As told by Michael Musgraves, COO, Bay Cities
If you’re reading this, you have probably read my past two installments of this 4-part blog. If not, you can catch up here – [Part 1] + [Part 2]
By now you know the story of how I started in digital production and how we scaled it on the front end, but the next problem we had was a result of our success in scaling the print speed and accuracy of the files. Most people who have success in digital print run into a problem they likely did not predict when they made that first stride into the technology. Who would think that a full-scale corrugated sheet plant would have a problem converting volume from digital printing?
The problem was that digital volume is most often in the form of more orders, not longer runs. Sure, modern single-pass machines really push up the order sizes a digital press can handle, but as those quantities increase, analog technologies quickly become competitive again, and in many cases, become the most economical solution. Success in digital is in finding as many opportunities as possible and converting them with as little human intervention. Keep digital, digital. The volume will be there regardless, but the power is in the number of orders you can handle.
Most corrugated sheet plants that buy a digital printer pair it with a production-level cutting table of some variety. They then scale that up to support their sales growth with a second table down the road, and that is usually when one starts to see automated material handling enter the picture. With automated sheet feeding, automated registration – order validation systems, and automated delivery systems – an operator can realistically run two high-end cutting tables at one time. As long as the system feeding the files to the table is managed well, the operator really becomes one who manages the system of finishing but doesn’t need to have much knowledge about the individual orders themselves.
The operator is the knife blade changer, the file manager, and the person who manages the flow of material to and from the tables. The one who is the first level of tech support for the cutting system. They are technical, trained well in the organization’s quality system, and are independent. But realistically, the tables end up doing the work of understanding the individual order if an ideal system is set up. There are those in this industry who have absolutely nailed this approach. Kudos to each of you!
This all sounds great, right? But there is a slight drawback: these machines are massive in size for the productivity level, so the addition of more and more of these machines become untenable at some point. I have seen some impressive layouts involving full robotic automation in a 4-table layout. But given the cost of these machines, it still is difficult to imagine having 12 of them in a plant to support moderate sales growth. The same things that make jobs attractive for digital print often make them quite unattractive for a traditional converting plant: small quantity, unlikely to repeat, short lead time, and expensive analog tooling costs.
So, here is the problem: Too many orders digitally printed creates too many converting set-ups; plenty of machines for volume in analog converting, but too high of a cost of box #1 in analog. What do you do? Well, we have already discussed one option: scale with automated cutting tables. But there are a couple of other options, too. One is to take a trip back through time in the world of corrugated converting.
Many have found rotary-platen or clamshell die-cutters to be a decent option here. The dies for this type of equipment are typically less expensive than the higher-capacity machines of today, and the machines set up fast and require just one operator. Still, there is the cost of the die, which is not inconsequential even given that it is less expensive than other die options. The irony of this solution is not lost on me, either. In the name of progress, many converting facilities de-installed this type of solution and moved on a decade or two ago, and now the most progressive printing technique is causing a need for these old industry standards to give us an encore performance. There are always safety concerns with clamshells, too, but the safety mechanisms available for these types of machines have improved greatly.
Something else to consider: how many setups will be required by this traditional equipment each day? Assuming the initial cutting table solution handles the volume of very small orders, you need to determine a cut-off quantity for digital vs. analog method and discuss this as appropriate with a customer that you may have sold into digital to avoid tooling. As you can imagine, the faster the digital printers go (and they are getting FAST), the faster converting needs to go. But traditional converting can’t be fast and cheap in small quantities because of tooling and internal setup realities. Another solution: Enter the world of LASER diecutters.
A couple of years ago, I worked with an organization that installed and operated one of the only LASER “die-cutting” machines that were in use in corrugated. It doesn’t need a die board, because it cuts with a LASER, but it did still have a significant consumable cost due to how it applied scoring. The machine was not robust enough for the corrugated application, and the machine was often down due to the rigors of running corrugated at max speed.
Today, that same machine has been modified and it has evolved into a legitimate solution for many organizations that find themselves converting No Man’s Land. Is it ideal, yet? No. But there are two significant players in LASER cutting for corrugated right now and we are very fortunate to have them, in my opinion. These cutters keep digital, digital. Their knives never go dull. They set up as fast as you can get the material into them, and they don’t require dies or extra lead time for that purpose.
Digital print drives digital finishing, which in turn is making larger order counts per day possible, helping the industry continue to see the benefits of automation. Ultimately, we are still making physical products, and if our output is governed by antiquated systems or equipment, automating the front end just creates a bigger problem for the conversion of that exploding number of orders. Without matching digital converting capacity with digital print capacity, automation investment is difficult to justify.
Getting more orders through with fewer people, and only getting people involved where necessary, is the journey the industry’s top digital producers are on. We are a part of that here at Bay Cities.
In my next and final portion of this blog, I will describe where I think the state of digital print and conversion is going next. I have intentionally avoided sharing my opinions on the current single-pass equipment out there right now in an effort to save it for this last portion. It’s going to be a blast!