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Revolutionizing Corrugated: An Exclusive Insight into Auto-Count® 4D

15 minute read

Embarking on a journey through the intricate landscape of corrugated manufacturing, we had the privilege of sitting down with Andrew Bennett, Senior Product Specialist at ePS.

We discussed revolutionizing plant floor data collection with ePS’ newly launched Auto-Count®️ 4D (AC4D) solution for the corrugated industry.  

In an era where precision, efficiency, and real-time data are the cornerstones of manufacturing excellence, Andrew sheds light on how this cutting-edge technology is set to redefine the standards for corrugated manufacturers with a deep dive into the features, benefits, and transformative potential of AC4D; his insights promise to navigate us through the implications and opportunities that lie ahead for those at the heart of corrugated production.  

Join us as we explore the next frontier in corrugated manufacturing technology; we delve into AC4D’s development and uncover what this means for the future of corrugated manufacturing. 

Andrew, please tell us about your role and background. 

As the Senior Product Specialist for the Corrugated Suite at eProductivity Software (ePS), I stand at the intersection of technology and innovation within the corrugated packaging industry across the EMEA region. With a career spanning over two decades, my journey from a Field Service Engineer with PLC corrugator control systems to various strategic roles at Corrugated Technologies, Inc. (CTI) and EFI has been rich and diverse. This path has endowed me with deep technical expertise and a profound understanding of the corrugated sector’s nuances. 

In my current role, my primary mission is to spearhead the advancement of ePS’ corrugated software solutions, specifically designed to boost operational productivity for corrugated packaging manufacturers. My experiences have equipped me with a unique blend of technical know-how and customer-centric insights, allowing me to give feedback on developing and implementing our Corrugated Suite. This suite is more than just software; it represents a pivotal leap towards operational excellence, embodying ePS' commitment to innovation and our client's success. 

Drawing on my comprehensive background, I am dedicated to delivering solutions that surpass the evolving needs of the industry. I aim to leverage the latest technological advancements to address complex challenges, enhance efficiency, and empower our clients with the tools they need to achieve unparalleled operational success.  

How does the corrugated industry differ across regions?

Discussing regional variations in the corrugated industry reveals a common goal: to produce board and packaging efficiently for profitability. However, the approach to this goal differs globally. Western Europe and North America focus on regulatory compliance and following established standards. In contrast, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia often rely on local ingenuity and cultural adaptations. These differences affect everything from communication to execution methods.  

Interestingly, emerging markets are open to adopting practices from established ones, viewing them as benchmarks for improving operational efficiency and output. This reflects a trend towards standardization across the industry, with companies increasingly adopting successful strategies from other markets to enhance their operations. 

Can you give us an overview of the Auto-Count® 4D (AC4D) solution and its primary objectives? 

AC4D is an advanced data collection solution for the corrugated industry, designed for companies with converting machines. It focuses on improving machine efficiency, setup times, and material use, key factors in a company's success.  

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With paper costs accounting for 70 to 80% of total manufacturing costs for many customers, AC4D aims to be the market leader by enhancing waste tracking and providing real-time machine visibility.

This supports maximizing Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), efficiency, and throughput while modernizing data collection with automation. AC4D adopts Industry 4.0 principles, automating piece counting and boosting operational intelligence and efficiency. 

What inspired the development of AC4D? 

AC4D has been a leading technology for data collection in the print and packaging industry for over thirty years. It was localized for corrugated after numerous successes in the broader packaging sector and developed in response to a significant need in the corrugated industry for better plant floor data collection.  

Ryan Arnold, our esteemed Product Manager for MES solutions, and his dedicated team have been instrumental in ensuring that the new AC4D solution surpasses expectations and proves itself more than fit for purpose within the corrugated industry. AC4D addresses the challenge of relying on manual tracking by machine operators, which can detract from their primary tasks.

ePS has focused on understanding and solving this industry pain point, leading to the creation of AC4D. Designed to blend seamlessly with current production processes, AC4D aims to enhance workplace efficiency without overwhelming operators with complex software, making it a user-friendly solution that feels like a natural part of their workflow. 

Who is AC4D's target audience, and how does it cater to the needs of corrugated board and box manufacturers? 

AC4D introduces significant advancements for box and high-production sheet plants, offering a flexible and robust data collection solution that caters to various operational needs across different regions. Its features support waste tracking and quality control and provide real-time operational insights, enabling timely issue resolution.  

