With a lack of skilled press operators, and upward and downward pressures from digital and gravure, flexography needs to meet the challenges of efficient and fast changeovers while under the operation of a novice workforce.
There is a worker shortage virtually throughout the world, which means skilled press operators are tougher to find. An article in FLEXO Magazine by Shawn Oetjen (“The Labor Shortage: Part 1,” FLEXO May 2019), found that 40 percent of all US businesses will lose 20 percent of their workforce due to retirement in the next five years. Meanwhile, the US economy is still expanding, creating an increasing number of job openings for the decreasing number of workers available. And, brands are looking for more complex color and design variations in packaging with lower run lengths and economical prices.
SOMA thought its printer/converter partners needed a way to assure that flexographic presses are operated well, no matter the operator—and that Industry 4.0 technology could play a part. The result earned SOMA a 2022 FTA Technical Innovation Award, in the Heavy Metal category.
Need for Change
During SOMA’s efforts to determine what it needed to develop next, we always ask for feedback from both current and potential customers. A while ago, one theme constantly arose, exemplified by a British customer who said, “I just had to hire a taxi driver to operate our press. I fear what will happen during the night shift.”
The repetitive concern was of lower-skilled press operation. Any job changeover requires a number of steps which need to be taken in proper order. Also, a skilled operator should know, for example, that when changing from black to yellow, a heavy wash is required. The less-skilled operator might not. We determined that a self-directed approach would be much appreciated. Thus, the idea of the Changeover Wizard was born, and described to customers as a concept in 2020.
The SOMA Changeover Wizard is a front-facing flexographic press user interface that guides the press operator properly during all the steps—in the correct order—involved with changing from one job to the next. Built-in intelligence analyzes differences between the job currently being printed and the job that follows. Based on the analysis, the Wizard suggests the optimal steps to take during the job changeover. It can reduce the number of tasks, define their optimal correct order, and automate as many steps as possible—saving the printer time during the changeover process.
Furthermore, it can be used by anyone—the primary press operator or any assistant. However, it lets experienced operators overrule any suggestion at any time. The Changeover Wizard process will continue, making adjustments based on the operator’s input.
The Wizard is very intuitive—for example, providing tension or drying temperature settings based on the chosen substrate. The system can do certain things by itself—e.g., determine if it should open up a unit so a sleeve can be changed. It does so automatically and reports that the task has been done.
The Changeover Wizard takes advantage of an entire intelligent automation ecosystem built into a SOMA Optima press. For starters, by connecting to SOMA’s cloud-based S-Cloud system, users of an Optima flexographic printing press can take advantage of the safe and speedy transfer of job data. This is what SOMA likes to call the recipe—all the information required to set a SOMA automatic plate mounter or flexographic press correctly.
The recipe is a way to define the unique print characteristics of each job. There is only one, unique recipe that defines each job on a plate mounter as well as on a flexographic press. Recipes contain all relevant job data, including design specifications, substrate characteristics, unwinding/rewinding parameters, web guiding parameters, sleeve/anilox specifications, ink attributes, tension parameters and drying parameters.
A job is entered, either by the operator or production administration. It has the assistance of pre-stored information (sleeves, aniloxes, tapes, ink, etc.), so that creating a recipe takes just minutes. Based on the recipe, the Wizard automatically fills in all the data needed for changeovers, right in the Optima’s operator interface. Using one recipe for all equipment avoids human error from retyping by others, and provides the groundwork for the Changeover Wizard feature on the press.
The Changeover Wizard can also take advantage of other automated features in the Optima press. Part of a changeover is Job Tuning, a specially designed software algorithm performed during job setup that finds the best drive settings to reach best registration while minimizing the bouncing effect for each design. Another SOMA automated feature used by the wizard is the IRIS technology, which sets registration and impression on the press automatically.