Automation can improve the quality, consistency, and productivity with high-volume, multicolor pad-printing jobs. This article explores parts-handling devices and other accessories that can improve accuracy and efficiency in your shop.
But this is product-decorating equipment, so the challenges may be overwhelming for those who aren’t experienced application specialists. Every job is custom and every situation is new, so consider starting an ongoing partnership with your supplier—interaction instead of a simple transaction. The former involves relying on trusted pad-printing expertise, while the latter is purely do-it-yourself learning. If you have lots of time to spend, go ahead and fiddle around. But why take your chances alone when you can form a long-term relationship with someone who already knows the answers.
The real question is what is your time worth? Or to put it another way, what is avoiding mistakes and wasted time worth? You could simply start from a blank page and do all the research and development on your own. But beware—innovative R&D can be costly and risky. Why invest your time and money in reinventing the wheel when there are experienced designers, specialists, and inventors who have already researched and developed lots of perfectly good wheels (and pad-printing machines) for lots of companies just like yours? Ask them for directions. They have been there, done that, and are glad to share the knowledge.
Be sure to ask to see samples of similar applications and videos of working machines. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a short movie truly tells the automation story. Automated systems that incorporate parts handling, orientation, or pre-treatment are best understood when viewed in action. When seen via DVD, even a complicated system makes logical sense. Another tip: Ask lots of questions. Any reliable supplier will welcome your tough questions and answer them with authority based on practical experience. They may even suggest changes to the product design or your production process to improve the final results. Enjoy your new partnership and collaborate. Great minds think together.
Automate to compete
The days of cheap, low-skilled operators who monotonously hand-load parts into one-color decorating machines are slowly disappearing. Larger, more profitable manufacturing operations often require machine operators to monitor and maintain several machines, some fully automated and running 24/7, depending on production needs. Operators may bulk-load blank parts into hoppers and box finished parts for shipment. Periodic ink replenishing, pad replacement, and machine maintenance are ongoing operator duties in such facilities. These are highly skilled functions that require training and competent personnel who are able to monitor several operations on sophisticated decorating systems.
Many custom molders have captive decorating systems installed adjacent to or inline with plastic-injection-molding machines. The freshly molded part may be robotically transferred into the printing system with finished parts placed into bulk containers or into packaging equipment. The entire process is monitored and controlled to ensure consistent quality and output. Production runs on these finished parts may range from hundreds of thousands to millions. Automation is indispensable in achieving such goals.
The decision to automate certain aspects of your product-decorating process ultimately depends on these key parameters: the size and contours of the printed part, ink colors required, and specific production-volume considerations. Only you can determine whether the appropriate solution is a manual, semi-automatic, or fully automated system. You must weigh the higher cost of using more complex technology against the considerable benefits to your customer and your enhanced role as a value-added source. Making that leap will demonstrate that you’ve moved up to the next level of expertise.
Christopher Connell is marketing coordinator for ITW Trans Tech in Carol Stream, IL. He has published PADPRINT, the company’s quarterly newsletter, since 1990.
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