The advent of new technologies and their rapid adoption and refinement together create a cycle where machines—specifically those in the flexographic industry—continue to not only get better at what they can do but also bolster their ability to do those things with less reliance on human beings. Presses need fewer operator inputs, variables are controlled to increasingly tighter tolerances by computers, and equipment talks to other equipment in a language of 0s and 1s—a dialect most do not speak.
The appetite for these machines—spurred by new consumer trends, customer demands and, recently, tax reform—is only growing, as evidenced by the capital expenditures poll on page 16 of this issue. But forget about the companies buying them—What about the companies building them? After all, they, too, are businesses—Are they keeping up with the Industry 4.0 revolution internally?
From the iPad sitting at the front desk of FTA member Nilpeter’s U.S. headquarters in Cincinnati, OH—used by visitors to sign in, take their photo, print a name badge and ping the individual with whom they are meeting—to the state-of-the-art machinery installed as part of a $6 million renovation—one piece was so large the company dug 6-ft. into the ground just to make it fit—it’s clear the company is both walking the walk and talking the talk.
Or, as Vice President of Sales and Marketing Paul Teachout puts it, in his North Carolina accent, “Ya gotta live it and breathe it before you can tout it and teach it.”
A Marriage of Steel & Automation
Nilpeter’s embracing Industry 4.0 in The Queen City follows a similar initiative the company began several years ago at its global headquarters in Denmark, where it installed fully automated machining centers. That was spurred by recognizing changes all around and responding to them.
“Our industry has been going through a major transition in both technology and workforce challenges,” Paul explains. “We too have experienced the need to become more efficient with less and enable ourselves to attract a modern workforce to manage our processes.”
In Cincinnati, Nilpeter has eliminated a dozen conventional machining centers and replaced them with two fully automated examples. The company says they are on the same level as those used by the automotive and aeronautical industries; representatives from other major U.S. manufacturers have stopped by to see them in action. These automated machining centers operate on the Internet of Things and are connected to manufacturing sites in Denmark and India, sharing data and being overseen by a global production manager who travels between the sites.
President and Managing Director Lenny DeGirolmo says because tolerances are so high and the machining process is so precise—any piece which fails inspection is immediately thrown away—that the future will be to build fully tested modules and reduce the need to fully assemble presses before they ship. He notes this cuts the lead time for a new machine by four weeks.
Fully adopting that Industry 4.0 mentality meant changes everywhere, even to the tooling used to produce one-piece components. Lenny points out that each work center has more than 300 tools, each of which is automatically swapped out when its wear and tear reaches a certain point through the machining process with robotic arms, cutting out the need for human involvement and reducing material movement.
“Each tool is identified with RFID chips that manage its lifecycle. Before a tool can ever wear out or break, it is automatically ejected and replaced,” Lenny says. “The tool is then discarded and replaced through an inventory management system directly connected to our supplier.”
That inventory management system is fully automated, notifying Nilpeter’s component suppliers when a particular tool is in need of replenishing. So is the forklift that moves—at 30 mph—both raw material and finished goods to their next destinations. By tying each part of the manufacturing process together through software and data, Paul says the company has created a “lights-out operation” where one shift prepares and facilitates, and the next two run unencumbered with virtually no need for supervision.
“The results have been more than rewarding. We have now run more efficiently at a higher quality with less resources,” he adds. “This is our culture now and we now have the ability to build a 4.0 solution with 4.0 technology. We don’t just talk 4.0, we are 4.0.”
Man & Machine
“We’re making machinery the way we have people operate our presses,” Lenny explains, pulling his phone from his pocket. “If you can manage a smartphone, you can manage the press.””
The shift to increased automation is often conflated with a lesser need for actual people; “The robots are coming for our jobs,” so to speak. Paul says that’s not the case in Cincinnati, and that his company’s workforce there is “re-energized” as the opportunity to use what he bills as “one of the most sophisticated manufacturing systems in North America” allows them to offload some tasks to machines and focus on others.
“They see an investment in their future as well as our company’s,” he states. “In 2019, we will be celebrating our 100-year anniversary as a family-run company with a very clear future of our long-term commitment to our employees. It has been a cultural shift that has refocused our team and created a culture of winning.”
That cultural shift is happening outside Nilpeter’s walls, too, as today’s workforce gives way to the operators of tomorrow at a rate leaving some positions unfilled. Paul says that fact played into his company’s latest press, the All New FA. It is the only press in the world being built by the automated system now in place at Nilpeter’s Cincinnati facility, and the technology used in its construction is also leveraged in its operation.
“The All New FA was designed to engage with a modern operator, with a generation raised on disruptive technologies,” he adds. “This press will allow you to run the variables as a science by following Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) 6.0 methodology and apply that method to a fully automated platform. The current generation wants it faster, better and easier; this platform provides just that.”
The All New FA features no knobs or handles for adjusting variables like impression or inking; control of the press is handled by an iPad that can be held in hand or moved along the press on a rail. With design considerations like these, Lenny says the learning curve for working a press is reduced, which allows printers to consider less experienced operators while still being able to deliver high-quality product: “It’s more difficult today to find those experienced operators. The press now becomes part of the experience equation. Veteran operators are always going to be needed, but now mainly for value-added applications that are still an art form.”