Ink Manufacturers are Adapting to Increased Automation in Printing

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 06.05.09

The recession in Europe will prompt more printers to invest in automation as a means of curbing costs and raising productivity in an effort to bolster their profitability.

The recession in Europe will prompt more printers to invest in automation as a means of curbing costs and raising productivity in an effort to bolster their profitability.

One objective will be to gain a tighter grip on their expenditure on inks, paper and other inputs because computerized workflow systems, which is part of the drive to automation, help highlight exactly where the money is being spent.

In economic hard times, automation will be a means of survival for many printers because of its cost-cutting capabilities.

The introduction of integrated workflow systems – covering the input and running costs from the pre-press, print and even post-press stages – is now much more acceptable to printers in Europe as they struggle with the consequences of a rapid drop in demand.

Cost consciousness among printers was evident at the giant drupa exhibition at Dusseldorf, Germany, when many exhibitors were introducing new automation technologies backed by integrated workflow systems.

“The need to invest in automation was the big subject at drupa,” said a project manager at a European press equipment manufacturer. “In the sale talk about machines, workflow systems had to be the priority. You couldn’t mention one without the other. This showed how the market is changing. Costs and productivity are all important at the moment and workflow and automation tell printers where they are spending their money and where they can gain better margins.”

As the economic downturn has accelerated into a recession, the move into automation has been gathering pace, at least among printers who can afford to invest in it.

“During the recession in the European printing industry, we will see increased investment in automation and the proportion of automation in the industry will inevitably grow,” said Linus Schleupner, European business development manager for printing at Rockwell Automation, a leading supplier of automated equipment and systems to the printing industry.

“Printers will be looking for ways of reducing down time and making their work processes more effective,” he added. “Although the initial investment may not be cheap, automation is being perceived as a good way to cut costs. More printers realize that they do not need to buy new technology for automation of their processes. We use off-the-shelf controls from our portfolio of products to automate inking applications in the printing process. Nothing particularly special is needed for printing. Printers do not need to look around for the latest equipment.”

Increased automation in printing is not necessarily all good news for ink producers because more efficient use of ink means a requirement for lower volume of ink among printers. Automated systems enable printers to gain a much closer grip on their expenditure on inks so that they can cut waste to a minimum.

But on the other hand, there is a demand for inks with a consistency of quality, which perform well in machines running at high speeds and dry relatively quickly.

Workflow systems and the automated parts within them tend to be designed on the basis of the nature of existing inks and other printing materials. But as automation becomes more prevalent within printing, there may be greater demand for more uniformity in ink standards, particularly in color inks.

“There is no need for inks to be modified for the automation systems themselves to work efficiently,” said Mr. Schleupner. “Rather than the ink being altered, we can adjust our program to the properties of the inks. If any ink has a higher than normal level of viscosity, which can be a major issue with printers, we can change our program to take that into account.

“We design our automation systems on the basis of the chemical and physical properties of existing inks and other materials in printing,” he continued. “It is up to the ink producers to improve their products and we will adjust our programs to these. We have, for example, been responding to the recent introduction of conductive inks for printing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.”

In the longer term, automation is making conventional printing processes more competitive. This is particularly the case with sheetfed offset, which with the help of automation is able to combat more effectively the threat from digital presses using inkjet inks or toners.

Within the conventional printing sector, the demand for automation equipment and workflow hardware and software is currently growing relatively quickly.

Printing press manufacturers report comparatively strong demand for their workflow systems and automation components, many of which are optional additions to their machines or can be retrofitted.

Heidelberg introduced earlier this year its Prinect Press Centre, which centralizes all the can operating controls of its Speedmaster sheetfed offset machines while performing tasks like job preparation and press setup to print sheet evaluation.

“A group of sheetfed presses can be linked together within one integrated workflow system like Prinect,” said Matthias Hartung, a communications manager for Prinect. “It can draw up single presets for inks which can be applied to several machines doing the same job with an individual print shop.

“It gives a printer transparency so he knows not only how much each job costs but also the costs of the inputs including paper, inks and other consumables,” he continued. “It will also provide information on time – how much time is being spent on each stage of the process.

“These systems help the printer see where he is making money and where he is losing it,” he added. “It will tell him exactly how much money he is spending on inks for a job so he will get an idea of how to use his inks expenditure more efficiently. Most printshops are not able to allocate money properly for inputs. They will just have a feel for how much their ink costs are for each job.”

MAN Roland has launched an inline Color Pilot, which measures color with a densitometer during the printing process.

Ryobi has been making inroads into the European market with a series of highly automated machines, with optional add-ons such as control systems which can adjust ink balances and can automatically determine ink settings, ink fountain roller speeds and numbers of contacts by ink doctor rollers.

Ink companies themselves are helping printers to set up workflow systems and to adjust their ink applications to the trend to increased automation.

“We have an On-Site Consulting service, for example, for integrating new automated systems into optimized workflows,” explained Enno Urbeinz, company spokesperson for Siegwerk. “It might be insufficient just to integrate new equipment without reconsidering your workflows. We support our customers to help them take best advantage of their new investment.”

Ink companies are also supplying new inks which help them work more effectively with the higher speeds often being achieved by printing machines as a result of automation.

“The change that always has the biggest effect upon printing inks, in any print discipline, is increasing speed,” said Ian Hargreaves, technical sheetfed director at Sun Chemical in Europe. “This presents different challenges depending on the process. For example, in lithographic printing, the balance between ink and water has to be achieved more quickly and the transfer from plate to blanket to substrate has to be improved.

“In the newspaper industry, the increasing use of color and new, more complex folders has led to greater demands on the ink’s ability to undergo processing, coupled with the increasing speed of the new machinery.”

Ink producers have also had to respond to the need for printers to be able to make more use of UV inks in automated, high speed printing processes.

“In the case of UV-cured inks, the cure response has to be improved, not just by adding photoinitiator, but also by changing the nature of the prepolymers to react faster,” said Mr. Hargreaves. “Increasing the number of print units or adding in-line foiling or laminating units means that the ink surface has to be modified to change the way it accepts extra processing.”

UV inks can be a problem to deliver through automated pumps systems to the printing presses because of the high viscosity of the inks. Lincoln GmbH of Germany, part of Lincoln Industrial of the U.S., has recently introduced an automated supply system for UV inks which also increases safety.

“The closed system prevents any contact with the skin, which is especially important where UV inks are used, because these inks contain substances which might contain skin irritation,” said a Lincoln official.

Lincoln is among a number of companies which have been developing automated supply systems for a wide range of printing processes, enabling ink producers to make more use of large, more economical containers.

“While there’s been a gradual trend towards automating as much as possible on the press, more ink is now pumped from central reservoirs,” said Mr. Hargreaves. “As a result, 45-gallon drums or ton silos have become more common, reducing the amount of wastage produced in such cases.

“However, these (systems) are really only suitable for larger printers where such quantities of ink will be used for reasonable periods of time,” he continued. “These types of systems really only work well where the same color is being delivered to the same print unit all the time, i.e. for four color litho inks, or for a backing white on a narrow web press. At the other end of the scale, ink delivery has been automated on sheetfed presses with cartridge systems, typically weighing a couple of kilos each and which are also expensive to purchase.”

Automation has even resulting in more efficient logistics, both inside and outside printing plants. It has been embraced by so many part of the printing sector that the industry could emerge after the recession as being leaner but much fitter because of lower costs.