Find The Bottleneck

America has a throughput problem.  How to stick over 600 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine into arms as quickly as possible?

We have written in the past about the logistical challenges of administering the COVID-19 vaccine to the US population—the challenges of manufacturing the vaccines and distributing them.  This is a classic throughput problem, so let’s take the same approach to the problem as we do when trying to shave seconds off of a print cycle. (See “Seconds Matter.”)  Simply put: find the bottleneck.

Production bottlenecks can have you singing the blues too.

On Friday, February 12, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found and removed one such bottleneck in the supply-chain for the COVID-19 vaccine.  In this instance, the bottleneck was quite literally the bottle, or rather, the number of doses per vial.  The FDA granted approval for Moderna to package 14 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine into each vial instead of ten.  Since Moderna supplies half of all vaccines in the US, this simple ruling increased the national vaccine supply by 20 percent, without requiring any changes at any stage of the supply chain.  No new lines were added; no new tooling was required to accommodate larger vials.

The objective in bottleneck-hunting is increased efficiency, as one could easily double throughput by doubling inputs, from raw materials to labor and machinery.  But this also doubles cost, and companies like the rest of us live in a world of constraints, whether they be financial or simply factory floor space.  Finding and removing the bottleneck should initially result in increased output using the same level of inputs.

This is the goal of our Sales Engineers whenever a customer brings a direct-to-shape printing challenge to us and asks, “How can I do this faster?”  Frequently, as we have seen, precious seconds can be found in upstream activities such as part-loading.  (See one such solution here.)  Alternatively, perhaps it is the pretreatment subroutine.  Part-unloading activities may also be the bottleneck.

With our single pass inkjet printers and automated pad printers, we sell machines that can mark thousands of parts per hour.  Generally the bottleneck lies elsewhere.  That’s why we are so much more than a manufacturer of industrial printers.  We also offer a complete line of ancillary products such as inline pretreatment, mechanical aggregators such as waterfall hoppers and racetrack feeders, servo-controlled fixtures, and robotic load/unload.

Have you got a throughput problem? Drop us a line today, and one of our Sales Engineers would be happy to discuss it with you.  At Engineered Printing Solutions, we have helped companies in industries as diverse as automotive, medical device and drinkware find and create value and develop new products.  Let us do the same for you.

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How to Increase Throughput In A Pad Print System: Seconds Matter

In pad printing, seconds matter.

Pad printers are an excellent solution to product-marking and -decoration when runs are long, the artwork is fairly simple, and part topography precludes an inkjet solution. But as with any form of “contact” printing, there are theoretical limits to throughput speed. The pad can only move so fast, or the ink needs a minimum time period to cure before downstream activities can take place.

Doubling the number of pads, plates, fixtures, and parts doubles throughput, but duplication also adds considerably to the cost of the machine. Prospective customers also frequently bring up the topic of a rotary table to move parts past the pads and ink cups, but this only speeds up throughput if there are preliminary steps such as pretreatment for adhesion required for the printing process, as regardless of how many stations there are on a rotary table, the operator still only has two hands with which to load the machine.  Another problem with trying to increase throughput through the use of a rotary table is the actual movement of the table itself; the operator can only load parts onto the table when it is stationary.

Fig. 1: A simple rake with pneumatic control for off-loading parts can increase throughput by eliminating one human touch.

Sometimes simple additions to standard operations can add significant throughput gains with very little added cost.  When trying to increase throughput, a good place to start is in minimizing the number of “touches” a machine operator must make on a part. Either loading or off-loading can be automated. One solution for off-loading parts is a simple rake, driven by pressurized air, to pull parts off of the fixture. (See figure 1.) This frees the operator to focus solely on loading parts into the machine.

Fig. 2: EPS designed this loading mechanism to enable the operator to load parts even while the table is rotating.

EPS has designed a loading mechanism that “pre-loads” parts into position, and then vacuum sucks the parts onto the fixture once the table has come into position and is at a standstill.  This automated load can occur much faster than if a human operator had to do it.  (see figure 2.)

