Setting up a large format digital printing operation

The expansion into large format offerings is exciting in many ways. It’s also difficult and complex because, among other things, you have to create a smart manufacturing setup to produce the printed items in a cost-effective way.

A good floor plan is like a puzzle – all the pieces must fit together to achieve maximum efficiency. This includes moving materials, accessing equipment, creating networks, and other items. Done right, an efficient floor plan will reduce waste, increase productivity and boost competitiveness.

Overall, the goal is to achieve optimal throughput. Create the most direct and productive ways to physically move a job from receiving to production to finishing to shipping. The challenge is to integrate multiple printers, cutters, laminators, mounters and other equipment into the workflow.

Presentation of the product or presentation of the process?

Common approaches to designing a manufacturing facility are the product layout method, the process layout method, or a hybrid of the two.

If, for example, a large format operation is dedicated to the production of one product, say a very long label run that repeats regularly, all the equipment can be arranged to suit the product layout. The equipment is arranged essentially in a straight line.

This simple layout minimizes material handling distances, reduces processing time, uses space efficiently and eliminates bottlenecks.

If an operation produces a variety of non-repetitive tasks, the process approach is often the most agile. In this layout, you group together all the machines that perform a similar function in different locations. All printers go to one area, all end up in another, for example. It may not be the most direct route, but it allows for production versatility.

In today’s world, manufacturing operations often deploy a combination setup. Basically, this approach is akin to setting up production lines that run in sync and start and end in the same place.

Production Space Layout Best Practices

With all three layout approaches, we need to keep some considerations in mind:

  • Make sure you leave plenty of room to move around any machine and space to access it, whether to load ink or make repairs. What is the minimum number of feet of work space needed for each piece of equipment? You don’t want operators tripping over each other.
  • Minimize the distances that materials, such as substrates, ink, and other supplies, must travel between equipment. This includes moving materials from storage to production space and from final product to shipping. Too many trips create waste and inefficiency.
  • Some large format substrates may be larger than those used in commercial operations. Rolls can measure up to 16 feet and require specific handling.
  • Also consider how to handle and move finished goods, especially if you need to inventory and equip printed items before shipping them.
  • Assess energy needs. How far are the points of sale? What voltage does each piece of equipment require? How are you going to connect all the pieces on the ground? If cables are needed, how long do they need to be and will they interfere with movement?
  • How will each piece of equipment connect to internal digital networks? Will each room need an IP address?
  • How will you manage other critical requirements such as exhaust, air supply, temperature, waste and humidity?
  • Think about printers or other devices that need to be stationary and stations that you can move.

Critically, automation and software are key to achieving efficient shop flow and require planning. An effective GIS system, for example, can consolidate litho and large format operations and reduce administrative costs.

A good floor plan is well thought out and should allow for growth and added capacity, but it doesn’t have to be cast in stone. Like anything else, a continuous improvement mindset with regular evaluations and adjustments will save time, labor and materials.