"Growth Potential in the Print Market? - Without a Doubt!"
EyeC GmbH develops inspection systems for all areas along the entire print process chain. Since its start in 2002, it has advanced into a globally active medium-sized company with more than 60 employees in Germany. Dr. Ansgar Kaupp, one of the three EyeC founders and its general manager, talks in an interview about the challenge in differentiating between process-specific deviations and errors, the potential for inline inspection in Print 4.0 smart processes and EyeC's further growth prospects in the print market.
Dr. Kaupp, would you like to give us a brief run-down on EyeC?
Dr.Ansgar Kaupp :With pleasure. We supply inspection systems that ensure print quality throughout the entire production process. Since we started in 2002, we have grown from a staff of three to now more than 60 employees. We work with sales and service partners in more than 20 countries and, with their help, to date we have installed 1,800 inspection systems in 51 countries. We achieve around 8 million Euro in turnover and invest 20.5 percent of this in R&D.
What do you think are the reasons that EyeC has been able to establish itself so quickly?
Dr. Kaupp: When we started up in 2002, we already had image processing know-how from CD and DVD inspection. What we wanted was to transfer this know-how to quality management in printing processes so we actively looked for pilot customers. We were immediately able to recruit a key customer and highly important development partner to develop our first system and we still work with this partner today. Alongside meeting customer needs, we were also lucky. We immediately started off with label inspection, which we thought would be simple. Today, we know that, from an inspection viewpoint, we started with the most complex of all printing processes: flexo printing. This is the process where the precision of the print image varies the most due to the flexible relief plate used. We had to design our pattern recognition algorithm so that it can differentiate between tolerable, process-specific deviations and print errors, which is exactly what print product inspection is all about. Thanks to the dot fringes, distortions and variety of spot colors and substrates in flexo printing, we have been able to adapt our image processing software to the entire complexity of the print market. It was then so versatile that we could relatively easily adapt it to other printing processes and, working together with customers, we were able to develop it according to their needs. Operability is called for here: printers want "error detection devices" that give them process reliability without stopping them from working. They want them to inspect automatically and only raise an alarm when something goes wrong.
What are the key target markets for your inspection systems?
Dr. Kaupp: An important sector is pharmaceutical packaging. Inspection here is an absolute necessity because of the high safety awareness, especially since a recall is more expensive than our systems. Many brand owners use EyeC inspection technology as well. Close process monitoring ensures the perfect quality of the elaborate printing and special finishing of their packaging for cosmetics, tobacco or spirits. In addition, the growing safety requirements for food packaging are also generating demand. Error-free packaging is becoming a must, for example, for labelling allergens correctly.
EyeC systems cover the entire print process chain. What do they all have in common?
Dr. Kaupp: Whether it is artwork, prepress inspection, offline or inline inspection: the bottom line is pattern recognition. The software compares two images and interprets any deviations. Are these deviations production-specific or are they errors? If no objects disappear and there are no additional new ones, deviations are generally tolerable. Depending on the font size and the language used, we define each time the smallest relevant objects and can reliably identify missing commas or the dots on an i. So the system makes rational decisions. This means that printers can talk to their customers on the basis of facts - instead of subjective impressions. Our inline inspection systems also ensure that inspection keeps up with the speed of modern printing processes. Meanwhile we also make use of deep learning technologies, and the whirlwind rise in processor performance is also helping. To use multi-core architectures optimally to ensure timely inspection, we parallelise our software's computing processes.
How is growing digitisation changing your target markets?
Dr. Kaupp: We are a digital company through and through and see ourselves as a driver of digitisation. The printing industry is printing digitally more and more often and it is digitising its process chains so that, despite ever smaller batch volumes, it can produce efficiently. No matter whether with digital or conventional printing processes: only as much is produced as can be sold within a short space of time. Short-run jobs especially call for efficient quality assurance. EyeC systems can carry out print proof inspection in less than two minutes instead of three-quarters of an hour. Thanks to the automated connection to the press, the inspection device can also now be set up in no time at all. EyeC systems can quality monitor along the entire process chain including post-processes. They minimise makeready waste and misprints, ensure efficient production of the required batches and, as such, optimise the ecological and economic footprint.
To what extent is the inspection of artwork and prepress automated?
Dr. Kaupp: Some of our systems guide the operator through the inspection process. Some are fully automated and can be integrated into the workflow systems of the large press manufacturers if required. Each one has its justified existence. Guided inspection can be practical, especially when it comes to standardisation in PDF print proofs, because it can determine the variance in the input files from the onset so that reasonable standards can be developed on this basis.
