Packaging printers are continually in search of productive processes that use less labor to meet the needs of their customers. The hands-on methods required by package printing press operators in the past have become troublesome in this growing business environment. Removing the operator’s tweaking of the controls and allowing the machines to optimize process control and automation technology in the way they were intended improves efficiency.  

Press automation is comprehensive enough to allow the entire print process, from makeready to run to washup, to move automatically through all the scheduled jobs with limited human interaction. This has proven so beneficial that it is natural to imagine the benefits of automation extending to all machines in the package print production process. This is the concept of a “Smart Factory”— which can be described as machines talking to machines and moving job information automatically between them as the print job progresses through the shop.  

The idea of a Smart Factory is still being refined, but it’s the natural direction of automation growth. The intent is to automate the entire production plant, rather than just the printing press or any other single machine working within the shop. This concept requires electronic tracking and communication between machines and management. As machines do their part in production, management can electronically monitor job performance compared to expectations.

Implementation of a Smart Factory can range from fully automated to partially automated, with both scenarios offering significant benefits. Any time the number of touch points of a print job are reduced, the quality, productivity and efficiency tend to rise, which also cuts costs and allows package printers to meet increasingly aggressive delivery timelines.

A Smart Factory can also compensate for the decline in the number of skilled workers by reducing or eliminating the need for in-depth knowledge of machine operation, since information is communicated to the equipment electronically. This type of automation delivers complete transparency of a plant’s operation to management with real-time visibility into overall workflow, as well as individual jobs. If a problem does occur anywhere in the process, it can quickly be detected and remedial action can be taken to minimize the impact on further production.  

How a Smart Factory works

The idea of machines talking to machines is somewhat reminiscent of JDF (Job Definition Format) that was popular a few years ago; however, Smart Factory is a little different. JDF used very simple job specifications so that even primitive machines could communicate. As a result, more complex job specifications had to be manually entered into more sophisticated equipment. In contrast, Smart Factory will likely employ the same specific instructions, simple or complex, that would normally be used to set up a machine without Smart Factory.

Presently, machines are already communicating with each other, but on a limited basis. For example, prepress may receive information from a print management information system (MIS) and pass electronic information to the press, which in turn generates its own information about production and quality. On the other hand, in a true Smart Factory, the press would convey the necessary information to the equipment used for the next step of processing, as well as generating its own production/quality report. Any errors or delays could be viewed in real time by management with the use of automatic alerts.

To switch from the Smart Factory concept to a practical application, consider the following example.  Let’s say a press completes a run and information flows, in this case, to a paper cutter. The paper cutter would then implement the correct cutting program and be ready for automated operation.

Here is where a speed bump is likely to occur when older equipment is involved: The paper cutter must be able to receive and react to electronic data. There are a lot of existing paper cutters that don’t have that ability and, until they are replaced, a workaround must occur. This could take the form of a computer monitor mounted next to the cutter (or other equipment in the process) that will tell the cutter operator what is required for the cutting program. The operator will then program the cutter and begin the job.  This would be considered a partially automated version of Smart Factory.

There is no doubt that the concept of Smart Factory has the potential to convert what is typically a customized workflow into a reliable manufacturing process driven by data. Combining Smart Factory with logistics to automatically move the physical product from machine to machine, along with the electronic data, promises to truly automate the entire plant. This will positively impact overall profitability while simultaneously reducing the impact of hard-to-find skilled labor.

While the rewards of a Smart Factory can be great, a company must be willing either to replace older, non-compliant equipment when compliant equipment becomes available or to accept a suitable workaround in the interim. Smart Factory is a strong concept for the future of automation and is something for printers to consider and plan for as they look toward upcoming equipment purchases and upgrades.