The Flexographic Technical Association’s (FTA) FIRST Operator Certification program was launched in 2009 and the FIRST Company Certification program was initiated in 2011. Both programs operate under the umbrella of FTA’s Technical Education Services Team (TEST) business unit, an organization founded in 2007 through a $1 million grant provided by Ron and Katherine Harper.
The program, in a relatively short amount of time, is already making an impact thanks in part to its 24/7 accessibility and availability to flexo students around the world. While the label industry is just one segment of the flexo industry, it represents one of the fastest growing groups of the programs’ certification students. In fact, Best Label, a California label converter, has become the first company to achieve FIRST Company Certification – a process where the employees not only reach individual certification but their production process is independently verified to ensure they are always running to FIRST specifications.
Label & Narrow Web recently caught up with Duane Woolbright, FTA’s Training Specialist, to discuss the programs’ history, how it works, and the advantages it provides individuals and companies alike.
L&NW: How did the FIRST Operator Certification and the FIRST Company Certification programs get started? What led to the development of the programs?
DW: One of FTA’s main objectives is to advance the flexographic printing process, and one of the ways it meets that objective is to offer training and educational programs and resources. FTA’s Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances (FIRST) book, now in its fourth edition, has been so well-received and so closely followed, that the natural progression was to develop a course curriculum centered around the principles espoused in FIRST. The courses get down to the nuts and bolts of FIRST and explain in-depth, and in an interactive format, the processes to follow in order to maximize efficiency, boost productivity, reduce waste, and achieve consistent, repeatable and color-accurate results, just to name a few.
Those who have gone through the process can attest: at three years old, the FIRST Operator Certification program is already making a documented difference in the quality and growth of the flexographic printing process.
L&NW: How does the program work and what does it entail? Who is eligible?
DW: The FIRST Operator Certification Program is available to any individual or company looking to enhance their skills, grow their organizations, and gain a deeper understanding of the specifications outlined in FIRST. Individuals who take the program are looking to better themselves and grow beyond their own self-education. Companies who enroll their staff are looking to advance their organization and prove to their customers that they follow FIRST’s guidelines. This program is for all members of the supply chain, regardless of market segment, because it is imperative that everyone understands what’s involved and how to implement the correct processes in order to get the high-quality, repeatable results that customers are demanding.
The FIRST Operator Certification program offers three tracks: Press Operator, Prepress Operator, and Implementation Specialist and each track has three levels. Professionals who undergo the training must successfully pass the examination given at the end of each of the first two levels in order to move forward to the next. The “students” receive their official FIRST Operator certification once they have passed the Level III examination.
While the FIRST Operator Certification program is designed for individuals, the purpose of the FIRST Company Certification is to recognize flexographic printing companies that are applying FIRST methodology and have attained compliance with the specifications and tolerances related to communication and implementation, design, prepress and press as detailed in the most current FIRST document.
In order for a company to be eligible for FIRST Company Certification, the following criteria must be met:
• 40% of pressroom staff must be FIRST Press Operator Certified.
• 40% of prepress staff must be FIRST Prepress Operator Certified.
• 40% of management / production staff must be FIRST Implementation Specialist Certified.
A FIRST Company Certification is valid for a three-year period, provided the company:
• Complies with required on-site audit criteria.
• Maintains the required number of certified staff.
• Complies with the FIRST workflow methodology through adhering to the ongoing data submission requirements.
L&NW: How long does the program take to complete?
DW: All training is administered online 24/7/365 via the TEST Virtual Campus. Online or “E-learning” is advantageous as it eliminates an organization’s need to send staff away for training, or endure lost production time on the shop floor or back in the office. Plus, each module is self-paced, meaning the courses can be taken whenever time allows, provided they are completed within the specified six-week or 12-week time period. Level I is six-weeks and Levels II and III each take 12-weeks to complete.
L&NW: What is the cost?
DW: For the average individual who has achieved a FIRST Operator Certification, the entire process costs approximately $2,000, which is considerably more cost-effective than a typical training course that usually only focuses on one or two core subjects, and requires associated travel expenses.
L&NW: What are the advantages of being FIRST certified? How does a label converting company benefit? How does an individual operator benefit?
DW: FIRST and the FIRST Operator Certification program are about building a consistent and repeatable process based on “running by the numbers.” It’s basically teaching the principles and practices to obtain process control specifically for flexo. When you are in control you have a competitive advantage in quality, waste reduction and customer satisfaction over your competitors who don’t follow FIRST.
As far as the benefits specific to a label converter, those really are the same as for any flexo segment. Whether you are producing pressure-sensitive labels, print on carton stock or shrink sleeve films, they all use the same principles and share common practices as part of the flexographic process. It’s not about the size or configuration of your press or the substrates you run, it’s about running to the specifications you have determined optimal for your plant that actually matters. That certainly holds true at the plant or crew level and is equally the case for an individual operator seeking certification.
As for that individual operator, whether in the pressroom or in the prepress (graphics) department, with FIRST Operator Certification they learn the skills to make their jobs so much more productive and really, so much more rewarding. They see waste is reduced, make ready times reduced and “make good” work reduced. Who wants to spend the day tracking down recurring problems, re-running jobs or constantly accounting for excess scrap? The skills these operators hone as they reach Level III certification really helps them to take ownership of their job, and their area in the plant. Above all, they really appreciate their company has actually invested in training specifically for them. They earn the certification and it’s their name on that document no matter where they go.
L&NW: Can any individual participate, or does one need to be affiliated with a company?
DW: We do have some purely individual, unaffiliated users - sometimes they might be new to flexo or changing careers from another process and they take the basic FIRST Operator - Level I training course completely on their own. However, this is a pretty rare occurrence. The overwhelming majority of users (including single users) are part of a converting plant or supplier organization within the flexo industry. There are obviously major advantages to training as part of a company as they nearly always cover the cost of the employee’s training. Often the plants will even set up a training room with a computer allowing users to train before, after or even during a shift. Likewise, almost all these plants are also FTA members. FTA members receive a steep member discount for the training, and since FTA membership is location-based, every single employee at that member location can take advantage of the preferred-member pricing. That really is the bottom line: the more people who are trained in FIRST and working from the same “playbook” (from supervisors to press crews), the greater the impact FIRST certification training will have on the entire plant.
L&NW: Please discuss the progress of the program. How has it been received in the flexo community, and in particular the labeling industry?
DW: Although the certification training programs have been around for about three years now, the last two years have seen the most rapid adoption as the word has gotten out about how successful certification training is as a training tool for flexo practices and FIRST. The demand has been tremendous, with new companies from all over the US and Canada inquiring on a weekly if not daily basis. We even have users from as far away as Saudi Arabia and South Africa. Once they see how we took FIRST 4.0 and broke it into these user-friendly training modules, in a very accessible, online format, we have had a steady stream of converters and suppliers now taking advantage. It’s interesting that with few exceptions, once a company tests the training on a few employees or supervisors, for example, they comment on how they didn’t realize how much they actually needed the training at their plant. Another great indication is the number of repeat companies that are putting additional production crews through the training and the number of multi-year and multiple location training programs we have set up as long term training partnerships.
With that, one of the fastest growing segments showing interest in certification training is the label market. Although early on, wide web flexible packaging was predominate, that has shifted to a good balance of flexo segments with label converters showing some of the strongest growth over the past year or two.
At any given time, we usually have about 400 users on the campus (all in various stages) working toward their certifications.
For more information, visit www.flexography.org