Automation has allowed this manufacturing sector to do more with less, while the interconnectivity of the entire supply chain allows industry employees to work in unison. The evolution of Industry 4.0 has enabled access to up-to-date diagnostics and information available at one’s fingertips.
According to the US Department of Label and Statistics, 60% of repeatable and predictable human activities can be automated. This provides higher output with fewer errors, as well as higher quality with faster delivery times. Converters have the ability to take two presses out and put one press in while improving productivity and efficiency. This capability also addresses workforce challenges.
Flexography has taken full advantage of the latest technological innovations, with presses featuring remote monitor systems and wireless tablets, among other features. There is no longer the need for toolboxes rolling through facilities. The printing environment now features onboard color measurement, 100% inspection systems, and ink adjustments to meet the needs of brand owners.
“We see complete automation driven by servo technology, which allows us to monitor and capture all of the data from the machine remotely,” explained industry veteran Paul Teachout. “Anything that is repeatable and predictable and can be performed by a human can now be performed by automation and autonomous activities. This allows us to provide opportunities to a new generation that grew up working with their thumbs.
“We need to stop looking for a labor pool that no longer exists and create an environment for one that does,” he added.
An increasing number of label workflow activities can be performed remotely through the cloud. Artwork can be downloaded from the cloud, granted approval, and moved through logistics and fulfillment without any human interaction.
“The new normal is definitely going to include more online activities, remote management and communication, where we can move our products forward at a more efficient and affordable rate,” said Teachout.
A few examples of automated tasks include:
- Online order entry
- Preflight and approvals
- product planning
- Supply chain management
- Production Scheduling
- Printing and finishing
- Logistics and fulfillment
- Right through invoicing and receivables
According to Mulheran, converters often see 10-30% volume increases. “I think we’d all agree that dirty anilox rolls can affect color matching,” he said. “We want converters to have confidence that every anilox they put into the press is going to perform like a new anilox. “Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but it can dramatically affect print.”
Mulheran added that laser anilox cleaning can remove 100% of ink/coating contaminant while giving printers more control over their anilox inventory. They can also track volume variances, who provides maintenance, when and how many times it has been cleaned, among other functions. In addition, the machine can tell the anilox when to perform cleaning.
When detailing cost savings of liquid versus laser cleaning, Mulheran noted a customer who noticed an annual savings of more than $90,000.
The possibilities are not limited to label output. Converters can meet the growing demands for sustainability. Dennis Hughill, regional sales director for EMEA and Americas for vacuum metalization division, Bobst, explained how new technologies can improve carbon footprint.
Companies are requiring a sustainability agenda, which means 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. While there are many definitions for sustainable packaging, 22.6% identify sustainability with “easy to recycle.”
Sustainable trends include a shift from a linear to a circular economy, overcoming barrier limitations and finding alternatives to polyester MPET barriers, further developing bio-polymers, and shifting to polyolefin materials.
“The market is extremely dynamic and constantly changing to address these sustainability issues,” noted Hughill. “Mega trends require increased collaboration and partnerships between stakeholders all through the value chain.
“There’s an opportunity for converters to enter barrier film production, in particular for pouches.”
From an anilox cleaning perspective, Mulheran detailed his customers’ desires. Their sustainable wish list includes an absence of chemicals, disposal costs, freight costs, inventory management and water waste. Ultimately, converters are striving for a low energy consumption with no environmental impact.
“There are three pillars that make up sustainability: people, planet and profit,” explained Mulheran. “It has to benefit your employees and your community. Without these three pillars, your initiative will not succeed.”