|Above: Delta Modtech Converter for RFID inspection and placement.|
After the ink is transferred to the substrate and cured, the label or other narrow web device still has a long way to go before it is considered a finished product. There is diecutting, foil application, perforating, folding. There is the application of a hologram, perhaps, or another type of security device. And let us not forget RFID: Now there is the insertion, in some form or other, of the works that transform a straightforward label into a radio frequency identification transmitter. All of these converting operations require special equipment.
Specialty converting equipment continues to arrive on the market with new capabilities, more options, faster speeds, servo power, digital complexities, and more flexibility. The last, in fact, is the aspect most in demand.
"Converters today are looking for well proven, flexible systems, which reduce scrap and labor, and yet create more complex, profitable parts," says JoAn Swanson, sales executive for Delta Industrial Services, Coon Rapids, MN, USA. "They are looking for systems to produce new-to-the-world technology, and equipment to automate and streamline their manufacturing processes."
"Flexibility is the key," says Alberto Redaelli, US market manager for Omet, of Lecco, Italy, manufacturer of presses and converting machinery. "This means the capability of covering a large range of formats without having to buy a large number of diecutting cylinders. Our Twin Cut solution, for example, allows the converter to potentially handle a large range of formats without suffering long lead time and fulfilling just-in-time label production."
"Flexibility is necessary for the different formats and frequencies when one is converting RFID tags," says Lenka Huslik of Melzer maschinenbau, of Schwelm, Germany, which manufactures RFID inlay converting machinery. "They require equipment that handles the full process, including defective inlay selection."
Converters want "integrated deliveries with automation from one supplier," says Karl Schober, president of Schober USA, Cincinnati, OH. "They require more qualified and dedicated diecutting equipment for film materials, center-to-center adjustments for the die and anvils. Retrofitting systems into presses or rewinders is still of great interest as it allows for processes to be combined and to become more efficient," he adds. "With lasers and mechanical systems easy opening features are created."
Bielomatik's modular TTL RFID inlay and inspection machine.
"Custom or contract converters are moving away from multi-pass process machines to single pass processes," she notes. "This allows for greater control of process and quality control of parts. Process is moving to multi-lane, leaning towards wider web, and more sophisticated control of part handling."
Scantech Automation manufactures converting machinery in Mississauga, ON, Canada. Roy Lakhani, technical sales manager, sees several characteristics and features that converters are demanding today in their finishing equipment.
"It is highly desirable that the operator be able to see both the web passing through the inspection zone and the web being slit (and rewound) at the same time and in close proximity," Lakhani says. "This requires the close physical location of the inspection zone with respect to the slitting and rewinding areas of the machine." He includes easy integration of third party equipment, such as digital vision inspection and inkjet printers; ease of combined use; seamless integration into the current workflow; and ergonomic design to minimize the possibility of operator repetitive strain injury.
RFID converting machinery is new to the industry, and the parameters are being newly drawn for the equipment required for the converting process. Among the companies that are strong in the RFID segment of the narrow web converting market is AB Graphics International, of Bridlington, England, which plans to introduce a new RFID machine in the near future.
Another is Bielomatik, a German company whose US office is in Windsor, CT. According to Max Golter, VP of sales, "Converters are looking for smart label/ticket converting equipment capable of producing high volume, low cost per unit, reliable products coming out of their machine. If one were to consider the most efficient manner in which conventional labels are produced today, each press is followed by at least one, if not more, subsequent label inspection stand in which defective labels are removed and replaced.
"The production of smart labels is no different," Golter adds. "The converters currently producing smart labels, to my knowledge, all have some form of clean-up process to deal with defective smart labels. The differentiating factor between these converters lies among the degree of manual intervention to perform the peel and replace operation. Since smart tickets are produced totally independent of each other, as opposed to the liner serving as a common bond between smart labels, defective smart tickets can be discarded in the converting process and therefore do not require a subsequent inspection stand."
Today, says Karl Schober, "The demand for magnetic tape lamination and finishing components and systems for products such as parking tickets and airline tickets, etc., has slowed down. The markets are saturated. The magnetic encoded technology seems to be under pressure from alternative technologies and may be replaced in the future by more integrated electronic technologies.
"Where we feel some increased interest is for off-line equipment for the creation of discrete products out of continuous webs. This need is met by our RSM line and its corresponding different deliveries that we manufacture, including stacking and further automation. Schober as an engineering company customizes its main converting technologies to the materials and shapes converted and combines it with standardized modules to keep costs under control."
"Besides the usual finishing systems for cutting and inspection," says Redaelli of Omet, "there is a great interest now for other post-press equipment, such as for manufacturing thermo-retractile sleeves. There is also interest in RFID transponder control equipment, but this technology, even if it is popular, is not really available yet for industrial production."
