30 January 2017 Business

Robots are coming to a print plant near you

Industry 4.0 opens the way to greater automation and communication and paves the way for robots to take on heavy and repetitive tasks.

The Fiat Strada, the advertising proudly proclaimed as cars zigged zagged around the test track to the music of Rossini’s Figaro, was hand built by robots. But do not hold this against them. Robots can’t be blamed for the car’s poor design.

That 1979 television commercial introduced many to the concept of robots moving, assembling and painting cars without visible human intervention. Since then robots have become commonplace in many industries, though not print. Robot guided vehicles have been used in greenfield newspaper, web offset and gravure plants to move reels of paper.

Some Japanese sheetfed printers have robots to move pallets of work in progress and what press suppliers call logistical solutions are not unusual in carton printers. These are a means of moving a prepared pallet into the feed end of press and another pallet away from the delivery without operator intervention and to keep the press running on a long job.

These systems gain extra power when the production unit is in communication with business information network running the plant. This is the open door to Industry 4.0, the ability for all kinds of devices to communicate with each other and to adjust decisions according to relevant information received. Robots and Industry 4.0 go hand in hand in a highly automated future for print.

Both are increasingly necessary as printers are faced with a tsunami of short runs. It is possible to handle ten jobs a day using manual processes and mouth to hand communication. At 25 jobs a day this starts to become strained; at 50 or more jobs a day, automation is necessary.

Prepress has been automated for the last generation, hence the vanishing number of specialists in prepress departments. If colour issues can be automated within the software, plate production is equally automated by robotic handling within the platesetter.

Few have the obvious robotic arm arrangement that a twin-exposure Luscher unit will have, but many will be able to pull the correct plate format from a cassette, expose, process and bend that plate ready for press where robotic systems can be used to load the plate without operator intervention beyond pressing a button.

This is the state of play for most printers. In digital printing there may be more inline finishing processes to consider: Route 1 Print has its HP Indigo 10000 inline with an Horizon SmartStacker for example. There are more instances of continuous feed inkjet machines working inline with finishing units to deliver completed books or perhaps variable content magazines as was demonstrated at Drupa 2016.

Where a case has to be made specifically for one of these books, board cutting, wrapping and glueing is a robotic process even before case and book block are brought together.

At Drupa there were multiple robots on show, picking and placing from laser cutting lines; loading large sheers of corrugated to Esko or Zund cutting tables or moving stacks of paper around a guillotine.

The Fujifilm stand featured a small portion of a robotic system for book production able to assemble the components needed for a book from any number of preprinted sections held in store and feeding these to a binder with automatic set up and trimming, describing this as a new dimension in print as ‘Printing 5.0’. Another unit removed blank plastic cards, applied security and personal details to match a mailer being printed on the Konica Minolta stand.

Wherever large amounts of heavy paper need to be moved, wherever intricate repetitive work is needed, wherever different production processes need to be linked in a continuous flow, robots are going to be involved.

Danish company Universal Robots only began trading in 2003 with the aim of developing simple to programme lightweight robot arms. By the end of 2014 it had installed more than 3,500 worldwide. And it has plenty of rivals.

Graphic Robots, a Danish company uses a Japanese Yaskawa Levanto robot in a paper handling application that has been installed at Stibo Graphic, a large web offset printer in that country. It moves large flat sections into the guillotine, jogging and removing air from the sheet and presenting a stack ready for cutting.

It is not the first application in cutting though its robots are rather more dramatic than the handling systems developed by Polar and Baumann to lift, jog, squeeze and prepare stacks for cutting. They are also much faster, making it feasible to use the robot to load simple sheets like magazine covers where there are only a few cuts to the operator without falling behind.

One robot can also supply more than one guillotine, if the cutting process is relatively slow because of the complexity of the sheet. Henrik Christiansen, the automation evangelist who is behind the solution, says that the way the new solution handles the paper more closely replicates how a human operator might lift, flex and jog the stack before cutting it.

“There are a lot of things that an employee might do that they do not realise they are doing, perhaps instinctively changing this depending on the type of paper being handled. We will find that and put that into the program for the robots. There are a lot of critical activities that must be taken into consideration and we aim to capture that experience.”

