By Melissa Donovan
With print service providers (PSPs) continuing to figure out ways to stay ahead of the curve, one choice involves automation. This takes many forms depending on where automation is implemented in the print production process.
In regards to finishing, one section prime for automation is material handling. Eliminating or minimizing manual errors is highly attractive to any PSP looking to boost their business. Automation at this stage of the game can be as simple as a conveyor belt that helps to move the media along or as complex as a robotic arm.
Handling an Evolution
Automated media handling on digital finishing devices has evolved considerably over the years.
In terms of textiles and sign material handling and cutting, “it started out as simply replacing the age-old cutting table, where you laid down multiple layers of fabric for manual cutting. That was an easy step to automate with a laser. Now the solutions have morphed into mass customization friendly workflows that enable laser cutting printed fabrics on a continuous flow,” explains Kim Daugherty, president, Advanced Color Solutions.
At Matic, automated material handling is built into all of its solutions. “This means that we don’t just offer cutting or sewing machines for finishing, we also offer material handling capabilities such as roll-on, roll-off, and material alignment. All of these help the material fit into the cutting or sewing process without being damaged,” states Jordi Carbonell, CEO, Matic.
One example of automation is conveyor belts, which are a fixture on flatbed cutters. For example, Colex Finishing, Inc., offers a flatbed cutter with conveyor. “It provides automation for loading and offloading roll material, increasing productivity and manual labor,” says Maureen Damato, director of channel sales, Colex. As an add on, an automatic board loader option is available that loads up to 5×10-foot boards.
Besides conveyor belts, material handling is automated in other ways. For example, Elitron’s Kombo TAV features a patented unloading Airo Panel, which removes cut and waste materials from the working area, stacking the material in an unloading bay. “No unsightly nicks or attachment bridges are necessary using Airo Panel so no stripping is required as the cut materials fall away from the waste immediately. The stacks of sheets can be kept in a buffer and managed by the relative software in order to feed these into the finishing system as required. This automation frees up operators for purely manual activities and also allows for round-the-clock production,” shares Caroline Anne Bell, marketing coordinator, Elitron.
Other illustrations of automated media handling from Elitron include the Reversa sheet turner, which can be inline or standalone and the Heleva—an automatic feeding system. “Heleva can work standalone or can be integrated with printers and plotters in order to automate sheet feeding. It can also come with a rolling system that enables it to manage different types of media, depending upon what has to be printed/loaded. It can integrate into the print/cut workflow for seamless, non-stop loading,” says Bell.
Beyond material handling, automation plays a pivotal role in workflow software. Beatrice Drury, marketing and communications manager, Zund America, Inc., believes “the most significant advances have come in workflow automation—in other words, in software. Software components play a critical role in the way operators interface with the machine and how much time and effort they have to spend doing so. From file preparation and retrieval, to fast and precise cut-to-print registration, as well as job picking, sorting, and tracking—in automated digital production workflows, all of these functions are largely software controlled.”
In Particular Finishing
Automation for material handling is important to finishing, especially as labor shortages affect production print floors across the country—if not worldwide.
“In the post-COVID environment, labor rates have increased while the availability of skilled workers has decreased. Automation provides a quick return on investment (ROI) allowing the print provider to reduce and fix operating costs through increased efficiency leading to improved profitability,” explains Chase Pender, marketing manager, Supply55, Inc.
Damato says increasing automation is a key request from PSPs looking for “less manual labor and providing accuracy and increased productivity.”
“Reducing finishing time by improving the production flow reduces total lead time. For example, instead of having to carry a roll of textile from a rack to the machine, the textile is already on an automatic carousel and can be placed on the cutter without the operator touching it. Thanks to this continuous workflow, there is no time spent waiting,” notes Carbonell.
Stressing that “the physical world is ruthless,” Daugherty agrees that when dealing with physical goods labor should be minimized anywhere possible. “At the same time customers want more options. I tell people all the time, automation affords you minimizing touches and maximizing flexibility. In material handling if you can take a two person laser cutting team and turn them into a single person, you are simply going to be more profitable.”
The sheer size—dimension and weight—of some of the media handled on production floors today necessitates automated material handling. “Due to the dimensions of some of the larger media, automatic loading is a savings in terms of operators required. It’s such a backbreaking, manual job, often with two operators dedicated to loading,” notes Bell.
In addition, with less manual material handling there is reduced risk of material damage. “For example, when sewing manually, an operator has to push a big volume of fabric into the sewing machine to be stitched, as a result of the pull/push, the fabric could be damaged, creating many wrinkles or pleats. By using a conveyor belt to continuously drive the fabric, this problem is greatly reduced,” suggests Carbonell.
With speeds increasing on printers, it makes sense that automation move along to address the finishing bottleneck. “With digital printers becoming ever faster, anything that helps speed up the finishing process and alleviate common bottlenecks is becoming more important. Reliable, integrated material handling automation plays a key role in this. It helps minimize operator involvement and manual labor, which is of particular importance these days, given ongoing labor shortages,” notes Drury.
All for All
PSPs of all shapes and sizes benefit from automated material handling on finishing devices.
Pender states that with “rapidly increasing labor costs and employee shortages automation is a lifeline for all print providers offering the ability to streamline workflow and reduce overhead.”
Daugherty sees it as a competitive advantage. “You can do more with less people. This in turn allows you to invest in better people. Simplify from the start. Do it later and you will risk needing to react to other people having already done it. At that point it may be too late.”
Automated media handling for finishing isn’t “for all PSPs, as often there is a problem of space to add the automation machinery and naturally there is also the question of the initial investment,” believes Bell.
“Automated material handling devices designed for processing sheets and boards can double or even triple the footprint of a cutting system, depending on whether automation is required for loading only, or for loading and off-loading both,” agrees Drury.
As an alternative, she suggests something like a tandem operation if maximizing productivity in limited spaces is the primary objective. With the tandem operation on Zünd cutters the cutting area is essentially divided in half, with the operator manually loading/unloading materials on one half of the cutter while operations continue without interruption on the other.
The future is bright for automated material handling.
Drury sees robotics becoming increasingly prevalent in material handling, this is particularly the case as the cost of the technology declines and becomes easier to use and manage. For example, Zünd recently introduced the Robot PortaTable, a robotic picking, sorting, and stacking device that is easily moved as needed from one Zünd cutting system to another. This makes the ROI of such a device much quicker and easier to attain, she adds.
Defining two major areas in the market as apparel and textile signage, Daugherty believes robotics interacting/integrating with lasers for textile will be one area of potential advancement. “We see a lot of different laser applications including appliqué and tackle twill. There is more automation that can happen there. The other is already starting to show up in the market. We recently launched a solution that eliminates the need for markers in the software to be made prior to fabric cutting and has a continuous flow so there is no need to start and stop the conveyor. This is a game changer for printed fabric and it dramatically reduces the sophistication and training requirement on the operator side.”
Inline automation on finishing devices is the future, according to Damato. “The future of automation requests are inline solutions requiring less operators and increased productivity.”
“We see automation as the future of print finishing. RIP developers are working closely with machine manufacturers to add deeper integration to streamlining workflow to reduce print provider operating expenses,” adds Pender.
To stay competitive, productivity and efficiency are key components to any print shop’s daily business. This is achieved in a number of ways. In finishing, relying on automated material handling devices may mean doubling or tripling output. Steps like loading and unloading media take drastically less time and manual error is diminished or eliminated when automation plays a staring role.
Learn more about automated material handling devices for finishing in a recent webinar with panelists representing companies in this article.
Jan2023, Industrial Print Magazine