21 November 2016 Digital Printing Technologies

Ryedale banks on robots for efficient production

Yorkshire printer has installed its second robot to boost productivity for its horticultural customer base.

The first robot arrived at Ryedale Group12 years ago at the height of the phone card boom. At peak, the Kirkbymoorside company could be producing millions of the prepaid cards a year. In a peak month it might print, cut and pack 42 million cards, with a strict requirement on accuracy.

Automation was essential to coping with the numbers involved. An operator might manage 60,000 cards an hour, sorting and packed into boxes.

“An operator is fine for a while, but can then start to make mistakes,” says operations director Steve Buffoni. The robot will work tirelessly and faultlessly for as long as it is switched on and properly maintained.

In contrast, says Buffoni, the robot has never had a headache, the flu or an argument with a partner or its children, all of which affect the accuracy of the human operator. It does not let its mind wander, nor become engaged in distracting conversations with colleagues. It was purpose designed and built by a German company around an Atlas ram punch and could handle in excess of 400,000 cards an hour, which it still does.

The machine has nine arms picking, placing and moving cards and boxes, and runs at the same steady pace, day and night if required. The punch pushes a slug of plastic cards from the sheet, indicating the start of each slug with a black sheet to mark the division between one batch and the next.

The first robot will pick the slugs and move them to a carton in a packing channel, which moves up as it is filled, pushed by the empty carton behind it. As it reaches the top in the form of a delivery ready box, another robot will pick it up and deliver it to an inkjet head for application of a batch code and then to a shrink wrap line.

“It may not look fast,” says Buffoni, “but it is.” Its Achilles Heel is that this robot can only process one format of product, credit card sized plastic cards. The thickness can vary, but the height and length cannot.

The success of the first step into robotics was more a series of stuttering steps rather than a confident stride as the teething problems seemed insurmountable to the point that the German company wanted to draw a line under the project. It was persuaded to continue, with one thing now absolutely clear: robotics is not easy.

However, the benefits were also clear and Ryedale had caught the automation bug. The company specialises in printing plastic horticultural labels for adding to plant pots and this is the major part of its business. These head to all the garden centre chains, the supermarkets and independent nurseries and garden centres.

This business is highly seasonal, peaking between February and the first May bank holiday. “In that period we can achieve over 50% of our annual sales with £1.2 million coming in the best month,” says James Buffoni, now managing director having taken over from his father John.

The seasonality of the business is a factor which is both a problem and an opportunity. It is an opportunity because the business has the experience and set up to produce high volumes of plastic cards. It has been a problem because this can make the company vulnerable to changes in customer attitude or purchasing patterns.

In 2011 this exposure turned from a headache into something rather more serious. “Up to the 2011/2012 financial year, we had been profitable producing a healthy surplus depending on the level of investment that year,” says James Buffoni.

“Then we were hit by a combination of circumstances. There was an unforeseeable bad debt of £170,000; the long expected fall in demand for phone cards finally happened; there was poor weather in the spring; a key competitor reduced prices by up to 20%. And at that point we were changing our MIS so had no access to real time figures.”

For the new managing director it was a baptism of fire and the company might easily have foundered. As it was, the two main shareholders provided further funds and the bank took a much closer interest.

Ryedale had a history of experimenting to see where it might take its production experience during the quieter months. It has forged relationships with universities across the north of England in development of printed electronics for example. The experimental approach meant that some things came off, others did not.

In the search for survival this approach had to go. Plans were drawn up to attract more sales into the business while looking everywhere for savings. It managed to take out £400,000 in costs without forcing redundancies on the workforce.

That was the start. The business needed a plan. Before long a 25-point plan was developed from notes written on the back on an A4 sheet during one of the frequent management meetings. It was presented to the bank manager who, had this been a blockbuster movie, might have commented “It’s brave, but it might just work.” This being Yorkshire, the comment was “If you pull this off, I’ll buy you a pint”.

Buffoni was at this point working without an MIS, so he reached out to a family friend who had been a UK finance director of a multinational corporation. The large company approach and an absolute focus on the figures proved a crucial part of the turnaround.

Buffoni adopted the Hoshin Kanri X matrix as a means of making the strategy and objectives of the business clear to each team and their role in delivering the short, medium and long term objectives. A single sheet shows the process for the business while each department will have its own version.

In the first year the loss was turned into a small profit but the process was not yet complete “Sales were still falling, but the business has tightened up,” says Buffoni. Whether Buffoni felt his back was against the wall, or because its culture of change and experiment was ingrained so that people were ready to accept different ideas, the new approach has been accepted.

The first area to really notice the transformation has been the warehouse where younger brother Paul Buffoni is in charge and lives and breathes the systems that have been implemented. There has been a huge reduction in call off stock held for customers, simply by looking back on what is ordered and when. Instead of working on gut instinct and feel, decisions are made on the basis of data and measurement.