The corner to corner flexing for example is vital to separate the sheets and avoid one or two sticking together. The standard handling solutions pass the stack between rollers of different sizes which does half the job, but is not quite as effective as the fully robotic system.

There has been learning too in the way that a robotic handling system should be implemented, namely that it works as part of human-robot cell where robots help humans do their job rather than as a fully autonomous device. The robot is positioned to enable access to all areas, rather than have some closed off for safety reasons.

“The appeal is about economics,” says Christiansen. “It will reduce unit costs of production in the high wage economies to something like the unit costs of low wage countries. It can help bring jobs back to these countries, where high GDP is lined up with high paper consumption.

“Producing near the point of need reduces the costs of transportation, say of paper to and from China, and cuts the unit costs.”

They will bring other less tangible benefits. These can relate to increased productivity: a human powered cutting process will work through a pallet an hour, lifting, preparing and more the stack, equivalent to a tonne of lifting an hour. The robot assisted workflow takes this to 3.4 tonnes an hour.

The actual operation of how the robot acts is set through a touch screen HMI by the experienced operator who can make adjustments to cope with the way the paper is behaving on that day. Graphic Robots has teamed up with Scissor Hands, a software supplier that automates the set up process. If there is almost no makeready at the guillotine, productivity rises exponentially.

At first there was suspicion and reluctance on the shopfloor. Christiansen says: “Stibo’s operators were against it at the start. Now they say that ‘Robert’ is a valued member of the team, saying ‘there are many tonnes that I no longer have to lift each day. I can go home at the end of the day and instead of falling asleep I can do something after work’. It is taking away the dirty and unhealthy part of the job.”

It will also remove mistakes and maintain productivity through a production run. Yet because cutting is not considered a profit centre, it is rarely allocated a specific cost. Companies calculate that an operator will process one or one and half pallets and hour; with the robot in place, this becomes three to four pallets an hour with one fewer operator.

“The problem is that nobody measures how many pallets an operator will handle,” he says. Consequently nobody understands the costs of cutting and therefore the benefits that can accrue from this type of automation.

Handling robots are also used in and around cutting tables and large format inkjet presses. Inca Digital Printers has automated handling systems to load and off load sheets, even the uneven surface of a corrugated board. HP, Durst and others at the high volume end of large format printing can offer similar capabilities.

Esko at Drupa was using a robot arm to load printed sheets to a twin Kongsberg set up to accelerate the throughput of cutting, keeping the knife working as much as possible and therefore the productivity of the line.

Elitron handles corrugated sheets at speed, loading automatically and positioning using cameras to pick up registration points, then cutting using a twin head system to cut out the corrugated before moving the finished sheets to an automated off loading system that can present the stack for the next process, all with no operator intervention. It is a step towards lights out finishing.

The move towards lights out printing is one that QuadGraphics has extolled for web offset as a long term goal and which Heidelberg’s former CEO Gerold Linzbach has described as within reach for sheetfed offset. Before joining Heidelberg, he oversaw the migration of a business mixing food ingredients manually to a fully automated lights out operation which had been described as not possible.

He will not be around to see this happen in commercial printing, but the ball is rolling. There are instances of pallet loading and removal using logistics in carton customers and at Drupa the company showed ‘push to stop’ as a working demonstration on a Speedmaster XL106. During this, the operator was able to stop the press away from the control desk, remove and load new plates after which the software took over, running up to speed and colour automatically. Once the pass sheet was delivered, the operator collected the next set of plates ready to stop the press and start the process again. Three makereadies were achieved within eight minutes.

The impact is projected to be a 30% increase in productivity thanks to the intelligence built into the press. Matt Rockley, Heidelberg UK’s B1 and B2 press specialist, says: “Heidelberg is the first company to have a press prepared for Industry 4.0, one that can automate set up of everything bar loading the paper. Even here tools like the CutStar reel to sheeter and Logistics materials handling can assist.”

These machines are beginning to reach customers with stronger than ever links into Prinect for production management and to Heidelberg for service, fault diagnosis and benchmarking to help a user identify and address process issues which have a negative impact on productivity. The problem here is that individual operators are not identified as this runs counter to German data protection legislation, so a customer will need to get around this or run a dual system to check which operator needs training on any aspect of the system.

