Quality Assurance: Equipment and Operators Work Together

by Jen Clark, PostPress
The Standard Hunkeler WI6 Web Inspection System uses state-of-the-art digital camera technology to scan the full width of the web, capturing high-resolution images of printed output for various types of quality and integrity analysis.

In today’s hyper-competitive postpress marketplace, mistakes – even small ones – can be costly. When items are shipped and don’t meet client expectations, binders and print finishers alike can lose more than just money through added labor costs and re-runs. Unhappy clients can lead to the loss of current and future business. Ensuring quality products get delivered to the customer is paramount.

In the bindery, the need for human interaction with the product still puts the onus for quality on the operator. Rickard Bindery, Chicago, Illinois, specializes in providing solutions to challenging folding, saddlestitching, gluing and other bindery jobs. For it, quality assurance begins with preflight and continues through production with an extensive set of checks and balances to ensure a high-quality product is returned to the customer. “It begins with obtaining the right information about what needs to be done, how it should be done and what acceptable quality standards are for each client,” said Kevin Rickard, vice president of operations.

Some in the print finishing industry, though, are utilizing equipment that has become more and more automated. MCD, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin, is known for making imagination become reality through foil stamping, embossing and diecutting complex projects, as well as specializing in lamination, UV coatings, HoloBright and folding/gluing. The company recently added its first camera-based inspection system and is looking to add additional units, said Glenn Gauger, manufacturing engineer manager. “It identifies codes between components to ensure that we match all tip-on pieces to the correct base,” he said. “We have a detailed report to assure the customer of 100-percent matching. Our accuracy has greatly improved while reducing complaints.”

Equipment manufacturers respond to changing marketplace

The increasing amount of automation in the print finishing industry has led equipment manufacturers to develop inspection systems that are more intelligent and operator-friendly. The W.H. Leary Company, Tinley Park, Illinois, engineers and manufactures quality assurance, glue application and mechanical solutions for the packaging industry. “As automation has increased, so has line speeds, and 100-percent manual inspection often is not only cost-prohibitive, but often impossible,” said Andrew Sims, director of engineering. “Inspection systems increasingly are being used to guarantee product quality without increasing labor costs. When used effectively, quality assurance systems also can prevent large amounts of product waste by identifying defects earlier in the process.”

Standard Finishing Systems, Andover, Massachusetts, distributes Horizon folders, saddlestitchers, bookletmakers, collators, cutters, perfect binders and diecutters, as well as Hunkeler unwinders, rewinders, cutters, stackers, folders and perforators for continuous-feed digital and inkjet print engines. Automation leads to more hands-off operation, said Standard’s Johan Laurent, business manager, Hunkeler. “Inspection systems remove the need for an operator to thumb through stacks of printed material,” he said. “But there are other reasons why print providers are installing inspection systems at a higher rate. For example, higher speed presses make it less convenient to spot check by hand. When presses are installed roll-to-roll, there no longer is an opportunity for a visual check, so you want to catch errors automatically, before the web is rewound.”

As an example, Sims relayed a recent experience with one W.H. Leary customer. “Our customer had installed a LearyVIEW™ Print full carton inspection system for a critical job and found that the spoilage was at five percent after installing the system – higher than they were expecting – but found all the rejects were genuine and the printer hadn’t realized it was sending products that were out of spec,” he said. As a result, the printer used the information from the inspection system to correct the root cause of the errors and spoilage reduced to the level it was at before the inspection system was installed. Now W.H. Leary’s customer was able to guarantee 100-percent quality to the brand owner, which enabled this customer to win several new contracts.

Camera-based inspection captures images of every page

The use of camera-based technology is available on almost any type of print finishing equipment. It allows systems to perform verification of material imprinted with virtually any standard symbology, including 1D and 2D code, OCR characters, MICR, addresses, Blob, images (pattern match) or even OMR markings at the click of a mouse or via touchscreen. Quality inspection systems serve two main purposes, Standard’s Laurent said. “The first one is the check print quality, such as jet outs, smearing, color density, registration or readability of bar codes,” he explained. “The other one is to verify that everything is printing, in the correct order, without duplicates.”

A camera-based inspection system can handle both, by capturing images of every printed page. These images then are compared, in real-time, to the master image and the database. If there is an issue, the quality inspection system simply can alert the operator that something is off and mark individual pages or sets for removal from the print stream at a later time, for example, in the bindery or inserter area. “In an extreme case, the web inspection system can automatically stop the line,” he said.

Standard Finishing and W.H. Leary offer standalone inspection systems and units that can be integrated into existing finishing lines. Standard’s Hunkeler product line offers the WI6 web inspection system that features color or monochrome cameras that can check one or both sides of the web. It can be integrated into any existing finishing line from any manufacturer. “Hunkeler’s top-of-the-line system can inspect every single page printed on a 40″ wide press at speeds of 800fpm,” Laurent said. “In addition, we offer a range of software options, depending on the type of inspection required, and integration with print management systems.” Standard’s VIVA product line is an automated integrity and inspection system that can be deployed across a range of Horizon finishing solutions, including perfect binding, folding, bookletmaking and saddlestitching, and it provides quality control, tracking, end-to-end system control and production reporting.

Sims said the W.H. Leary units range from basic bar code reading for mixed copy detection to advanced, multi-channel quality assurance systems with multiple high-end vision cameras detecting a range of quality defects. “A large portion of Leary’s business is selling retro-fit systems that enable printers with older machinery to increase productivity and compete in today’s marketplace without having to invest in new machinery,” he said. “Leary systems are designed to be expandable and are ready to accept new sensor and camera technologies as they become available, ensuring the quality assurance systems purchased do not become obsolete in a short period of time.”