Tens of thousands of pounds of cash tied up in stock have been released and items that are printed in readiness for the season to be called off as required, are now calculated according to analysis of historical trends rather than educated guesswork.

Now the picks from the warehouse track show a close relationship with sales on the graphs pinned to the noticeboard. It is a hard demonstration to the departments that are undergoing the process that the new structured approach is working.

At the end of the last horticultural season, each department began a systematic deconstruction of what they were doing and how. “From enquiry to invoice,” says Buffoni. There are yellow sticky notes plastered all over walls as each meeting seeks to record the information needed and to work out the ways to improve. The proposals will become part of the X matrix to provide the focus to push the business forward.

Buffoni has stopped what he calls “management by running around” and can tap into the now running ERP system from his desk to drill into each area, each order. It is not a conventional print MIS, he explains. Ryedale is not a conventional print business producing the folded sections and products that print MIS is built around. “Four months ago I could spend all day staring at spreadsheets,” he says. He has turned a corner as, it appears, has Ryedale. “If you don’t have a plan and a management process that people can get behind, you’re stuck,” he says.

The company is now looking forward and outward with confidence. Its experience in printing on plastic is resulting in a push to print membership and promotional cards in high volumes and from a single piece of plastic, something that many cannot offer. An early win resulted in a £600,000 project.

More importantly there is a greater focus on adding value by taking on new services. Ryedale has taken on a fulfilment project for another plastic card printer. It makes sense for both parties and increases the value of what the print company can do.

In the horticulture sector, it has developed a marketing guide for independent garden centres to show how and where they should use promotional material and signage, from the roadside to the plant pot. It is an approach of selling more to existing customers that can also work for the supermarkets and giants in the sector. A printed plastic strip can be easily applied to the sales trucks that are used to transport plants from nursery to the store, turning them from functional vehicles into seasonal promotional sales units.

The new approach also means investment. Buffoni is looking at bringing a Presstek 52DI back into operation and has a fast set up die-cutting platen on order.

The production step after this is perhaps enjoying the greatest transformation. After the season closed in May, a new robot unit was delivered. It is built in Yorkshire to Ryedale's specifications. Its role is to stamp out the products from the printed plastic sheets and bundle these together in batches for easy packing in the way requested by each customer.

If each of these products were a standard size and shape, there would be no challenge, but each sheet can have a number of designs according to the popularity of a plant and shapes according to customer. Ryedale has traditionally employed staff to release the labels from the surrounding plastic sheet. Cracking them out means flexing the sheet to release the labels and all too often a skin piercing spelk of plastic.

The robot will change all this. It has been designed to cope with the different shapes a sheet might comprise, positioning the stack of sheets accurately and then apply the pressure to the precise points necessary to force the product out without breaking. It has been thoroughly tested ahead of the new season, standing ready to make an impact on productivity and order accuracy for customers of the business.

The investment will increase Ryedale's ability to respond when under pressure from customers who want to catch a spell of bright weather. It will also reduce dependence on casual labour, already stretched during the peak period.

This is a recurring problem for the business. It is located midway between Scarborough and York, a picturesque and sparsely populated part of the country. Labour is hard to come by, particularly if the business has any thoughts on growth.

Another new machine has been purpose designed to apply the self adhesive tapes to the 1.4 metre promotional strips that the company has developed to decorate the trolleys its horticulture customers use. It delivers a huge lift in quality and productivity over the manual option.

Further small projects like this are likely. Even if printed electronics has still to develop into the vast opportunity once anticipated, the experience allowed Ryedale to look beyond the box. “It has shown us how other industries think and opened the way to different sorts of automation,” says Steve Buffoni.

Robotics are very much part of the future for Ryedale. They will be part of a data driven production process across the whole business. Already the new MIS takes an inquiry to open a job and allocate production space. As this is firmed up, the schedule is adjusted to take full account and to save headaches for the production director who had been known to spend hours calculating the ideal mix and production time for each order. He now has time for more creative tasks as well as more time as the computer generated schedule will provide more gaps.

James Buffoni can himself drill into the figures to measure how the business is performing. He can leave managers to manage so focus on driving the business forwards. If when he took over Ryedale faced a major challenge, that phase is complete and the company is heading in the right direction.

The team has settled and is working together. Even the bank manager is satisfied, fulfilling his promise to stand Buffoni a pint. That was, he says, “the sweetest drink in the world”.

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James Buffoni

James Buffoni

“Four months ago I could spend all day staring at spreadsheets,” says James Buffoni. He has turned a corner as, it appears, has Ryedale. “If you don’t have a plan and a management process that people can get behind, you’re stuck.”

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