Consumers want more, and they want it now. To meet these demands, CPCs and other brands continue to introduce new products to market at a more rapid rate, and they expect printers to keep up.
As flexographic printers begin to feel pressure from customers to produce a greater variety of runs more quickly, it is important to consider what changes can be made to fulfill these orders.
SKU proliferation, or the process in which a retailer increases the number of products (stock keeping units) it offers, has become a major consideration for the flexographic industry. In fact, a FLEXO Magazine Flash Poll of FTA printer members from last September found that for 81 percent of respondents, SKU proliferation was a factor impacting production.
With the increased variety of products comes the increased demand for short runs within your flexographic operation. For printers that aren’t prepared for the challenges of SKU proliferation, these shorter runs mean additional changeover time and potential waste, both of which have an impact on profitability.
Printers that are proactively set up to produce short runs quickly and efficiently will find SKU proliferation can serve as a key business differentiator. Flexographic printers should consider upgrading equipment and processes now to better prepare for their customers’ current and future needs.
Recent advances in flexographic printing equipment, like artificial intelligence (AI), can help printers both save time and reduce waste, making this technology ideal for short-run applications. As one of the most important pieces of any flexographic facility, printing presses are a great place to introduce AI to meet the demands of SKU proliferation within your operation.
Designed to reduce the need for human intervention, the latest generation of presses was developed with integrated AI features. Innovations like automatic registration and impression settings utilize cameras to eliminate operator error as presses adjust to address print inaccuracies on their own. Anti-bounce technology serves a similar purpose, as algorithms are used to monitor, adjust and address the negative impacts of bounce on printing in real time. These AI features have become more important not only with the demand for shorter runs but also as packaging with more intricate artwork continues to rise in popularity.
Flexo printers should also consider the different press formats and options currently on the market and find the best fit for their facility. For example, because of their reduced footprint, compact presses can help save time and money through quicker changeover times, because this equipment is typically lower to the ground and more ergonomic for operators. Compact presses can also help eliminate other unnecessary equipment, such as the lifts typically required to change print sleeves and set up components.
Inline presses, on the other hand, offer added value through enhanced flexibility and increased options and features available during the printing process. While larger than a compact press, inline options add efficiency and reduce downtime, as they can perform both front-side and back-side printing without requiring operators to reset and reload the machine. These presses are also typically able to run a larger variety of film sizes, print a greater range of colors and may feature inline lamination as well.
Beyond the flexographic printing press, SKU proliferation also impacts other key pieces of equipment. Printers should consider how other parts of the process, including anilox cleaning, impact their final product. With more short runs to process and print, the quality of the anilox is vital to preventing wasted time and materials. Innovations, such as laser anilox cleaners, help maintain proper color consistency and saturation while reducing variability.
People & Processes
Preparing for the challenges of SKU proliferation doesn’t end with equipment updates and upgrades. Both the people and the processes they implement within your operation are key factors in your short-run market success.
Because printers will face an increased number of shorter runs, they will also see an increase in the number of changeovers required each day. If you were wasting steps and time during changeovers before, you are likely now wasting these resources 10 times more, as the number of runs printed continues to increase. Printers need to review their workflows for longer, more traditional runs, and adjust to meet the changing requirements of shorter runs.
The implementation of lean manufacturing practices can further help flexo facilities embrace the requirements of SKU proliferation. I recommend looking at this from both the equipment and personnel/process level. Which pieces of equipment are producing the most physical waste? What steps of the process require the most operator intervention? By following waste streams within the facility back to the source, printers can address inefficiencies wasting time, money and labor.
Prepare for Tomorrow
SKU proliferation will only continue to accelerate in the future, as consumers continue to demand a greater variety of products. With that, I believe we will see the number of long, high-volume runs continue to go down, leaving printers competing with more and more operations for less and less work. Flexo printers need to do their due diligence and implement changes within facilities to meet the evolving needs of their customers.
Printers can start by considering the age and capabilities of the presses currently in their facilities and determine whether purchasing a new piece of equipment is a viable option. If not, printers can work with their equipment’s original manufacturer to identify what retrofit solutions are available. Retrofitting existing presses also allows you to implement AI technology that helps improve short-run time and efficiency without replacing the entire piece of equipment. OEMs and other partners can also provide training and workshops on lean manufacturing, and help evaluate your facility to reduce wasted time and materials.
Flexographic facilities can’t shy away from SKU proliferation and continue to be successful into the future. Printers need to embrace the trend and implement new technologies and processes to support customers’ changing demands. It is the operations that take steps now to succeed in the world of SKU proliferation that will be the leaders of flexographic printing in the future.