American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Shrink to fit

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Blanks Printing & Imaging's (Dallas) fulfillment division knows how to perform quick changeovers. Its jobs run from hundreds to millions of pieces, from business cards to poster-size prints. With “can do” teamwork, the company's fulfillment group has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, like keeping some equipment on casters to facilitate quick reconfigurations. Fulfillment manager Diane Allison also credits three new pieces of packaging equipment from Lantech with helping keep up with volume that has nearly doubled every year since 2002.

A do-it-all team

Blanks ( evolved from a prepress shop into a graphics, production and fulfillment operation. Employing over 100 people today, the privately held company still does prepress work, as well as photography, proofing/color management, offset printing, waterless offset, variable-data printing, binding and fulfillment/shipping. The company serves a broad base of regional, national and international customers, including high-end promotional agencies.

Allison says employee motivation at Blanks is higher than anything she's seen in her experience, with every staff member routinely working above and beyond the call of duty. “One of our keys to growth is that we always assume a customer's needs are changing,” she says. “We constantly ask about their plans, what they think they'll need, how their operations are evolving, and then we strive to establish the processes that will advance our customers' plans.”

Fulfilling expectations

One of those processes has been fulfillment, which started in a small area of the company's packaging department. Fulfillment has since taken over approximately 19,000 sq. ft. Much of the department's work consists of drop-shipping market-specific store signage and point-of-purchase material to support weekly ad supplements mailed to consumers, so turnaround time has to be quick. “We might receive materials in the morning and ship 1,000 collated kits to individual locations that afternoon, combining materials we have produced with those of other suppliers or product samples,” says Allison.

A typical project consists of 1,000 to 5,000 packages, but the department is equipped to shrink-wrap runs from 300 to thousands of packages, as needed. The smallest items shrink-wrapped are business card size; the largest can be 16 inches wide by more than 30 inches long. “The key to our strategy is rapid response, so changeover time is critical,” Allison says. “We have to be able to tear down in the middle of one job, switch over to another, then jump back on the original work and finish it. We often collate directly onto the lugged infeed conveyors of the shrink-wrappers, which are about 20 ft. long, then we might do more kitting on the exit side before the conveyors terminate at the case erector. The kitted components are placed in the case, then sealed and labeled downstream.”

The fulfillment department got started in shrink-wrapping with a manual L-bar machine borrowed from the company's bindery department, then it moved up with a purchased automatic L-bar machine. That machine's 33 pack/min. output proved insufficient for the growing volume, and the quality expectations of one customer were hard to meet.

Discerning customers

For most printers, shrink-wrapping is needed only for shipping and storage protection, or simple convenience packaging for the customer, Allison explains. Her department, however, also must do retail display-quality packaging, where packaging quality can influence customer perceptions about product quality. “We ship retail packs of as few as 25 sheets of paper that are later unpacked by the customer, inventoried at his end, then pulled and shipped to a retail outlet,” she says. “On these packs, the corners can't curl or puncture after wrapping; there can be no dog ears of any kind; the clarity and even the tactile feel of the film are critical. More to the point, this customer inspects every package we ship, because any returns from a retailer are costly. Our new equipment facilitates meeting his requirement of 100 percent perfection on received goods. In the long run, it's cheaper for all of us to adhere to this standard going out our door.”

To meet this requirement and handle additional volume, Allison developed a set of requirements and started research on a second shrink-wrap machine, attending trade shows to talk to other users and vendors. “I'm not a machinery person. I had no preferences; I just knew my requirements and took them to vendors, working through the selection over six to nine months,” she says. “We methodically work through a sound ROI and consider how long a machine will be viable for us if the customer mix and needs change. We wanted a machine adaptable to small or long items, easy to changeover and maintain, and with output significantly better than the 33/min. we have with our existing machine. We have non-English-speaking people working with us, so we also focused on a machine that would be intuitive to set up.”

A user-friendly answer

Ultimately, Allison ordered an SW-3000 shrink-wrapping machine and an ST-900 shrink tunnel from Lantech (Louisville, KY). The new system was pressed into service immediately. “The ability to store 16 recipes in the control made it easy to transition into this machine at the outset, when we still were learning our way around,” says Allison. Its side-seal and cross-seal systems have been maintenance- and trouble-free. “Another manufacturer's machine we looked at required a fairly skilled maintenance person on hand at all times in the event a jam caused the side seal to fail,” she adds. “That's a cost we don't need built in.”

