By Melissa Donovan
Automated software helps converters and packaging plants pivot to more efficient production workflows. It’s incredibly helpful in digital print environments due to the fact that many times this technology is used to produce product with multiple SKUs or versions. Utilizing software to organize this data is far more cost effective than manual processes.
Corrugated is a large piece of the packaging segment. With this in mind, we asked various software vendors to share how solutions help automate print environments by connecting disparate systems.
Conversion to Efficiency
Software creates efficiencies in production. Today’s solutions targeting converters and packaging plants—specifically those handling corrugated—touch all parts of production workflow.
“The world has changed immensely since the pandemic, with automation and remote solutions now more sought-after than ever,” shares Peter Barke, WEBcnx product manager, Arden Software. Workflow solutions that enable automation of “the project management of your packaging production across the globe and streamline workflow in the packaging supply chain” are vital.
Digital print is not the first and only technology used to print corrugated packaging. With the adoption of digital print, software solutions have by association become increasingly necessary due to the mixing and matching of past and present systems.
“The proven fact is that the adoption of digital print is unfortunately resulting in a more specialized and ‘siloed’ production workflow with fewer seamless connections. These types of environments must have a very fluid front end. And while most software has the goal of facilitating fast, smooth output, assets such as digital presses and finishing devices do not communicate with each other that efficiently. Many printers refer to these as production ‘bottlenecks’ that often require time consuming as well as costly manual intervention,” explains Marc Raad, president, Significans Automation.
To address bottlenecks the separate solutions must be linked. “We’re familiar with the many intricacies of these software systems and know how to tailor them to the unique workflow needs of any individual print operation. Unless these components are customized, the individual software for each of your printing or finishing devices won’t communicate in harmony to minimize the dysfunction that comes with the adoption of a digital press and other equipment. In a nutshell, we clean up the workflow software ‘mishmash’ for our clients,” shares Raad.
“The ideal scenario is using one and the same software through the whole process or an integrated solution to feed the digital machines,” adds Tsvetelina Nacheva, marketing manager, EngView Systems.
Beyond validating components that work well between a mix of print technologies, “a good production workflow helps printers deal with the many more—but smaller quantity—digital jobs that are received,” explains Mike Agness, EVP, Americas, HYBRID Software.
Agness defines a “good” system as one that works entirely in PDF, connects to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to receive job details, collaborates with supply chain partners and customers, and is quick enough to keep up with high-speed printers.
A management information system (MIS) is also key, as it “provides packaging industry manufacturers with a comprehensive overview of all the information they need to make decisions ranging from daily minutiae to top-level strategy,” explains Jack J. Lafler, VP, sales and technical services, HiFlow Solutions.
“Instead of the guesswork and time wasted trying to pinpoint a problem, an MIS provides real-time management of business and production processes—from customer service and sales, to prepress and scheduling, production, warehouse, machines, personnel, and business analytics,” shares Lafler.
The best part of an automated solution is the data, with Lafler admitting in terms of an MIS, it might be the most important feature. “Taking the entirety of the data collected and presenting it in a way that managers can use to improve and speed up workflows. Open a dashboard and in a few clicks get the information and analysis you need. Create reports to share with stakeholders that illustrate exactly where you stand, as well as weak areas that require improvement.”
To mitigate the challenges of older and newer devices and systems communicating with one and other, working with current software solutions that enable an open form of communication is key.
Lafler admits that today’s software is designed to integrate easily. “There are various kinds of integration with machines. To thoroughly connect machines with software, smart sensors need to be installed, especially in legacy machines. Once this is done, the machines transmit a large range of data to the management software through its manufacturing execution systems. Ideally, plants should connect IoT, SCADA, and PLCs to their software system so all information on processes can be collected and analyzed.”
“A good workflow is flexible and works with traditional printing, a digital press, or both. It connects to MIS/ERP systems, color management, other workflow tools, and the digital front end (DFE)—basically any task you would ever need,” explains Agness.
One important part of the corrugated printing equation when platemaking is involved is whether the workflow communicates well with the mounting system. “When it comes to traditional printing it is important to know whether the converter has in-house platemaking capabilities. Corrugated plates are the most complicated to work with. Besides the tedious, large size of the plates, there are other considerations. For example, how do you make a plate for a 126-inch press, when the largest plate is only 80 inches wide? The answer is mounting the plates onto a carrier, but that is not a simple process. A good workflow works with the mounting system,” suggests Agness.
As a software systems integrator, Significans Automation operates as a neutral third party. “We always look to evaluate and objectively select the best-in-class software solutions to bring 100 percent connectivity to any printing or packaging operation. We find ‘open’ solutions designed to ‘future proof’ any business, providing long-term value and agility. We look at every aspect of the business and perform an initial assessment. Ideally, we like to use the resources that the shop already has, but we may suggest bringing in additional software systems if needed,” explains Raad.
