Automation brings digital package printing into line

– Paul Roscoe (left) worked closely with ABG’s Matt Burton identify the best specification for the Digicon lines at Berkshire Labels

When converter, Berkshire Labels, added digital print technology to its flexo capability, it turned to ABG International to supply and install complementary converting equipment.  Nick Coombes visited the family business in Hungerford, UK, to see the new machinery in action, and spoke with Managing Director Paul Roscoe about the effect it has had on his company’s performance.

“We have always prided ourselves on producing quality work, from the early days of letterpress in 1983, through to the single pass UV-flexo presses we have today.  But it was the decision in 2010 to invest in a digital press that really focussed our minds on how to make the best use of its unique production capability.  How do we maximise its effectiveness, while maintaining our reputation as a supplier of premium products?” asked Roscoe.  The answer came in the form of a detailed discussion with the UK’s leading manufacturer of narrow web converting technology, ABG International, which with its Omega inspection rewinders, had long been a trusted supplier of Berkshire Labels.

Having taken time to evaluate the options for digital printing, Berkshire Labels selected and installed an HP-Indigo 6000 engine in 2011 and elected to add an ABG Digicon series 2 line to convert the printed webs coming off the press.  The Digicon provided semi rotary flexo, laminating, die cutting, slitting and rewind capabilities.  According to Roscoe: “There was a steep learning curve to climb in the first twelve months and we had to run two shifts to cope with the output.  Workflow planning needs a whole new way of thinking, and we had to develop new markets to fill the capacity, which involved re-educating staff and customers alike.”  Once the company had a clearer picture of how to maximise the potential of the Indigo, it installed a second ABG line – this time a Digicon Lite, with flexo, laminating, die cutting, slitting and rewinding facilities, and moved production to three shifts.

 Big investments

While well accepted in the commercial print market, digital technology initially suffered from a poor market perception in the market for high quality labels.  Roscoe knew that if his investment in digital print was to succeed he needed to convince customers that consistent quality and reliable delivery, coupled with a sharp price, were all available, just as they always have been with flexo.  “In the final reckoning, they are not interested in how it’s produced, only that it meets their criteria for quality, delivery and price.  If we could take print process out of the equation we could demonstrate what extra creative opportunities digital production could offer them,” he added.

By 2013 Berkshire Labels was confident that it had ticked all the boxes and was in a position to move to the second phase of its GBP 2m investment programme.  At the end of the year it installed an HP Indigo 6600 (and upgraded its 6000 line), and this time added an inline jdf and jmf-enabled ABG Digicon to raise its single pass capability to that of its flexo lines.  Converting inline brings many benefits, notably less downtime, less work in progress, and the need for fewer operators.  “Inline finishing gives us superior control and greater efficiency, and we now have one of the most automated lines in Europe,” claimed Roscoe, with a sense of genuine pride.

The latest Digicon is running inline with the Indigo 6600 and specified with the  latest ABG automation offerings.  These include automatic die loading and unloading, automated slitting, and electronic i-score back slitting, and a jdf job file drives the entire line.  Lean manufacturing principles and automation are high on Roscoe’s agenda, and these recent installations fulfil this by stripping out previously required processes, and increasing the value added contribution.  They also offer single pass production with one operator in control of printing and finishing.

One big clean room

Contrary to accepted practice, Berkshire Labels has not separated its flexo and digital printing presses, deciding instead to operate the production area as one big clean room.  In reality, this required little change to the company’s long entrenched housekeeping practices, and provides an environment in which substrates from 20-micron film to 450gsm board can be handled with equal facility.  What this has achieved is given Roscoe a direct comparison of the two production processes, with some interesting results.  “In the early days we saw the crossover point between digital and flexo at around the 1500 metre mark – now, with inline automation that figure is closer to 10,000,” he explained adding that runs of up to 30,000 metres on the latest Indigo were not unknown, but this was job dependent.

Speaking for ABG, Matt Burton, who has been responsible for specifying the package of converting equipment, valued at close to GBP 1m, to the Hungerford plant commented: “What the inline solution offers is the opportunity to remove any hiatus in production caused by offline systems, including ours!  In the case of Berkshire Labels, automation has reduced make ready from hours to minutes.  This means that a typical working day will see 50 jobs produced instead of 35.  That’s some result!”

With printing speeds rising on digital presses, Burton estimates that each now needs one and a half Digicon lines to cope with output, which puts Berkshire Labels in the spare capacity bracket with room for growth.  Although the vast majority of the 1000 Digicon lines that will have been installed by the end of 2014 are working offline, Burton foresees a rapid growth in demand for online solutions now that they have been proven to work in demanding commercial environments, where quality is paramount.  “In addition to the Digicon lines, Berkshire Labels has invested around GBP 1m with ABG over the past 18 months on an HSR twin rewind and RTS sheeter to work offline with the company’s guillotine.  It’s clear that automation is central the company’s philosophy of improving quality and productivity,” he commented,

The Digicon working inline with the HP 6600 is both jdf and jmf-enabled, and offers single pass production
The Digicon working inline with the HP 6600 is both jdf and jmf-enabled, and offers single pass production

Blurring the margin between digital and flexo

There is no doubt that the latest technology has blurred the margin between digital and flexo, and Berkshire Labels has set out its stall as the market leader in added value products using whichever technology is most appropriate.  Interestingly, despite digital technology lifting company turnover from GBP 4.5m to GBP 7m since its arrival, and showing a four-year ROI, Roscoe insists his next press will be an all-singing, all-dancing flexo line.  “It’s all a question of maintaining the ideal balance of production capability.  For now, we believe we have taken our investment in digital technology to its optimal point, and although its current 35% of our turnover will grow to 50%, we will need to grow our flexo capacity to compete,” he added.

With a desire and appetite to continue this growth through GBP 8m and on to GBP 10m, there seems little doubt that Berkshire Labels will succeed, based on the current outlook at the plant.  In fact, since my visit, Roscoe has installed a fourth high-spec Digicon series 2 offline unit that features all of the automation mentioned above, but has in addition hot/cold foiling capability, twin laminating stations, two flexo heads and the facility to 3-ply digital coupon production.  “It’s all about being creative, listening to your customers’ needs, and then delivering them,” he concluded.

Nick Coombes

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