The SW-3000 is a flight-lug machine capable of wrapping up to 75 packs/min., with on-the-fly film tracking adjustment and side-seal/cross-seal systems that reportedly never need cleaning. The flight-lug infeed provides tight control of unstable products and accepts a minimum package of 3 (l.) × 1 (w.) × 18 inch (h.) up to a maximum 40 × 15 × 6 inches. The adjustment-free rotary side-seal system common to all Lantech shrink machines cuts and seals simultaneously at minimum temperature to avoid melting film on components, which could degrade performance or cause a stoppage. The unique system requires only temperature setting. The seal head can be threaded and checked “cold” for operator convenience. Cross sealing is maintenance-free, with a seal bar that cuts and seals with separate surfaces.

The machine has proven itself user-friendly to non-English-speaking staffers at Blanks, because the film carriage uses logical settings based on package height/width, with inch-denominated scales on the machine for carriage height, inverting bars, etc. All settings are related to package dimensions in a systematic way. Allison explains, “Once you have the package dimensions, you set the scales and conveyor speeds, thread film, and you are pretty much ready to run. This gives us great flexibility with little downtime.” The machine typically uses a roll of film two inches narrower than required for the same work on the L-bar. This nets a savings of about $20 per roll of film. “We're able to use six-inch rolls now, where eight inches was our smallest in the past,” she notes.

The ST-900 convection-heated tunnel has been a factor in improving shrink wrap quality. Some display materials include expensive plastic components easily damaged with heat. “We can tightly control our bag size on the Lantech wrapping machine, and this lets us minimize our heat settings on the tunnel and still get a good looking pack,” says Allison. “The L-bar machine and tunnel are more limited in allowing for a perfect package consistently.”

Both shrink machines run hard all day long, and the L-bar machine still has an advantage for Blanks because it allows some “cheating” on product size that's not possible with the side-seal machine, Allison explains. As for the standard of 100 percent perfection on the retail packages of paper, Allison notes, “Nothing can ever be 100 percent the first time, because you can't take out the human element, but the Lantech machine easily is more than 95 percent, while the L-bar is around 80 to 85 percent,” she says.

No longer boxed in

With high volumes drop-shipping every day, Blanks has a big appetite for cases. Towers of boxes were a nuisance that could fall like dominoes and took up lots of floorspace. That has changed with the arrival of a Lantech C-2000 case erector, which survived extensive prepurchase evaluation. “Our cartons have to withstand real-world conditions, and they ‘absolutely positively’ have to arrive in good shape — reshipping and redos are out of the question with the schedules our clients work on,” Allison says. “FedEx testing was crucial in our decision, and we found some machines could not make a box that would pass without additional taping prior to shipping or customization by the corrugated manufacturer. If something's a little askew on a case or the center seam overlaps, you can destroy the integrity of your tape and have a bursting situation. Lantech's distributor worked with us by allowing us to use a demo machine long enough to test a variety of cases for different projects.”

The C-2000 machine is sited on the discharge side of the shrink machines and makes boxes on demand, so packers can efficiently build kits and feed the cases downstream for sealing and labeling. “We had the smaller model on trial, but we bought the larger machine and have ended up doing more on it than we ever anticipated,” Allison says. “We've saved tremendous labor already and even brought more work in from other departments. If the bindery has a shipment of millions of pieces that go 2,000 to a box, for example, they can bring the skids up to our conveyors and we can handle the job much more quickly.” Most of the boxes are 200- to 275-lb. single-wall, but Allison says the machine will run double-wall on certain sizes. “We found the specs on this machine very conservative; it'll do much more than Lantech says, which is good. They don't over-promise, and we don't have ideal conditions. It's just a very forgiving machine that always makes a square carton and never jams. We load 200 blanks in the magazine, and it makes boxes on demand at about 15 per minute.”

The C-2000 works with case blanks from 7⅞ (l.) × 5⅞ (w.) × 3⅞ inches (h.) to 25⅝ × 17¾ × 23⅞ inches. The machine has a number or reliability-enhancing features, such as powered infeed from the magazine, and a hinged pick-up frame that grabs the case on two panels using suction cups. By gripping two panels and squaring the case with the pickup frame, even irregular or damaged case blanks are controlled through opening, then held square and erect for flap closing. Special slots in the major flap folders prevent sideways movement of the case while it is pushed into the exit drive. There, it is gripped on the sides between two belt drives that pull it across the tape head.

Wrapping it up

The last stop before shipping is a Lantech Q-300 stretch wrapper with integral scale, which is sunk into the floor so the table is flush. This machine, too, was vetted extensively, and it is paying for itself through greatly reduced film consumption and labor vs. previous hand-wrapping methods. Pallet volume varies from 20 to 100 per day, with the fulfillment, bindery and shipping departments sharing the wrapper.

As Blanks ramps up its variable-data printing, the fulfillment department expects demand to grow. Allison says, “We're confident in our system and the support from Lantech's distributor. This machinery has eliminated our weekend work and greatly reduced our overtime. We've reduced our material consumption and built capacity to absorb a growing workload. No one would like to go back to the good old days.”