By Cassandra Balentine
Productivity is essential to the bottom line. For wide format print service providers (PSPs), streamlining the process from end to end is a sure way to ensure profitability. Not to be labeled the workflow bottleneck, finishing vendors have upped the game on cutting equipment. New models feature automation advancements and integration capabilities.
Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zund America, Inc., points out that traditionally, finishing is the most labor-intensive area of manufacturing in a PSP’s plant, prone to bottlenecks and issues stemming from operators underestimating the time required to complete a project. However, businesses that focus on establishing a lean, automated production workflow are the ones that are most successful. “They are able to capture true production costs and satisfy customers with accurately projected delivery times.”
Above: Zund cutters equipped with the Automatic Board Handling System – BHS150 scan printed QR codes and retrieve corresponding file information during loading.
Evolving with Automation
Digital print environments constantly face pressure to improve turnaround times, while providing high-quality products. Automated finishing solutions help achieve this.
“With reducing run lengths, faster turnaround times, ongoing cost pressure, and an expanding range of materials to handle, wide format converters are facing a range of evolving market demands,” says Jan De Roeck, marketing director, industry relations and strategy, Esko.
Automated finishing allows a print shop to deliver jobs in a timely manner while avoiding common pitfalls of outsourcing, such as quality control and turnaround time, shares Peter Wright, product sales, Colex Finishing, Inc.
Lenny Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automated systems, Gerber Technology, points out that customized products are in demand, which means there are fewer larger runs. For digitally printed materials, vision-based systems register or scan printed substrates and load or generate a job file to automatically begin cutting. When compared to traditional finishing, automated finishing improves production throughput, reduces labor, and minimizes material waste, all with meaningful bottom line impact. “These systems can be configured with a range of tools from lasers to driven wheels and oscillating blades. In addition, the laser reduces the need for further finishing methods such as grommets or sewing,” he shares.
Ken Knighton, marketing, CWT Work Tools USA, sees automation and workflow integration as key factors for optimizing productivity within a print environment. “Front end engines can help with proofing and preflight workflows, and MIS/ERP integration helps track revisions and layouts to minimize costly reprints. The print processes vary and there are many different applications for optimization.”
Functions for Seamless
Vision-based registration tools, like scanable barcodes and quick response (QR) codes, help facilitate seamless production.
Barcodes represent a good example of an automation tool. Knighton explains that assuming the required information is captured for version/revision, this can help ensure the correct file is loaded. Some of the available options can also preselect the tooling to remove operator guesswork. Barcode use can benefit the next process as well as it can be integrated into tracking software.
Mark Packman, product manager, digital finishing, MultiCam Inc., adds that camera and laser pointer features are standard in most digital finishing systems. Therefore, things like automatic router bit and knife changers are critical to streamline production, eliminate human error, and decrease waste. “With knife cutting capabilities, usually 70 to 80 percent of the overall production requirements, it is essential to have automated knife changers.”
In an automated environment, Industry 4.0 and cloud connectivity are two of the biggest factors to improve production by allowing data to be passed seamlessly throughout the supply chain. “In connected supply chains, integrated software solutions ensure cut accuracy and maintain data integrity, bridging the gap between the design and production worlds. In some environments, barcodes and QR codes are leveraged to pass data from one part of the process to the next,” shares Marano. For example, users can create a pattern and job file in a CAD system and include all relevant production data, such as length of marker, material type, number of parts, and which specific job file is required to cut. By transferring data via a barcode or QR code, manual entry is eliminated, reducing the likelihood of human error and improving job processing time.
The need for automated, integrated finishing in wide format digital print environments primarily comes from tighter turnarounds and more complex jobs.
“First and foremost, the driving force is the need to move a print operation into a business model that is more focused on manufacturing and creating cohesive, efficient workflows. Depending on the location of the business, finding skilled labor may be a pain point that can be by-passed with increased levels of automation,” offers Roden.
“Turnaround times keep getting shorter and many new substrates are printed on. Having a cutter/router as part of the manufacturing process keeps the ability to experiment with cut speeds and quality control in the hands of the printer,” shares Packman.
Knighton agrees, adding that presses are getting faster and the tradeoff for speed and quality is diminishing. “Competitive pricing and turnaround are all affected by productivity/efficiency. Automation can streamline processes and compile useful metrics for cost centers and prices. They are also useful for identifying potential shortcomings to make them easier to address.”
Since customers are looking for customized products, one-off capabilities are in demand. “In order for providers to compete in the on demand world, they need an integrated solution that can deliver their products to consumers quickly without sacrificing quality. Where many years ago, wide format digital print was used just for traditional signage, it is now widely used in soft signage, furniture upholstery, wall decorations, and apparel. As businesses have learned to do more with wide format and the quality has increased, so has consumer demand,” offers Marano.