Operator inspection plays an important role

At MCD, one of the largest graphics arts and finishing companies in the Midwest, quality assurance is two-fold. There is a formal process of two-person makeready approvals and running retains of products, as well as traceability on all products run. “A spot check of retains can offer indication if additional inspection is needed,” Gauger said. “We also spot check final product before it leaves the building, when appropriate.”

A quality inspection system was added to MCD’s existing folder-gluer line, allowing the inspection system to take advantage of the automation. “The most important aspect of the system is its ability to learn, in addition to setting variable inspect options and integration into a running piece of equipment, as well as reporting data,” Gauger said.

Although MCD is looking into adding additional inspection units, Gauger said visual inspection still plays a role in the company’s print finishing process. “The ability to ensure our customers 100-percent accuracy is very important to us,” he said. “We strive to deliver top-quality products and services, which in turn, develops long-term relationships.”

Rickard Bindery utilizes a camera-based inspection system for pharmaceutical products. The importance of having the right drug information warrants having a camera inspection system, Rickard said. “The penalties are astronomical. If you get a pharmaceutical piece that goes through and isn’t printed on one side… that would be devastating.”

About a quarter of Rickard Bindery’s business involves some aspect of the pharmaceutical industry. “We have a presence of ink detector,” Rickard said. “So if a double-sided print comes through that only has print on one side, we have electronic eyes on the folders that read the sheet on the top and bottom of the machine. If there is a blank side to the sheet, it will stop the machine automatically, the sheet is removed and discarded and the machine is restarted.”

Rickard said he is unaware of any camera systems that could be used for his company’s high-speed folding work. Within its 80,000-square-foot facility, there are about 80 folding machines, of which 30-40 can be running at any given time, he said. “There are too many variables for electronic devices to be programmed to keep track of,” Rickard said. “You have things like bend-overs that can happen inside that an electronic device cannot see or feel.”

Rickard Bindery utilizes visual inspection throughout the process – in cutting, folding, stitching and, of course, coming off the folder. “The big issue is you don’t want to ever remove the burden of inspection from the employees,” Rickard said. “You don’t want them to become complacent and assume a machine is going to catch everything or do the job of inspection for them. It really needs to have a human touch to physically jog it up, feel it, look at it, open it up by hand and look inside to examine the piece properly.”

Quality assurance starts when a job comes in the door. “We create a job jacket and an order, which then go out into the factory to the supervisors,” Rickard explained. “They assign a mechanic who sets up the job according to the specifications and the customer sample. Once he has a job set up, he gets four OKs from different supervisors to ensure the product we are about to produce matches the customer sample. Once it is running, our procedure is to pull one piece every hour and have it time-stamped and saved.”

At the end of a shift, at least eight samples will be collected and looked at again by the quality control manager. The actual number of pieces pulled for a job depends on several factors, including customer requests to increase hourly pulls – some want as many as five pulls per hour – while others want two samples pulled – one for Rickard Bindery’s records and one for theirs. “It really depends on the customer how many and how often pieces get pulled,” Rickard said.

Regardless of the number, those samples are held for three months. “For every job we run, we have a piece from every hour that it was running,” he said. “If there was a problem, we can go back and have a complete history of the job running and be able to identify when and where the problem happened based on the time stamp and machine number that is on it.”

If a quality issue arises during a run, Rickard Bindery’s machine operators are empowered to shut down a machine or even an inline system if a predetermined standard of excellence isn’t met. “More errors are caught when operators develop “ownership” of their job performance and when additional sets of trained eyes look at each job,” he said.

Maintaining this standard-of-excellence is paramount, Rickard said, because the risk-reward ratio on each job is so large. “We are the last people to touch everything – we aren’t a printer, so 90 percent of the value already is in the piece. To make $10 in profit, we are exposing ourselves to $1,000 worth of risk because of the value of the piece. If something goes wrong, the cost of reprinting is huge to us. Errors cannot happen.”

But if an error does make it through the process, Rickard Bindery stands by its work. “When mistakes have happened in the past, we have stood behind our work 100 percent,” Rickard said. “We have had to reprint things, but we do always make it right.” The extensive amount of documentation for the job then becomes a training tool so the error doesn’t happen again, he added. “We use the work-flow analysis of what happened to put features in place so that it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes customers will ask that specific paperwork gets filled out that identifies what happened and identifies how we will prevent it from happening again.”

Manufacturers expect growth for inspection systems

Officials at Standard see a bright future for quality inspection systems, Laurent said. “It is all about efficiency,” he said. “With a good quality inspection system and the right integration, print providers will have the information they need to make their shops more efficient.”

W.H. Leary’s largest volume-producing customers are using fully-automated lines with reel-fed machines, Sims said. “Products are being printed, diecut, folded, glued, packed and palletized without any human interaction,” he explained. “As line speeds and automation increase, customers are relying more and more on quality assurance systems to maintain product quality, and brand owners are coming to expect 100-percent inline inspection of their products. This trend will continue to rise in the future.”

While visual inspections have become less practical, they still play a role in quality assurance measures. Sims noted some customers use visual inspection as part of their overall quality process because they aren’t using automatic inspection for every type of defect. “However, for customers striving for complete automation, today’s highest end quality assurance systems mean that manual inspection is no longer a necessity,” he said.

Added Laurent: “Visual checks provide an extra layer of security. Both printing and binding still have an emotional and tactile appeal, and it takes a human to fully appreciate that. Not everything can be automated – yet.”