While many converters have taken steps to promote the printing industry, there is real concern about who will be running the flexo presses that drive 90% of today’s work. Suppliers, however, are attempting to get out in front of this problem with the designs of their latest machines.
As flexo press operators head for retirement, equipment manufacturers are looking for ways to modernize their equipment. “Finding the next generation of flexo press operators is a huge industry concern,” adds Todd Blumsack, vice president of Business Unit Web-fed, Bobst North America. “As a matter of fact, I sit on the TLMI Work Force Development Team, and this is the key topic that we’re addressing.”
“The industry has recognized the workforce concern,” says Paul Teachout, Nilpeter’s vice president of sales and marketing, North America. “The silver tsunami is upon us, and it is not going away. There are more people retiring or leaving our industry than are entering. Workforce development and smarter solutions are the key to overcoming this. We must have the ability to do more with less. This requires operating by the numbers for predictable and repeatable results regardless of operator skill. We must invest in the technologies that allow us to do that, replacing outdated equipment with smarter 4.0 solutions will lead us to a more efficient and profitable workflow. We cannot continue to operate as a craft, it has to be a predictable science and we have to have the equipment that is smart enough to manage it.”
The industry has undertaken multiple workforce development initiatives to attract a younger workforce. “We must engage in these activities and promote our industry as a very sophisticated process with a very bright future,” adds Teachout. “The packaging markets will only continue to grow, so we must all take part in showing the world that this is a vibrant and rewarding industry that provides exceptional opportunities. It did for me.”
Most label conferences will include a presentation on this topic, and how the industry plans on solving it. During a recent converter profile, an owner told me that a background in printing wasn’t required to run the company’s new Colordyne digital press. That is not the case with flexo, but there are ways that the top manufacturers are modernizing their equipment.
The presses must conform with the latest industry trends, including the drive for automation and compatibility with Industry 4.0.
“Our engineers and designers have focused on improvements to provide a more automated control system, faster press setup times and higher max press speeds,” says Jeff Cowan, director of business development, Performance Series, at Mark Andy. “Key to it all is that we did this without compromising on the machines’ simplicity, reliability and flexibility to increase operator productivity and business profitability.”
For example, Mark Andy’s Performance Series E line introduces the latest in servo technology, enabling greater accuracy in pre-registration and auto registration. The P9E allows converters to automate intelligently with standard servo controlled impression, side adjust and anilox drive, along with servo print cylinder and impression roll drives. These features offer the option to include full camera based impression and registration control.
Meanwhile, Nilpeter’s all new FA and the Panorama hybrid are presses designed for the future and the converter’s ever-growing needs in applications, automation and workforce challenges. “The all new FA is a fully automated press with single component operation, single piece inking system, anilox and plate sleeves, along with all Clean Hand technology and operated with a tablet,” explains Teachout. “It is a clean hand, smart press to engage with today’s modern operator. This innovative technology has attracted a younger workforce raised on disruptive technologies.”
At MPS, the connectivity feature “talk to me” has been designed to link a printer’s flexo or hybrid press to all other equipment and MIS or ERP software. This allows for real-time insights in job management and press performance, a more reliable print result thanks to automated press settings, prepress automation and more.
MPS has also taken several key steps to properly train its employees. “At MPS, we value the flexo press operator,” says Inge Brinkman, manager, marketing communications at MPS. “We know it is becoming harder and harder to find and keep skilled operators. Therefore, we think it is important to offer training, which we do with means of the MPS Academy. Training is crucial if you want to keep people motivated. The industry could try to motivate young people to join the flexo industry by informing them about the job opportunities and offering education.”
According to Omet, education is key. “We need to keep our youth interested and exposed to the flexo world,” says says Kaity Kelley, marketing assistant at Omet. “The sooner they are introduced to this industry, the better off the future of our industry looks. Omet has worked with high school and college programs, such as the Phoenix Challenge, as well as started its own program, ‘The Future of Flexo.’ Omet’s Future of Flexo program was designed to support university programs, like Clemson University’s Graphic Communications program, ISU Packaging and Graphics courses, involved in training the next wave of leaders in the flexographic printing industry.”
Omet has donated to several university programs such as The Sonoco Institute at Clemson University. Omet’s Varyflex 530 narrow web press provides an opportunity for students and industry to experience hands-on learning in the basics of press operation, color management, process control and more. The press is placed in the Institute’s Advanced Print Lab, which also houses ink and platemaking capabilities, and the company has supported Illinois State University courses and activities, as well.
Gallus has developed press technology that attempts to minimize the training needed to operate the equipment. “Gallus makes sure that the machines are getting easier and easier to operate, which means that the operation of a printing press should be intuitive, thus avoiding long training periods for the staff,” notes Matthias Marx, head of marketing at Gallus. “A high level of automation, for example an automatic register control, allows the printer to concentrate on the essentials of his work, namely to control and ensure the quality of the output. In this way, Gallus enables even complex machines to be operated intuitively and makes it easier for print shops to find and train suitable staff.”