Raising the Bar on Press Operations
You probably recall the TV shows Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It on which host Mike Rowe would dive head first into all kinds of jobs and occupations—sometimes actually enjoying himself. He came out of the two series as an advocate for skilled labor training. You know, skilled labor: like running a flexographic printing press.
The way it used to be
It wasn’t that long ago that new employees would come into a print shop considering it a trade and skill they could learn to build a career. For the novice, the steps involved an experienced press operator teaching the new helper or assistant the ins and outs of running a flexo press with multiple colors of ink and several stamping, cutting and trimming operations all taking place on a single job. The training in could go on for as much as two years before the newcomer was ready handle any job that came in the door.
Nowadays? Not so much.
Why experience matters
The lack of experienced pressmen—often the final judges of quality before a job is shipped—is proving to be a challenge for owners of label and packaging businesses across North America. Press operator expertise directly impacts the level of work that can be done in a flexographic printing business. Think about this for a moment. Running a press well is every bit as much a skill as welding, auto repair or carpentry. And while those trades are still taught in many trade schools, training programs for running printing presses and the related skills of color management and prepress are much harder to find. At some schools they have vanished altogether. This poses three challenges for brand owners, print providers, and the companies that provide equipment and services to label and packaging printers.
Quality is critical for most brand owners and press operator skills can dictate which converters are chosen. The more complex a job, the greater the demands on the print provider and the higher the skill levels have to be. And ultimately, lower operator skills can result in less business.
Lack of knowledgeable workers in flexographic print shops the also limits the kinds of conversations suppliers can have with press operators when evaluating a printing problem. For instance, Provident’s technical experts commonly ask press operators about any difficulties a shop may be having in the context of the jobs being run and the equipment and products being used. In particular, they are looking for information that can help define any challenges and help them recommend a solution. Without that constructive input from press operators it’s much harder to make a positive change.
Then there’s continuity. An operator’s skill and knowledge is vital both when diagnosing a problem and when following up on any suggested changes. Yet, it’s not unusual for a technical rep to make recommendations in a shop where the most senior operator has less than a year’s experience and departs before the changes can be implemented. The problem remains, but the process has to start again.
Knowledge & Understanding
Inexperience can also encourage inefficient practices and limit judgment so that an operator may react to a problem without thinking. When a label or package isn’t printing correctly, for example, a knee-jerk reaction might be to increase pressure on a doctor blade, or even completely change the anilox rolls, end seals, doctor blades, and re-start the job. In most cases, neither approach is the best solution.
“We try to always work with the business owner, shop supervisors and press operators to help them understand their inking system and the relationships between inks, rollers, bearers, anilox rolls, plates, doctor blades and end seals so they are better able to diagnose a problem,” says Andy Gillis, General Manager of Provident. “We want to make sure they see the cause and effect of each part so they can get the best possible results.”
As inking systems experts, Provident can provide much of the needed instruction and add value in several ways:
- Helping educate press operators and assistants so they are better prepared to handle future challenges.
- Increasing operational efficiency by improving diagnosis and solutions for common printing problems.
- Showing how consistent performance and better print quality adds value for the business owner (aiding sales) and for the customer (by providing superior quality).
- Helping reduce total cost of printing by encouraging best practices for ink systems maintenance.
- Encouraging more efficient use of common consumables (such as doctor blades and end seals) to save money and reduce labor costs.
All of this is important because more skilled employees are not going suddenly arrive at your door. But partnering with Provident and working with the people you have can raise the bar for your press operators and assistants, help them learn the craft of flexo printing, and become more valuable parts of your label and package printing business.