One of the most common problems we hear from printing companies is the inability to attract new press operators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the printing industry has seen a 25 percent decrease in employment over the last decade, an issue shared with most manufacturing sectors.
Discussions on how to attract the next generation of employees to these increasingly vacant jobs are now common at trade conferences, and it’s a concern we all share. At the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University, we offer a number of industry training courses on topics covering flexography, color and packaging. These courses are a blend of classroom and hands-on activities which make use of our labs and the equipment our industry partners have placed there, as well as volunteers from those industry partners who assist in teaching.
The No. 1 request received from companies is to provide training to their new press operators. Due to the constraints of hands-on training in our courses, and similar courses around the country, there is limited capacity to provide this training. Additionally, such training removes the employee from production for a week or more.
If only there were a means of training employees that required less overhead and detachment from the production environment…
Virtual Reality at Clemson University
The original virtual reality (VR) project developed at the Sonoco Institute was a virtual grocery store dubbed CUshopVR, designed as a replica of the CUshop consumer behavior lab in the building. Research correlating shopping behaviors and eye-tracking data between the virtual store and the physical store is scheduled for this fall.
In 2018, the Association for Print Technologies commissioned a virtual reality “showroom” of multiple printing presses as part of the PRINT 18 trade show in Chicago, IL. This included an offset press, a digital press and a foil-finishing machine. These were well-received at the show and demonstrated the unique abilities of virtual reality to visualize complex equipment.
The opportunity to showcase this experience in Chicago sparked a realization of the potential in utilizing this technology for training and education in the printing industry.
STRIPE VR will be showcased on stage later this year at FTA’s Fall Conference 2019, Oct. 28-30 in Charlotte, NC, as an integral demonstration portion of the sessions. We will be guiding a recent graduate through the process of press setup and optimization, characterization, measuring to ensure aim points are met, and completing a job on press. Audience members will be able to watch from their perspective as they interact with the virtual press during these sessions. We are thrilled to have FTA support this project as our first sponsor, and look forward to others joining the team.
Benefits of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality offers a number of benefits in training applications, and is utilized regularly in high-risk fields to train medical personnel, pilots and heavy-machine operators. Simulations can be highly controlled, and can replicate dangerous, expensive or rare situations the trainee may experience. With virtual reality, these situations can be replicated without endangering the trainee and can be done at very little cost. These systems are highly portable as well, meaning training can take place in a wider variety of locations.
In the printing industry, we’re working with large, expensive-to-operate machines, where stopping production to conduct training means lost opportunity cost in addition to the cost incurred during the training—substrates, inks, plates and so on. Additionally, it can be difficult—not to mention costly—to recreate specific print issues the trainee might encounter on the job. Troubleshooting scenarios may not always be practical in real life. The virtual reality training environment also removes the safety concerns of an amateur operating the equipment, and in fact, could be used to reinforce safety practices.
Virtual reality offers several solutions to these problems, and a chance to augment existing classroom or on-the-job training programs. With a fully immersive and interactive print simulator, new operators can gain a better understanding of the cause and effect of manipulating variables such as impression, ink characteristics, and anilox roller selection without the time and expense of shutting down an actual production printing press. Scenarios can be highly controlled and standardized across all operators and facilities.
Press operation is obviously a complex process with many interconnected variables, tactile experiences and audio indicators (What’s that grinding sound?!). However, a virtual reality print simulator can help shorten the training time for new operators, expose existing operators to highly controlled troubleshooting scenarios, and provide anyone in the print industry a greater depth of knowledge on the inner workings of these machines.
Earning Your STRIPEs
Earlier this year, we began development of this VR print simulator, which we are calling STRIPE VR (Simulated TRaining In Print Education). Starting with a narrow web flexographic press, we are creating a platform for interacting with and understanding the print process. The goal is two-fold: first and foremost, create a tool that can be deployed to educational facilities (high schools, colleges and career centers) to expose the next-generation workforce to the printing industry; and secondly, to provide printers with a tool to augment existing training programs.
We are excited to bring this new training technology to Charlotte, NC for FTA’s Fall Conference 2019, taking place Oct. 28-30. As part of the conference sessions, we will be demonstrating STRIPE VR on stage, training an industry newcomer on how to calibrate, characterize and run a job to the numbers.
The simulator currently contains a fully animated narrow web press, in which a user can adjust press variables such as plate-to-substrate impression, and immediately see the impact of such an adjustment on the printed web. The user may also “explode” out a print station, and see how each component (doctor blade, anilox roller, rubber roll) comes together. The simulator will often exploit the benefits of virtual reality in order to provide the user with an enhanced understanding of the press’ mechanics, such as virtually removing all of the steel on the side of the press to obtain a better view of the web path and hot air dryers.
Controls for press adjustments, such as impression and registration, will be conceptual, meaning they will be simplified to teach the concept of increasing/decreasing impression—not necessarily the exact knob, dial or button used to control impression on a specific press. In this way, the training becomes generalized to flexographic printing instead of needing to be customized to each type of press, where controls may be wildly different, but still serve the same function.
In addition to visual feedback, prints can be virtually measured and compared to target density, dot area and color metrics. This will allow trainees to not only understand how changing variables might affect appearance, but also provide a basis for learning to print to the numbers.
Troubleshooting scenarios can be developed on this platform in order to test the competencies of a trainee. For instance, a scenario could be designed in which the pH on several inks is out of specification, and the user must determine what the cause of the issue is by examining the print, taking measurements of the printed color and ink, and determining the course of action to correct this error. Metrics, such as amount of substrate and ink consumed during correction, can provide feedback on how well the trainee performed.
In addition to the obvious training applications of benefit to printing companies, our primary intention is to utilize STRIPE VR as a tool to introduce high school students and other young people to the printing industry. An undergraduate research team at Clemson University will be tasked with developing content to resonate with younger students, testing that content at local schools, and determining how best to expose them to the technology. This content might include a showcase of recognizable product packaging, a demonstration of how a printing press works, and information on career opportunities in the industry.
In order to fund development of this project and be able to freely distribute the application to print education programs, we are seeking industry partners to sponsor this endeavor. These philanthropic gifts will help cover the labor of development and programming, fund a graduate student assistant, and fund an undergraduate research group that will beta test the technology with local schools. All levels of sponsorship will be recognized on our webpage and social media, as well as within the simulator—either via wall graphic in the virtual pressroom, or by including a piece of equipment in the environment. Leading Sponsors contributing at the $20,000/year level can join our beta-test team, utilize the system as part of their own training programs, and provide feedback and direction in the development. Supporting Sponsors at the $10,000/year level will be recognized for their support of education and recruitment to the printing industry.
About the Authors
Nate Newsome has a unique background consisting of art and computer science, which has led to a passion for creating interactive technologies. He graduated from Clemson with a BFA in visual arts and an MS in computer science, where he focused on a human-centered approach to developing interactive technologies. As a graduate student, he developed virtual reality systems for Clemson’s Virtual Environments Group, the Mixed Reality Lab at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, and the Sonoco Institute. As a research associate in virtual reality, he is creating innovative VR solutions for the printing and packaging industry as well as helping guide VR efforts at the Watt Family Innovation Center. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking new trails and spending time with his family, especially his new baby girl.