The Automation Mindset

By Russell Weller, Product Manager, Esko

One question we are often asked is where to start when automating a business. My response is always the same: it starts with having the right mindset. If you can arm yourself with understanding the sources of opportunity for automation in your business, and the potential benefits it can bring, then that is the first important step taken care of.

The next step is realising that the potential for introducing automated steps in any large format and digital finishing process does not need to be a daunting task.


Why Automate? The Context

The modern printer converter, whether a small startup or an established multinational, faces a wide range of challenges in managing business efficiency and profitability, which drive the need for automation:

  • Variable health and safety performance
  • Complex materials handling
  • Increasing complexity of jobs and design
  • Just in time delivery demands
  • Reduced lead times
  • Faster presses increasing equipment idle time
  • Constrained cashflow

Islands Of Success In A Sea Of Waste

Having worked across the packaging, POS, sign and display markets, I know that identifying what we at Esko call ‘islands of success’ in what is essentially ‘a sea of waste’ is what automation is all about. The goal is to create a clean sea.

I see customers automating key areas of their business, not realizing that waste is sitting in other processes, hampering overall performance. Having a clean sea to operate in drives profitability. When attacking waste issues, you have to understand the complete workflow. Where in the business do people truly add value and where do standardized production steps pay off?

Unfortunately waste can be found at every process step, from order enquiry to shipping. It can be found in waiting times – people or equipment waiting for the previous or next step to be completed – as well as in unnecessary motion, over processing, unused creativity, quality defects, over production, excessive inventory and transportation. No wonder businesses find it difficult to get started!

When attacking waste issues, you have to understand the complete workflow. Where in the business do people truly add value and where do standardized production steps pay off?

The One-Piece Flow

In order to identify the size of the sea you are operating in, I would recommend a simple and approachable method to assessing the business in bite size chunks.

The ‘one-piece flow’ is a way of mapping the series of steps that a single product takes from enquiry to shipping to clarify the entire workflow. The process is pretty easy to do and has a key focus in its application.

When changing a single step in a workflow, you are doing it to gain additional value. In reality, each change has a consequence or impact on the step before, and the step after. If the change has a negative impact, it can offset the intended overall value gain of the change. As such, we always have to question whether the performance has been delivered to the next workflow step and whether we can support any pain points in order to perform better overall.

When the steps are laid out, assessing the unmet needs of the business can then be completed. We can see where value is created and where waste resides.

The one-piece flow lays out the steps from the order coming in to the business, through customer service, pre-press, to printing and cutting, packing and shipping. The piece is supposed to flow from A to Z without stops, challenges or waste. It needs to reach the other side as quickly as possible and with quality maintained. Optimizing this flow then reaches the end game of a clean sea, without optimizing just an island.

When the steps are laid out, assessing the unmet needs of the business can then be completed. We can see where value is created and where waste resides.


The One-Piece Flow

The need for the one-piece flow

Let’s take a typical printing and converting business and look at examples of the challenges we need to address:


The Lead to Order Sales Process
A sales request comes in via a sales person or website. This incoming information on the job needs to be single source of truth for the business to manage the order efficiently and without waste.

Many companies spend excessive time processing the estimate with several manual steps being used to bring the job in to the business. How can we combine steps to simplify this process? It’s about capturing the right data at the start and reusing it through out each step of the workflow in a consistent manner.

Without complete information, time and waste ensues. For example, in one company I worked with the shipping department was using excess overtime because specific shipping details were always incomplete on the original order.

This incoming information on the job needs to be single source of truth for the business to manage the order efficiently and without waste

Estimating
An estimate is created on demand. How can you produce it accurately to reflect the needs of the job and on time? The production time element needs to be correct for delivery scheduling and competitive pricing relies on an optimized workflow with minimum waste.

We need to connect systems to ensure data is presented back correctly to the estimation software.  I personally often witness additional production time being manually pushed in to the estimation system to allow for unidentified waste areas, creating inaccuracies in the process.


Prepress
In my experience, the main source of manual time wasting processes is in the prepress step. Manually checking files is extremely time consuming and labor intensive, with a typical professional designer taking on average 30-40 minutes to check one graphic file; an obvious bottleneck.

