Striving for Consistency

By Jenn Hess, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

As printers begin to require more from the inks they use, quality control has become more than just meeting specifications.

Ask anyone in the ink industry about quality control, and it’s almost guaranteed that consistency will be one of the first words out of their mouth. It is a process that has become vital as ink manufacturers must meet their customers’ demands time and time again.

“Quality control means consistency,” said John Paderewski, quality control manager, Braden Sutphin, “and making sure the raw materials, products and tests meet the formulators’ specifications.”

“We are finding that the most important thing is consistency,” said Rick Holmstrom, COO, Nor-Cote. “If you know what the customer wants and consistently hit it, then you will be ahead of the game. The customer’s ultimate goal is to have a product that they know will perform day in and day out. If we understand their needs, then we can set specifications to make sure the product behaves the way they want. We rely a lot on customer feedback.”

Companies that put an emphasis on quality, and continually prove to their customers that the inks they manufacture are top of the line, business will benefit. “Quality control is an important selling point of any ink company,” said Mike Miller, technical and operations manager, Colmar Inks. “It provides the clients with assurances that their products are being tested, that the products they receive are consistent and whatever documentation the printer needs will be properly and honestly provided. Quality control can also save the ink company time and money because if the product is correct and consistent, there is no need for the technical service department to travel to the client to fix the product.”

Taken together, quality control seems to describe a process or department that tests products to insure that products are up to specifications. But the increased emphasis on quality and performance has caused quality control to be more than just final tests. “Quality control is used to confirm that all planned operations from the initial design of the formulation, the testing of the received raw materials and their subsequent processing, have all proceeded according to plan,” said Jim Neely, vice president, operations projects and quality, Sun Chemical Corporation. “However, testing is not the only answer to improved quality and consistency. We also focus on removing sources of variation so the products are made more consistently and ‘right the first time.’”

But just why has quality control become so important in the ink industry? “Quality control is very critical to make sure we are manufacturing products that meet the needs of our end-users,” said Guy Harris, technical director, Nor-Cote.

“Quality control is of the utmost importance in the manufacture of ink jet inks,” said Bill Hoagland, president and CEO, Squid Ink Manufacturing. “The customer must be well-assured that the ink supplied for use in their equipment will perform to meet or exceed their expectations.”

The need for greater emphasis on quality is related to the requirements that printers want ink companies to meet. “Our industry has grown over the years by meeting the increasingly difficult demands of a printing industry that constantly must improve quality and efficiency with faster equipment and lower costs in order to stay in business,” said Mr. Neely. “Our products significantly contribute to this effort by providing formulations that can improve pressroom productivity with improved performance characteristics at high levels of quality. In fact, while printing ink may only represent 5 percent of the cost of a printed job, it has the capacity to positively impact a much greater proportion of the total cost of that job.”

“There are two basic parts of product quality control: to verify that the incoming material is meeting our specifications; and that the inks we are making are being manufactured as R&D intended and to meet the market expectations,” said Gary Miner, engineering manager, Akzo Nobel Inks. “In a perfect world, you would not need quality control, and product testing would be used to provide certificate of analysis information only.”

What Makes a Good QC Program?
Establishing a quality control program seems pretty simple. Just set up some tests to make sure a product is manufactured according to the specifications set by the formulator. But there are many differences between a basic QC program and one that both a manufacturer and its customers believe they can trust.

“The best quality control systems are ones where everyone in the company has ownership for product quality, from when the order comes in to when it is delivered to the client,” said Mr. Miller. “Production personnel feel more a part of the process if they actually perform some of the simpler and more routine tests involved in the process, such as grind checks or wash-outs. This also saves a significant amount of time because production people are not waiting for the lab to perform the test, especially during peak times. The production personnel also feel more responsible for the end quality because their name is on the production ticket. If they sign off on a test and there is a problem later with the result, they have ownership for the problem. This is a potent incentive to do the tests properly and to make whatever adjustments necessary to bring the product within the required specification, rather than to rush a substandard product through production.”

