By Melissa Donovan
Corrugated board printing is not without its challenges. Although the actual direct print process is becoming less challenging thanks to digital printing technologies, that does not change the unwieldy construction of a piece of corrugated board.
While print service providers (PSPs) integrate digital technologies into their workflows partly to eliminate manual touches, corrugated materials still require some form of handling—stacking, picking, loading or unloading, feeding, sorting, and aligning. To maintain the level of automation intended when implementing digital printing, material handling devices are an option for both the printers and cutters involved in the process.
Above: swissQprint offers loading/unloading robot, Rob—fully integrated into the swissQprint printing system and controlled via output software.
Implementing either inline or offline automated media handling devices in a digital print environment increases productivity. This is true in regards to corrugated boards, as their cosmetic construction makes manual handling challenging at times.
“Automated handling of corrugated print is a really good opportunity because it is so repetitive and relatively quick to cut or finish. If not automated, this places a significant strain on employees,” shares Steve Aranoff, VP marketing and business development, MCT Digital. In his experience, a sheet feeder for flatbed finishing has been called “my most productive employee” by many customers as “it paces the production and does not take rest breaks.”
Particularly for PSPs offering short-run corrugated jobs, additional automation is deemed the most beneficial. “In digital print, the typical workflow is often based on short-run jobs where requirements to materials and finishing equipment downstream vary. If the PSP offers shapes and three-dimensional corrugated applications by a cutting table or other finishing elements/equipment, an offline material handling solution offers the flexibility and productivity required,” explains Chris Rogers, solution marketing manager – folding carton/corrugated, Esko.
“For providers offering short-run corrugated in the point of purchase (POP) display and packaging markets, automation allows their staff to focus on other tasks,” agrees Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zünd.
Another benefit is stability. “Automated handling for substrates adds consistency in the sense that automated handling has a defined amount of time to move a sheet, and as a result, it gives operators control of anticipated productivity,” suggests Becky McConnell, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
With an automated material handling device, a PSP is prepared for the unexpected. “It optimizes utilization of the printer. After all, additional and unmanned shifts may be added. Although the output is boosted, there is no extra labor cost,” adds Mike Kyristi, president, swissQprint America.
Another Puzzle Piece
Print providers should be aware of challenges when it comes to material handling devices. It isn’t as simple as purchasing the hardware, linking it to a printer or finisher, and pressing the red button. Thought about how it will fit into the existing space and what work it will primarily execute are important considerations.
“A company should look at the entire production process so that files, material, and people are optimally used. Think about the space for example, adding material automation changes the way physical sheets move through production, which again might impact material stock and transport, efficiency between devices, and the pack/ship area,” recommends Rogers.
Roden cautions that in terms of fully automated workflows, an important aspect to consider is how well other components, such as the available tool configurations on a cutter, lend themselves to automated, hands-off operation.
According to Kyristi, it is important that the material handling device is fully integrated into the workflow. Ideally, the printer and material handling device should communicate to each other so the operator only needs to worry about one control system.
A material handling device should be robust enough to handle corrugated board. “Because corrugated boards are subject to the environment, warping or bowing is common and the engineering of the handling system needs to overcome the curve of the sheet. Also, like many substrates, any damage to the side of the stack could result in issues either through the handling system or through the printer, depending on the technology,” shares McConnell.
PSPs should also look at job flexibility. “Some installations may want to incorporate board/sheet feeding for some jobs and roll feeding for others. Having both feeders able to be rolled away easily by personnel is a real plus,” advises Aranoff.
Material handling devices are used for both the front and back end of a printer and/or finishing device. Adding multiple material handling devices—if the budget and shop space can justify it—provides top efficiency. Stacking, picking, loading or unloading, feeding, sorting, and aligning are all functions with automation possibilities.
It’s all about user preference. For example, for corrugated printers in POP display, Roden says they prefer to configure their finishing devices for tandem production instead of automated material handling.
“While the tandem setup requires more manpower—with manual loading/offloading on either half of the machine—it provides the fastest processing scenario since the cutter is operating continually—even while loading/unloading is taking place on the other side,” she explains.
“In general, having both loading and unloading is preferred as the work synchronization is optimized. But, where it makes sense to add automated material handling depends on each individual PSP’s volume and load balance,” adds Rogers.
John Kuta, president, BDT Print Media North America, argues that automated media handling devices are required on the front and back end of digital printers, and those stackers must be able to accept the full range of media printed or finished.
In particular, for corrugated boards, McConnell suggests that it is helpful to have an automated off loader to go along with the automated loader for substrate handling. “This will ease in post-print processes like finishing, whether it be digital or die cutting,” she explains.
