Automating Production with In-Line Inspection

By Victor Gomez, director of Industrial Label Products at Epson America, Inc.

Automation is a hot topic in the label converting industry. It addresses labor constraints, reduces costs and simplifies label printing, inspection and finishing.

Printing and finishing solutions can help make a print shop more efficient and ease the burden of some of the current labor market challenges by automating repeatable processes and reducing manual intervention.  Automation is a hot topic in the label converting industry. It is an important consideration as printers explore ways to improve their converting operations in a healthy business environment that nevertheless poses some serious supply and labor constraints.

Inspection solutions in label print production are designed to detect deviations from a norm — from spots, substrate irregularities and color changes, to missing nozzles — and can help minimize waste. With in-line inspection solutions available for digital label presses, label creation can be further automated by streamlining portions of the label converting process in one production step.

Following are three ways inspection can be used in label converting:

Compliance and regulatory inspection

Inspection is an imperative part of the label printing process for heavily regulated markets such as pharmaceutical or cannabis packaging. For compliance and regulatory reasons, these brand owners need to adhere to strict labeling policies. A missing barcode or sequential number can result in major problems, fines, or other penalties. Very specific and detailed information is needed on these types of labels (e.g., serial numbers, tracing information, batch numbers, and sequential numbers). Functional elements like barcodes or QR codes must be machine readable as well. An in-line inspection system can detect any of these functional elements on a label and alert the operator to any potential issues.

There are software systems that produce all of the needed information on a label and send it to the digital label press, which then applies the information as the labels are being printed. If a label gets caught in a roller and is torn, or if there is a gap in the sequence, or a barcode isn’t legible, in-line inspection can save a tremendous amount of time and headaches. This is not only efficient for converters who can take corrective action early in the process when solving a deficiency is less burdensome, but it is also vital for delivering an accurate label to customers that rely on it. Detecting anomalies early is critical when it comes to efficiency of production, overall cost, and in many cases, to consumer safety.

Color and quality

Brands rely on specific colors for logos and corporate identity. The larger the brand, the more demanding their expectation is for accurate color. Any deviation on brand colors too far outside the norm is rejected, making it imperative for converters to maintain color accuracy within tight thresholds in their printing process.

Similarly, if an inkjet printhead nozzle is out temporarily, causing a streak on the labels, or the media roll has an uneven coating patch, the operator will want to know sooner rather than later.

An in-line inspection station is used to detect these types of artifacts and prevent color drift and other mishaps from making it through the production chain. By inspecting all critical elements on a label as it is being produced, a converter is assured jobs are correct before they are sent out to customers.

Production and quality control

By their very nature, inspection systems gather a lot of real-time production information on how a converter’s presses, operators and other systems are performing. Beyond the need to deliver jobs within tight tolerances and free of errors, the data gathered can be used to detect opportunities for process improvements in the converter’s shop. For example, if they are finding that nozzles are out more than usual, it may be an indication that the press needs maintenance. Or if errors are found to be higher during certain shifts, it may point to the need for press operator retraining. The data gathered can be an important feedback tool for continuous improvement.

In addition, one of the major benefits of using an inspection system in-line with a digital label press is the potential for labor savings. When inspection is done at a separate rewinding station, a process step has been added, with the attendant added labor component. Plus, because of the automation of the inspection operation and minimal manual intervention requirements, a single operator may be able to run multiple presses at the same time or be freed up to perform other productive tasks. In a labor market like we see today, that can make a significant difference. Converters can face big print volume spikes like we have seen since the spring of 2020 without having to significantly increase headcount.

Many label presses—both digital and conventional–are used with off-line inspection solutions. However, the benefit of moving to an in-line solution is the difference between detecting a problem right away, or possibly needing to re-print or delay an order. This is especially the case with a digital press, where the re-print does not entail extensive setup. And while in-line inspection might be an expensive option for a converter who does not have the kinds of jobs today that demand color accuracy or have regulatory compliance, there may still be benefits to in-line inspection, including the ability to say “yes” to future clients that might require it.

The ability to streamline label printing, inspecting, and finishing in-line in one production step invites efficiency, allowing label converters to potentially eliminate waste and cut back on labor costs, while delivering a product to customers that is inspected and ready to ship. Additionally, inspection feedback can improve production and quality control, all with in-line options, rather than a separate process that catches errors downstream. Ultimately inspection offers less waste, lower production costs, and improved productivity and efficiency. In the tight substrate and labor supply world in which we find ourselves, these benefits speak loudly to all label converters.

About the Author

Victor Gomez is the director of Industrial Label Products, Epson America, Inc.

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