Automation in flexible packaging production
Process automation is not exactly a brand new topic in the packaging producing industry. For years manufacturers have developed and advanced solutions to automate cleaning, register and impression setting, plate mounting and so on. Many printers and converters already use these technologies with lots of success and benefits. For now, packaging production is everything but a continously-flowing process.
Having said that, automation can be put on a whole new level if you take a look at what’s possible in other industries. It is common knowledge that automation can bring many advantages with it. Think reduction in production time, increase in accuracy and repeatability, less human errors, less employee costs, increased safety, better floor space utilisation, waste reduction, less downtime, higher productivity, an increase of competitiveness and so on.
For example, Changying Precision Technology Company, a Chinese manufacturer of parts used for cell phones has built a factory which is run almost entirely by robots. Once there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new approach, there's now only 60, and numbers are expected to go down to 20. Yet the company has reported an increase of 162.5% in productivity. And the defect rate went from 25% to 5%.
So why not increase the level of automation in flexible packaging production?
When visiting printers and converters all around the world, one cannot help but notice that most processes and production steps are still very manual and labour intensive. From the supplier side, there are plenty of viable solutions on the market such as fully automated flexo plate making lines, as well as plate mounting (and tape application) units. Connect both through a storage system and you have yourself a line that produces and mounts plates on sleeves with almost no manual labour required. In the gravure cylinder making, there are some good examples of companies who have a production street running on autopilot.
In most corrugated packaging plants one can witness a high degree of automation, substrate and other ancillaries are automatically transported to the printing press or wherever they are required. To a degree this should be feasible in flexible packaging production as well. Some examples can be found in converting departments, where slitter rewinders are connected with the packaging department through conveying systems, where robots label, wrap and pallet reels.
Some printing press manufacturers offer systems for a fully automated printing sleeve and anilox sleeve change. If printers manage to convert their jobs to a fixed colour pallette, washing of printing units and ink change is a thing of the past. Expensive and unproductive downtimes and start up waste can be even further reduced, down to a minimum.
Theoretical yes, but...
What speaks against a higher degree of automation? The number one argument that can't be denied is the high initial investment. And this is certainly true. Investing in an automated line, or some retrofits surely cost some money. But if you produce in a country where the wages are very high or where there is a lack of skilled workers, the results of a return of investing calculation may show that the at first high investment ammortises quickly and then reaps benefits.
Automation also requires extra effort in the beginning and some reorganisation. Your operators will be forced to learn how to handle the new machinery or process. And change doesn’t come easy to most people.
While it is probably impossible to standartise and therefore industrialise the printing process itself, mainly due to the sheer endless variety of substrates, printing forms, formats, ink systems, etc., a high degree of automating the production is possible. And it enables your printing press operator to fully focus on the most important thing, product quality.
By Sebastian Reisig
Journalist and editor of Flexible Packaging Technology