06 June 2019 Print Companies

Inkjet gives green light for print automation

Lights out and automated printing demands hands off workflows. These are available for digital printers where the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence are also making headway. This has not yet reached sheetfed commercial printing, but it will.

It “collects the metadata that’s needed to create the analysis and statistics that they need”. “It” happens to be the Ricoh Supervisor module for its Ricoh Communication Manager tool, but it might as easily be one of many other automation workflows that are being rolled out as at least one part of the print industry moves to lights out production.

The torch is being carried by the fast expanding continuous feed digital print arena. The technology is starting to make inroads into commercial print but has its roots in mono transactional print where the ability to monitor what was being printed and to account for every invoice or statement being sent out was crucial.

That remains the case in transactional print as hand in glove with the development of the technology, it has moved to white paper printing and colour. And this level of control is coming to more commercial print areas as the market for high speed inkjet presses opens up.

This is a logical first step as it is going to be easier to bring automation to a closed or quasi closed production platform like inkjet running in line to a Hunkeler or Tecnau solution than it is on a sheetfed press with multiple points where manual intervention is needed. But it will happen. As customers demand faster turnarounds, strict control of every sheet is essential to avoid wasted material, time and effort.

The paper job bag is being replaced by digital meta data, held in a file that identifies and tracks that job through the production process. It may be triggered by an identifier that is a string of code, the digital equivalent of a slug, it may be a barcode that is scanned automatically or by hand to download job set up data and trigger actions in that piece of equipment. The important aspect is that it is a two way communication between the equipment that sidesteps any need for paper records.

The collection of separate pieces of meta data and linking them together is a monitor of the absolute productivity of the line and statistical analysis can both identify problems, answer customer demands for clarity on job progress and provide the basis for improvements to the system. In short the digital job page is far more accurate.

Where the job sheet filled in by a press or bindery operator is adequate when runs were long and there was time to do this, today’s runs mean that it impossible for manual entry to keep up. The digital version is accurate and dispassionate and computer analysis can discern patterns that a production manager looking at a spread sheet or written reports might miss.

Such analysis is natural and well established in the transactional world where integrity of data takes priority over design and where the closed environment means there is tight integration between print engine and data base of personal information to drive it. These is the IPDS environment developed initially by IBM where printing is an output from mainframe computers.

The graphics industry has different requirements, PDF in all its flavours being one. Products are not necessarily standard and paper is an important part of the design. This has created a generation of PDF drivers that can cope and which run parallel to the automatic document factory transactional approach. Most suppliers started in this camp and have moved into book, direct mail and now commercial printing.

Screen is an exception. For a few years it stood back from IPDS leaving that to Ricoh which shared the same laser and now inkjet print engine. But Ricoh has moved towards commercial printing and Screen can offer an IPDS driver and workflow based on software developed by customer Tagg in France. The commercial world is served through Screen’s own EquiosNet server with additional functionality to handle personalisation that may be needed.

This can manage book and direct mail production says Bui Burke, senior vice president sales at Screen Europe. “We use Smart Job Binder to consolidate all the incoming orders and to hold these until a cut off time when printing starts,” he says. The wider print room management, where different printers and devices are feeding data about their performance and to track jobs as they flow through the production process is under the control of Solimar. Its application is built around Xerox technology, being designed to handle a factory of iGens for example.

“It means that Solimar will spoof our printers to appear to the network as if they are more Xerox devices,” says Burke. “It means that every action is recorded and we can produce detailed reports about up time, ink usage, operational efficiency and more.”

Operational analysis is also part of Screen’s Trust IoT networking solution. This displays a choice of KPIs on a monitor to help identify production problems, bottlenecks and for comparison between estimated production time for a job and the eventual time spent on that job.

This is the final of five steps in the Trust suite of applications. These start with a monitoring function that can cover performance of a platesetter as well as Screen’s inkjet presses, for labels as well as print on paper. It has a fault detection and reporting function. This connects immediately with Screen’s engineers for them to take action if required.

The activity leads to the assessment step to ensure that the problem will not recur. This may involve some training or changes to the way the device is set up. Both are remote functions. Touch panel displays on the platesetter or press allows an operator to access videos to help tackle problems or help with intervention that is necessary.

Due to the high cost of inkjet consumables maximising performance can mean the difference between break even and profit. To some extent this may also apply to LED UV inks. It will be worthwhile to understand the amount of ink required for a job and to optimise ink levels though screening algorithms or from sophisticated under colour removal. For most this is a function of avoiding drying or marking issues. These will apply in inkjet printing as well, (drying water based inks in particular can be problematic) and the data can be recorded and fed to an MIS to improve the estimating process.

Canon has developed the workflows for book printing and direct mail as well as transactional print. One aspect of this is triggered mail, where an action, or lack of purchasing action, from a website visitor who has reached check out but failed to complete a sale triggers the decision to send a printed offer.

The personal details are culled from the website; a certain amount of personal data is available enabling profiling. The software, which is verging on artificial intelligence, will apply a specific offer to the individual, completing the job template along with standard content and the customer profile.

The result is a relevant and personalised letter that is sent out to revive the sale. Print quality can be offset equivalent using the latest Prostream and on litho substrates. But there are no plates and no makeready and extreme personalisation is possible. The run sequence of this job or a combination of jobs can be optimised for postal discounts.

Canon’s next target is catalogue and magazine printing where it believes profiles can be used to make both products more relevant to each reader. All through an automated workflow.