Other press providers are not behind. Komori has had an automated start up sequence for many years while KBA has used technology such as Plate Ident to bring plates into register automatically. At the previous Drupa in 2012 it showed non stop sheetfed printing thanks to flying plate change technology.

To date this has been ahead of the market, though as production runs continue to fall, a zero speed makeready for sectional changes on a job is likely to become cost effective in some cases if not universally so.

Digital print technology lends itself to full automation as once paper is in place, the image is infinitely changeable. MGI had an interesting take on this at Drupa. Rather than paper its concept for the fully automated print system placed the object to be printed on a tray, held in place by vacuum. This travels around on a linear motor above a belt passing beneath different print and embellishment stations, according to the program loaded into the device, changing the image at each successive print.

Continuous feed inkjet presses are able to do this at speed and are rapidly closing in on the quality benchmarks they need to hit to break free from the niches that the technology has operated in to date.

The need now is for finishing to follow. The smaller end of the finishing market has led the way in linking together what have been discrete operations, cutting and folding with multi finishers like the Duplo DC series and now Horizon’s Smart Slitter print examples. Perfect binding machines are also linked to three-knife trimmers which can adjust to cope with variable format and thickness books.

While Horizon has made strides in this direction and its BQ binders and three-knife trimmers are used in a number of hands off binding lines, Kolbus and Muller Martini are setting the pace.

Kolbus has been at the heart of the German Industry 4.0 initiative, using its CoPilot system for remote monitoring and for automatic set up. The company has published the protocols needed to operate the binding lines, enabling a press manufacturer to drive the binder from the press control desk.

And the binder has been designed for this level of automation. There are no parts to switch over to accommodate different book formats Kolbus UK managing director Robert Flather points out. Instead, every change is carried out automatically, even on the standalone machines.

With the Webfolder, based on technology from Timson, employed, the binder will hook directly to a digital press for sections from 4pp to 128pp. This feeds the KM200 as the binder for digital book production. As a book block enters the clamp, it is measured and all subsequent settings are adjusted to suit that block, changing settings on the fly for both thickness and height.

Across the border into Switzerland, Muller Martini has been equally vociferous about automation and robotics using the term Finishing 4.0 to promote the idea of complete connectivity and automated set up of production processes. At Drupa the demonstration underscored this with a preprint reel being unwound and moving over an adjustable former folder. As the job switched between one format and the next, the folder would move according to the parameters in the job, identified by barcode.

The company has been using servo drives for almost a decade and with the Sigmaline was the first to link finishing to a digital press. It has taken the experience from these and linked to a beefed up Connex system to build a system that potentially could be controlled through a web portal in response to an incoming order for a book. That is currently a step too far, but book of one production is part of what is possible.

Folded and gathered sections are trimmed and head for the Vareo binder which has been redesigned to be gentler on PUR bound books as they emerge from the machine. “It becomes a touch less workflow,” says Muller Martini sales manager David McGinlay.

More importantly such automation and robotics enable greater levels of production and the ability to deliver ultra short runs and single copies in a way that is simply not possible with a conventional operation whether based on litho or digital printing. Ultimately it means that those printers that adopt this way of production, and that may not be necessary for some years, must be more efficient than those that persist with existing production methods. Ultimately companies that can ease the burden on their staff through removing the heavy lifting and humping, must attract operators while those that believe these to be expensive and unnecessary will discover the contrary.

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Robotic handling

Robotic handling

Robotic arms to lift and position sheets of board on a cutting table, as here, or to move stacks of paper around a guillotine, book blocks in a binder and so on will become commonplace in the next few years as they take on repetitive tasks which are costly for manual labour to undertake.

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Perfecta handling robot

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Robotic handling systems are a natural for the cutting operation where mechanical systems remove the strain from a human operator and reduce manning levels.

Productivity also increases as one man can process more pallets than is possible when lifting and moving paper by hand.

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2012: First show for robots at Drupa

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Robotic Arms

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Perfecta Robot

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