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The smart label factory of tomorrow

Connectivity and data flow can revolutionize the whole supply chain, writes Mike Fairley

Connectivity and data flow can revolutionize the whole supply chain.

The organization, administration, production, performance and efficiency of a label plant has improved dramatically over the past 40 years as advances in computerization, hardware, software and electronics have brought significant performance, product and management efficiency opportunities of anything up to 30 percent to many in the label industry.

Certainly, the process of combing the varied technologies, through the integration of label press and ancillary machinery with the latest pre-press and workflow systems, has already been proven to create major benefits.

This was recently demonstrated by MPS, Esko and Cerm at a two-day Performance Connected Event in which it was shown how MIS connects with Esko pre-press and directly with the MPS press operating system, and the performance improvements it can offer a daily operation. Esko also showed how Value Stream Mapping (VSM) can benefit the label business. VSM focuses on a company’s value creation workflow, exposing waste and inefficiencies based on insights gathered from employees, revealing opportunities to improve productivity and throughput.

As a label production facility become more highly digitized and systems are connected with each other – exchanging data about production in real time – communication flows smoothly and seamlessly between the various systems and the whole production process starts to happen without any human intervention. 

The industry has also already experienced the introduction of predictive maintenance technology. Such systems give early warnings when a machine or network’s performance is going down, so action can be taken to fix the problem without lost downtime or losses accruing to the business.

Learn and adapt
One of the key aspects to this exchange of information taking place is data flow. It means the label plant is able to learn and adapt to the changing needs of the business. It becomes an intelligent production system that learns on a day-to-day basis and then adapts dynamically to the changes that it has learnt.

It also offers the opportunity for employees and supervisors to move around the factory floor and access data they may require from any system, thereby enhancing their role and increasing production.

So where does the industry go from here? Apart from machine-to-machine connectivity, data flow can extend the connectivity within the shop floor to the whole supply chain, combining physical machinery with the whole business process – and making complex decisions related to business efficiency and business optimization with little, if any, human interference.

Many label industry suppliers have developed their own systems, making it possible to place, or change, orders for substrates, inks, sundry supplies or components all online. Some converters have links with customers to place repeat orders, initiate new orders, or check on job progress. Some MIS systems also have the possibility of linking with distribution/shipping companies to arrange job delivery and then informing the customer of the delivery time and date. 

This potentially extends the label plant’s visibility way beyond its four walls. It creates a completely dynamic workflow that increases productivity and provides for a smooth label operation from beginning to end. With end users looking to rationalize suppliers, it will be those efficient and smooth operations that are likely to benefit.

What comes next is building all the systems and procedures into the next generation of ‘smart factories’. Factories that combine management workflow control systems, data systems, and physical systems so as to reduce any time lags in the production process, thereby leading to improved efficiency and improved use of factory resources. Resources which all work together in order to gain significant factory efficiency benefits, as well as meeting supply chain and customer needs in real time.

This kind of evolution is likely to be incorporated with systems for energy efficiency, including management of energy used in the factory, and recording and processing heating and lighting information, compressed air efficiency, electric motor performance.

What if all employees buy electric powered cars, bicycles or scooters over the next few years and require charging points at their place of work? Indeed there have been studies that indicate savings of 15-20 percent in energy consumption are possible if integrated energy management is introduced. 

And how is this electricity consumption going to be administered? Will the converter collect the data and charge the employee, or will they have payment facilities on the charging points, or even incorporate it as a non-chargeable employee benefit? Decisions need to be made soon.

There are also other areas of factory energy and resource usage that are likely to need managing in the future. Heat exchange pumps for heating water, solar panels on the roof for electricity generation, wind turbines, the collection and use of rainwater for toilet flushing. The list could go on.

What seems clear is that smart factories are well on their way, and will continue to grow and integrate their systems and operations. Those label plants that best see the potential and opportunity to becoming even smarter will surely be those that benefit the most in tomorrow’s world – and probably be the most profitable.


Mike Fairley is Labels & Labeling's strategic consultant.

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