Making Short Work of Short Runs
The first thing to know about the short-run production of labels and packaging on conventional printing equipment is that not a great deal of it is being done. The market’s bias toward high volumes could hardly be otherwise, since packages and labels for most consumer and industrial products have to be as mass-produced as the goods they contain and identify.
Volume requirements are changing, however. Plants with long-run offset and flexo equipment are adapting to small-quantity production in pretty much the same way they’ve responded to every other shift in demand: by operating their presses as efficiently and economically as possible.
In the label and packaging segments, as in other product categories, short-run production is usually thought of as the province of digital presses. Labels lend themselves well to digital printing, but in other applications, the share printed digitally is almost vanishingly small.
For example, Smithers Pira has projected that by 2020, digitally printed folding cartons will represent only about three-tenths of 1% of total volume in the category. It means that whatever short-run carton work there is will be coming not from digital devices, but from conventional iron.
That’s proof that “analog is doing a hell of a good job” in small runs as well as in large ones, according to consultant Kevin Karstedt, CEO of Karstedt Partners, who cited the Smithers Pira data in a presentation at the recent Xeikon Café digital printing symposium.
Conventional presses, he said, will have further opportunity to show off what they can do in the low end of the range. Karstedt referenced a poll of 22 members of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) in which all said they regarded short-run production as a necessity of doing business.
Most expected to see increased demand for it over the next five years. Respondents who were large printers described 14% of their annual volume as short-run; mid-size and smaller printers said short-run production represented 24% and 18% of annual volume respectively.
What constitutes a “short run” of labels or packages isn’t quite as easy to pin down as the reasons why the frequency of short-runs is increasing. PPC survey data cited by Karstedt defines it as 2,500 to 10,000 sheets or carton blanks. But he adds that printers “who live on long runs” and are optimized for that kind of production might say that 50,000 impressions is what they classify as a short-run job.
Bret Arnone, senior VP of sales at Roswell, Ga.-based Walle Corp., says that depending on size, the smallest number of labels the company can run cost efficiently on its offset and flexo presses is 25,000.
Tom Staib, president of Deer Park, N.Y.-based DWS Printing Associates, explains that certain variables can help determine run size minimums.
“It’s hard to quantify an efficient minimum, as the cost structure varies depending on the label specifications” such as size, substrate and color, Staib notes.
The company usually requests a minimum of 5,000 offset sheets, although it has printed as few as 500. The net quantity depends on how many labels can be imposed on the form. For flexo, the requested minimum is 5,000 linear feet. “We have also done as little as 500 feet, and even less on some occasions,” says Staib.
There is consensus that the trend to shorter runs is entirely customer driven. Serving niche markets, for example, virtually guarantees demand for small-quantity production. Among its other food and beverage customers, DWS Printing Associates caters to the craft brewing industry, which typically produces in small batches and releases seasonal beers and other one-off products in even smaller quantities. The result, says Staib, is correspondingly smaller print runs as customers try to hold down inventories and stave off obsolescence.
Arnone ascribes the trend to SKU proliferation as brands push out products in more sizes and with more variety in flavors, scents and other differentiators. He says their desire to hold less inventory means more just-in-time (JIT) production for label and packaging printers trying to keep up with the numerous graphic changes that SKU proliferation entails.
In the past, says Karstedt, the label and packaging industry “outsmarted itself” by failing to realize that JIT delivery was not the same thing as JIT manufacturing. Printing and storing large volumes of labels and packages but furnishing them to customers only in small quantities as needed was “a shell game of money and inventory” that benefited the end user at the expense of the producer. Today, says Karstedt, short-run production has to be exactly what the name denotes if it is to be truly cost efficient.
The way to do that, say the printers, is to print short runs on late-model, thoroughly automated presses that minimize the costs of job setup and changeover. Efficient scheduling, gang running where practical and adjustments in prepress and postpress also contribute to cost efficiency in short runs.
At Walle Corp., the newest workhorses for label production are a coater-equipped, eight-color Komori Lithrone GLX40 offset press and a 10-color Fusion C central impression flexographic press from Paper Converting Machine Company (PCMC). With them, the company prints cut and stack paper, cut and stack film, roll-fed, roll-fed shrink, in-mold, and shrink sleeve labels for the beverage, food and household products industries.
