Time is money. It’s a fact that all flexographic printers and converters understand. The faster a job can be set up, run to completion, and changed over to the next job, the more jobs a printer can run. Every minute that a press isn’t running is money lost.
All print market segments report that production run lengths are getting shorter and that order frequency is increasing. This is due to the increase of varieties and flavors within the same brand family. Another driving factor is that regional and personalized promotional campaigns are hot marketing trends in the industry right now. Targeting different markets by geographic area, interests and demographics are key ways that companies are personalizing their product labels and packaging to specific groups. Who hasn’t looked for a bottle of Coca-Cola with their name on it?
Packagers and consumers are demanding more colors per package and longer package life cycles. This requires coatings and greater ink coverage to enhance package durability. In order to respond, printers need 10-color presses with peripheral decorating equipment capable of providing finer detail of print through tighter process control.
Lean initiatives and the reduction of inventories at customer sites is also driving the trend of shorter production run lengths, quicker turnaround times and lower prices – all while material costs continue to rise. All of this is making it more challenging for printers to turn a profit on short run work.
To add to the pressure, finding and retaining skilled press operators is becoming increasingly difficult. How did this come to be?
The printing industry has always been a craft industry where the majority of operators were trained on the job or through formal apprenticeships. The apprenticeship programs, as well as many of the high school and trade programs that fed the industry, are long gone.
When the recession hit in 2007, the industry’s workforce was severely impacted. Many employees were let go, and employers in the industry ceased hiring for nearly five years. The furloughed employees - even if they were skilled operators - determined that their future no longer existed in the flexographic printing industry. The end result was a significantly reduced labor pool. Further complicating matters was the prediction that anything and everything print would soon die. Young people entering the workforce had no desire to enter a dying industry.
So, how do printers and converters solve the issues surrounding shorter runs, tighter margins, and the lack of skilled press operators? The answer lies in newer flexographic print technology that has made significant strides in making short runs more economical through faster setups and reduced waste. Repeatability has also become a critical component in helping to make a press operator successful in producing high-quality, sellable product.
“Across the board, customers face pressures financially and in finding skilled employees,” said Rodney Pennings, sales director for PCMC’s printing, coating and lamination products. “It is critical that press manufacturers incorporate technologies that allow repeatable and reliable changeovers, minimized setup and waste of materials and systems efficient in ink management and energy usage.”
Printers are working with press manufacturers to develop products that run at high speeds, offer safe working environments and produce repeatable quality. This has created a trend to change physical and programming/controls design. Full-servo-motor architecture supports enriched live data feedback and diagnostic information to the operator. Enhanced tension control systems allow greater web control and print tolerance capability. Through video inspection and other system feedback, operators are able to make fine and on-the-fly skew adjustments to the print deck.
The automation of machine changeover and setup drives repeatability, and proper sequencing of steps within the process drives press uptime. Technologies that are imperative for meeting the increasing demands in production schedules include zero-speed initial impression and registration setting, ink color and viscosity management, automatic ink/deck washup, central impression drum cleaning, energy-efficient and responsive drying, and closed-loop camera-based impression and registration.
Enclosed ink doctor chamber designs increase ink usage efficiency and allow for more automation along with greater ease of use. This is due to tool-less and on-or-off-press preparation. Built-in, multi-functional operator station touch screens allow operators to have access to many press features and functions at their fingertips.
“Presses need to have operational features that are user-friendly and intuitive,” said Pennings. “Training packages must also address the changing landscape to help operators remain up to speed on the technology and proper usage of the equipment in order to optimize it to its full potential.”
In many ways, the automatic features of newer presses, and the training that accompanies them, have replaced the formal training programs of the past. This approach helps increase the speed at which new operators gain knowledge important to achieving successful printing outcomes.
The industry is seeing more compact press designs that allow for safer and easier access during operation and foster much faster job changeover opportunities. This is due to the shorter distances to walk, the ability to stage setup items closer to the press, increased changeover automation, and the lack of need to use lifts or ladders during the changeover process. Presses that have sleeved plate and anilox technology offer additional benefits that help reduce operator fatigue - offering a more rewarding and fulfilling work experience.
Compact press designs are beneficial to printers that are challenged with optimizing their facility space utilization. They allow more assets within the same square footage and help spread the overhead cost of support personnel over a larger number of assets. Smaller presses also have lower purchase, installation, and maintenance costs due to having fewer and smaller parts.
For greater flexibility to meet industry demands, many printers are investing in both central impression and inline press designs, allowing them to better diversify their product mix. Print products using board, label stock, shrink and other specialty films are now being pursued as compliments to the typical film production of the past.
The time to market for updated or new press designs is also becoming shorter. Printers are looking for print press manufacturers that are willing to collaborate to develop improved solutions. In addition, some partnerships between original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) and printers have led to in-depth analysis and refinement of job changeover procedures - many times reducing the time between running production by up to 75% or more.
OEM’s that have positioned themselves with robust central impression and inline press products that are capable of printing with tight tolerances and on a variety of substrates, are seen as valuable partners to printers. Press manufacturers continue to be challenged to incorporate tried-and-true print technologies into smaller press designs that are capable of running a variety of ink types with appropriate drying technologies.
“Press manufacturers and customers working together to design and develop enhanced solutions and equipment is vital to businesses achieving higher effectiveness and efficiency,” said Pennings.
As the flexible packaging industry continues to grow, the challenges of shorter run lengths, increased changeovers, higher quality, and faster turnaround time will only intensify. Flexographic printers will continue to respond to the challenges that come their way. Partnerships with industry providers will be one of the keys to their success.