There is so much to gain in automating the prepress process. The potential for waste creation further in the workflow is also huge at this point. If a job sent to print incorrectly, the printer rejects it creating rework, wasted ink and substrate, downtime and delays. Artwork and reprographics can be completely digitally managed today with zero human intervention in repeat jobs, avoiding this nightmare scenario.

The main source of manual time wasting processes is in the prepress step. Manually checking files is extremely time consuming and labor intensive.

Customer Approval Process
A source of frustration for many converters, speeding up the customer approval process through digital connection to the pre-press solution makes it quicker and easier to secure the all-important green light from the client.

Avoiding emails lost in the spam box, an online digital solution reduces the approval cycle, increases job transparency, speed to market and eradicates human error. There’s no manual approval of a proof or mock-ups needed and multiple stakeholders, in several locations, can be integrated in to the digital environment.


Printing & Finishing
The printing press is usually the most expensive item on the shop floor. The goal is to have it running continually 24/7 with minimum downtime. Every time the press stops, waste and losses are being created. Upstream process accuracy and automation is therefore key to keeping up with today’s higher print speeds.

The cutting step can be highly complex and most companies rely on expert operators, who are in short supply, to find perfect tooling and set up machines correctly each time. Slow throughput due to long set up times, quality defects, poor nesting and ink and materials optimization can all suffer if the operator is inconsistent.

Today, hardware automation can move products around machines, cutting sequences can be standardized via cutting databases and efficiency increased through automation.


Packing & Shipping
If consistent information has flowed through every step, the final packing and shipping step should be easy. Boxes can be selected for the exact size of the product utilizing less space and optimizing use of packing materials. The number of boxes per pallet and number of pallets per truck can all then all be designed to create a sustainable, efficient shipping department.

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Getting started

Having an automation mindset puts different lights on the process to remove the shadows and illuminate the one-piece flow. But how do you get started? Is it always about consultants and expensive third party companies arriving to deliver the process? The answer is no.

Get started by inviting key employees to a round table discussion. Each employee should represent one step in the workflow and arrive prepared to answer two questions:

  1. What is your role in the workflow and how do you add value?
  2. How do you want the step before you to deliver files or information to you?

This is how you begin the change to an automation mindset; identifying each step and deriving the key needs and value of that step. Secondly, clearly understanding the impact and consequence each step is having on the steps either side of it.

This round table creates a value added discussion and begins the cultural shift to an automation mindset before beginning the next step of the journey to hardware and software integration.

Webinar

Watch the Automation Mindset webinar hosted by Russell Weller

Safety is #1
The primary concern of any business has to be sending employees home safely every night. Operating a safe environment where employees are not exposed to risky processes is a mandatory requirement. The more automated the situation, the less risk of safety issues.

The materials handling dilemma
As a business expands, complexity increases and the number and variety of materials that any business has to manage grows. Without appropriate handling, errors and damage can result in cost and waste.

Increasing complexity of jobs & design
With accelerating competitive intensity, customers are seeking more sophisticated designs to drive sales and market share. Complexity in the number of shapes, materials and media adds process complications that need to be addressed.

Just in time delivery
On time in full (OTIF) is today’s mantra and businesses are expected to deliver the right quantity at the right time: not too early, not too late. Getting this right demands exacting processes from initial enquiry to shipping.

Reduced lead times & faster presses
‘Feeding the beast’, that expensive piece of printing press kit that needs to operate 24 hours a day, takes all your attention. With lead times getting shorter and press speeds increasing, feeding the beast is becoming the biggest challenge for all printers to avoid too much idling, downtime and loss.

Tied up cashflow
If products are not moving through the business effectively, money is tied up in work in progress and stalled at different stages. This reduces cashflow, impacts profits and customer service.


About the author

Russell Weller is the Product Manager for Kongsberg Automate at Esko. He joined Esko 11 years ago as a product specialist and later moved to a business development. Russell leads the development of automation solutions across Esko and works directly with our global customers to develop their business processes.

Russell Weller
Esko
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