DWS Printing Associates also prints both offset and flexo. Cut and stack and glue applied labels are printed on an eight-color Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106. Flexo equipment consists of a Nilpeter FB eight-color press for pressure sensitive labels and, for the shrink sleeve market, a 10-color Omet XFlex X6 UV press. The company currently is running double shifts on all presses, says Staib.
On a conventional press, short runs are inherently less efficient than long runs because they can’t fully tap into the economies of scale that high-volume production affords. They also bring more numerous makereadies, increased plate charges and greater amounts of paper waste, all of which detract from profit.
The equipment at Walle Corp. and DWS Printing Associates overcomes these downsides with automation.
“The new automation technologies associated with our latest investments are reducing our changeover times by more than 50%,” says Arnone. “They are also enabling us to run less material before we have the first good piece.”
Likewise at DWS Printing Associates, press automation wrings time and cost from the workflow by making changeovers as close to seamless as possible. As Staib describes the process, “the parameters of the next job are loaded into the press while the press is currently printing a job. The press is then ready for automated changeover upon job completion, including modifying ink settings and semi-automatic plate changes.”
But, the press can’t make an economical go of short-run production all by itself. As Karstedt observes, “the front end also has to be efficient,” with systems in place for order entry, estimating and platemaking that can keep pace with the rapid turnarounds of multiple small-volume jobs.
Postpress has a role to play, too. At DWS Printing Associates, two highly automated POLAR cutting systems stay ahead of the turnover by generating label cutting programs in seconds. Part of a recent $10 million technology investment by Walle Corp. included equipment for streamlining postpress.
Common-sense production routines tie it all together. “Proper scheduling is key, as we try to gang run similar jobs back to back to reduce the makeready and changeover from job to job,” says Staib. “This cuts down on waste and time, and helps bring the cost of production down as well.”
Gang running, a common practice in commercial printing, can also work well for short-run label production. As Staib explains, putting labels for multiple customers on the same form lets everyone share the cost of the setup, making it possible for each customer to get a minimum amount of labels without the high cost of a dedicated print run.
For smaller customers and those with regional brands, Walle Corp. offers a solution it calls the Combination Label Club Run Program: weekly gang runs in an expanded color gamut that let customers enjoy high-volume price breaks on small-quantity label orders. In the “Sprint” version of the program, says Arnone, customers can have their combination-printed labels within an average of five days from placing the order.
Karstedt notes that expanded-gamut printing can be a “huge advantage” for short-run production because it can match a wide range of branded colors without requiring changes to the inkset. With HD-7, the expanded gamut technology used at DWS Printing Associates, able to reproduce up to 90% of standard PMS colors, it often makes more sense to convert them within the HD-7 space than to run straight PMS inks. “This allows us to gang run multiple SKUs that otherwise would not be able to run together,” Staib says.
If everything being done to accommodate short-run label production at Walle Corp. and DWS Printing Associates sounds like standard operating procedure at any well-managed printing plant, that is exactly what it is. However, there are limits to what conventional presses can accomplish in run length ranges where it cannot operate with maximum cost efficiency.
This is why both companies turn to partners when they receive label orders too small to process economically on anything but a digital press. Both also are considering investing in digital equipment that would enable them to take full advantage of the short-run trend.
Karstedt sees the trend as difficult for label and packaging producers to resist. His PPC survey data indicates that 19% of the volume and 23% of the jobs in short-run folding cartons are “in play:” ripe for transitioning to digital output. Single-pass, large-format digital production presses now coming to market for folding carton and corrugated packaging will hasten the transition, Karstedt believes.
But, digital hardware won’t diminish the role of conventional production at Walle Corp. or DWS Printing Associates. Arnone estimates that when his company does install a digital press, less than 10% of current short-run production would move over to it. Staib, likewise, thinks that while a digital press could “catapult DWS into a new dimension of label printing,” it won’t threaten the central roles and special capabilities of his offset and flexo equipment.
“We are in the printing industry, and we cater to an industry that prides itself on innovation and differentiation,” he says. “So we must help our customers be creative and innovative by introducing unique tactics and effects. There is usually an added cost for this, but quite often, our clients see the value in this differentiation and will justify the expense.”