Koenig & Bauer’s Eric Frank on Sheetfed Offset Printing Press Automation Advancements
(The desire to automate and refine processes in sheetfed offset printing is driven by several factors, including the absence of qualified labor, reduction of touches, and efforts to minimize waste. In the past several years, press manufacturers have added and refined tools to make the sheetfed offset process much more efficient, and to achieve higher-quality, more repeatable results. This article starts a series of interviews with representatives from the leading sheetfed press manufacturers.)
Shorter run lengths, and the need for faster throughput, are two key factors driving PSPs toward pressroom automation, according to Eric Frank, senior VP of marketing and product management at Koenig & Bauer (US/CA). The addition of systems to, for instance, pre-set a press before the job arrives or wash some units while others are running a job, has added complexity and increased efficiency, even as the skill level of many operators may be less than it once was, he notes.
Frank says many of the benefits realized through automation are gained by taking processes that used to require the press to be idle, and instead doing them during production, thus making production faster. These include presetting of rollers, registration systems that allocate for paper stretch, and automated blanket tensioning. The strongest benefit PSPs are seeing from using these systems is consistent color throughout the job, according to Frank. Further, alerts issued when something changes during the run minimizes waste. He adds that these features also “promote net throughput.”
Koenig & Bauer, Frank points out, builds every press custom, and about 80% of automation choices are optional. “Everyone has to have their own identity and specification,” he says. That said, there are commonalities in what most customers choose to add. He says many customers today are exploring in-line gray balance color monitoring and control, pre-settable auto-run for non-stop print production, and logistics and automation systems to get paper and plates in and out of the press efficiently.
While calculating the return on automation systems “is dependent on numerous factors within production,” he says most users see a return within 12 to 18 months of purchase. The true automation tipping point, however, comes when PSPs realize they can do more with less, and can experience more flexibility on a single press.
Frank notes an essential key to maximizing the benefits of automation comes from careful training in all areas of a printing operation, including management, production, and sales. This includes changing habits, mindsets, and the culture. For success, he says, “It’s all about the approach — being the bridge between old and new.”
Software and computer systems also factor strongly. He says systems, for instance, that drive feeders and finishing systems should match what is happening on-press, and mechanical and digital systems help integrate the flow. This makes printing processes look increasingly like manufacturing.
In the past year, Frank notes, Koenig & Bauer has launched reporting systems that capture color control information during the run. “It’s all about data,” he says, noting PSPs now have access to data they never had before – a benefit. The challenge to data, he adds, is understanding it: Separating the meaningful from the meaningless, reducing numerical noise, and homing in on what is important.