18 September 2017 Business

When automation is on the table

A high end round table on the need for and implementation of automation in the printing industry drew on the experience of printers implementing automation and leading companies supplying the tools.

The automation of the printing industry is inevitable. The only way to handle the number of short run jobs and subsequent reduction in value of the each; the only way to cope with the increasing skills gap; the only way to ensure that a business is making money is through increasing levels of automation. Currently this is through linking different processes, though Industry 4.0 hovers on the horizon and with that comes robotics. Think five years away.

And this wave is affecting all sectors on the industry whether manufacturers, printers in direct mail, online printing, books and magazines or simply commercial print.

The only questions are when to adopt automation, to what extent is such a move practical and how to do it.

This was the task of a Print Business round table convened to discuss the matter and bringing suppliers and printers together in the Salisbury Room at St Bride’s Institute where there is a fine round table.

Sitting around it were Heidelberg UK sales director Jim Todd, Muller Martini’s Andreas Aplien, Guy Desmet from Agfa representing the suppliers and as sponsors of the event and Jon Lancaster, Falkland Press and Printed Easy, Dax Britton, DG3 and David Phillips, Paragon Customer Communications UK representing the printers. These companies are at the forefront of adopting integrated ways of working and are pushing to the next stage.

For Lancaster this means automating the calculation of estimates and managing costs, assigning a job to either litho or digital printing as appropriate. The company is in the online printing space, but is not producing standard products where a pricing matrix might apply, but instead is open to all offers on format, substrate and numbers required.

It is not about A4 or A5 flyers on one or two papers and a limited selection of order quantities. To handle the immense complexity that is inevitable, the company has developed its own price calculation engine which producers a selection of ways to produce a job along with the price for doing so in seconds.

From that a job is passed automatically to either of the HP Indigo digital presses or to the plate room with job specifications going to its Heidelberg XL106 or B3 litho presses. There is as yet no deep automation in finishing; the levels of complexities rise rapidly given the options that are possible in finishing.

DG3 operates over two sites, one in Gillingham, Kent, the other in Dagenham. It is then linked into an international network of companies. In the UK Dagenham is the site running digital presses, Gillingham runs litho. The correct files need to be presented to both businesses through a single workflow built around a Tharstern MIS, Agfa Apogee workflow and HP’s Production Centre for tracking jobs once in production. Linking all this together is Enfocus. It seems to be the go-to software for automation at this point.

Switch is the Swiss Army knife of applications,” says Andreas Aplien, himself based in Switzerland for Muller Martini. “Eighty percent of our customers are using it to automate tasks.” Muller Martini is at the head of automation and in Industry 4.0 from the finishing side of the industry. Aplien’s background, however, includes spells with Manroland and Agfa, both of which were founder members of Cip4, the organisation that looks after JDF.

He describes its growth from a concept in 2000 to adoption by prepress in 2004, press operation by 2008 and finishing by Drupa 2012. “MIS vendors have been struggling with these requirements. In 2016 customers were wanting full integration. MIS has to deliver.”

In 2016, Lancaster was one of these customers, spending four days at Drupa looking for a solution to the integration problems and realising that it would mean investing in four different solutions. “I was depressed,” he says. None could offer the level of integration needed, particularly to MIS. He discovered also that JDF is to a very large extent an XML file, in other words just text. But he came away from Drupa having ordered the latest technology that Heidelberg had to offer.

This was the Push to Stop generation of the Speedmaster XL106, where the press is ready for autonomous working, the promise, says Todd, of Industry 4.0. “That is where artificial intelligence systems are taking the decisions that humans do now,” he says. If that is frightening, it is the way that development is pointing.

“There has been consolidation over the last 15 years. The survivors of that process are the ones that have been forward thinking. But now a lot of printers are underestimating the investment that is needed on the IT side of their business. How you drive a device is key to the utilisation of that device,” he explains. “Data is the key and how you make it fit your business.”

Paragon CC has data in droves. Its business covers litho, cut sheet and continuous feed digital producing personalised products on behalf of customers in finance, travel and a host of other industries. Phillips’ job is driving automation through a plant that employs 250 in Dagenham and linked to other sites in Bristol and Nottingham.

“We have to produce the best quality product as fast as possible, where price pressure is immense. And we are driven by the customer to do this,” he says. “It means we have to measure everybody and everything.

“Automation is down to the data. We have to get everybody to understand the importance of workflow efficiency. And it’s not just the numbers, it’s the quality of that data.” It’s about Industry 4.0 in short.

He continues: “Data collection is the most crucial aspect. A lot of our equipment suppliers are moving towards that productivity mentality because they do not want rush calls putting pressure on engineers when they can using live data and historical data for predictive maintenance, intervening before you need to do something to the machine.”

The Muller Martini approach uses sensors throughout a machine to measure every aspect of the job and machine in question, whether a feeder is working correctly or not. “Our solution tells us precisely what’s happening on a machine,” says Aplien.

The same applies to Heidelberg where sensors can detect if a plate change unit is running slower than others by a fraction of a second. It might be indicative of a deeper problem, Todd says.

“There is a difference between what we are interested in as a supplier and what the customer is interested in. There is a lot of telemetry on a press these days, such that we reckon we can solve 50% of problems without press down time.”

The same is true of Agfa where Apogee and the CTP unit will collect a lot of data that is of little value to customers, says Desmet. “But CTP knows how many plates have been produced and how.” Automatic stock handling can derive from this, but so too can data about the separations, how much ink will be used, and what might be the impact on costs using different levels of under colour removal.

The platesetter is also one of the first pieces of equipment to include robotics, used to pick different plates from the cassettes, remove interleaf papers and present the plate to the imaging unit.

