by Cassandra Balentine
Packaging is a complex application that requires planning and accuracy. The increased use of digital printing brings shorter volume work. This often means the profit margin is low and the need for automation and efficiency throughout prepress and preflight is essential.
Above: Esko offers its customers a test to determine their Digital Maturity Model.
Today’s packaging manufacturers and suppliers face an ever-growing demand for increased quality, consistency, and efficiency. “Without a doubt, the innovation delivering the clearest tangible benefit to businesses in meeting this challenge is the adoption of integrated hardware and software technologies to automate workflows, systems, and processes,” explains Jan De Roeck, director industry relations and strategic marketing, Esko.
Workflow tools for packaging production help improve the process, making it more seamless and efficient.
Role of Automation
Automation plays an important role in packaging production. Workflow tools that facilitate this continue to evolve alongside digital print adoption. Automation can benefit all print-based manufacturers. It allows for faster turnaround, greater product regionalization, promotions, and brand extensions.
Efficiency is increasingly important as packaging printers are tasked with producing many designs, but in lower quantities. Automation is critical to gaining the full efficiency that digital print solutions offer. “Short lead times, fast turnaround of work, and efficient handling of multiple, short-run print jobs can only be achieved with good automation,” states Steve Lynn, director/GM, new markets, Durst Image Technology US, LLC. A digital print solution should be part of an automated workflow to achieve maximum benefits.
Automation means different things to different organizations and industries. “The term automation for our customers is all about saving time, reducing manual errors, and increasing print production capacity to do more with less,” shares Jonathan Rogers, international marketing manager, Onyx Graphics, Inc. He notes that this is specific to Onyx, a company that develops software solutions for wide format digital inkjet users. “For them, automation plays an integral role in their production workflow because it helps accomplish these goals.”
George Folickman, director of sales, Tilia Labs Inc., sees trends towards more SKUs, especially in corrugate mailer and label applications. “Printers are trying to profitably produce shorter runs,” he shares. For example, he sees HP Indigo users that can do quantities of one, but when it comes to the more traditional converting side it becomes a question of how to profitably produce short-run orders. “That’s the challenge right now. The capabilities are there but the industry is challenged with determining what represents a profitable short run from order entry all the way through finishing,” he stresses.
Narrowing Down the Options
Many software tools are available to packaging producers. Finding the best options for your particular operation takes patience and research.
In terms of speed, quality, and consistency, Esko studies show that at the very start of a project—during the job onboarding process—is where the most time and energy is wasted. “The integration of automated data exchange between MIS, ERP systems, and the prepress workflow are the areas with the biggest potential for improvement,” says De Roeck.
A packaging print provider might ask themselves when considering a software solution whether or not the workflow software will help them remain competitive in an already competitive environment. “In today’s digital print environment, some level of workflow software is critical to be competitive,” notes Rogers. Understanding current production problems is a good first step toward integration. Look at current processes and identify the workflow bottlenecks, and all manual production steps,” he suggests.
When you’re evaluating workflow tools it is a good idea to seek connectable solutions with well-documented APIs. “We live in a connected world, everything needs to talk to everything else. Most of the software tools in our industry were developed ten to 15 years ago with a lot of proprietary data.
Moving forward, the industry should be looking to software suppliers who develop and document their APIs first to ensure the most flexbility to connect,” says Folickman. He describes legacy systems as a house without doors, and if users want to expose new paths they have to knock down a wall. Many of the latest solutions are open and designed to communicate easily with one another.
Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zund America, Inc., agrees, noting that packaging converters and manufacturers should determine whether the product has an open API or find out what other vendors the provider has successfully integrated with. She says this can be very telling as to the likelihood of success. “Manufacturers most likely start by looking at integration from the perspective of software and hardware products that already exist in their environment. First they should consult the manufacturers of the respective components for suggestions. It’s not unheard of to have in-house developers on staff for home-grown solutions.”
For greenfield projects, Roden suggests making selections based on a vendor’s history of ongoing development and upgrade capabilities. “Especially with rapidly evolving technologies such as Internet of Things in play, no integration solution put in place initially is able to remain static for very long.”
