Here’s where label and packaging converters should look for savings

Sustainability is one issues that’s front of mind in every industry today. With growing awareness, increasingly tough local and national regulations and environmental campaigners ramping up their activism, it’s impossible to ignore the issue. When it comes to labels and flexible packaging, manufacturers and brand owners are looking for environmentally friendly ways to minimize consumption by using thinner materials, applying fewer structures and lamination layers, and even by integrating new and challenging applications such as liner-less labels.

As mentioned in my previous article, converters also face the parallel challenges of increased competition and high production overhead. Brand owners have high demands not just for quality, but also for reinforcing sustainability practices throughout their production and supply chains.

It’s no longer a matter of choice. To succeed, label and packaging converters must be able to demonstrate the environmental performance story that brands want to hear while meeting ever-tougher requirements on quality, cost and turnaround times.

The environmental cost hiding in plain sight: production waste

Biodegradability and recyclability are on everyone’s radar, but not many people are talking about print production waste. This may be because, as opposed to other environmental influences, print production waste is rarely measured and often goes unnoticed.

A few months ago, I visited a leading label converter in Europe. He shared with me a current defect-misdetection challenge he has been facing but couldn’t quite determine how much this misdetection had been costing him. “We simply don’t measure it around here” he said, “but we are aware there is a price tag behind it”. I encouraged him to run an exercise with me to get a better idea of his numbers. After we investigated the number of reprints he has been running as a result of this misdetection, he was shocked to discover that without even being aware of it, they had been wasting nearly 300,000 Euro annually on that problem alone.

That’s not all. As the industry is still taking its first steps in transferring to recyclable materials, reducing production waste can be a practical method for converters to immediately move towards a sustainable production process.

Two types of production waste

Understanding why production waste occurs is the first step in combatting it. The following practices both contribute significantly to waste:

  1. Reactive – Reprinting a job due to misdetection of defects

Production errors can occur at almost any stage of the production process and often trigger the need to reprint parts or even an entire job. Reprinting due to production errors can lead to thousands of square meters of wasted substrates. For example, prepress errors such as uploading the wrong file or file revision, or inline deficiencies such as using worn-out plates or dysfunctional cylinders, will eventually lead to wasted substrates– an undesirable and costly result.

If print defects are not detected before the job continues to other productization processes, the waste involved could be much bigger, sometimes even rendering products unusable. Furthermore, in addition to the materials wasted in reprinting and the subsequent productization process, energy is also wasted, further impacting environmental sustainability and boosting costs.

  1. Proactive – Overprinting

Overprinting is a common practice among converters, designed to avoid the need to reprint a partial job after the materials, inks and plates of the job have been removed from the press to prep it for the next job. Converters attempt to estimate the amount of defective materials that will be incurred in a given run, and then compensate by printing extras (usually 10%-15% more) while the job is still running.

Stopping waste before it occurs

Automated inspection systems have been with us for a while. Now, with the 100% inline automatic inspection solutions that can be installed directly on press, converters are becoming painfully aware of the not-so-hidden costs of their production waste. In addition to the inline inspection process which alerts converters of both continuous and random defects in real time, there are other dedicated solutions for even earlier stages of the production cycle, designed to eliminate production waste altogether.

For example, a converter may be dealing with several SKUs that look exactly the same but have different website addresses at the bottom of the artwork printed in a small 4pt font – the press operator can easily upload the wrong job file without even noticing there was ever an issue, but once the job leaves the factory, it would already be too late. AVT 100% inspection solutions include a print quality verification module that compares the current print job to the approved digital PDF. They help avoid wasteful reprints by ensuring that the correct job file is used before printing.

Another example has to do with the way the inspection system is set-up and used by the press operator. As automatic inspection technologies develop, so does their user interface – sometimes causing misutilization of the system during job setup. For example, if a job contains highly sensitive text elements that require extra attention, and the operator doesn’t define these areas as “critical” during the job set-up, the inspection results may not meet the actual quality threshold expected by the brand owner. It’s specifically for this type of scenario that AVT and its sister company Esko jointly developed AutoSet. As an automated job setup module that allows each job to be quickly uploaded from prepress directly to the inspection system on press through the Esko Automation Engine, AutoSet eliminates human error in the job setup stage. It also minimizes dependency on operator skill and reduces job setup times, and thus reduces the amount of waste generated during setup.

Who’s ready for the future?

Consumers want sustainability, and the label and packaging industry and converters must adapt to meet their demands. By adopting cutting-edge technologies like automated inspection, they can remain competitive while significantly reducing their production waste, saving money and taking an active step in driving environmental change.