New Technologies in a Printing World – Exceeding Customer Needs

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Upon the ending of WWII, with their country devastated by the war and with limited capital and access to natural resources, Japanese companies had to make due with what they had to rebuild their economy and manufacturing capacity. These companies had to focus on the elimination of waste, in both time and material. They came up with a system that we now call Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED); a manufacturing methodology developed to get to the final product faster and with less waste.

In this second installment on new packaging technologies, I would like to further share my thoughts and experiences in our company’s efforts to exceed our customer’s needs through the application of some of the business principles referenced in installment one, and how technology advancements in the packaging industry were necessary to reach these goals.

I have read almost every book written by the Israeli business consultant Eli Goldratt; I can’t cite the exact title or quote, but I do recall a claim he made that basically warned business owners that any manufacturing process they perform requiring long make-readies is not long for this world. Or at the very least, it is destined to move to a low-cost competitor. I don’t know what he defined as a long make ready, but I do know that a printing press can take a while to set up.

Acknowledging that press make-ready was a significant portion of the cost to produce a job I once set out with a stopwatch and note pad to observe time, and record the various operations that go into setting up a press; those mechanical operations described in my first entry. If our goal is to meet customer demand, and that demand was faster turn-times with lower order quantities then it seemed like the primary focus had to be on the make ready function. The smaller the run length, the larger percentage of time is spent performing this operation.

From first-hand observations, I was very impressed with how quickly everything came together. We were able to have a nice looking sheet in well under an hour. Predictably, the amount of time spent on each operation was determined by the amount of automation behind it – filling the ink fountains taking the most time. I found that all of the discrete press operations performed by the pressman were well defined and straightforward and none seemed to subject to variability as long as every tool and all of the specified material was accounted for and easily located.

My biggest discovery, though, was the amount of additional time taken by the pressman to alter what I thought was a perfectly acceptable sheet into what he perceived to be the perfect sheet. This particular experience goes back to the old dye sublimation days, the days when there was no such thing as a perfect proof-to-press match. After years of working with a variety of customers from all sorts of backgrounds I had an intuitive knowledge of their acceptance levels and knew that it varied depending on criteria such as experience or their position within their respective organizations. Designers, for example, were always going to be much pickier than a typical corporate buyer. But the press operator had no such knowledge. To him, their expectations were all the same as his job was to match the proof. In this experiment there was as much, if not more, time spent making tiny incremental color adjustments than was spent on the mechanical side of setting up a job.

In his book Quality Is Free, Philip Crosby points out that one of the erroneous assumptions with quality management systems is that quality is intangible and therefore cannot be measured. In another book, Quality Without Tears, Crosby demonstrates the importance of measurement through an example of a conforming to the specification of a 1/ 4” thick 2” x 2”steel plate with a 3/16 hole drilled precisely in the center. It either conforms to that specification (with understood tolerances) or it doesn’t. The key is that the person performing the operation knows exactly what is acceptable. In contrast, my example of a pressman trying to match a subjective and highly complex visual reference through personal evaluations leaves him to his own resources in trying to meet the customer expectations. Lean manufacturing, or any other business principle will not lead to improved results if set up times cannot be reduced, and set up times can not be reduced without a clearly defined measurable target.

I could write at length about the process we went through to develop a quantifiable target standard on different paperboard substrates, and the importance of applying best color management practices, but that narrative would require hundreds of pages to do it justice. For any graphic arts application, to conform to the customer’s requirements there must be a standard that is quantifiable, and a properly made proof from a profile can accomplish that…to a point. In my mind, then, the next big opportunity for reducing press set up times could be accomplished if both the customer proof and the actual item were produced from the exact same device.

However the goal is accomplished, whether through process improvement or technological advancements, the most important point is to understand where their business is going and anticipate the needs of the market, and taking into account how disruptive technologies could render their current capabilities obsolete.

Obviously, technical advancements require a much higher capital investment. Toyota revolutionized the automobile industry through its business practices that were later labeled as Lean Manufacturing. This new level of competition presented America’s auto giants with a whole new set of challenges: one of the biggest being the sudden need for fuel efficiency that was never an issue or concern to the consumer in the low-cost pre-fuel embargo days.  “The Big 3 (+AMC)” faced a new more agile competitor practicing a business model that for them to compete would require enormous investments in technology and infrastructure; this on top of the enormous investments of the same they had already made.

In the printing industry, it took an outsider to develop a new business model in the form of the “quick printer” to revolutionize the market by targeting individual consumers as opposed to the traditional b-to-b market that the industry had positioned itself to handle. To serve the needs of this market you needed smaller less expensive equipment, a streamlined transaction process, and locations that provided plenty of foot traffic. Vista print and others have since revolutionized this model further through their online ordering systems. New digital printing equipment can serve this market better than traditional offset.

Although there is no such parallel in the packaging industry, digital printing is making advancements, particularly in label printing, and this disruptive technology will be forcing all of packaging providers to evaluate it for future investments, and perhaps at the expense of their existing infrastructure. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen wrote about this challenge in a 1994 article published in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave”.

In this article, Professor Christensen describes the challenges that the incumbent business provider faces when an upstart competitor enters their market with an innovative new idea. The problem facing the dominant market players is that in their focus to meet the needs of their current customers, they can easily lose out to future opportunities when a more agile competitor takes a risk and introduces a new product or way of operating that isn’t mature enough for the incumbent to risk. Kind of what is happening to chip maker Intel with the growth of mobile devices.

Could digital printing technology be such a disruptor in the packaging industry? More on that later…



Author: Nicole Hannover

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