It is important to talk to your equipment supplier and ask them for examples or recommendations of workflow tools that work well with their print solution. “Ensure you get a demonstration that covers all aspects of how the automation you need works and ask for references for users that do similar work to see how the recommended workflow solution is working in a real production environment,” offers Lynn.
Diving into Integration
The ability for workflow tools to connect and communicate with each other as well as equipment is imperative for achieving automation and efficiency.
Without integration between production and business systems success is a challenge. “To work best, there should be no human interaction to enter or edit project data after the job is received and set up. Most systems focus on trying to achieve this objective,” states Mike Agness, EVP, Americas, HYBRID Software.
Roden sees the most success with digital packaging businesses focused on user-friendly order entry and design portals that integrate with production workflows with little to no human intervention.
“We are not going backwards to times where systems can be siloed, they have to talk to each other,” cautions Folickman. The challenge is the same with any kind of data structure, which involves getting software vendors to talk to and integrate with each other. Currently, the issue is addressed by forward-thinking companies hiring in-house developers to get systems to communicate. However, companies that offer an API-first mentality will make this easier to achieve.
Agness points out that data entry on the front end is a challenge. He suggests that once data is entered into the system, it is the only time it should be entered and should be consistently used everywhere else as needed. “It is essential that you get the data correct up front. While this seems simple, if all operators in the process see the same, identical data rather than re-keying it all the time, the chances of incorrect information—and job errors—is kept at a minimum.”
Lynn says it is important to remember that a good workflow solution should work with your business; you shouldn’t have to change your business to work with the workflow solution.
The discussion of essential tools in a packaging workflow include much of what we’ve previously discussed—efficiency, integration, and automation.
Folickman points to the need for a dynamic workflow. He notes that many traditional workflow solutions are hard coded or conditionally limited.
While good, they rely on particularly structured data sets that don’t leave much room for flexibility. “We want to get as far away as possible from templated software solutions and opt for options that are dynamic and flexible enough to address the rapidly changing landscape presented by digital print,” he predicts.
Integration works alongside efficiency and automation. “The easier a packaging workflow solution integrates with other systems, the easier it is to automate the entire process,” says Agness. The most important thing to consider is how much more efficient a workflow solution would be with integration. “Operators need help with proper file preparation in many cases, which is a good method of quality control. If you can efficiently get to this state through automation or just integrating job information without manual data entry, you’ve got a win,” he shares.
Specific to wide format, Rogers sees a trend towards workflow automation. “We define workflow as adding automated actions throughout the print production process, removing manual touch points or manual errors, and streamlining the overall process from design file to final product. Applying this to essential features means print and packaging providers may want to look for solutions with tools that are easy to use and understand.”
Functionalities may include the ability to automate the application of multiple print job settings across different media or job types to speed up job production and reduce finishing time. Another helpful tool is the ability to scale or rotate print jobs before processing in the RIP queue. Relying on software to match color and ensure color output meets print buyer expectations as well as ensure that all output is consistently produced the same over time is also useful, lists Rogers.
Lynn points to easy file handling, file transfer, and preparation as critical elements of a packaging print workflow. “A good workflow solution should create a print-ready file from a customer supplied art file automatically, apply automated prepress file corrections, and provide color management.
These are critical in a digital packaging environment. Any workflow solution should provide fast and flexible data preparation, an innovative toolbox for color matching, and full integration into an ERP/MIS system to ensure process optimization and automation.”
Standardization is important when trying to build any system. “Packaging converters and manufacturers should embrace PDF as the preferred packaging artwork file. They should employ tools that allow them to edit this truly portable file, to get it print-ready for the press—digital or traditional—without any false interpretation or ‘translation’ of data.
Translation leads to errors—and errors reduce profits,” offers Agness.
Efficiency is the biggest benefit of a standardized workflow.
Standardization is a necessary element for any successful automation. “Nowadays, influenced by evolving consumer trends and brand and retailing competitive intensity, the number of product variations required has expanded significantly escalating print production complexity and reducing run lengths,” comments De Roeck.
When it comes to digital package printing, an automated and efficient workflow is the name of the game. With smaller run lengths comes reduced room for error and a need for fewer human touch points. Many workflow solutions simplify the process and improve profit potential in an evolving packaging landscape. IPM
Apr2021, Industrial Print Magazine