Product Reviews

Flexo Press Economics

April 11, 2011

New press technology and Lean practices are cutting down time, labor and waste - and growing profits.

Flexo Press Economics

Mark Andy's new press technology accommodates repeats as small as 5.5 inches, helping converters reduce plate costs.
New press technology and Lean practices are cutting down time, labor and waste – and growing profits.

For a label converter, it’s fair to say that there isn’t a more substantial equipment acquisition than a press. It is the machine that the other equipment purchases are centered around, and it’s what makes a label operation tick. But, of course, what also makes a label plant run successfully are the people – the pressroom managers and operators. And it’s their skill and know-how, in conjunction with the label presses’ bells, whistles, buttons and gears, that determine a converter’s profitability. And this is really what it’s all about.

“Profit in any business comes from having sufficiently well-paying gross sales and from controlling costs. For a flexographic press used to print labels, the solutions to maintaining high quality and reducing costs are not mutually exclusive,” says Jim Walker, communications director for Rotary Technologies.

The economics of a press have everything to do with consumables, waste, time and labor. When it takes a long time to set up a job, or to change from one job to the next, profitability suffers. And the same can be said for any amount of waste that’s created during job setup. And it’s not just material waste – time gets wasted too. The time press operators spend on setup and changeover is time – and money – that could be spent on the next run.

In addressing press economics, it’s important to look at the challenges converters face today, says Jeff Feltz, director of product management at Mark Andy. He points out that decreasing margins due to commoditization, cost pressures from rising material and ink cost, higher quality expectations from customers, constant price pressure from customers, and difficulty finding and retaining good press operators are all obstacles to profitability.

“All of these challenges impact the bottom line,” Feltz says, adding that new press technologies are addressing these issues head on. “New press models have significantly reduced setup times and setup waste. Updated designs provide simple operation for the operators and press speeds can be run much faster with auto registration systems and improved drying and curing. These improvements can improve margins on existing jobs by 10 percentage points or more.”

No doubt, new machinery can go a long way in improving press economics. But another way to get there is through examining and addressing how the work gets done – how equipment and materials get to press. And Lean Manufacturing concepts have a lot of value here.

Jakob Landberg, vice president of sales and marketing for Nilpeter, says, “Apart from the investment in floor space and machinery, everything depends on how little time you spend in setup and during print, and gets you the most out of your labor costs – while minimizing wasted materials. Lean is a system that utilizes common sense – it’s not rocket science. But you can win the war with Lean thinking – the more you win internally, the stronger you get. It’s easier to save margins via smart thinking than to gain margins from your clients.”

Paul Teachout, Southeastern technical graphics advisor, Harper Graphic Solutions, says the flexographic process is a perfect candidate for Lean Manufacturing practices. “Implementing the simple practices of Lean will create a much more efficient and healthier work environment. The reduction of wasted movement, consumables and manpower is the driving force behind these principles. And this creates a workflow that optimizes the process, reduces the waste and maximizes the manpower. Lean principles can play a major role in improving any operation, but it must begin from the top down. When the staff sees that the stakeholders are driving the commitment, it will become a contagious process. It will improve morale, change the culture, and ultimately lead to increased profitability, with less daily challenges to overcome,” Teachout says.

Getting automated
Today’s advancements in press technology are having a great impact on press economics. Flexo experts by and large point to automation, particularly with servo motors, as a breakthrough in improving the economics of running a flexo press.

The Servo 3000 unit from Rotary Technologies is a cost effective way of adopting servo technology.
“A servo guided press comes into register within one press length, and it will typically require fewer press stops during a print run than will a standard flexo press,” Jim Walker says. “This reduces material waste and labor cost from press adjustments.” A servo driven press, Walker adds, is also able to print more precisely in order to take on jobs such as printing electronic circuits where the degree of precision required may be in the 70 micron range for multiple passes on the same material.

“Today’s presses are clearly becoming more efficient through their use of computerization,” says André Beaudoin, national sales leader for Aquaflex. “The operator’s ability to store repeat jobs in the press memory, along with all of the registration parameters, aid in a drastic reduction of makeready time and a drastic a reduction on wasted setup material. Quick-change plate rolls and anilox rolls and the utilization of print sleeve technology also reduce the time it takes for setup and makeready,” Beaudoin says, adding that the reduction of the web path and enhanced drying are allowing for faster run speeds. He says, “Drying capability and line speed capability is also critical as it affects the length of time that a job is on press and then off to the customer.”