The platform's comprehensive quality module and detailed waste tracking improve operational efficiency. AC4D's web-based nature reduces hardware costs, as it operates effectively on tablets with scanners. This showcases its versatility and utility for businesses seeking to enhance efficiency and operational impact in the corrugated industry. 

What are the key features of AC4D, and how does it stand apart from existing solutions available today? 

AC4D distinguishes itself in the market with its web-based design, significantly reducing the need for costly computer hardware and allowing for the use of devices like Windows-based tablets at multiple machine centers. Its capability to measure diverse machine inputs and outputs supports operations ranging from digital printing to Flexo presses and even anticipates future needs like ink consumption and environmental impacts. 

AC4D enhances operational efficiency with features such as automatic label printing and improved waste tracking for real-time accuracy. Its quality module allows for unprecedented customization and control, enabling detailed quality checks and adjustments directly on the platform. This boosts quality control processes and facilitates real-time monitoring and retrospective analysis to address quality issues promptly. 

Moreover, AC4D's integration capabilities include supervisory lockdowns to enforce quality standards, halting production until checks are completed, and ensuring consistent product quality. By leveraging web technology, AC4D modernizes plant floor data collection, aligning corrugated facilities with Industry 4.0 principles for a more sustainable, efficient, and technologically advanced future. 

It collects a lot of data! How does that get used for reporting? 

AC4D's data collection provides a versatile reporting system that serves diverse needs, from historical analysis to real-time operational insights. It offers detailed and summarized reports, valuing understanding of past performances while prioritizing real-time reporting to allow immediate visibility into operations. This immediacy is critical for promptly addressing quality issues, preventing them from worsening or affecting customers. 

The development of AC4D's reporting features is dynamic. It is shaped by customer feedback and collaboration, aiming for continual improvement based on users' critical informational needs. This approach ensures AC4D delivers actionable insights vital for operational success, aligning with the corrugated market's current and future demands. By evolving with users' needs, AC4D maintains its relevance and utility, boosting efficiency and productivity. 

How does it improve efficiency and productivity on the plant floor?

AC4D's impact on plant floor efficiency and productivity is significant, though the exact gains vary by implementation. While specific increases in machine efficiency cannot be universally promised, applying AC4D's workflows and best practices typically results in enhanced operational performance.

Manufacturers integrating AC4D can anticipate improvements in run speeds and reduced downtimes, alongside fewer quality-related issues and production defects due to its focus on quality control and process optimization.  

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This holistic strategy means that, regardless of individual differences, adopting AC4D improves efficiency and productivity, meets key performance indicators (KPIs), and achieves measurable improvements in manufacturing outcomes. 

What feedback have you received from early adopters, and has it influenced any recent updates? 

Early feedback on AC4D from users has been exceptionally positive, with many highlighting the quality modules as key innovations that significantly improve their operations over previous systems and practices. This response highlights AC4D's ability to address vital needs in the corrugated industry, particularly in quality control and management. Such enthusiastic reception validates AC4D's development direction and plays a crucial role in its ongoing refinement, ensuring it effectively meets the industry's changing requirements. 

How does AC4D integrate with existing manufacturing systems and technologies? 

AC4D integrates with existing systems and technologies through two main pathways to effectively serve the corrugated market's diverse needs. For clients using MES software within our Corrugated Suite, AC4D integrates seamlessly with CorrPlan, our converting scheduling system. This enables existing customers to add AC4D to their operations without disrupting current ERP integrations. This ensures a smooth transition and operational continuity within the CorrPlan and MES ecosystem while facilitating quality traceability at the spec and order level through integration with ePS’ Corrugated Business System (CBS). 

AC4D is a versatile standalone product for clients seeking to maintain their current scheduling and business systems. The development team is dedicated to working closely with these clients, using standardized integration processes to ensure flawless operation within diverse business environments. 

This dual-path strategy highlights AC4D's adaptability and commitment to meeting the specific requirements of a broad customer base in the corrugated industry, ensuring a customized fit into various operational frameworks and boosting manufacturing efficiency and productivity. 

Were there technical challenges encountered during the development of AC4D, and how were they overcome? 

During AC4D's development, ePS faced significant integration challenges, notably in allowing different systems to communicate effectively despite using diverse ‘languages’. To overcome this, ePS introduced a standardized messaging protocol, eFlow, across its software solutions, creating a uniform communication language. This API ensures smooth interaction between CorrPlan, AC4D, and the MES environment. 

