The Software Solution to Increased Efficiency and Capacity
When Thomas Dahbura, president of Hagerstown, Md.,-based Hub Labels, noticed some major changes in the type of work his label printing company was being tasked with, he knew he had to adapt. It was 2003, and Dahbura, then the company’s vice president, invested in one of the earliest iterations of Indigo digital printing technology. As a result, he saw a major uptick in the quantity of short-run work his customers ordered.
The problem, Dahbura says, was managing the influx of new jobs and not getting bogged down in all of the touch points they required.
“I had a workflow that was not conducive to all these short runs — it just crushed me,” Dahbura says. “There was a ton of work coming through here for not a lot of billing. And what I [decided] was my next iteration of what I do in the future will be focused around coming up with a workflow solution that can handle these small runs with as few steps as possible — if any.”
While Hub Labels has invested in some of the latest printing technology, including the Gallus LabelFire 340 hybrid press in 2016, Dahbura explains the company’s software system also had to be addressed. As he saw the company’s margins begin to dwindle, Dahbura realized a software overhaul was needed to process the quantity of jobs infiltrating Hub’s workflow, while reducing the manual interaction required to produce them.
The first step, Dahbura recalls, was implementing an MIS system. He states the company opted for the Radius MIS from EFI, then added on EFI’s Business Intelligence program, which helps printers make sense of data and trends throughout their business. Finally, Hub Labels installed EFI’s PrintFlow scheduling software, which Dahbura says completely changed the way the company processed its work.
“[PrintFlow] leverages technology to look at jobs in ways that people can’t,” he says. “The way business is going nowadays, you’ll get hundreds of jobs that get in a pipeline and the only way a scheduler can really look at it is by customer type. You might have the scheduler put jobs that are similar in the pipeline, but he doesn’t recognize certain subtle similarities that help improve your efficiency.”
Last year, a noticeable buzz began to appear throughout the industry, as drupa 2016 and Labelexpo Americas served as a launching pad for some of the most innovative printing technology the packaging industry has seen. With higher speeds and increased automation across conventional and digital platforms, printers and converters have an exciting array of press hardware at their fingertips to adapt to an evolving industry.
According to David Taylor, EFI’s senior director of its productivity software portfolio, many printers are often skeptical of the benefits a software upgrade can provide. With new hardware, he explains that it’s easy to see how benefits like faster speeds and increased colors can improve a printing business, but the improvement attributes of software are more challenging to visualize.
“Hardware speeds and performance are concrete, while software benefits are not easily imagined,” Taylor says. “So we’re talking about something you’re going to use, but you can’t practically see. Then a lot of the benefits that are suggested, such as improved efficiency and the opportunity to re-deploy resources to be used elsewhere — some customers don’t always believe those savings are real until they have them.”
However, when it comes to a printer’s bottom line, it’s hard to deny that money is made based on applying ink to a substrate. Larry Moore, Esko’s VP, Partner Programs, North America, explains that printers tend to view their printing equipment as their most valuable asset. Therefore, he states that providing printers with an understanding of how software can help them push more work through a press and improve its print quality can be highly beneficial in streamlining a printer’s workflow.
For example, Moore explains that when converters decide to bring platemaking in-house, it’s imperative to ensure a hardware asset like an imager can be integrated with workflow software and design platforms like those from Esko, Adobe or SAP. When all of these elements are communicating properly, printers can see tangible results.
“You want your software to be able to produce as much as possible to go to their press, regardless of its age,” Moore says. “But at the same time, you can do things to enhance the quality coming off of an older press by implementing some better imaging technologies, better screening technologies and some better prepress and assembly software, which can make the print coming off of those presses look better and print more efficiently.”
Knowing When the Time is Right
Throughout a package printing operation, there are many departments and pieces of equipment that need to communicate with each other. For example, Moore explains that converters who decide to bring their prepress process in-house or add quality assurance tools, such as inspection systems, can significantly decrease their ROI time frame by implementing workflow software that connects all of these aspects.