Print providers that benefit the most from automated, integrated finishing solutions tend to be larger shops working with a variety of workflow on a daily basis, according to Wright. However, he adds that smaller shops considering their future workflow are also candidates for these features and automation.
The size of the operation, as well as the cost of automation, are important considerations in making a good capital decision in terms of acquiring automated, integrated finishing solutions. “Any system that one buys today should have modular capabilities. Digital finishing systems for the high-volume PSP are built to last. The decision to purchase should not be based on today’s requirements, but their vision for what kind of PSP they will be in the future. Modularity allows them to add automation to match customers’ demands,” says Packman.
Expanding on the idea of automation, a micro factory is a fully connected, end-to-end system that can take something from concept through production with limited manual steps in a matter of hours.
“In most cases, a true micro factory will include a direct-to-textile printer with an integrated or inline dryer. The beauty of a micro factory is that once the product is designed, with the right integrated solution you can start with a white roll of material at one end and come out with a limitless variety of finished goods ready to go,” offers Marano.
The micro factory is ideal for short-run production or customized orders such as made-to-measure in apparel or soft signage. Similar to integrated finishing in itself, data integration is important to the micro factory as the information you pass from one process to the other is what enables the automation and ensures the result is true to the designer’s intent. “This includes sharing data between two- and three-dimensional CAD systems, product lifecycle management software, nesting and production planning software, a RIP, and then ultimately sending the design and nested product to be printed and finished,” explains Marano.
He points out that designers and producers in a variety of market segments are embracing the micro factory as it reduces time to market, production costs, and material waste.
Marano adds that size necessarily plays a role into the type of operation that benefits from automation, especially if purchasing a versatile solution that can replace the space of multiple cutters on a shop floor.
Packman believes that similar to robotics, automatic loaders, and off loaders that are OEMed from companies outside of the print space, some software to track end-to-end manufacturing is necessary. “It all comes down to what is necessary to accomplish today and your vision for tomorrow. The description of the micro factory requires a heavier commitment to the adoption of software and hardware solution. This carries a much higher acquisition cost. For the larger PSPs and package printers, this makes perfect sense,” he offers.
Roden says Zünd has a number of successful accounts that deliver a variety of products such as packaging and labels, which get processed in a micro factory setup. “These are generally web-based business models, where the orders come in through a website, jobs are created in their MIS and automatically transmitted for printing and finishing and don’t actually receive a human touch until the point of packing for shipment.”
Integration and automation are increasingly important in production equipment, cutters being no exception.
Integrated finishing is mainly a function that connects to channels of the value stream, design or creation, and production, according to Marano. “Both software solutions and equipment have advanced to enable the passing of data from one process to the next seamlessly and in a way that maintains data fidelity, improves throughput, and produces a quality result,” he explains.
“From the software side, companies are learning to embed more useful information into pattern data such as part identification, knife insertion points, and material length,” says Marano. In the case of digital printing, ICC color profiles in the CAD data can be included so that the color is true to the designer’s intent when printed.”
On the hardware side, Marano points out that we’re living in the era of smart machines. Many are now enabled to easily scan a barcode or QR code to bring up relevant job information automatically. This reduces job processing time as well as the possibility of human error. “Intelligent systems that leverage the latest technology such as etherCAT-based control systems can provide real-time information into the health and wellness of a machine and its production metrics through a web portal or application,” he shares. These functions combine for real Industry 4.0 enablement and give users actionable information to improve operations.
Many functional solutions can be added to routers and cutters depending on the application. For material handling, Marano says integrated spreaders, automated roll feeders, or sheet feeders for loading as well as robotic part picking for offloading are available. For part identification, a variety of inkjet and label solutions can be customized to material. “These improve part picking and workflow efficiency by allowing operators to bundle parts more quickly while ensuring they stay together up to sewing. In addition, vision systems have continued to evolve in the print-to-cut world and now in many cases you don’t need a job file to generate a cut.”
Packman adds that the use of robotics has increased for the very large packaging printer and other high-volume users. “The opportunity to work a second or third shift without the labor cost associated has a very attractive return on investment,” he shares.
Roden says between much faster, smarter optical registration capabilities and robotic devices for material loading/off-loading and picking/sorting, it is easier to support automated and integrated production workflows from print to finished product.
In addition to equipment, software is an essential element for advancement. “Software has become more complex and over time, more cost effective to obtain on a larger scale. Module-based systems help feed the machine figuratively and literally,” says Knighton.
For digital wide format print providers, automated finishing tools help ramp up production capabilities. As customization and shorter turnarounds are increasingly in demand, capabilities including integration into existing workflows and automation functions like vision-based tracking are attractive.
Jan2020, Digital Output