Features to Look For
Features like ERP, customer relationship management (CRM), and preflighting are essential to digital printing workflow that involves corrugated packaging. Others may be added to address a converter or packaging provider’s specific needs.
“Automation takes place in all aspects of the corrugated workflow from receiving materials to supply management to inventory location management. Automation is the key to lowering costs and minimizing manual processes that cost labor time,” shares Lafler.
Important features to note, according to Agness, are “connectivity to an MIS so that job specifications are automatically sent to the production workflow system, as well as connectivity to production planning, corrugators, and inspection.”
Estimating and scheduling should be addressed. “Estimating is a huge time saver for packaging companies. There are several ways management software does that. One is to ensure access to a central, accurate database, so an estimator only has to click to find past customers and quote, and not rummage around paper files. Secondly, an estimator has real time access to available tools, real time inventory, and supplier and vendor connections. Estimators can also access a built-in imposition module to produce quotes quickly, bypassing the CAD department where quotes can get bottlenecked,” shares Lafler.
Regarding scheduling, “once a quote becomes a job, smart algorithms schedule that job according to material availability, staffing, and machine availability. Instead of hours, it takes minutes, and jobs can then be scheduled according to ideal capacity of the plant and easily moved as managers analyze more solutions well suited for their plant floor,” adds Lafler.
Automation on the inventory side of things should also be considered. “Automation in warehouse is also key to optimizing the corrugated manufacturing environment. Barcode management can bring inventory up to real-time status and warehouse modules such as product inventory and inventory of materials store this information for easy access,” notes Lafler.
“Beyond the typical tasks you’d find in a commercial workflow like preflighting, color management, and editing, software solutions should also have options to create three-dimensional (3D) views for proofing, move finishing files for the cutters, and have variable data capabilities for serial numbers, for instance,” continues Agness.
Proofing and approving artwork can be accelerated with automated solutions. “Our customers tell us that approving artwork files is a complex, timely process that involves multiple stakeholders—often using different applications to view and review packaging and label artwork files, which can lead to quality issues and delays. A solution that enables users to seamlessly connect prepress tools to an interactive sharing platform enables all stakeholders to easily upload, share, annotate, and approve packaging and label artwork, all in hyper-realistic 3D,” shares Jan De Roeck, director of marketing, industry relations and strategy, Esko.
Even web-to-print-type portals is something seen in these environments today. “The customer can see the final design in 3D, get a price quote from the printing house, and order it online. Such platforms help the salespeople handle more project inquiries because the projects contain the correct structures, material, and the 3D visualization with folding animation of the panels,” explains Nacheva.
In terms of corrugated work, automated solutions must be flexible. For example, “have the layout capabilities to take approved one-ups—like pizza boxes—and place them economically on a sheet using step and repeat. Or handle work if it is preprint—printing a top sheet that will be adhered to the corrugated, or post print—printing directly on corrugated,” recommends Agness.
Nathan Armata, director of workflow development, Significans Automation, suggests it is good practice to start the process by understanding a client’s desired level of automation. “For instance, what needs to be assessed is the application requirements, environment, culture, and resources.
Then leverage existing foundational software that will connect critical aspects of a print shop, establishing an automated production environment. The plan is executed by combining and deploying a range of workflow software. This includes everything from web to print, ERP, CRM, DFEs, and preflighting—whatever is required to maximize productivity and the investment.”
The Dreaded ROI
Return on investment (ROI) on software can be difficult to calculate, which is why many hesitate on investing. In truth, it’s all about combined ROI and frankly, what is saved from utilizing an efficient system.
“It really depends upon the number of jobs, the original investment of required software, and other factors. However, as a rule, from our experience the payback can be as quick as three months or as long as a couple of years,” admits Agness.
Armata says at minimum, results have ranged in the thousands of dollars from removing multiple costly steps in production to deploying a new workflow in minutes. “Our clients have seen an almost immediate capacity boost, such as processing hundreds of jobs a day instead of ten and even less while drastically minimizing costly human errors. Plus, with the proven efficiencies of artificial intelligence, we can boost that shop’s efficiency anywhere from 20 to 70 percent and even more, contributing to long-term growth.”
“Typically, ROI is achieved quickly—sometimes within a few months of implementation. However, this can depend on factors that are relative to the how much the company has participated and invested in the process of training and how committed management is to utilizing all of the automation features of the software,” suggests Lafler.
Gaining efficiencies in a production plant is something that can be done anywhere, anytime—with a little help. Whether it’s a neutral vertical integrator that comes in and makes all of your systems communicate harmoniously with each other, or a vendor with a solution that can fix the one piece of the puzzle that is missing. In corrugated work arenas, automated software solutions are essential in the push to adopt digital technologies in house.
Sep2023, Digital Output