EyeC systems also inspect Braille. Does that mean the inspection of decorative embossing on packaging is feasible?
Dr. Kaupp: This is indeed a challenge. With the help of adapted lighting and other tricks of the trade, we have managed to create an environment for testing the presence and precise positioning of such decorative embossing. The difficulty is that embossing is often carried out in a separate process - and embossing register and print register do not necessarily match a hundred percent. But customers only accept minimal damage to the decorative embossing. We have been able to resolve this issue together with our customers. Our aim is that our optical inspection systems can answer all the customer's questions in one step. If, for example, the customer is printing fruit juice packaging, then our systems inspect on the one hand whether the printing is correct. But on the other hand they also check whether the printed bar code is readable and whether the folding edges are symmetrical because, if they are not, you can be sure that the multiplelayer material structure will be damaged. It is a sort of upstream process approval...
... in the form of offline quality control. Will this be superseded by inline systems in the long run?
Dr. Kaupp: There are customers who check upfront whether they have taken all the necessary precautions to ensure an error-free printing process. This is enough for them and their customers. In contrast, there are other customers who require seamless quality monitoring including documentation of their production processes. For them inline inspection is then an essential. Sometimes proof of data integrity and system validation are also called for. We offer such services from a single source.
Do customers use your "one-stop shop approach"?
Dr. Kaupp: We listen to customers and generally we have a product that can efficiently resolve their problem. Customers often start with initial basic inspection and then expand their quality assurance more and more with our systems. This is where the consistency and simplicity of our interface metaphors across all our products play a central role. Nobody wants to have to cope with a new operating logic or different data structures at every inspection stage.
What are the central components of your inspection systems?
Dr. Kaupp: First of all, our software, which accounts for the majority of our added value. But we also attach great importance to being able to offer our customers entire systems with hardware and software. We optimally match line cameras, optics and lighting with each other and with the process to be monitored. Strong lighting sources are required especially in high-speed processes so that the camera can actually record all image dots in a fraction of a second. Added to this of course, we have a high-performance processor whereby the number of processor cores and the parallelisation methodology or the speed of access to the cached data can change from generation to generation. In such cases, we adapt our software each time. Together with engineering companies, we also offer modular retrofit solutions with which printing companies can expand theirexisting equipment with inline inspection technology. This enables them to take on the appropriate jobs or upgrade production line changeover for such jobs.
Inline inspection is considered a central building block for Print 4.0 smart processes..
Dr. Kaupp: ... and I think that we as a sector are on the right road with this. If we can further develop this ability to exchange information, then it is absolutely feasible that printing presses will be able to regulate themselves when errors occur. Using reliable standards, we can enable customers to freely select their equipment components as a contribution to flexibilising process chains and achieving genuine competition among solutions. And it opens up opportunities in predictive maintenance where process data is loaded into the cloud and intelligently analysed. This applies not only to our own systems but also to all other components in the process chain. Our systems are the eagle eye in the process and allow all kinds of inferences to be made on the machine status. We are in the process of leveraging this potential, together with pilot customers from the engineering sector. By the way, the networking opportunities within VDMA are very helpful
Will inline systems supplant offline inspection in the world of Print 4.0?
Dr. Kaupp: There will always be situations in which only one batch needs to be checked. Offline systems are necessary for such situations as well as for extremely high measurement accuracy. However, inline inspection will become more attractive in as far as its costs fall and its performance increases. This makes a shift in the weighting therefore probable. I assume that in 2030 all printing presses will have an integrated inspection system, which means that in many areas there will then be zero-error production.
You can see behind the curtain in many areas of the packaging market. Is the mix of packaging materials used changing?
Dr. Kaupp: The focus is more on the ecological footprint. Environmentally compatible, recyclable packaging on the basis of paper and carton is gaining significance in our target markets pharmaceuticals and branding. Especially when it comes to flexo printing, we are waiting to see how the social debate on plastics in the oceans will impact on the packaging market and the political framework put in place.
EyeC is focussing on print inspection. Are there growth opportunities in printing?
Dr. Kaupp: Growth potential in the print market? - without a doubt! Print might be losing relevance in its function as an information channel, but presenting products via their packaging is and will remain a growing market. This is where we are active with our inspection systems and we can hardly cope with the demand. We will need to increase personnel to be able to achieve all the many applications that are still at the concept stage.
A final question: where do you see EyeC in 2030?
Dr. Kaupp: As I said, I foresee that every printing press will have an inspection system and we will be working with press manufacturers together on this. If we carry through our growth strategy, we will be five times larger than today in turnover as well as in personnel. We will continue to act on a global scale and expand our portfolio along the printing process.