Narrow and mid web printer/converters are faced with numerous challenges, namely: decreasing order sizes, shorter time to market, increasing number of SKUs, shortage of skilled employees, intricate complexity of jobs, rising quality and consistency requirements; plus, of course, constant demand for lower prices.
Experts agree: “The traditional production workflow is highly operator/employee influenced, creating fluctuations in waste, time, consistency, delivery and profitability.” To mitigate those effects, some of the narrow and mid web flexographic press platforms available today improve production efficiency and throughput via the use of closed-loop automation and interconnectivity.
Engineering on such units embraces many buzzwords floating around—“The Internet of Things,” “Smart Factory” and “Industry 4.0.” The question is: Are these technologies realistic for the narrow web printer/converter?
Many printers currently utilize a workflow that is labor intensive, and profitability is highly influenced by employee “art.” A common narrow web production process may include operator-intense functions, like: filling out a job ticket, manually mounting plates, loading rolls of substrate, setting/adjusting web tension, filling ink pans, positioning diecutting tooling, setting slitting knife positions, setting/adjusting printing pressure, adjusting print-to-print and print-to-cut register, checking color, changing rolls and splicing.
From that list, it’s easy to see that there are many spots for error and waste to occur. If an operator has an “off” day, results can be even worse.
Digitalization of Workflow
The narrow web industry went through a technology change in the early 2000s, when narrow web flexographic presses went from being mechanically driven to being servo motion controlled, thereby delivering higher quality and stability on press. It was said at that time that narrow web printing moved from being “art” based to incorporating more “science” to the print process.
Subsequently, in recent years, many printers have added servo controlled flexographic presses to their inventory, as well as adding digital presses and even hybrid flexographic/digital presses to their production floor, thinking this will make their process more digital. Apply caution. Don’t confuse digital print or digital technologies with digitalization of the narrow web workflow.
Brand owners continue to demand the right quality at the right price and now want it delivered at the right time. This requires narrow web printers to continue to improve their efficiency and throughput. Automation and Industry 4.0 (AI) are leading the way to improved speed to market and further production cost reductions.
Let’s take a closer look at how the latest closed-loop press features are delivering on the “Road to 4.0,” the next manufacturing change in narrow web. Automation leads to higher consistency and more reliable performance, which leads to higher profits. Printers can now process more jobs in less time, with fewer errors with the same employees delivering the performance customers demand and the profits printers want.
Many Industry 4.0 automation features are already being offered in narrow and mid web presses, such as, automatic:
- Roll splicing
- Job setting, recall and setup
- Preregister and register control
- Doctor blade adjustment
- Slitting knife setting
- Die register control
- Defect detection
- Notification of production status/output
These automated features combine to eliminate operator variability and deliver higher quality more consistently with lower waste and higher profitability.
Most servo-driven flexographic presses do offer a basic level of automation, such as automated preregister and register control, but not the level of automation and interconnectivity to MIS systems that some new flexographic presses provide.
Imagine the efficiency of your prepress sending the job file to a flexographic press with the job parameter press settings included, allowing the operator to load rolls and start the press, the automation running the job, then sending the job run data back to your MIS system.
Let’s take a look at how current automation and interconnectivity of narrow web press modules improves performance.
Narrow web printing job complexity continues to grow. The format has gone from printing primarily simple labels (rubber stamping) to printing 7-color process labels with combination printing of cold or hot foil, screen printing, digital, varnishes and laminations. This added-value work also adds complexity to the production run. Combined with shorter runs and shorter delivery times, printers need to be very efficient. Parts in their toolbox often include:
- Flexography + Digital: Digital printing has very tight print register. Closed-loop automatic register control in flexographic presses can match digital print register quality and allow addition of value-added capabilities inline with register quality that also matches digital
- Screen and Gravure Printing: Tension control between different print processes can create issues in combination printing. Gravure printing units require a high tension, versus low tension for rotary or flat screen print units. Flexographic presses with interconnected modules can control tension at each step in the process, delivering quality with consistency
- Foiling, Hot or Cold: Intelligent tension and register control systems reduce waste by adding exceptional accuracy to overprinting foil on a printed substrate
- Lamination and Die Cutting: Both processes can add another nip in the narrow web flexographic process. Automation can deliver proper control of tension and register at each point in the flexographic process
Adding automation to each step of the production process—automated order processing, automated plate making, automated plate mounting, automated printing, automated finishing, automated storage and eventually automated delivery—reduces cost and enhances printers’ capabilities.
Connecting these automated processes so they communicate to each other and a centralized MIS system can incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) to collect data from the various production “silos” in current workflows to automatically prepare jobs, supplies and equipment. Then, check output and deliver exceptional performance.
Now imagine, with full automation in all your machinery and an AI-enabled MIS, a fully autonomous process. The approach follows:
- A brand owner’s AI system sends a job file to your web portal
- Your MIS system checks the file and highlights issues to be checked by your prepress
- Once approved, the AI schedules the job, orders the materials, sends job tickets to the plate making and plate mounting systems, then to the press with all job setup parameters
- Once the job runs, the vision system on press sends the defects to the inspection rewinder
- A completed job report is sent to MIS detailing run time, waste and profitability of the job
- Finally, AI predictive maintenance on your machinery reads a sensor indicating a problem or even anticipates maintenance needs and schedules service with the machinery manufacturer and your maintenance department, eliminating unplanned downtime
AI sounds futuristic and scary, but we all use it daily in our lives: When you turn your phone on in the morning and facial recognition identifies you, social media sends you articles you like, voice assistants make recommendations, virtual travel agents arrange your flights, hotels and cars, and much more.
AI is coming quickly to printing and bringing with it a huge opportunity for growth. Using automated press technologies is a necessary next step in the production process for many narrow web printers. Automation and AI will be critical to remain successful in the near future. Investing in new fully automated inline flexographic presses brings a new level of connectivity to your production floor and future proofs your narrow and mid web production.