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Prepress Robotics

Find out how making an automated assembly line in your prepress department can help boost quality, productivity, and morale.

I recently read an article by Pearl Tesler, titled, Universal Robots: The History and Working of Robotics. In it, she said, “If you think robots are mainly the stuff of space movies, think again. Right now, all over the world, robots are on the move. They’re painting cars at Ford plants, assembling Milano cookies for Pepperidge Farms, walking into live volcanoes, driving trains in Paris, and defusing bombs in Northern Ireland.”

I contend that robotics can do many of the repetitive tasks that the graphics industry does to every file that comes through the door. Today, I hope to build a case for prepress robotics—technology that is here now and is ready to improve your productivity, accuracy, and profitability.

What is prepress robotics?
Prepress robotics is just a term that identifies automation solutions in prepress and print functions. If you think about it, most of the redundant tasks are in this part of print production. Robotics is a term for the replacement of a human function—not a replacement of the human, but the function that a human would be doing. The human (hopefully) possesses attributes that could be used for higher level tasks that require good analytical decisions and make us more money if we free the humans from the lower level, repetitive work.

A new challenge
Market conditions are changing quickly in the graphics industry. Change is driven by technology—faster computers, RIPs, printers, and file transfers. Technology should give us more time because we can do more work in less time and do more important work by eliminating redundant tasks. However, technology change will cause us as much pain as pleasure if we do not embrace what is available. Customers want their jobs finished faster now because they know we can now do them faster. Customers want their jobs at a lower cost, with better accuracy, to a specific color data set, and on demand. If we don’t do it, someone else will.

Is the answer faster equipment? It helps, but can you really afford to keep buying the fastest and most expensive machine every two years? The faster equipment game is hard to win. While there is a need to stay current in speed, there is also a need to pay off the equipment you have invested in and then squeeze as much life as possible out of it until ROI is realized and competition demands more speed.

One way to stay competitive with print speed is to keep your printers printing and not sitting idle. I visit about 50 print facilities a year. I have found that most print equipment is only producing shippable product about 60% of the time. The other 40% of the time is spent waiting for files to be prepared, stopping to fix mistakes, adjust color, and wait to reprocess the same raster image multiple times before starting or resuming production. I’m not against faster equipment. But a slower printer with a faster and more accurate workflow has a high degree of likelihood to win the race over a higher priced, cutting-edge, faster printer. In reality, we can push forward the calendar on a purchase of a faster machine a year or two just by optimizing our productivity and profitability with prepress robotics.

How does prepress robotics help?
There are three areas of the prepress workflow that offer opportunities to drive productivity and improve your competitive position with existing equipment: better and more accurate robotic incoming file management, standardizing file preparation, and managing the color result to maximize the accuracy of expected results.

Robotic management of incoming files A key principle of lean manufacturing is that correct job flow cannot have bottlenecks. A bottleneck for most graphics producers is getting a file from the client into print-ready stage and in a standardized state that doesn’t require rework.

The bottleneck is created when everything else waits for the front-end work to be completed. The prepress technicians preflight and inspect files, call clients, and send files through the workflow. It destroys the productivity of the next key process area of the final product: film and proofs. Robotics in prepress can solve the problem (Figure 1).

A digital storefront can manage incoming jobs and the information needed to start the job. Clients simply log in and all their information is populated. It simplifies placing an order and saves the client time. They have the option to select preloaded job information from pull-down menus or select data needed to output their file. The client then uploads their file and, as soon as uploading is complete, the client immediately is sent a confirmation e-mail thanking them for the job and confirming that the file is in process—even if it’s midnight and no one is there.

This is not the stopping place for a good robotics-based workflow. Every redundant mechanical function should be looked at as an opportunity to increase productivity with fewer humans 24 hours a day. If we leave the file the client sent to us in a box overnight or all afternoon, it may be growing moss on the north side of the file before we have time to preflight it. Therefore, the file movement to preflight must be automated (Figures 2A and 2B).

The file moves to inspection and preflighting. Preflighting software is now better than what any human can do. Rule-based parameters for what passes and what fails are predetermined by the humans in prepress. The file that just hit the inbox immediately moves to preflight. It is evaluated quickly and accurately based on what we wanted to inspect. If the file passes, it moves on to the next stage and the client is e-mailed that the file has been inspected and is ready for output. The client doesn’t need to waste your time by calling to see if you received the file and are working on it. If the file were failed, it would automatically go to a box to be inspected and either fixed or set aside to be replaced. This means that all files that are ready to roll get a front seat at the next stage of the process: file preparation and standardization.

Standardizing file preparation and standardization through robotics Rules-based preferences set up properly in a preflight software is the key part of file preparation and standardization. In other words, you can choose the wrong settings and cause inconsistency and failure downstream. Invest in a certified process-control consultant to help you with making decisions about how files should be standardized and prepared.

At this point there are preparation functions that are mostly done manually. Some of these manual functions are redundant. Some are custom. The redundant tasks are those that are repeated day after day for the same clients, on the same substrate, on the same press, on the same sheet size—and boring the heck out of the people in prepress. Correct sheet size, color-control bars, print information, bleeds, pagination, trim marks, and even placing multiple images on the same sheet can be automated upon receipt of information uploaded from the client and information that is associated with the file. This is done by automated imposition software.

