Label printers are masters of multitasking. When considering the elements of a successful label, a converter must take into account its shape, color, text, materials, cost, special effects, readability, shelf appeal...the list goes on. Ensuring that all elements of the label are consistent and meet customer standards at every pass boils down to one thing: quality.
According to Wikipedia, quality control, or QC for short, is defined as “a process by which entities review the quality of all factors involved in production.” Simple enough, before you consider just how many factors there are involved in a label’s successful production.
To put this into perspective, many theories of quality control address the following components: control over process, job management, defined and well-managed processes, performance and integrity criteria, identification of records, competence, personnel, organizational culture, motivation and quality relationships. The ways that converters approach these components of quality is unique to each company.
In other words, quality control is not achieved by making one or two small changes in a single department. It is the evaluation, assessment and re-evaluation of the company-wide policies that effect individal label quality. And every converter approaches this task differently.
The Label Printers
For Diane Nehring, quality assurance manager at The Label Printers in Aurora, IL, USA, the backbone of her company’s quality control system is the theory that “quality is everybody’s job.”
“It is the employees throughout our operation who are entrusted with producing orders that meet our customers’ needs,” she says. “The Label Printers has always been a quality-oriented organization.”
In fact, Nehring says that The Label Printers was the first printing company in the state of Illinois to be registered to ISO standards in 1995. “We have used that framework to improve our overall quality program and meet or exceed our customers’ needs,” she says.
Nehring says that, as a company, The Label Printers tries to design processes that engage employees to take responsibility for quality. By building small, manageable actions into its internal processes, employees are more engaged and more apt to take responsibility for quality.
“An evaluation of our processes helps us determine where to do key quality control inspections such as inspections of artwork, digital files and plates,” she says. “During these inspections, our Quality Department coordinates the information detailed on our copy sheet and job ticket to customer specifications to ensure the final product not only meets the customer’s needs but that the components released to production meet their needs, saving valuable press time.
“In-process inspections such as press approvals, press checks and final inspection are performed to ensure that the product meets customer requirements and serve as another set of eyes for the operators. Many of these inspections include the ever-popular checklist to help ensure that key elements are not overlooked.”
When The Label Printers acquires new equipment or processes, a team is established to assess the impact it will have on existing processes. The team then evaluates if or how the change effects existing standards, equipment and processes; whether there is a need to establish new practices, test methods or acquire new test equipment; what preventative maintenance is required; and if any preventative measures can be taken to reduce or eliminate nonconformities.
Part of The Label Printers’ quality control process also includes actions for when things do not go as planned. “We document the problem, evaluate it and take corrective action to eliminate or at least reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. To better analyze how we’re doing, we chart any non-conformances to show trends over a two-year period for a better understanding of where to focus additional actions.”
The company also charts the number of label rejections that have shipped to the customer relative to the total number of orders. Its five-year average acceptance rating is 99.69%. For the year-to-date, the rating is 99.71%, which Nehring says is not quite good enough to meet its current goal of 99.72%.
“I guess we’ll just have to keep on working on it, one improvement at a time,” she says.
Columbine Label Company Inc.
Columbine Label, based in Centennial, CO, USA, has based its quality control process on a Six Sigma project done several years ago in conjunction with Avery Dennison.
“Our goal at the time was schedule management and the thing that we identified as one of the biggest problems was accounting for re-scheduling of rework,” says Greg Jackson, president. For example, when an order is sent to production, a single page quality control checklist goes with the order and follows the order through completion. Critical quality checkpoints are detailed and then acknowledged with a signature prior to the order advancing to the next department. This begins with the Art Department, then materials and tooling staging, press operator, finishing and rewind, and finally shipping.
According to Jackson, Columbine Label takes several specific measures at every stage of a label’s production in order to ensure quality control throughout the company. Examples of these measures include: verification by the art department of copies, plates, sizes, copy corrections; approval of stock, die and plate specifications by the staging and tooling department; confirming that the job matches the order including customer name, unwind style, bar code confirmation, how the QC was performed (to proof or sample), die, stock and color verification using spectrophotometer by the press operator; authorization of copy (checked to proof/sample), print die and registration quality, bar code approval, quantity, roll dimensions and overages by the finishing department; confirmation of shipping method, packing slip accuracy, confirming that correct samples are in the box, and, finally, shipping completion paperwork authored by the shipping department.
Overall plant metrics at Columbine Label include on-time delivery, customer rejected orders, and order completion times. Total sales and customer rejects are posted weekly in the break room to encourage transparency and accountability.
As Columbine Label has evolved, so has its quality control standards. “Upon adding digital in-house three years ago, we found the sheer volume of orders and number of touches as the order proceeded through the plant required a change on how we handle new orders versus repeats,” Jackson says.
Since adding digital capabilities, repeats have now been removed from the pre-press department. Proofs are catalogued and repeats are pulled and sent with the order. “These steps amount to fewer hands touching the order progress which amounts to fewer opportunities for unintended consequences or mistakes,” Jackson says. New orders at the company still follow the previous process.
To ensure accountability at every level of the production process, Jackson has implemented quality control checklists, which require initials and signatures by individuals as orders move through the plant. This way, at every stage of a label’s life cycle, someone at Columbine Label is individually responsible for its quality.
Because color drift is said to be the number one complaint in printing, Jackson uses a spectrophotometer to measure color standards. “We control color using digital PMS specifications and visual comparisons are simply a final verification,” Jackson says.