These are just a few examples of innovative, one-off solutions we have found for our customers.  Sometimes, seconds can be gained just by having one of our Sales Engineers visit your facility and discuss your operation.  Our experience in manufacturing processes in a wide variety of industry verticals—Automotive, Medical Device, Health & Safety—has taught us many operational strategies that may offer ways to shave precious seconds off your production process. Customers trust us to find a solution to their part-marking problem because they know that we understand that seconds matter; if you can go from a four-second print cycle to a three-second print cycle, over the course of a shift, a day, or a year, those seconds add up to real cost-savings for our customers.

Automated Parts-Handling Can Shave Seconds Off of a Production Process

  • Some work environments can benefit by trimming seconds out of their processes.
  • Sometimes simple additions to standard operations can add significant throughput gains with very little added cost.
  • Sometimes seconds can be gained just by having a Sales Engineer come in to discuss your operation. Our experience in manufacturing facilities across industry verticals exposes us to many operational strategies that may offer ways to save you time and money.

Want to find out more about custom automation solutions for your part-marking job?  Drop us a line!

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Custom Automation Solutions at EPS: What Does That Mean?

Every single pass chassis is welded and powder-coated right here in Vermont.

At EPS, we design and build custom inkjet part-marking solutions that integrate with your production line.  Since every application is different, no two machines are alike.  The upstream parts conveyor might be unique, or the print head array may have extended gamut colors like orange, green, and violet.  Perhaps the substrate material requires pretreatment for adhesion.  After the part is printed and cured, there may be some offloading requirements or secondary operation such as assembly or packaging.

In order to solve your part-marking challenge, we have to maintain a deep bench of talent—software engineers, electrical engineers, CAD/CAM specialists, ink specialists, and integration specialists all of whom work in concert to provide the solution that is right for you.

Every electrical panel is assembled by hand.

Building a bespoke industrial inkjet machine is a little like baking a cake from scratch.  Once the project parameters have been agreed upon and the design has been finalized, CAD drawings are sent to our welding facility where the basic frame you see above is welded and powdercoated. Next, the control panels and electrical boxes are installed.  Part-loading and -unloading assemblies are added next, followed by the print engine.  Finally, the computer is installed.

Once the machine is assembled, extensive testing begins to ensure that the part-marking inkjet printer meets the project brief in terms of image quality, throughput, and unit cost.  Usually, our customer will visit our facility to witness the machine in operation in what is known as an FAT, or Factory Acceptance Test.  Only after our customer has signed off on the FAT does their machine leave our facility.

Every custom single pass product-marking machine is rigorously tested before it leaves our facility.

The end result is a machine that integrates perfectly with your production line in terms of throughput speed and upstream and downstream part-handling requirements.  Whether you are marking automotive parts, medical parts, caps and closures, or promotional items, Engineered Printing Solutions has designed a direct-to-object product-decorating solution for your industry.

We know what it takes to successfully integrate a product-marking solution into existing production lines.  Let us design a bespoke system for your company.  Contact one of our Sales Engineers today!

The end result: a custom-built machine specific to your needs.


What to find our more about our bespoke product-decoration solutions? Drop us a line!

Part 2: When is Automation Right for your Pad Printing Business?

In Part 1, I explained some of the indicators of a need to implement automation in your process, and some of the challenges you needed to anticipate and control during the implementation.

Let Me Tell You a Story
This is the story of a manufacturer with two endings – one happy, one sad. The company printed and labeled widgets at a rate of 100,000 per day with 15 employees on task in an environment that created an overhead of $22,000 per laborer. The supervising print manager, unable to keep up with that large a shift, threatened to quit, forcing the owner to offer him an extra week’s vacation immediately, and each year thereafter, to stay on the job.

A year ago, the CEO/owner received an email from his engineering manager. The PPMOVT sales rep was nagging him to consider a really expensive ink jet machine. The cost was $350,000 and ran at an operating speed of 150,000 widgets per day. In his opinion, the expense and production was far more than their company needed, but he wanted to keep the owner informed of what was available.

