of a variety of flexographic products and services. But among the first steps for print shop managers in implementing new process control tools and procedures for employees to follow, is obtaining buy-in and enthusiasm from those on the shop floor.
“That can be really challenging because if you don’t have a good, motivated group of people [who] are interested in the project, it can stall out or make very slow progress to where it’s no longer meaningful or effective,” Haynes says. “If you can look internally at your own resources, your own people, they’re going to be the ones [who] have some of the best ideas to get you going in the right direction.”
Laying the Process Control Foundation
The roots of a successful implementation of process control practices are often found in the optimization steps conducted in the early stages of adding equipment or procedures into a printing operation, Haynes says. Keeping a goal of consistency in mind, she explains that in all facets of a facility — spanning platemaking, plate mounting, prepress graphics, the ink room, and on press — all of the various tools and processes being utilized should be calibrated and optimized to establish a benchmark that can be referred back to.
In doing this, she says that all employees across different shifts have the same reference points to target, and ability to troubleshoot should a print run not appear to be quite right. Additionally, Haynes says that these optimization practices can serve as building blocks leading to good process control practices throughout a facility.
“If you’re doing this consistently, process control is going to help you to further refine your processes,” Haynes says. “You will likely find the more systematically you do it, you become better. You can then start testing and assessing new methods and tools to further improve the process. I look at it as a multi-tiered process that starts with optimization, and then really sets the stages for how you can troubleshoot down the road.”
While process control practices are important across a facility’s entire workflow, one area where their benefits are most visible to customers is in color management. With brand owners becoming increasingly more critical when it comes to color consistency, laying the groundwork for repeatable, accurate color reproduction is imperative.
According to Mark Gundlach, solutions architect for X-Rite, a provider of a variety of color management solutions, a common catalyst for color going wrong is suboptimal data being utilized to specify a target color.
For example, Gundlach explains that a common pitfall when it comes to color occurs when formulating inks using Lab data, rather than spectral data. Spectral data, he says, is a preferable metric to use in the ink formulation process, due to the ability of different ink suppliers to produce different types of ink with color that remains consistent with each other, even in varying lighting conditions.
“Spectral data is actually measuring how much energy is reflected at different wavelengths across the visible spectrum, so it’s a really detailed way to see color,” he says. “Spectral is like the DNA of the color.”
Lab, Gundlach adds, is a useful metric when measuring how far off a color is from the desired target. However, the Lab that is used for print and packaging is specific for viewing color under optimum D50 lighting conditions. He says in a situation where multiple packaging formats are being utilized for the same product, the color printed on each packaging component could look different when taken out of a D50 viewing booth. This happens when the different ink vendors match the Lab, but the different pigments used resulted in different spectral reflectance values.
For example, in the high-end liquor segment, if a bottle has a printed label on it, and is being sold within a folding carton that has a window for the consumer to see through to the bottle, and the different ink vendors are using Lab data rather than spectral, this can lead to the label and folding carton appearing differently on the shelf, even if they looked good in the printer’s viewing booth.
“When we take that label and put it on the bottle and drop it in the box and you see the label through the package on the store floor and the colors go in different directions — one goes a little red and one goes a little green — then suddenly you have a color mismatch where the customer is going to encounter the product,” he says. “This is where the brand owner is going to really not be happy.”
Less visible to the outside world however, is the increasing complexity of label and packaging operations. As SKU proliferation ramps up and run lengths come down, printers and converters are being pressured to push more jobs through their facilities than ever before. When it comes to process control, implementing a robust MIS system can help companies manage this increase in job quantity, and reduce manual intervention that can lead to errors.
According to Ken Meinhardt, president of Label Traxx, a supplier of MIS and other workflow software systems for the label industry, the importance of connectivity between production processes has grown as printers have had to contend with a spike in jobs. One Label Traxx customer Meinhardt points to as an example relies on digital printing capabilities to produce jobs submitted online. By utilizing software to help keep control over the various required processes, he says it has made it easier to produce their numerous, yet low quantity, jobs.
“The pressures kept moving through the workflow as orders kept rolling in,” Meinhardt says. “Today I would guess they’re doing 120 to 150 orders a day with hundreds of pieces of art, and there’s processes in place to handle that with a relatively small group of people.”
Adding the Building Blocks
Implementing process control measures often starts small, and leads to opportunities for additional levels of control to be established. Haynes explains that when exploring areas to expand process control practices, it is key to ensure that measurable results can be acquired so employees have firsthand evidence of the effectiveness of their efforts.
For example, she says that when it comes to color reproduction, measuring density and dot gain are two areas that may be superficially measured, but not really tracked and documented. However, she says that if this is an area lacking in process control, jumping in with a detailed color management program can often be overwhelming for employees. Rather, she recommends it may be beneficial to start small so employees can see the positive results, while not feeling like their workload is being substantially increased.
“If you’ve never been measuring density, dot area, or color in your press room, and then all of the sudden I throw a huge process control software program at the operators with all of these new devices that they have to start running, they’re going to be like, ‘Wait a second, I have to do all this and manage the press, and manage the ink, and do all the other stuff I was doing before?’” Haynes says.
However, starting small with a tool like a spectrodensitometer, and measuring and tracking density and dot area, can be a more digestible first step toward the addition of a new software solution, she says. Fortunately, there are many process control software solutions today that help operators adapt with ease. Haynes also recommends giving employees the proper training so they are comfortable with the new process and understand how to use the information to help them with their daily tasks.
Gundlach explains that the first steps of process control are implementing instruments and software to spot check production results at a regular frequency throughout the run. This provides actionable feedback to the operator. Moving up from there, he says that the next step involves the recording and reporting of that data for each press run. In this stage of process control, he says printers can benefit from improved troubleshooting practices. For example, he says that if a job gets returned or rejected, the company can refer back to the job data that had been reported and pinpoint precisely where it went wrong.
The most advanced stage of process control, Gundlach says, is when data from individual jobs gets reported across the entirety of an organization. The ability to view the consistencies of jobs that may be failing, he explains, can allow printers to drill down into those jobs and locate the root cause and take corrective actions to improve their processes across many jobs.
“If you don’t measure stuff, you have no way to see what’s actually going on,” Gundlach says. “The more you measure, the more you can see what’s going on. And the more you record it, the way you record it, and the way you look at it, it starts to give you a better picture of where things were failing.”
Meinhardt explains that with the implementation of MIS software, often the biggest hurdle to overcome is a resistance to having a company’s data being reported. But by having suppliers able to view how a company is producing its jobs, it can lead to process improvements including recommendations being made as to how printers can increase efficiency and remove cumbersome steps in the production process.
“The companies that we work with that have the [mindset] of ‘how do we make these steps go away’ are the ones that are operating their margin much more effectively and survive the downturns unscathed,” Meinhardt says. “The other guys are panicking with people, processes, and margins.”
But while process control is often brought about by implementation of software, hardware, and data reporting technology, Haynes says there is a human aspect to this too that should be considered to encourage and inspire a team to follow-through. She says that in order to achieve employee buy-in at the beginning stages of implementation, management not only needs to lead the way in bringing about the change, but provide the support and resources employees need to improve the company’s processes together.
“The motivation of the employees and the people on the floor is going to directly correlate to what they see from their management,” she says. “If management is saying you need to improve it, but not offering the support or the attention to help them, I think that’s where employees get frustrated, and that’s something I’m sure everybody has experienced and seen. It has to be a genuine priority, driven from the top down.”
Related story: Keeping Color On-Brand