Business Advice

Retail signage: 'Everything can be automated'

by FESPA Staff | 16/12/2022
Retail signage: 'Everything can be automated'

Sign Text and Sign Production, twin signage companies, share a case study of how automation can increase efficiency and continuously improve processes.

Sign Text and Sign Production offer products and services to the Norwegian sign and print market. Sign Text is a distributor of vinyls and tools, while Sign Production is a converter, utilising the materials provided by Sign Text to produce graphics, print and signage to the same market.

The companies have followed a wholesale strategy for the past 35 years, only selling to other sign or print companies.

The business’s annual turnover is approximately €8m, and employs 32 people. Sign Production works in four different production areas, from self-adhesive text and logos to digital print and general signage. Sign Text is Norway’s largest 3M distributor focusing on quality materials, providing consultancy and extensive training through its own vinyl academy.

Sign Production is focused on helping other signmakers and graphic providers to complete projects and they provide support for the production of small and large orders. The estimated production of digital print is approximately 150,000 square metres a year.

What problems were you encountering that meant you needed to look for automation solutions?

As a pure sub-contractor, margins have always been a challenge. With rising costs and tougher competition, we had to look at new ways to make the production more efficient.

In 2019 we won a large contract with one of our biggest customers. This contract meant we had to adopt a new way of thinking and pushed us to find new ways to plan and execute orders. We had to find, in a very short time, a way to manage 10,000 articles. It was impossible to meet the production and delivery deadlines using spreadsheets and manual planning. Therefore, we researched different systems and chose a Danish system called Captor. After making many adjustments, we were able to import the orders directly from our customer and into the system.

The system holds all the information about the articles, their images, sizes, materials and colour profiles. Together with an automation system, the orders can push the files directly to the print machines and updates the system with the correct status.

After using automation across this project we have started to implement automation across numerous areas and workflows in the business. We try to find bottlenecks in the flow and implement new automations, adjust them and validate the results. If the result is reduced time or improved quality, the new automated workflow is set as a standard for the production.

Today, an ongoing issue with printing is that we need to process a high quantity of unique orders at high speed. Before we started to automate processes, we had to plan a lot before production. It was laborious sorting and getting control after printing. Having a system that can help sort the orders based on presets and tags them in a way that makes it easy for logistics. This in turn saves us a lot of time.

How have you managed to reduce touchpoints in your processes and improve efficiency?

One of the most important aspects of automation is the ability to reuse information in the workflow. If information is entered one place in the system, this information should be utilised and entered automatically other places. For example, the number of copies entered only once and used in prepress, rip and cutting tables to make sure the correct number is produced.

Other automation processes include adding information about which materials, printer, and colour profile to use. This is automatically handled and makes sure the file is ripped without any human interference.

Like most signmakers and digital printers, we use many different substrates, which often require special handling to produce correct colours and drying times.

The system is also able to choose a workflow based on the chosen printer and finishing based on the order information. This means correct bleed and cropping is done, together with correct markings, and camera markings and cutting lines are provided automatically in the files without anybody having to open the files in prepress.

It can also calculate and advise on the best roll widths to use on an order. The image is then automatically tiled in the correct tiling sizes based on the parameters in the system.

When cutting vinyl without print we are able to use the cutting table to write the order number directly on the vinyl. This eliminates the need of identifying the different cut vinyl parts. For example, when making decals for a whole car or if you have many similar but unique images on a order. In the past, we would have to use a ruler and pencil to identify the correct parts, now we only need to look at the written numbers located directly on the decal.

Another big advantage with automation is that the order status or even the status of each individual print can be automatically updated. This means that when you have printed or cut 15 out of 20 samples the system provides this information. It is not necessary to manually count or search for the order as you obtain instant information about the whereabouts of the order.

Can you quantify how you have managed to save time or money?

We have probably saved one or two positions in customer service and prepress and one or two positions in production due to our automation work so far. It is equally important that we can offer top quality and high security when delivering projects without spending plenty of time to get it right. The system is a very important tool enabling us to have control from end to end.

Are there any examples of satisfied customers, or particular successes?

Euro Sign and Coop in Norway were the first customers we worked with using an automated solution. Coop is one of the largest retailers in Norway, with over 1,400 stores. The orders from them are sent at a very  high pace with many products needing to be handled in a very short time. For example, it took about two weeks to process the very first order, without automation. Whereas, today an order takes only two to three days.

Tell us about Enfocus Switch – how does this help you out?

We use Enfocus Switch together with other tools to automate different workflows in our production. Our attitude is that everything can be automated and Enfocus Switch really helps us to try out new ways to work more efficiently. Switch is a very open platform, and what you get out of it really depends on your own creativity. It is very important to have a good understanding of the workflow, as an automated workflow doesn’t get any better than a manual workflow if it does not solve the problem at hand.

What is next – are you planning to extend automation processes?

We are always looking for new ways to extend the automation processes. We have the tools we need and by continuously learning we can continue to improve and perfect the workflows.

Technology is getting more and more accessible and affordable. When companies have employees who have a good knowledge about IT you can start introducing automation quite easily. In the future, working with automation will be a part of our continuous improvement on all levels across the company.

What new projects are on the horizon?

The production of decals to 2000 unique EV chargers. Each order needed to be produced and sent to different locations for installation on site. Our system was able to send the orders directly from a spreadsheet, organising them into batches .Together with a labelling system, it was very easy to process large quantities, optimising the production and reducing the waste. Simultaneously, we had very good control on what was produced at what time. We produced approximately 10,000-12,000 square metres in two months. All this was done in a specific order to be able to serve the correct installers at the correct time.

For more details, watch Sign Production's video here.


by FESPA Staff Back to News

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