Specifically, Moore points to the frequency of package printers deciding to add platemaking capabilities. He states that with a new imager in-house, printers can assemble their files manually, RIP the files and create the plates on the imager. This can lead to an ROI of a couple of years. At first glance, that may seem like a good option. But, Moore says, with software that drives prepress throughput and integrates quality assurance, the ROI on that imager can be cut in half.
“With customers that combine hardware with workflow software that allows them to streamline the prepress workflow, increase their consistency with the workflow and implement QA tools … we’ll often see ROIs drop to a year,” he says.
When assessing a printer or converter’s need for an MIS or an ERP system, Taylor explains he has developed a “maturity model” consisting of four stages that can help determine a customer’s current level of sophistication in terms of workflow. The ROI that a customer will enjoy is dependent on where they are on the model.
He explains that a converter in stage one has very little integration between business management, bookkeeping and other essential operational functions. For example, Taylor says if job estimating, accounting and order management are all done in separate programs, it’s likely that the same information will need to be entered on multiple occasions, creating the potential for costly human error.
Stage two features a slightly higher league of sophistication, in which a printer may have a system that helps run the business, but it does not feature real-time reporting or link to the shop floor. Meanwhile, in stage three, he says operations are fully integrated with real-time reporting, allowing a company to see an order through from start to finish.
The ideal level however, is stage four, which Taylor says involves “proactive management.” Not only can companies at level four streamline their processes and look back on their past work, they can predict what will happen involving future jobs and adjust their business according to this data.
“Any systems that are held outside of the common core means that you’re entering the information in two places,” Taylor says. “It creates an opportunity for error, which can be magnified through to problems with billing, problems with production and rekeying information.”
Taylor says the vision of the EFI Packaging Suite is to create an “optimized or touchless workflow,” thereby streamlining the business and allowing the converter to manage their operation to increase revenues and profits.
Improving Your Assets
While a software upgrade can help streamline workflow and improve communication throughout the printing process, Dahbura explains at Hub Labels, certain software implementations led the company to the realization that some of its printing presses it considered poor performers were just not being utilized to the best of their ability.
For example, Dahbura recalls that as Hub Labels transitioned its business into creating more complex prime labels on film, he started to think the company was no longer cut out for printing on blanks or other types of commodity packaging items, to the point where he considered outsourcing this work. But, through the use of EFI’s Productivity Suite, Dahbura says his employees began to realize that the company’s legacy equipment was actually a good fit for printing these sorts of products.
He explains that Hub Labels provides a culture in which employees are empowered to challenge assumptions made by management. In this instance, Dahbura recalls his team approached him to let him know the jobs he once thought were a weakness for the company were, in reality, performing very well.
“I gave my people these tools that help them do their job better,” he says. “They’re smart people, but without the tools they couldn’t be as efficient as they possibly could be. Now that they have the tools, they start to see things differently.”
Moore explains that another way software can help printers better use their current hardware is that it helps keep print consistent and reduces the need for on press adjustments. For example, he explains that through the use of high resolution imaging, improved screening, or even fixed palette printing, press setup times can be significantly reduced.
Additionally, Moore states that while a job is running, an operator may notice that an ink is not being applied quite right. This could involve a trip back to the ink room to make formulation adjustments, or swapping out anilox rolls. By streamlining prepress via software, Moore explains that the printing process can then adhere to better manufacturing principles, rather than relying on the work of a press operator.
“If you make your up-front tools as streamlined and quality driven as possible, then it allows you to take printing from artistry and move it more into a manufacturing plane, which greatly improves profitability, and at the end of the day, it improves the quality of the work,” he says.
At Hub Labels, Dahbura says the usage of the latest software technologies has helped solve several pain points as customer needs have changed. However, one piece of advice he lives by in terms of technology is that software on its own cannot cure all ailments in a business. In fact, he explains that if a company’s processes are not optimized, adding new technology can actually cause more problems. But with proper processes in place, the latest software can make them even better.
“Technology only amplifies those processes you have in place,” he says. “So, if you have bad processes, it’s going to amplify it. It helped us before we started implementing a new technology, that our processes were pretty firm. We had value stream maps throughout the entire organization and knew our processes.”