The owner summoned his engineering manager to his office. “How many people would it take to run this machine? What would the operating costs per widget be?” The manager had done his homework. “The ink cost per piece would be less than it’s costing now, and one unskilled person could operate the machine. But how could we afford such a big investment?”“We can’t afford to not buy it. Our total ROI would be less than 14 months!” (This didn’t even include the cost of the disgruntled print manager, who earned $56,000 per year.)

The Happy Ending:
The owner purchased and installed the new equipment, and was able to reduce the price of his widget by two cents apiece. Sales increased and their biggest customer dropped his Chinese supplier to give them the work.Over the next 12 months, profits increased by $300,000 and they hired 14 people to fill additional jobs created in the customer service department. Now that’s what I call ROI. They lived happily ever after.

The Sad Ending:
We have all personally known companies that have gone out of business because they never picked up on opportunities like this; companies that wouldn’t make the hard but necessary decisions to support growth.The alternate ending to this story? The CEO allowed himself to be convinced that the more powerful ink jet’s expense was not worth the risk, and some of their long-time employees would be out of work, too old to find new employment. They subsequently lost orders to other manufacturers who invested in new automation, which resulted in poor old ‘Jane,’ the operator who complained her replacement would be a machine, losing her job, along with the 250 other employees who went on unemployment.Then the snack bar around the corner from the formerly thriving manufacturer closed, leaving Jim the proprietor without an income and his Chef looking for a new job.Several other former vendors went out of business as well because they no longer received orders from their preferred customer. THE MANUFACTURER HAD GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.


Join the conversation! How have you handled growth and change in your workplace? Are you involved in the tough growth decisions?

Part 1: When is automation right for your pad printing business?

Engineered Printing Solutions custom solutions sometimes involve designing and engineering automation capabilities. When appropriate, we  recommend an upgrade from your existing equipment. Why would you do that? After analyzing your current process, we sit down with you and discuss where you can save time and money by investing wisely in a custom automated system.

A successful business makes wise investments that increase in value over time. We all know time is money, but we forget that the time needed to gain a return on our investment is crucial in making decisions. A 10% return on an initial investment within one week would be classified as a huge windfall. A 10% return in 10 years, even in today’s soft market, would be a wasted effort.

So when is the right time to consider automation?

  • It’s time to consider automation when you find your business losing time in setup, prep and assembly, especially when there aren’t enough hands to go around. It’s time when you want to grow your business but your staff can’t keep up with the orders you have.
  • It’s time if the form of automation has a reasonable ROI (return on investment) based upon industry norms. Automating can be as simple as moving a box that stores work-in-process to a more convenient location, making the job easier and quicker, saving time and therefore money. Your investment in this sample is 10 minutes of time to come up with an idea and 15 minutes implementing the idea (25 minutes total investment) which subsequently saved 5 minutes per day. ROI = 5 working days = excellent investment, when the industry standard on ROI is 16 months!
  • It’s time when the cost of labor is holding back your growth. If your company is in the business of manufacturing, in most cases your single biggest expense is labor. This is where automation can become an emotionally charged issue among employees. How many times have you heard people complain that the boss is going to replace them with a machine. Perhaps technically true; however, the bigger picture is that you must yield a few jobs to chores a machine can’t do in order to grow the company. It also provides an opportunity to retrain or release those employees who had limited or no growth potential. In order for a business to survive and thrive automation is one of the simplest tools to implement.
  • It’s time when you want to expand your business with cash and labor invested wisely, with one eye on your ROI and the other looking toward potential growth. If you had some money available and could get a 10% ROI in a month, would you do it? Would you do it if it was relatively risk free? I’ll bet you’re smiling now!

In our next post I’ll tell the story of one CEO’s “no-brainer” decision in a tale with two endings: one happy, one sad. Until then, consider some of our custom automation solutions:

Look at some of the videos. Can you imagine a similar step in your process?

Join the Conversation!  How have you handled growth and change in your workplace? Are you involved in the tough growth decisions?