By Amber E. Watson
When it comes to high-volume packaging runs, automation is key, which is why print service providers (PSPs) planning to grow their packaging business may want to consider flatbed printers equipped with an automated board feeder (ABF). Benefits include increased productivity, labor, and cost savings. One thing to keep in mind is that in order to get the best return on investment (ROI), a certain volume of work is required to back up the cost of running the machine.
The key benefit to adding automated feeding to the printing process is increased throughput. “By minimizing handling time, you ensure the greatest productivity from a press, with shorter lead times and faster turnaround times; and maximizing the productivity of a press should lead to greater profitability,” says Becky McConnell, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
The ROI after installing an ABF is related to time and labor, lag time between jobs is minimized. As Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics, explains, “the first job is running and the next job is sitting there loaded, ready to go. As soon as the first job finishes, the next job gets on. When you’re doing a certain number of boards per hour, that lag time really ads up—it can be anywhere from ten to 20 seconds or more per job, so you see how not having an ABF decreases the amount of boards per hour.”
Operators get back the time involved in having to feed boards into the printer and the PSP saves on the labor costs associated with that job.
Productivity Tipping Point
Of course, automated feeding and/or unloading is not a fit for everyone. Brent Moncrief, VP sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US LLC, notes that “if a customer is running a small portion of corrugated/paperboard work within their total production mix, a fully automated system may not provide the full benefit. Automated feeding and unloading always works best with a smaller mix of material types, but the efficiencies gained in such a workflow provide great benefit to the production efficiency.”
“In general, ABFs are best suited for long runs and jobs that require the same media and formats,” agrees D’Amico. “It is not as efficient and useful for projects consisting of many different sizes because there is some set-up time involved, so that in the end, you may end up losing the benefit of ROI if the jobs aren’t uniform enough.”
Michael Wozny, senior product manager, EFI, says that plants with a lot of large format production on offset equipment gain an additional productivity benefit. “These automated, pallet-feeding workflows are similar to their analog production workflows. In those cases, boards slated for digital production do not necessarily have to be handled differently from the other boards being run in the facility.”
Unfortunately, for many in the industry, such as sign shops, it’s common to run numerous substrates, in which case ABF is not as beneficial. “If a customer is using a range of media for a variety of projects, an automated feed might not be necessary,” adds Moshik Ezra, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Scitex marketing product manager, HP.
The HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press, for instance, is specifically designed for productivity, so that customers using the same media for a project do not have to manually load the press. Third Dimension Inc., headquartered in Geneva, OH, chose to invest in this equipment when its demand for packaging applications grew.
Third Dimension was started by Louis DeJesus and his wife, Jeanette, in 1985. Today, the PSP utilizes 600,000 square feet of production and warehousing space in several OH-based facilities—and one in Charlotte, NC—and handles small- to large-scale runs, specializing in protecting oddly shaped and fragile products, point of purchase (POP) displays and sales kits, and molded and fabricated foams.
When it comes to digital package printing, Third Dimension relies on two Canon Solutions America Océ Arizona UV flatbeds and Epson SureColor roll-to-roll printers for smaller print runs. For high-volume jobs, it’s the HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press with an ABF that offers the best ROI.
The shop produces a lot of POP displays and four-color boxes. Louis DeJesus, owner, Third Dimension, explains that the HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press was added to the shop’s equipment lineup to increase capacity. “The Océ Arizonas print four to five sheets per hour, but in order to meet customer demand, it was necessary to invest in automation—I would now say we have increased our four-color printing capacity 15 to 20 times.”
By adding this extra machine with automation, Third Dimension did not need to employ an extra operator, so there was no increase in labor costs. “The same person who is monitoring the HP can monitor the Océ flatbeds,” explains DeJesus. There is also a cost savings in ink, costing less than traditional flatbeds, he adds.
DeJesus is careful to point out, however, that this type of automation is not beneficial unless you have the volume to back it up. The company lets the volume of a job dictate which printer to run the job on. It still uses the Océs for small runs and one offs, but when it comes to production runs of 50 to thousands of displays, the HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press is the viable solution.
“I think you have to have two shifts of run demand to make it worthwhile. If you’re in the POP business you must have the volume to justify such an investment. You also must have the converting equipment because relying on digital tables to convert the printed stock will set you up to fail,” says DeJesus. Third Dimension employs six digital Esko Kongsberg tables and conventional corrugated converting equipment to finish the process.
DeJesus hopes to triple his business over the next few years, with a large part of that growth coming from the POP side of the business. “POP currently accounts for about ten percent of business, but should grow to 25 percent over the next few years,” he states. These applications include four-color boxes, sales kits, and in-store floor and counter displays.
Sweet Spot for Savings
The overall labor and cost savings of adding an ABF to a flatbed printer is determined on a case-by-case basis. As discussed above, a fully automated system running analogous jobs significantly frees up the operator.
“It generally allows PSPs to have one operator functioning multiple print devices or departments, such as finishing. The breakeven point for such an investment is very much dependent on the mix of materials and changeovers,” explains Moncrief. And as we know, the less the system needs to be “reset” the more value a fully automated printing system brings to the business.
“The annual labor savings with automated feeding can be significant, reducing the need for a press crew of two or more people to a single operator. That labor reduction reduces the overall cost of the operation for a digital board production line, which drives up the crossover point in terms of quantities where digital production is more affordable than analog,” agrees Wozny.
HP’s Ezra reports that customer feedback indicates a breakeven point in terms of cost, quantity, and material of around 7,000 copies.
Let’s take a look at a real life example—2XL Imaging of Union, NJ is owned by Steve Scharfstein and his sons Brian and Kevin. The 15,000 square foot facility has benefited from a steady increase in rigid board printing since opening in 2009.
“We started to look at automation when our clients’ deadlines became shorter and job sizes increased,” shares Steve Scharfstein, owner, 2XL Imaging. The shop already had its EFI VUTEk GS3220 and a Durst Rho 900, but it needed more to handle the demand. “Our capacity was tapped out. When we looked to add to our flatbed capabilities, we zeroed in on the Durst Rho 1012 for its speed and quality. We added the feed automation along with the pallet feed exit when we saw the speed advantages.”
The combination of automatic feed and stacking increased the shop’s productivity by 125 percent from the current models, which are manual feed and exit. With the automation, operators sustain a faster rhythm than feeding by hand, thus increasing productivity and decreasing the stress of a job.
In conjunction with the Durst Rho 1012, 2XL Imaging installed an Esko Kongsberg C64 landscape cutting table with an Infinite Motion Control, Inc. board feeder. Any board project consisting of 50, 4×8-foot sheets is printed, cut, and ready for packing in one hour. Rigid board printing now accounts for about 50 percent of the business, and it is growing.
2XL Imaging noticed a significant labor savings almost immediately. “The ROI on the automation was less than six months,” says Scharfstein. “And we are saving 15 hours of labor per shift.” An example like this demonstrates that if you are a high-volume shop with a large portion of your work printed on rigid stock, then automation will result in a fast ROI.
As with any production printing solution, a fully automated workflow helps with efficiency because printing downtime is minimized in the process.
“ABFs for package printing and other board printing applications are essential for businesses looking to capitalize on the full production throughput capabilities of high-volume inkjet presses. Automation reduces the need significantly, to the point where a board production line might operate with a single operator, while maximizing production capacity, and that can create a significantly greater profit opportunity,” adheres Wozny.
High-volume and cost-conscious print service providers may want to evaluate the throughput potential of a press with and without an ABF first. Then make a decision based on the shop’s individual needs and expectations.
Apr2015, Digital Output