A digital case printer replaces bar-coded labels for Federal Cartridge to cut costs. But the printer did much more when case supplies were tight and expensive.
By Arnie Orloski, Editor
In antique stores old wooden ammunition boxes are popular sellers because they're so versatile. Today the corrugated shipper for ammunition is just one part of a sophisticated inventory control system for customers both military and retail. When customers began to require that ammunition be shipped in cases well marked with scannable bar codes Federal Cartridge Anoka MN began to look at alternatives especially for its smaller-volume products and customers. "Our production is very close to the 80/20 rule" says Charles J. Quaday senior packaging engineer. "That's where 20 percent of your products account for 80 percent of your unit volume. The remaining 80 percent of your products can really hurt your efficiency-unless you have a way to deal with them. Our new case printer has done a good job of taking care of our low-volume case marking needs for us." The printer is the Digital Case Printer (DCP) made by Iconotech (Buffalo Grove IL) that Federal purchased through Diagraph (St. Louis/Earth City MO). It's a high-resolution digital printer that's equipped with a stacker and return conveyor. The printer uses a group of printing technologies. It allows Federal to buy plain kraft shippers and print to order all four sides of knocked-down cases with product information and scannable bar codes. Federal uses the printer to handle box printing needs for all of its smaller-volume products and customers. For high-volume products it orders preprinted cases that include the bar codes. "In large quantities you can order separate cases and still hold a good price" Quaday says "since we can easily meet minimum order quantities. We don't mind some inventory of these cases since we pack them often." Before the Iconotech was installed at the end of '94 Federal had even short-run corrugated boxes partially preprinted with manufacturer and production information. To accommodate the bar code needs of some customers it printed pressure-sensitive labels in house and applied them to the shippers. Bar codes drive change The demand by customers for scannable bar codes on cases of shells was the major force behind the addition of the DCP. "This was a customer-driven change. More and more they were demanding good bar codes on cases and we felt we couldn't do it as well with labels as it could be done with direct printing on a case like the corrugated boxmakers do for high-volume boxes. So this wasn't really something we chose to do; it was something our customers required. They didn't care how we did it-although they didn't want codes that were too small-so we began to look at the best ways to do it." Federal prints either a UPC bar code or the larger Code 14 that incorporates or "embeds" the UPC code into the 14 digits. "Our wholesalers are now moving to implement Code 14 industry-wide" says Quaday. "Many are just starting to come on-line with it and we're working with them to ensure correct codes and scannability. The software that comes with this printer can handle virtually any type bar code." Scanning tests now Now that its customers are beginning to scan the bar codes that Federal prints on its boxes the company is also upgrading its system to verify the scannability of the codes it prints. However scannability has not been a problem for Federal or its customers. "We checked out the scannability of the printer before we bought the machine" says the packaging engineer. "This printer prints with a resolution of 200 dpi [dots per inch] so we're confident that the codes will scan well. So far we haven't had any reports of our boxes not being scannable." For the first few months since installation Federal has randomly scanned the printed bar codes with a handheld scanner. But the company is now completing a new system that will "read" and verify scannability of every printed code. "We're rigging up a scanner that will scan each bar code as the case comes out of the printer. Eventually it will be set up so that if it detects two consecutive bad codes it will automatically shut off the printer" Quaday reports. It isn't always the printer that's responsible for poor quality printing he says. Federal worked closely with the St. Paul MN plant of Willamette Industries (Portland OR) that is now Federal's sole supplier for corrugated. It uses several different test weights of corrugated instead of edge crush because of its heavy dense product. But humidity can be a problem both for printing and for automatic case packing. Its corrugated supplier has improved the consistency of cases the engineer says so it's rare when downtime is attributed to poor cases. "They recognized that they had to improve or someone else would get the business. After all how a case runs is much more important than the itty bitty savings you gain by buying cheap materials." Engineer controls art At Federal Quaday literally controls all of the images printed on the Iconotech. The personal computer in his office is loaded with the Windows(TM)-based software that comes with the system. With this software Quaday creates the printing image within minutes using scalable fonts importing bar codes and even adding computer-generated or scanned-in graphics like Federal's logo. When completed he stores the image on his computer to simplify production when that printed case is reordered. When he has the print images prepared for the printer he transfers them to a PC on the production floor via floppy disk. That computer then feeds the images to a thermal imaging system that produces a piece of printing film in less than two minutes. The print area can range up to 11 x 32" and the film can produce (but seldom does at Federal) up to 2 imprints or enough for 1 cases. Currently Federal does all the case