Ricoh’s Pro VC70000 is set up as its offset transition press thanks to a combination of inks and drying technology. But there is also an automated workflow to go along with the press. With Process Director Ricoh first applied rules on batching jobs requiring the same substrate alone with other variables in order to optimise up time for transactional and book printing. With Ricoh Communications Manager, it is taking Process Director into the cloud and shaping it to address issues commercial printers encounter.

The SaaS approach provides greater flexibility in terms of meeting changing needs and the use of APIs makes connecting a wider range of finishing and other systems much easier as well as a means to connect in the legacy technology, via apps, that is already in place and so protect the value of an existing investment.

The thrust is the same: to use job data to automate set up, to move towards lights out production and to save time and waste. This is managed through Supervisor dashboards. Supervisor provides the graphical interface to drill into the meta data that has been gathered. It provides this in two ways: a real time view with data no more than a couple of minutes old, and a longer term more analytical view to discover longer term patterns and trends.

Superviser will show where jobs are running within schedules, what those jobs are and will pass data about delays to other parts of the network. Over time Ricoh plans to add further finishing technology to this network via APIs, increasing the potential for end to end automation. Should Supervisor record that the press or other equipment has been offline for an hour and a half say, it can trigger an alert email or SMS to a human manager to encourage intervention.

This is part of the proposition for Spencermetrics, US company working with digital printers across North America and now finding its way into Europe. “We measure down time and identify where there is waste of time. If you can easily identify what time is wasted, you can get to the root cause and then eliminate or reduce that cause,” says founder David Spencer. “And if you do that you have more people and more machine time to make money.

“To do that you need to mine lots of data for the machine to understand what it is doing and when they are doing it. And you need to mine data for operators to know what’s going on on the shopfloor.”

The challenge is to be able to bring together the numerous points of data and protocols linking one machine to another in a meaningful way. Where the machine itself is not able to deliver data automatically, there is a tablet dedicated to an individual machine to enable an operator to enter the basic data. The server communicates with all the devices in the network.

“The tablet means it looks like the data is coming directly from the machine, but it’s not,” says Spencer. A template form guides the operator through the process of filling in more detailed information when the crisis has been tackled.

The strength of the approach comes with more detailed analysis, running comparisons between machines, different operators to identify training issues and different papers, showing that the real cost of running a poor quality paper is greater than running a more expensive grade perhaps. “The analysis is a wonderfully powerful way to identify places to act to convert downtime to uptime,” he says.

The software links directly to the majority of digital presses on the market and will communicate with Hunkeler’s Gen8 series of finishing technology. As well as the operator tablet, Spencermetrics can add sensors to machines for accurate counting, to record when the machine has stopped and will communicate this to the cloud. It becomes accessible to managers working away from the site to perhaps watch production from different locations.

“We can also have an onsite server as well as the cloud,” says Spencer. “That gives us a lot of flexibility. One client is operating in three countries which he now has full visibility in real time.”

The company is not tied to any one supplier though has alliances with the likes of Xerox and Xeikon, with Ricoh in the US and others, selling both through these channels and direct. To date Spencermetrics has five active users in Europe, with a support person just in case. “The system is designed with a lot of nice modern technologies so can be analysed and serviced remotely. We can train staff and monitor the system remotely, so it is very rare for us to have to go on site. This is the benefit from the Internet of Things.”

While monitoring production through the press is perhaps the natural approach to take, it is not the only way to manage this. Muller Martini’s Connex approaches the problem from the finishing perspective, arguing that this is the logical place to run an automated factory from. In an Industry 4.0 set up the view from the back end is the clearest it argues.

Connex can drive the entire production flow, from receipt of a PDF to delivery of the finished book. Connex will be responsible for impositions, adding the information codes that its stitchers and binders need to make automatic adjustments.

“Muller Martini can handle the full integration, from imposition, the job check, the reel manifest and complete handling of JDF and JMF,” says UK sales manager Dave McGinlay.

In the US one company runs two HP PageWide T240 presses into two Presto saddle­stitchers. This can alternating eight and 12pp signatures, or any sequence of signatures with decisions on how to run the press left to the Muller Martini workflow software. Details of production status are fed back to HP’s SiteFlow application for front end tracking.

Connex takes feeds from the press and scanning systems to ensure print quality is maintained. Any sub standard print, points where the press has stopped or there has been a web break or change, is recorded and becomes part of the roll manifest which is readable via matrix codes to identify the reel and work it contains. When the problem area is reached, the finishing line knows to reject that section and that a reprint is already part of the job. In this way there should be no need to wait until finishing has commenced to order a reprint.

As book jobs accelerate towards book of one production, handling this is impossible without automation, whether at the bindery or in press hall. This is happening with continuous feed inkjet, perhaps the simplest and most obvious part of the process to automate.

But as a direction what is today available and being adopted in this part of the digital print market, is going to cross over to the mainstream of commercial print. Already the major press suppliers can monitor the jobs going through their presses and can run diagnostics, gather data and use this to decide the best time for maintenance. There is little that is joined up in the way that happens in continuous feed digital. Over the next 12 months that will change.

By Gareth Ward

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Production Supervisor

Production Supervisor

Ricoh Production Supervisor provides a graphic view over production equipment to show how machines, operators and jobs are performing and enabling jobs to be tracked during production and data about each job to be sent to the press.

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