Paragon CC has robotic handling in its Bristol plant to lift and move reels from the high speed inkjet machines. “Robotics are there to take away the heavy lifting,” says Phillips.

It can go further. He describes a factory in Kansas where robots are moving material around the kind of vast factory that the space in the American Midwest enables a company to have and then to invest in these sorts of systems. “For us robotics is about helping people do their job properly,” he says.

A robot was operating at Hunkeler Innovation Days this year, lifting a book block from a Hunkeler line into a Muller Martini binder and trimmer. The company’s Autotrim is itself based on a robot arm which twists to present the trim edge to the cutting unit.

The difficulty, says Aplien, is justifying such an investment, particularly in a low margin operation. “We see more demand in printers running digital web presses where they can deliver a fully finished book. Many used to print roll to roll but now they want to be fully inline.

“If you have a fully greenfield site you would have it completely automated.” The reality, however, is the printers are running 20-year-old saddle stitchers which cannot be automated and that people will not throw these out just to gain the benefits of JDF.

But for new projects, automation is a must, he says. “We are reaching the point where we are no longer delivering machines, we are delivering solutions,” he adds. “Printing is relatively easy. Post press is complicated. It means we are selling complete solutions, not a standalone machine. Customers are moving from long run litho to short run digital and have asked us to help them cope with it.”

This is the scenario that the printers around the table are having to cope with, mixing litho and digital production as necessary. For Lancaster the automation of his finishing department is out of the question at the moment despite having the latest folders and binding technology.
“We have a large enough challenge without including finishing at this stage,” he says. “We have the technology to set up the binding lines, but we are not there yet. Perhaps in the next 12 months.”

For the moment the automation is about removing the errors in job specification and enabling fewer people to handle more jobs. Average order value is decreasing, so automation of the administration is essential. Its algorithm will sort jobs to the best way of producing them. “Book blocks can be printed in collated order through the digital presses or we can take folded sections. It will always choose the most cost effective solution,” he says.

The easy part is to decide that ultra short run books will be printed digitally. The company however has a spread from ten copies to 10,000 with the mean between 800-1,500 copies – “and at least 50% are a customer specific size”.

Britton faces a similar challenge at DG3. Here the company has decided to go along the automation route with a single customer to start with. It had invested in Tharstern to join the Apogee workflow, but it wasn’t until DG3 added Switch six months ago that things dropped into place. “It has been fantastic,” he says. “Previously it had been taking up to ten minutes to set up a job, and their work has a lot of variety in terms of paginations and formats, which means a lot of impositions. Anything up to 200 copies will always be printed digitally, anything more will go to litho. And we can have 2,000 files at any one time.”

DG3 has appointed a champion for Switch, someone who understands the technology inside out and can build the workflows that automate the process from receipt of file to ready to print. And that may change quickly, with Lancaster pointing out that a workflow that is set up now can be completely different six months down the line. Automation is a process, not a destination.

The company has also started to work with HP’s Production Centre to track jobs around its sites, using the MIS and Switch to make this information available, back to customers if required. Barcodes are generated and added to the trim area of a sheet or section.

At Falkland, the same concept is used. “We can see where a job was last scanned and where it goes to next,” says Lancaster. It will also generate the job ticket as the final page of a digital job so that that lands on top of the job pile. Dispatch information is also generated, delivery addresses may be multiple and may be different from the billing address. All this is included in the system that the company is building.

It works out the best sequences to make production as efficient as possible. The press becomes part of that sequence and is on the road if not to lights out printing then to light touch printing.

Packaging printing is different, says Todd. There is often a full logistics system around the press delivering pallets of board to the feeder and removing print pallets ready for die cutting and creasing. There is less variety of substrate, the thickness of the material requires a plinth for the press and non stop production needs automation in materials handling. Some will base this on robot vehicles, most on a track system.

It has not happened in commercial print as yet, the variety of stocks precludes this, though reel handling in web plants shows it is possible. It is a question of ROI.

But to reach this point, the front end process must be correct. And while this is heading towards full automation, Desmet warns that “you still need someone who understands the process. You cannot yet go lights out.”

It means pushing more responsibility up the line to the customer. For Britton one of the biggest impediments to full automation is the customer. “Proofing will stop an automated workflow. Hard copy proofing and even online approval has to go to enable automation. If the customer does not approve the job when expected, what happens to the schedules?”

Fortunately printing to the numbers has helped. On press automation has helped by delivering the consistency that is required. What is not helping, Lancaster points out, is the variable quality of paper. Less expensive paper can result in cracking or additional linting that is anathema to a smooth production process. “The consumables and hardware must work together,” he insists.

If a hermetically sealed fully lights out operation is not practical for the foreseeable future, printers must still work towards this. Automation and robotics will become necessary, says Lancaster, to solve the shortage of skills in the industry. Phillips agrees. “Running a folder for the next 20 years is not high on the career agenda for the average 25 year old’s wish list.”

For Desmet, in the next five years the Cloud will come to shoulder more of the workflow integration burden, able to increase capacity and to support the open interface workflows that will make integration much simpler than it has been with JDF to this point.

“We are in a technology business,” says Phillips. “There is so much data flowing that you need automation to cope. We have been one of the first companies with the Ricoh VC60000 inkjet press and we have pushed to print on coated and on uncoated papers. They have learned as much from the process as we have.

“There is a cost to being the first with any technology, but we have to go for it. For our customers it is not about the technology. It’s about the message and what can be done with a piece of paper. And we know that if you post that message, it will get into someone’s hands. With email, that is not a given.

“So we need to drive the automation. We have the workflow there or thereabouts and now it’s a question of what we do next. I do know that if we are not there in five years, I’m not in a job.”

The sentiments apply to every individual print business as much as to Dave Phillips the individual. Automation is coming.

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Delegates at the round table

Delegates at the round table

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