Well-trained employees, top-of-the-line equipment and documented procedures are just some of the components of a good quality control program. “The simple answer is to know the important things to measure, have the proper equipment, have trained people motivated to do it and provide accurate feedback to the manufacturing operations for correction and improvement,” said Mr. Neely. “The QC department is the entire factory, not just the lab.”

“The requirements for a good QC department and program involve having skilled technicians and high quality instrumentation, combined with on- going training and research,” said Matt Doorn, technical sales representative, Deco-Chem. “Standardized testing procedures ensure a reproducible product.”

Bill Walters of Flint Ink Corporation listed three additional requirements of a quality control program. “All of our QC departments rely on trained, conscientious employees who perform the appropriate tests, and make informed decisions based on the results,” said Mr. Walters. “Second, homogeneous and representative samples of the product for testing. And third, tests that are capable of the necessary accuracy (getting the correct answer) and precision (level of variation inherent in the test).”

“The basic requirements of the QC department at Squid Ink is that all personnel with the department know and understand the importance of proper quality control procedures,” said Ron Pospeshil, senior chemist, Squid Ink. “At Squid Ink, the QC department has the final authority to determine whether a batch has been manufactured properly and whether or not it can be prepared for packing and shipping.”

Since QC tests are not just performed by individuals in a QC lab, having well-documented procedures is essential in order to make sure an ink meets the specifications set for it. “It is important to have procedures documented and recorded because when you have more than one person working on QC, everyone needs to be on the same page,” said Byron Hahn, technical director, Braden Sutphin.

Another aspect of a quality control plan is knowing how to handle problems if a final product doesn’t correspond to its specifications. “A good QC department needs to have strong operations management back-up if and when something goes wrong,” said Mr. Miner. “When a product doesn’t come out to spec, it can not go out the door until the batch is properly dispositioned. There needs to be correlation between product tests and product press response. If someone on press sees an ink batch with a color, strength or viscosity issue, we need to know what that means in relation to the tests we do. This is why we focus on our test capabilities and how repeatable they are.”

In the end, an employee in the QC department must have a firm understanding of what the customer expects from a product. “The cornerstone to a good quality control department is understanding what the end-user needs the product to look like,” said Mr. Harris. “Everything is aimed at meeting the consumer’s requirements.”

This also means that a program that checks a product’s quality is not limited to quality control. “An effective quality program involves not only quality control (detection of quality problems) but quality assurance (prevention of quality problems),” said Cassy Scheffer, corporate quality manager, Nazdar. “Success in any quality program begins and ends with the customer. An organization must first understand the needs of their customers for the product or service supplied to ensure those attributes that impact their business are controlled. Quality control is achieved through inspection of product from receiving through delivery. A comprehensive customer satisfaction program then provides the feedback necessary to drive continuous improvement activities.”

For ink companies that manufacture different types of inks, it is sometimes necessary to have separate QC departments for each market. “A separate quality control area has been established for each manufacturing department at our largest bulk manufacturing location,” said Jennifer Servatius, quality and training director, Wikoff Color. “We manufacture lithographic, flexographic and energy curable inks.”

Checking Raw Materials
For manufacturers, quality control begins with raw materials, and how ink companies verify that their suppliers are meeting their demands. Having quality raw materials that can be counted on will simplify the quality control process. “We purchase consistent and suitable raw materials and process them in a controlled and consistent manner,” said Mr. Walters. “If we can do these two things, we will make good products every time.”

There was no consensus from ink manufacturers that spoke with Ink World about whether raw materials are tested on site or a supplier’s certificate of analysis is accepted.

“Many times we rely on certificates of analysis from raw material suppliers, but we will also do some checking on certain critical raw materials,” said Mr. Harris.

Flint Ink is one company that does go beyond accepting certificates of analysis. “We evaluate all new materials before they are given a Flint Ink code,” said Mr. Walters. “This evaluation process includes a review of the supplier’s capability and past quality control test results. This helps us ensure that we are getting good materials coming in the door. For some products, we maintain master standards programs. This process enables us to select a lot of material that all subsequent materials are evaluated against in conjunction with our suppliers. These programs also enable us to change master standards in a controlled way to eliminate drifting of material properties over time.”