John Huang, of Orthotec, a manufacturer of converting equipment based in Taiwan, said the company has introduced a new RFID converting machine that includes more than the one process. "We have put an RFID converting section on the platform of the CN2850DL flatbed label press, which features four-color printing, hologram and hot stamping, laminating, and an optional puncher."
Custom manufactured converting equipment can take nearly any form. Delta Industrial Services deals with unusual converting challenges regularly, and offers advice on how to approach the converting process.
"The first challenge that converters must overcome is to identify and define their method of manufacturing or process," says JoAn Swanson. "Many converters find it advantageous to set up a proof of principle to create and experiment with these new process methods.
Schober's RFID unit
"Competition lies in wait around every corner," Swanson adds. "Converters seeking to compete using older web processes and packaging techniques may have a difficult time keeping up with those using single pass, more sophisticated processes. Once the process and manufacturing equipment are defined, product and process confidentiality and redundancy capability are the next challenges to be overcome."
"Converters want cost reduction and improved efficiency," says Redaelli. "They want better production, meaning best quality and more speed, at the same price; or they want the same quality production but at a more competitive price. The most obvious way to meet these challenges is with intelligent machines equipped with servo motors.
"In my opinion, the most important innovation is servo drive technology," he adds. "It will allow the converter to reduce setup times considerably, increase profit margins and the quality of the final product." Servo technology, he continues, is changing the marketplace, on presses as well as on post-press machinery. "All machines without this technology will be too old in a short time, and all printers without it will not be competitive."
In-depth analysis of the converting customer's needs is paramount to determine the nature of the machinery that will convert the finished product. That makes consultation among all parties critical.
"Often during the initial contact and discussion, the prospects ask for wide web converting, only to find out during the course of our consulting that handling all the discrete parts that come out of a wide web is a different subject, especially when talking about film 40 or 50 microns strong and anticipated elevated production speeds," says Karl Schober. "Seldom is there a one-size-fits-all solution."
When stacking is considered, for example, "customers are often not aware that the shapes of the products need adjustments or complete exchange of delivery parts, which slows down a changeover process between production runs. For short runs it is easier to just use a shingle delivery than to set up a stacker. Stackers are capable of speeds beyond 800 to 900 feet per minute, but when the machine is running thin and slippery parts with strange designed shapes, stacking is not an option. For those situations we provide continuous stream deliveries so the products can be grabbed and packed easier.
"Precision in converting, especially if it is an off-line process, is always a challenge. But with today's modern electronics, and our more than 50 years of experience, we can master these situations," Schober says.
"It is sometimes difficult to make prospective customers understand the physics of diecutting," he adds. "Wider means larger diameters and higher tool costs, which is not a positive factor for smaller runs. Wider means more products across. This increases the likelihood of problems per product stream as more products are processed, and therefore increasing the possibilities of production interference. Integrate this into an in-line printing press converting process and a mix of setup interferences beginů"
For RFID production, Bielomatik's Golter sees three principal challenges:
"First, for smart labels and smart tickets, one huge obstacle is the ability to inspect each smart product individually at high speed without inadvertently reading the neighboring smart label or smart ticket. To be able to accomplish this successfully with a narrow web moving at a speed of five feet per second is quite a challenge. Few machine builders have been able to overcome this issue.
"Second, maintaining tight registration with transponder placement is also crucial as each label applicator manufacturer has stringent requirements for this issue.
"Third, delicate handling of the transponders throughout the converting process is key. During unwinding, registration, diecutting, and rewinding, measures must be taken to address chip protection, web tension control and static control. Failure to address these issues places a converter on a course for inevitable failure in producing smart labels."
Scantech's Roy Lakhani says that the future of specialty converting machinery, will involve "roll mapping applications, where errors detected during the printing process are automatically located on the rewinder.
"They will also incorporate RFID inspection capability, insert placement in register, and low cost in-register diecutting and stripping of low volume preprinted work," Lakhani observes.
Delta's Swanson sees "an increase in interest for finishing equipment for digitally printed webs. Companies participating in the medical or consumer care industry are asking for assistance with validation of machine and process for FDA compliance. We also see a trend with the need for converters to add complex, value added processes for the production of profitable parts.
"The use of complete servo controlled equipment along with user-friendly operator touch screens provide converters with complete equipment and process control. Servo controlled systems offer the ability to load and save process programs, create alarm log files, monitor batch/product counters, and much more.
"Last, there seem to be many converters who are trying to get into the RFID converting market," Swanson observes. "We began a quest to design an RFID inspection and placement system. We found instead that it was far more valuable to define the manufacturing equipment according to specific customer requirements and processes.
"Ultimately," Swanson says, "converters require equipment that is designed to accommodate both the basic RFID inspection and placement along with the ability to incorporate additional value added converting techniques that help to set our customer's process apart from the rest of their competition."