Beaudoin emphasizes that operator interface and automation is critical. He says, “The time that any operator must take to perform all makeready, changeover, and job registration is of the utmost importance. Presses today are becoming increasingly more computerized and the ability to speed up job registration with less waste, and the capability to control it from anywhere on the press are important factors.”

Bill Poulson, technical flexographic advisor at Harper Corporation of America, says that first and foremost, optimal efficiency was – and still is – all about makeready time and waste, and this is what the technology is homing in on. “When I was in manufacturing, that was all I was accountable for. That was all that mattered – press downtime and waste. The new presses are focusing on these two subjects. Makeready time with the new auto register systems that put the job into register quickly is significant. This not only improves setup time but minimizes makeready waste as well. The presses also can set impression automatically. This has eliminated the human factor to some degree, but the skill of the operator is still a key factor,” he says.

The Operator
The press operator – or, as Poulson says, the human factor – plays a large role in press economics. And one of the key differences between running an older press versus a newer one is that of the operator’s role. With newer presses, the idea of the operator as a craftsman is diminished. However, his or her role is still integral to optimizing press economics.

“With older flexo presses, the operator is the key to success,” says Jeff Feltz. “The operator controls how fast a job is set up, how much waste is generated, and the overall print quality and consistency. Flexo has traditionally been more of an art than a process. This is why finding and retaining good operators is critical – and becoming more of a challenge every day.”

Just because press operations have become more automated, it doesn’t mean that just anyone can get in there and run the machinery.

“The truth is, with the integration of advanced technology built into the presses, it would truly behoove any client to ensure that their operator has been trained at the factory by the press manufacturer’s technicians,” adds Beaudoin. “The operators need to have a thorough understanding of the presses’ features and capabilities and the understanding of how to get the press to run optimally in utilizing those features. The days of the old way, or ‘sledgehammer’ adjustments, have gone by the wayside.”

Aquaflex, Beaudoin says, encourages customers to visit its facilities and get intimate with the machinery. “We encourage the training,” he says. “And we’re very good at it. We have printing specialists on board, and they’re the best in the industry. That’s who you’re going to learn from – a printer, not a technician.”

Nilpeter’s Landberg makes a Formula One racing comparison. He says. “You have a team to service the race car in 1½ seconds and you have a very skilled driver winning the race. There is much more focus on training the printer in running the press today – the printer is a valuable asset, and no longer a necessary liability. Lean thinking is always preaching that you need the backup and support from the team – or else you wont get the improved economics.

“New presses are not better than the operators,” Landberg adds. We see many putting untrained and inexperienced operators on new, expensive equipment. That’s like handing over your keys to the Ferrari to the 16-year-old son!”

Paul Teachout stresses that the most important thing the operator can do is deliver effective feedback to production management. He says, “If the operator does not have the ability to identify on press challenges and communicate them efficiently, the process will never improve. Informing the production management of challenges regarding register, ink formulations and color management are very important aspects that will lead to improved efficiencies. Although these seem like general concerns, they are the driving force behind the most costly waste we have, the substrate.”

Pressroom Practices
With its flexo presses, Nilpeter sells Lean Trolleys, a simple and effective Lean tool. It holds printing sleeves, anilox rolls, ductor rollers, ink pans, and doctor blades.
Operating a Lean pressroom is easier said than done. While becoming an entirely Lean is a major commitment, all label converters can benefit by incorporating some basic concepts into their operations.
Bill Poulson says that a printer should be methodical when it comes to press setup for all jobs. “Keep your toolbox and tools available and close to the area where you are working to minimize having to run all around the pressroom for tools. The SMED program (single minute exchange of dies) works well for this. And set up a standardized press inventory with anilox selection, cylinder inventory and plate storage.”

