One of the newest recruits at Data Image Group doesn’t want a pay rise and works through lunch. Director Robert Farfort is well pleased with his robot.
It did however cost his company a six-figure sum and came with heavy duty kit: a super-wide Esko Kongsberg C66 cutting table that was almost a world first when installed last December. It wasn’t, however, the very first Kongsberg automated robotic production system at the East Midlands base. That was on a C64 machine delivered a year before, in December 2016.
And that one really was a world first, says Farfort. Data Image Group prototyped the equipment in Leicester following a Drupa unveiling earlier that year. His company has been operating as a wide-format specialist for POS, exhibition and quirky, hard-to-do graphics for 26 years using Inca and Acuity flatbed printers beside Durst hybrid and dedicated roll-to-roll kit.
“We are driven by quality and efficiency and have always been heavily into automation,” says Farfort, who swears by lean manufacturing principles and value stream mapping for blitzing production bottlenecks. For this reason he has worked for several years with Esko, beta testing hardware and software such as the Belgian firm’s Automation Engine modular workflow server.
A recurring problem is cutting: his company had 13 cutting tables; the Kongsberg C66 with robot is the 14th. As printing devices become quicker and quicker, cutting becomes harder and harder in terms of manual handling and turnaround times. That is why Data Image Group has so many cutting tables, insists Farfort, “because cutting is such a challenge and where the bottlenecks occur”.
So when the older Kongsberg, the C64, was decommissioned, Farfort’s team worked with Esko to fine tune the new version with robot. The C66 is a bigger table and can take two 1.6x3.2m sheets on the bed simultaneously. The robot meanwhile has a longer reach to load and pick up at either end of the bigger table, as well as dynamic grippers that are so precise thay can swoop to pick up something as small as a postage stamp.
“Talk about automation and you immediately think repetitive, long-run jobs or those with a narrow range of materials. We are not into mass production, but want to be able to handle and swap swiftly between lots of different material types. We have a big variety of jobs, so for us it is all about quick setup and makeready times, for which manual handling isn’t so good.”
The Esko system was delivered in crates in December 2017 and manual handling was the only option for unloading the boxes. Despite the unique, sophisticated nature of the equipment, Farfort was surprised how quickly and trouble free installation was. Table and robot were installed, configured and up and running in two weeks. And it’s big, 10x10m, with safety railings around the robot.
“Both the table and robot were built on site and installation was pretty slick; we didn’t have to boost power or floorboards. But the robot sits in its own cage: it is not a toy; it is potentially lethal, like a car-manufacturing robot. We have four stacks, and anything that picks up and swings around a 1.6x3.2m object is necessarily going to be big and powerful.”
Big, powerful and physically looming, did any of Farfort’s 53 staff see other threats from the robot – would the C66 lead to the delivery of P45s?
“When you put in place technology of this sort there are always going to be fears from staff, ‘does this put my job on the line?’. In fact at Data Image Group, and I suspect elsewhere, with repetitive tasks, operatives find them mind-numbingly boring, so whenever we can use software or hardware to automate these tasks – from accounts to the back end – our staff are mightily grateful.
“They have seen this entire process as a real positive and are pleased we are investing in the future and becoming early adopters. It puts us at a pioneering forefront and some feel it’s almost a privilege to be part of that. We are maintaining, not cutting, headcount and our staff are becoming much more technically sophisticated.”
The Kongsberg C66 can run at 100m/min, handling sheets, corrugated board and foam cushioning. The robot allows Data Image Group to run the equipment unattended and non-stop for fast, efficient completion of jobs and shorter runs without compromising on quality, he says. Using the Kongsberg C66 for shorter runs eliminates the time associated with more conventional, unwieldy cutting kit.
Training was straightforward, as the new Kongsberg interface and robotic controls are nearly the same as the old technology. The new gear was commissioned at the end of January, tested in late February and up and running live jobs soon after. Farfort’s 53-staff team recently did a job for 850 foam sheets of 3mm thickness, forklifted into place and loaded on to two pallets.
The operator activated a CorruSpeed tool, designed for high-speed cutting without oscillating to give cleaner, more accurate cuts, He entered information such as media thickness, tooling options, suction rate and speed of the robot in relation to cutting time. Meanwhile high-definition camera registration and sensory technology was measuring stacks and detecting the edge of the first sheet.
It was ready to go: the robot swung into action to pick up the first sheet and place it “very accurately” on the bed, recalls Farfort. While the table cut, the robot swung back to pick up another sheet, with downtime between sheets kept to only five seconds. A final techno flourish on completion saw the robot tilt a finished sheet towards the operator for final approval before putting on the stack.
“The Kongsberg C66 cutting table has massively fulfilled its function and I’d say I’m over 90% happy with its performance. Nothing new to a printroom is ever going to be 100%, but the minor issues we’ve had with this technology are all software driven, which can usually be easily and quickly rectified with a little reconfiguring or tweaking,” he says.
One such tweak involved tightening up automatic switching between materials, which was initially “a little bit clunky”. A few minor software changes smoothed out the problem. Other minor niggles involved sensors and zoning for the safety areas which originally proved a little sensitive. Again, a few keystokes ironed out the software issues.
“Service and back-up have been very good, especially as we were the first in the world to take on this type of technology back in late 2016 with the Kongsberg C64. So there has been a bit of hand-holding throughout the process and transition to the C66, and this has been as much a journey for Esko as us.
“We haven’t drilled down on data to work out detailed efficiency gains, but the robotic table is at least twice as quick as a manual table and that kind of saving soon stacks up. It can be run and monitored remotely, meaning operators can walk away from the machine and it just keeps going. They can tackle other jobs or help colleagues on other kit, and that’s where we see the real productivity gains of the Kongsberg C66. We are already looking at the possibility of having multiple tables fed by a robot, but wherever this technology leads us we will go there with a positive attitude and a healthy headcount.”
Work area 3.2x4.8m
Max sheet size 3.3x5.3m
Max speed 100m/min
Vacuum sections 8
Max cutting thickness 50mm
Price Price is heavily dependent on specification and table size. The machine at Data Image Group is a top-end configuration. However, the Kongsberg C series starts at around £100,000 for a base model. Esko recommends potential customers call to discuss their requirements
Data Image Group offers wide-format print and POS materials and is a keen innovator, designing prototypes and integrating Apple Macs to vinyl cutting machines since it started in the early 1990s. The 53-staff business in Leicester is a beta test site for software and hardware and director Robert Farfort currently runs Inca, Durst and Fujifilm equipment as well as the Kongsberg C66.
Why it was bought…
As printing machines become faster, cutting becomes trickier - manual handling is labour intensive and time consuming, so Data Image Group wanted a faster cutting table, more efficient software and robotics to maximise speed and efficiency.
How it has performed…
The Kongsberg C66 cutting table “massively fulfilled its function” and Farfort was over 90% happy with its performance. The only minor issues were software related and quickly rectified with a little reconfiguring or tweaking.