QC’s Changing Role
Quality control is no longer only addressed after production is complete or just a department that tests products at the end of production to make sure they meet specifications before being shipped to customers. It has become a complete process, from tracking raw materials when they enter the manufacturing plant through to the final test, and everything in between.

“It must be remembered that QC is an autopsy of the product,” said Mr. Miller. “Whatever has happened to the product prior to it getting to the quality control window has happened and the technician just measures the physical properties of the product and attempts to adjust the physical properties so that they are within the specified range. Quality control is only one component of a quality system.”

“Quality control is part of the manufacturing process, from formulation development to the final production phase,” said Mr. Harris. “We then check the final product to make sure nothing went wrong in production.”

With many aspects of quality control now being performed by production personnel, ink companies are reporting that the role of their QC department has evolved from actually performing tests to now being a source when problems arise. “Akzo Nobel’s inspection department is small,” said Mr. Miner. “The inspection people are getting farther from the actual inspection process. They are becoming more responsible for coaching, teaching, and providing a ‘go-to’ resource in the lab. Now the QC department's major function is to solve the problems that cause failures instead of actually doing the inspections. It used to be that someone in the QC lab would test every batch of ink being made and okay it. Now we have one person that is the QC technician, and he helps operators do the tests and make lab batches to determine what batch adjustments are required. All batches are still tested, but there has been a change in responsibility.”

Since production is the department that has the most contact with a manufacturer’s products, it actually seems to make the most sense to have them involved in quality control. “Our production department is included in the quality control process,” said Mr. Hahn. “We look at ink production as it goes through the various phases. The production department is trained to do certain evaluations because they are close to the manufacturing process.”

Before a product is approved, close attention is paid to specifications, and quality control tests. And although testing has become just one component of a quality control program, it might still be one of the most important. “With any testing done on finished materials we need to answer the following questions,” said Mr. Walters. “How do we know we are doing the correct set of tests? How do we know we are using the correct specifications? Are we performing the tests in the correct way? Are we using equipment that is operating properly? At Flint Ink, all manufactured lots are tested with a suite of tests against formula- specific specifications. The minimum set of tests for each product line is defined in our test method manual. The tests used are all documented in our corporate test method manual which ensures that they are performed the same way at all of our sites. In order to ensure that our equipment is operating properly, we have corporate calibration/standardization programs set up for our critical quality control equipment.”

Tighter Specifications
Ink manufacturers have recognized that their quality control departments must adjust to tighter specifications from printers, while not allowing this to effect turn-around time or cost. And manufacturers report that specifications will only get tighter as printers seek enhanced performance characteristics.

“Five years ago the bulk of the tests being performed were using wet standards, checking batches with side by side drawdowns and visual analysis,” said Mr. Miner. “Now there are motorized proofers, spectrophotometers, and electronic standards. But, with color, visual is still always the last word. Specifications have gotten tighter to meet customer demands. The challenge we continue to have is still in the area of color control. We are always looking at ways to improve the way we proof color. To provide customers with tighter and tighter color specification tolerances, we are constantly improving the consistency of color proofing methods.”

“Customers are requiring tighter specifications, especially in color control,” said Ms. Scheffer. “To meet these increased expectations, an organization must be aggressive in identifying and eliminating causes of abnormal variation in their processes.”

New technologies and better equipment are also having an effect on specifications.

“Some standards have gotten tighter to meet performance requirements for new equipment,” said Mr. Hahn. “There is less leeway because more printers are using high speed presses.”

“Since the inception of Squid Ink, quality control standards have definitely
increased,” said Mr. Hoagland. “One reason for this is the tremendous advancements in ink jet printing technology. Printers producing vast improvements in print quality and print speed require vast improvements in ink quality and consistency.”

In the end though, any discussion of quality control will wind back up at the importance of consistency. “People expect more every day from every product and service that they purchase,” said Mr. Walters. “In the case of ink, people want more consistency, which has often resulted in tighter specification ranges.
As a result we are focusing our efforts on improving the testing technology that is available so that we are ready to address specifications that are even now approaching the limits of the capability of our current methods. This will be a major challenge in the years to come for the entire industry.”

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