While older presses do not have the latest bells and whistles, they can still do the work in a profitable manner. “This is where organizational skills come into play,” says Poulson. “I see many print shops in my travels, and the ones who are making money are the shops that are organized and clean. If you are working with older equipment then you need to have preventative maintenance programs into place. Keeping the equipment in good running order will allow you to print as well as any new press. The newer presses may have an edge when it comes to makeready speed and easier setups, but once the press is in run mode, that is where the money is made.”

Poulson believes that the heart of the flexo process lies in anilox management. “Properly fingerprint the press and have a standardized anilox inventory with an active management program. And there needs to be some sort of plan set forward in this area. Also, have a color management program for custom color jobs set up in the ink room. The anilox standardization supports the ink program, and this will minimize downtime on press for color matching,” he says. “Keep a log in the shop orders that list the specific anilox selection that will go into press. Also have a program in place for putting away all the plates when finished.

“Tracking the makeready times, run times and press run efficiency should be done per job. Post these numbers daily so that the press crews can see where they are making or losing money. This is a great motivator if done in a positive manner and presented properly,” Poulson says.

In with old, in with the new
It’s fair to say that a new press purchase is a major expense. Decommissioning an older press in favor of a new one, or adding a new press to run alongside older models, is a significant business decision. New or old, economics is the primary concern.

“There is no doubt that newer top line revenue is impacted by new flexo presses,” says Mark Andy’s Feltz. “Improvements in setup times and press speeds open up additional capacity for more sales revenue. New markets can become a reality for converters with new flexo equipment. And many new flexo presses are able to run thin, unsupported films or shrink material. Others can be equipped with high-end decoration processes, such as foiling or screen. These options allow converters a way to enter into new markets with higher margins.

“Many of our customers have realized more than double the output on our newer press models as compared to their existing equipment,” Feltz says. “This has allowed customers to replace multiple older press models with a few new presses, and this has a huge impact on the overhead structure of a company.”

“The problem for the printer – as a businessman ¬¬– is that new servo presses are expensive,” says Jim Walker. “An alternative is to fit an existing standard flexo press with an independent servo unit. The cost is substantially less, and the servo function will commonly make an older press perform like new,” he says. “A new press needs to pay off – in longer hours, better paying work, and reduced waste for carrying costs of monies borrowed or diverted to buy the press,” Walker adds. “Using an old press often results in increased maintenance costs, but the machine is typically paid for. Finding cost effective ways to upgrade such a press can often be more profitable than buying a totally new machine,” Walker says, adding that this makes the argument for alternative solutions like attaching a servo unit such as Rotary Technologies’ Servo 3000 to an existing press instead of buying a new press.

Cost is the obvious main driver for new investments, specifically, bringing down cost and improving margins. “Old machines have a higher level of waste, need more service and have more downtime in general,” Jakob Landberg says. “There has been great focus on improving setup time and lower waste in conventional presses as the economy has soared and digital technology has arisen. Also, the energy needs are lower on new servo presses – as well as on new UV systems. And hot air blowers are much more economic today than even few years ago.”

“When looking at any capital expense, converters need to look at return on investment,” says Mark Andy’s Feltz. “We utilize an economic model in our sales process as we consult with customers. This model shows that setup times and waste are the biggest areas that influence job cost, and by extension margins. Material cost is generally the single biggest cost for a converter. Anything that can be done to minimize material waste should be evaluated. Setup time and waste continue to become large factors in a converters overall profitability, as run lengths keep getting shorter.”

Teachout maintains that the older presses, if maintained in good condition are still very effective and productive. “The most important thing is to match the work being run with the capabilities of the machine. Do not expect to run 300 dpi plates and hold .002” register on a 10-year-old gear driven machine. The backlash tolerances and line shaft deflection will make this most challenging. Apply the proper traps that will allow the operator to be most efficient on press without struggling with challenging register concerns that will ultimately create waste.

“The newer presses are designed to accommodate today’s high definition flexo. Running 300 dpi requires a press to hold very precise register. The automated presses of today have these capabilities by incorporating direct drive servo driven technology. This is what allows all stations to start, accelerate, run and repeat very consistently due to minimal backlash or line shaft deflection.

“Everything happens in unison,” Teachout says. “Matching the capabilities of the machine to the product being run is the key.”

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