printing on a single shift to feed cases to a plant that packs the boxes on three shifts. Federal packs the boxes in a variety of ways from hand loading to automatic case packing. In fact Quaday says the printer can handle every single box and printing assignment used by the plant even those normally preprinted by Willamette. That has proved to reveal an unexpected benefit. Salvaging cases Federal has reaped some benefits from the DCP that even the company didn't anticipate. Earlier this year the company received some preprinted cases that contained errors in the printing. That's when Quaday learned how flexible the printer's software can be. "With the regular software we're not limited to certain label formats. When we had received case flats with incorrect information we were able to design a printing pattern that would block out the erroneous copy while printing the correct copy in another area of the box" he recalls. "Over the winter there was a heck of a shortage of corrugated in our area so we really couldn't afford to discard cases. That was especially true when you're talking about an order for 20 boxes. That saved us a considerable amount of money and it helped us in terms of customer satisfaction." Improving customer service has been a strong feature of the printer. Being able to custom-print cases on virtually a moment's notice has allowed Federal to respond to emergency orders. In normal operation the press operator gets an advance look at the following shifts' production schedules so that he can plan to most efficiently group case sizes. "However there is often that phone call in the middle of the day that can change things" Quaday states. "The printer gives us the flexibility to turn on a dime so that we can meet emergency orders. Since we can call up or even design new print film in just minutes we can have that film produced and loaded onto the printer within an hour. "The value of this flexibility is hard to measure. In today's competitive market providing this kind of service really helps our marketing staff. We pride ourselves in being able to supply our customer with virtually anything he wants within a tight timetable." The printer has also been used to support the high-volume packaging lines. It has "saved us a couple of times" Quaday says when orders for a particular product exceeded the inventory of preprinted cases. With blank cases on hand he programmed the printer to reproduce the images on enough cases to cover production until the preprinted cases arrived. Quick process Once the PC signals to the thermal imager the printing film is produced in just minutes. That contrasts with the weeks it normally takes to have flexo plates produced. And the imaging film costs about $2 each compared to hundreds of dollars for regular flexo plates. The DCP operator takes the film and mounts it onto the print drum of the press. He then loads unprinted flat boxes into the magazine feed system and starts the press. The operator can run about 150 of Federal's larger cases. These are discharged from the printer in stacks and the circular return conveyor brings the stacks back near the infeed of the printer. The operator then loads the one-side printed cases back into the printer and the same image is printed onto the reverse side of the KD cases. This way Quaday says the printer never shuts off until the run is completed and fresh cases are required. "From the beginning I wanted a system that would have the return feature even though it wasn't really part of what we ordered" he says. "When we placed the order Diagraph had a case catcher in back. But they were working on a stacker that could place stacks of cases onto a conveyor and I saw the possibility of bringing the stacks back to the operator so the operation would be ergonomically friendly." Simple to change Federal really liked the simple design of the DCP. "This printer is very reliable because it's simple. Hand cranks are supplied to adjust for case size changes. So our operator groups his production by case size so all you have to do is nudge the cranks up for the next larger box. "Our operator will run all the 12-gauge two and three-quarter-inch shell boxes at one time because they all use the same corrugated size. "You simply change the film when you shift from one product to another. Our operator is so good he can change the press over in just a minute or two. The changeover speed comes from the design. The printer is mounted on a rail so it slides away from the stacker to make working on it simple. It's very well engineered and that's the beauty of it." In addition the DCP has met expectations about speed. "Many machines are quoted with a speed that's possible but not for high-quality printing on a sustained basis" the engineer reports. "That's not the case with this printer. We're able to run it wide open at 60 cases per minute and it does a nice job. Since we run all our cases through twice that's 30 finished cases per minute." When you combine preprinted cases to the output of the printer Federal has eliminated its need for labels and label application. "We used to have labelers on each of our high-volume case-packing lines. But when the labeler went down so did everything else on the line. By taking labelling out of our line we're seeing nice increases in our packing efficiencies" Quaday states. "I'd estimate were producing about 15 percent more cases in our packing operation thanks to eliminating the downtime caused by the labeler. Our line people were very unhappy with the labelers." Despite all the advantages Federal doesn't run it any more often than it has to. A preprinted case will simply be less costly. However when preprinting isn't economical this system has proven to be a great option. Do customers like the print job PW asked Federal's engineer. "Silence is like approval I've always said. We haven't had a complaint yet."