We all know a business cannot exist without its customers, and that is why companies are focusing on how to win new customers and, perhaps more importantly, retain existing customers; make them grow and grow with them.
When we at www.empowerims.com asked flexographers to rate their ability to consistently deliver a remarkable experience to their customers, 75 percent to 85 percent said they believe they are delivering a superior experience. This compares to only 10 percent to 15 percent of customers who confirm they are in fact receiving a great customer experience.
Most of the companies we interviewed said they have goals that focus on enhancing customer experience, yet their efforts are falling short.
The Customer Service Disconnect
So, what is going wrong? One reason is that there simply isn’t enough manpower or time in the workday to properly follow up with customers. Many companies think of good service—and consequently a good customer experience—in terms of the effort their people provide or the techniques they use. They think people are doing a good job if they work hard, go the extra mile and remember to be “nice.”
Here is the disconnect. Customer experience is really defined as the extent to which the solution provided (product, services, etc.) matches the customer’s expectations.
By moving the needle of business efficiency, improving people’s lives in general, and allowing the manual workforce to solve more intelligent problems for customers, advanced robotic automation is creating room for an improved customer experience. High-performing flexographers let machines do the rote tasks, while eliminating the chance of human error and spending their people time focusing on understanding and solving real customers’ needs.
Regardless of whether prepress houses or printers want to increase productivity or shorten time-to-market, attaining true success mainly depends on the application of suitable advanced robotic automation technologies while visualizing what a stunning success would look like.
When a customer reaches out, regardless of the reason, timely response can make the experience more pleasant. So, in light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is hitting flexo plate making (and was discussed in the February 2017 issue of FLEXO Magazine), let’s quickly explore the tools making advanced automation contribute more to the bottom line than ever before.
We analyzed technologies and solutions by various manufacturers currently being used in validated environments in the flexo plate making industry around the world, and what popped out is that an efficient advanced robotic automated plate making system makes optimal use of available components in five synchronized areas:
- Process controls platform
- HMI (Human Machine Interface)
- Sensors, actuators and communications infrastructure
- Process data and events history
- Remote diagnostics and access security
A typical robotic automated plate making system using today’s advances in hardware and software platforms would look something like what’s depicted in Figure 1.
The Core of Automation in Flexography
The core of a robust advanced robotic automation system is the process control platform. The process control platform is typically based on a programmable logic controller (PLC) that is often used as a distributed control system (DCS), i.e. a computerized control system where the control elements (controllers) are distributed throughout the machine and a hierarchy of controllers is connected by communication networks, allowing both centralized and local monitoring and control. Unlike general-purpose computers, PLCs are designed for multiple inputs and output operations, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact.
System designers have much to ponder when it comes to specifying the right PLC system. Getting it wrong could lead to a system that is under-specified—compromising system performance in the short term and needing a costly upgrade in the longer term—or over-specified, bloating the solution with unused features and more cost than the project justifies.
When considering to buy advanced robotic automation processing equipment, flexographers need to understand the basic considerations made by the system designer in respect to its size, functionality and flexibility, performance, connectivity and security.
Understanding these five critical points will allow flexographers to avoid major pitfalls when considering advanced robotic automation processing equipment, enabling them to fully appreciate not just if the equipment can meet all the current application requirements, but also how much room for ongoing evolution will be available, but without the costs of over-specification.
Humanware or Simple HMI?
The user interface in an advanced automated plate making system is called an HMI. It consists of hardware and software that allow user input to be translated as signals for machines and provides the required result to the user. In other words, it is a touchscreen that provides a graphical visualization of process controls and doubles as a monitoring system; i.e. human to machine and machine to human.
The basis of designing a good HMI largely depends on a deep understanding of the average operators’ physical and behavioral characteristics in combination to their skills—in essence, what is also defined as Humanware. In fact, even if two or more automated plate making systems are very similar in functionalities, the HMI plays a critical role to enhancing both the user experience and efficiency.
It is important to appreciate that a well-designed HMI helps in the rapid acquisition of skills for users and can provide natural interactions with the plate making system. It also:
- Reduces opportunities for error
- Increases equipment and user efficiency
- Improves reliability and maintainability
- Raises user acceptance and user comfort
- Reduces the need for lengthy training and skill requirements
- Reduces physical and mental stress for users
- Increases economy of production and productivity
Processing & Condition Monitoring
Believe it or not, some of the new advanced robotic automated processing equipment is “trained” with simulators that replicate the exact behavior of flexo plates. Smart sensors, intelligent sensors, actuators and a communication infrastructure are what allow such progression and play a significant role in the performance and reliability of any advanced robotic plate making systems that needs to cope with the harsh settings of any automated line.
What may sound like a set of details for “small” components are what characterize one solution and differentiate one from another; things like high noise immunity, high power signal, wide dynamic range, high reference accuracy, a simple interface, simple integration and simple coding are great differentiators. The new groundbreaking platforms are developed whereby smart sensors, intelligent sensors and actuators are coupled with multiple communications and can be independently run on the same hardware platform.
Process Parameters & Event History
Traditional methods for recording process parameters to meet regulatory compliance relied on the manual setup of electro-mechanical devices, be they motors, fans, heaters, etc. Each of them had multiple potential embedded mechanical and electrical malfunction points due to usage, and even if still somehow functioning, when combined could not satisfy the minimums set by regulatory standards.
Today, manufacturers of advanced automated plate making equipment are eliminating those early components and replacing them with innovative devices that can be sensed, measured and controlled from the PLC. New PLCs are organized to then regulate two different macro sets of information, equipment performance vs. regulatory standards and process parameters using algorithms to optimize the whole process. Slight wear and tear of the components, which could cause the system not to meet the minimum standard and the needed performance, are corrected on the fly and when that is not possible, an error message is recorded and immediately reported.
Remote Diagnostics & Access Security
In times of globalization, the distance to a customer keeps increasing. The costs for the provision of services and reduction of downtime in case of malfunctions are becoming more and more important. Therefore, advanced robotic automated plate processing lines use remote diagnostics to transfer data from the machine to a control center (and vice versa) (see Figure 2).
In addition, the most innovative units are equipped with a number of evolved inspection cameras that offer a clear view inside the machine and other hard-to-reach areas normally hidden from sight, even for on-site technicians. With solvent fumes and scratch resistant tempered glass lens, and with high pixel resolution, specialized engineers sitting in a remote control center at the equipment manufacturer’s offices can easily view all the critical processing steps for instant analysis and diagnosis.
Today’s requirements for interconnectivity, communications and secure access mandate the need to give special attention to the physical installation of the network and its configuration to optimize data throughput and security. The use of commercial- or industrial-grade network devices is highly recommended. Most consumer-grade devices, such as wireless access points and routers, do not have the range, throughput or security features typical of industrial-grade devices.