Kyristi believes the optimum solution is to have a material handling device on both the front and back of a printer. “The printer can then work in tandem mode, while printing is in progress on one side, the robot on the other side is unloading or loading and vice versa.”
Scheduling a Time
A material handling solution can be implemented right away or after the print provider has been up and running for a bit. This is true whether a printer or a cutter is the element adding the automation.
Adding immediately is a popular approach. For one reason, if integration is done correctly, the rewards are rich. “A sheet feeder for a cutter significantly reduces labor and increases productivity at less than the cost of a single employee for one shift. It is a worthwhile purchase right away due to the easy payback,” suggests Aranoff.
“There is a lot to gain by implementing it right from the start if investments are done to deal with large volumes. It’s about shop floor planning, overall material flow, and how you set up the entire production workflow,” recommends Rogers.
According to Roden, higher volume producers often opt for installing material handling devices at the same time as a new digital cutter.
Run lengths are a factor. “Typically for corrugated production, run lengths warrant an automated handling system and the return on investment is pleasing but the production workflow and how jobs move through the facility/manufacturing needs to be weighed as well,” admits McConnell.
Alternatively, Kyristi cautions that for some PSPs, it may be a good idea to purchase and implement a printer or cutter first, watch how it’s running, and decide what part of the process requires additional automation. “It is crucial that a PSP understands the process that they actually want to automate,” he explains.
BDT developed a proprietary technology, Tornado, based on a vortex of air to replace suction cups or grippers that are typically found in corrugated and box board printing and finishing systems. With the technology, BDT develops systems that process substrates from standard papers to boxboard and corrugated cardboard.
According to Kuta, historically the providers of analog corrugated presses and finishing systems utilized in-house designs and standard technologies to create media automation. “For digital corrugated presses and finishing systems, we are seeing a more collaborative approach being used in which specialists are being brought in to add new technology and approaches to media handling automation.” For example, BDT’s media handling systems are found on printers from EFI and HP, Inc.
Esko offers material handling options for its Kongsberg cutting tables. An automatic robotic production system is available for cutting tables equipped with multi-zone capability. A robotic arm loads and unloads table zones quickly. The solution includes infrared laser scanner technology, which protects the operator and reduces the need for physical safety fences.
In addition, sheet/board feeders—i-BF—feed corrugated, paper core boards, and plastics quickly and accurately from a pallet to an Esko Kongsberg cutting table. The feeder can also be used in conjunction with a roll feeder for flexible materials without having to exchange the board feeder.
Fujifilm sells the Inca Onset X Series and part of it is the Inca Onset X3-C, specifically designed for flatbed corrugated printing. The printer can be setup to reduce manual change out of materials with an optional 3/4 semi-automatic handling system, fully-automated Hostert Pro GmbH feed system, or fully-automated robotic material handling system.
MCT offers automated board/sheet feeders available in 1.6 meters width by 3.2 meters length or 3.2 meters width by 1.6 meters length. In its fourth generation, the sheet feeder is robust and simplistic in design, capable of lifting multiple materials without changing suction cups when paired with the MCT VersaTech2 flatbed cutters. Pallets can be placed under the loader from any side or end that the user chooses.
swissQprint offers loading/unloading robot, Rob—fully integrated into the swissQprint printing system and controlled via output software. Rob can be added or removed at any time, which allows the swissQprint printer to remain accessible and versatile. In addition, the robot can be docked on either side of the printer to automate whichever end requires it depending on the job. Two Robs can run at the same time.
Zünd cutters can be configured with semi- or fully-automated material handling devices. The products are built with modularity and scalability in mind, so automation components can be installed at any time. Pricing depends on the configuration and size of the final cutter. For semi-automation, the cutter can be configured with a Board Loading Device in combination with table extensions to allow quick and accurate board placement.
For full automation, the Board Handling System (BHS) requires minimal manpower essentially limited to pallet loading and unloading. Roden says that the BHS can be used on the load and offload side or with a table extension for stripping and sorting instead of automated stacking on a pallet. Integrating a robotic picker/stacker, like Zünd’s collaborative UR robot, also maximizes system automation.
Automated material handling functions include stacking and picking to loading or unloading, feeding, sorting, and aligning. Devices are placed on the front or back end of both printers and digital finishers like a cutting table. For optimum results—if necessary—multiple devices are used at once. Material handling devices, specifically those designed to handle corrugated boards, are ideal for PSPs looking to increase productivity and save time.
May2018, Digital Output