Not all jobs can be imposed automatically, but if we just eliminate manual setup for half of the jobs, these jobs will slide right past the bottleneck created by human touch and move them to the next stage, which is to trapping if it’s for an analog process or to color-management decisions if it is a digital print job.

Prepress robotics can move the files to the right software and to the right hot folder with automated functions already assigned and get these jobs done while the humans do jobs that require custom decisions and customized actions (Figure 3). Automated preparation and print-color control are set up by people who know the process and the requirements for their printing. The opportunity for accuracy is improved because it is no longer guesswork. Decisions are made about trapping automatically, but someone should inspect the work at this point because all files are different. A specialist can check the result of the trapping quickly and head off any potential trapping problems. The good results are that the decisions in imposition and trapping are rock solid, consistently accurate, and fast.

Again, jobs that are not standard at this point are kicked out for someone to inspect or fix. The number of jobs that require inspection and tweaking will start to decrease as people start to realize that standardizing files at the beginning of the workflow eliminates the need to touch the jobs as they travel through the robotics-based workflow.

Managing the color to maximize the accuracy of expected results Automating all the movement of the file saves time, but the biggest payoff from the automation can be the automated color control. Other industries have done it. Some in this industry are so predictable from input to output that the color accuracy they output is amazing. Assuming the file has been standardized, based in process-control and conformance specifications, the output of color compared to the input file can be done by robotics.

A PDFX-4 file contains all the information we need. If we have standardized our print device (screen or digital), we also know what our printer will do with a certain ink line on a certain media. That means robotics can automatically assign the right device-link profile to the file to get accurate color as long as we train the people to remain predictable in their output. Many say this is impossible, but they’re wrong. It is possible when we set up process-control and conformance standards (visit www.idealliance.org for more about these standards). This is important to maximize prepress robotics and become as close to a manufacturing process as we can.

The file is simply moved by the robot to color management. The file contains the embedded source profile telling us the intent of the file. Mr. Robot quickly thumbs through his little list of device-link profiles, slaps a little instruction packet on the file, and drags the file to the queue for printing.

Results
If we have set up prepress robotics correctly, we’ll have increased the productivity of the human work force by at least 30% and our accuracy by at least 50%. A little bit of accuracy makes a big difference.
Larry Steinmetz, president of Boulder, CO-based Hi-Yield Management, Inc., does profitability consulting and training. He has a Ph.D. in business administration, is on the board of directors of several companies throughout the United States, and is the author of 13 books. He also operates four small businesses at this time. I have followed Larry’s teaching for more than 30 years. If you ever get a chance to attend his seminars, it will be well worth your time. He has a simple formula that shows the danger of losing margin. The Steinmetz Formula:

Overhead (GS&A) ÷ Gross Margin% - Variable Expense% = BE

Example:
Total sales: 1,000,000
Cost of Goods Sold (65%) = -650,000 (About the national average)
Gross Margin= (35%) 350,000 (About the national average)
Overhead of 20% = -200,000 (About the national average)
Variable expenses of 15% = -150,000 (About the national average)
Total net profit of “0”= 0

Checking the formula:
$200,000 (Overhead) ÷ (35%-15% variable expense = 20%) = $1,000,000 our Break Even, 0.

What happens if our margins go down 10% due to faster and cheaper without increasing productivity? Let’s run the Steinmetz formula on it and see.

Calculation of the bad news:
Total sales: (Same as before) but… we have reduced our margin from 35% to 25%
Sales are still $1,000,000 $1,000,000
Cost of Goods Sold (Now 75%) = $750,000 (Cost went up due to faster and cheaper)
Gross Margin (Now only 25%) = $250,000
Overhead of 20% = - 200,000
Variable expenses of 15% = - 150,000
Total net profit or loss = $100,000 (Loss)

A false solution chosen by those who are no longer in the graphics-production industry is to just print more to make up for the increased cost of poor productivity. Run the numbers in Larry’s simple formula before you make this deadly mistake. How much more do we have to print if we don’t become more productive?

Overhead (GS&A) ÷ Gross Margin % - Variable Exp.% = B.E.
$200,000 ÷ (25%-15% variable expense = .10)
Overhead of 20% = 200,000 ÷ Gross Margin – Variable expense .10 = $2,000,000

You have to sell $2,000,000 just to break even! Double your sales! Can you do it? Probably not.

Conclusion
Prepress robotics is a solution that is good now and getting better every day. You can see that every point of prepress robotics that saves five or more minutes of manual function adds to the profit margin as we attempt to go faster, cheaper, and more productive. IDEAlliance has just kicked off its Process Control and Conformance program (PCC). It sets many of the rules for standardization and makes the standardization critical to prepress robotics a reality. Through automation our presses are now running more and sitting less.

Mike Ruff is chief technology officer of Nazdar Consulting Services. He has more than 40 years of experience in the graphics-production industry and is a member of the Academy of Screen Print Technology, a certified G7 Color Calibration Expert, and a certified G7 Process Control and Conformance Expert. Mike has studied color-control theory and is an accomplished and award-winning technical writer with numerous articles in trade publications.

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