“We rarely use printed PMS books because they’re all different!” In previous years, Columbine Label used a light/dark/standard sample approved by the customer as control. Jackson decided to change his approach because “that method is very subjective.”
Jackson says that by utilizing a spectrophotometer, he has virtually eliminated color inaccuracy arguments. “It has established a very repeatable standard that has resulted in very little customer objections about color,” he says.
The one key plant metric at Columbine Label, Jackson says, is customer rejects. “We measure this and publish it weekly and really work to eliminate re-work,” he says. It seems that these measures have paid off: Columbine’s quality control index in recent years (which Jackson defines as the inverse of customer rejects divided by total orders) have been between 98.96 and 99.52%.
Joe Kansco has been the quality manager at Labels Unlimited in Virginia Beach, VA, USA for more than two years. Previously, he worked in quality control at Ford Motor Company, where he helped build the F-150 truck. He also worked as a quality engineer at Stihl Chainsaw before joining the team at Labels Unlimited.
His role at Labels Unlimited, he says, is very clear: “First and foremost I’m responsible for the creation of the standards as they’re set forth by customers, and I’m responsible for maintaining those standards through inspection and through process control. I’m responsible for auditing the quality and production procedures in hopes of finding any possible loopholes where nonconformities can get out.”
Since taking the position of quality manager at Labels Unlimited two years ago, Kansco says that the company has undergone drastic – and all very good – changes. “When the current owner took over,” he says, “he went outside the old label industry mindset. He reached out to experts in other industries who have looked at quality control. We’ve taken a systematic process control approach to everything.”
The goal of Kansco’s systematic approach is rooted in one thing: consistency.
“If you’re a customer and you’ve put in your order, it doesn’t matter if you put the order in the winter, the summer, at 2 PM or 2 AM, it will be the same every time,” he says. “We are 100% driven by numbers, trying to take the human element out of it as much as possible, which is an every day battle.”
For Kansco, being driven by numbers means testing parameters, taking averages, creating a bell curve, creating upper and lower limits, and plotting points to see if processes are in control or not. “We collect data on everything we do,” he says. “This is not based on emotions or gut feelings or what we think is good. We let the data tell us, and we make decisions based on that.”
Labels Unlimited has upgraded multiple pieces of equipment, including parts, in order to guarantee smoother processes. For example, Kansco says that the company has updated its washers so that it can guarantee everything is cleaned after every run and that there’s no cross-contamination or color mixing.
“We’re no longer trying to look at a label and saying ‘It looks close enough side by side,” he says. “We’re now measuring hues to the slightest turn, a lot more than the naked eye can pick up. And we’re doing that on every single label.”
The company has also purchased vision systems, which Kansco says was an inevitable next step. “When a web is running 500 ft/min and the labels are 1" wide, three across the web, the camera will look at every single label and it will make a digital road map,” he says. “You set the standards, and that machine will reject every one that doesn’t meet that standard. I can accept that digital file and say “Ok, that’s acceptable” or its not. We can then replace it.”
The vision system has increased Labels Unlimited’s speed significantly, he says. Now, the company no longer manages samples; it looks at the whole population of the roll. “We can run full-speed and protect the customer at the same time. It alerts me if my color is moving, if my quality is changing, it alerts me before there is waste.”
Labels Unlimited is primarily a flexographic printer, but Kansco says that its sound quality control systems will allow it to eventually make a move into digital. “We’re making more and more strides in the priming of the paper inline, the converting, and trying to move and be as efficient as we can with the digital printing process.
“The speed is a lot slower in the digital process, but that’s when you have to fine tune and find out where the point of the length benefit is. For example, if I’m running 5000 feet, it’s not cost effective to run it digital. You don’t save enough on the waste to outset the speed. The industry is moving in that direction and we are embracing that.”
The company is also pursuing ISO 9001 and 14001, as well as ISO TS 16949 (which is specific to the automotive industry). These additional certifications, Kansco says, will further serve the company’s quality control systems. Kansco hopes to complete the certification process by the end of 2014.
“A lot of our customers are just starting to move in this direction and they’re changing, so we’re trying to stay ahead of that demand.” lnw
Advanced Vision Technology (AVT) is a developer and manufacturer of automatic inspection systems for web applications in the packaging, labels, folding cartons and commercial printing sectors. Together, AVT systems and those of its subsidiary Graphic Microsystems, Inc. (GMI) have almost 6000 installations worldwide.
The Hod Hasharon, Israel-based company offers several systems designed to help converters achieve their quality control goals. Here’s a look at some of what they offer:
Hologram Inspection System: Comprised of a combination of illumination and optics developed by AVT over the last two years, the 100% automatic inspection system combines traditional print inspection technologies, holographic foils inspection and hologram print applications.
Workflow Link: A product that utilizes information directly from the press inspection database to automatically stop the rewinder, avoiding the unnecessary duplication of defective products.
PrintFlow Central: As central storage for AVT’s PrintFlow database, the PrintFlow Central allows users to store, backup and monitor all aspects of print quality from one access point, regardless of site structure and location.
PrintVision/Helios ll: AVT’s 100% inspection technology is designed to meet the requirements of any label and narrow web application. This product inspects all print technologies – both on press and on rewinder – and offers a range of additional tools and modules for increased versatility.
RLT (Repeat Length Trend): RLT is a new addition to PrintVision/Helios ll that enables the monitoring of repeat length and provides alerts warning of any deviation.
ProMIS: ProMIS sends relevant information from MIS systems directly into the PrintVision/Helios ll inspection system, shortening setup and preventing mistakes.