Despite this, integration issues like message failures or bugs did arise. ePS responded with strategies for immediate failure notification, detailed logging to pinpoint root causes, and corrective actions to maintain real-time communication and functionality. These adaptive measures have enabled ePS to surmount initial integration obstacles, enhance AC4D's reliability, ensure seamless operation within diverse technological ecosystems, and offer clients a dependable solution. 

What does the implementation process for AC4D look like, and what support can clients expect during and after this process? 

The AC4D implementation process is designed to integrate seamlessly with a client's current infrastructure, starting with an in-depth site survey for a custom strategy. This includes setting up test databases, integrating systems, and installing Direct Machine Interface (DMI) kits for machine monitoring. 

Preparation for go-live involves remote training to familiarize staff with AC4D and conducting pilots to ensure smooth integration and functionality. The realization phase leads to the go-live event, which is supported on-site by a dedicated team to address any immediate issues and ensure a smooth transition. 

Post-launch, ePS provides ongoing support, including additional training and access to a dedicated customer success, support, and R&D team. This ensures that AC4D is effectively integrated into daily operations and that users remain proficient and supported, highlighting ePS' commitment to post-implementation assistance. 

How customizable is AC4D to meet the unique requirements of different plants? 

Whether the plant focuses on quality control, reporting, waste, or downtime tracking, AC4D's features can be tailored to address specific requirements. This high level of customization means that AC4D is well-equipped to meet and exceed the expectations of various corrugated environments. It offers a flexible solution capable of enhancing operational efficiency across a wide range of scenarios. 

What challenges do corrugated board and box manufacturers currently face that AC4D helps to address? 

In the competitive and cost-pressured corrugated packaging market, AC4D is a crucial tool for manufacturers aiming to navigate industry consolidation, tight margins, and intensified competition. By enhancing operational efficiency, AC4D ensures that resources such as materials and production time are utilized to their fullest potential, enabling manufacturers to maximize efficiency and productivity. 

AC4D allows companies to streamline their operations, reducing waste and distractions for operators, which, in turn, optimizes the use of corrugated materials and improves revenue opportunities. This approach addresses the current efficiency gaps in manufacturing processes and positions manufacturers to adapt to and thrive amidst future market changes and challenges, ensuring sustained competitiveness and profitability in the dynamic corrugated packaging industry. 

How do you see the role of data collection and analysis evolving in manufacturing, and what are the plans for AC4D in this context? 

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The evolution towards integrated and automated data collection in corrugated manufacturing aligns with Industry 4.0 trends. These trends aim to reduce human error and free up employees for more specialized tasks. The future of this sector is increasingly reliant on technologies like AI to offer actionable insights, which are crucial for improving data collection and operational efficiency. 

AC4D represents a significant step in this direction, transforming data interaction by enabling real-time decision-making through immediate data analysis and presentation. This shift from historical to real-time data processing underscores the need for agility in addressing operational challenges, moving the competitive advantage from the size of a company to the speed of its adaptability. 

The mantra evolving within the corrugated market is no longer about the company's size – “the big eats the small” - but the speed at which it can adapt and respond to changes – “the quick eats the slow”. AC4D embodies this new mantra, facilitating rapid issue resolution to enhance operational efficiency and competitiveness. It empowers manufacturers with real-time insights, allowing for swift adaptation in a rapidly evolving industry. This approach meets current industry needs and lays the groundwork for ongoing innovation and adaptation to future trends, ensuring manufacturers remain at the forefront of the corrugated manufacturing sector's evolution. 

Can you give us any sneak peeks into future developments for AC4D? 

AC4D is evolving to meet the corrugated manufacturing industry's changing needs, with a significant focus on environmental sustainability, especially concerning carbon emissions. Upcoming enhancements will broaden data collection and analysis to include traditional production metrics and materials such as ink, glue, and strapping. This expansion aims to offer detailed insights on material usage per piece or order, highlighting opportunities for more efficient use or potential cost reductions. 

By clarifying costs associated with material use, AC4D will enable manufacturers to make informed decisions that boost operational efficiency and sustainability. This commitment to enhancing manufacturing processes and reducing the environmental footprint aligns with AC4D's dedication to supporting the industry's sustainability efforts and adapting to evolving regulatory and societal expectations, ensuring manufacturers remain competitive and responsible. 

You touched on sustainability; how does AC4D contribute to corrugated manufacturers achieving sustainability and environmental goals? 

AC4D is poised to significantly impact sustainability and environmental goals within the corrugated industry by enhancing material tracking and consumption monitoring for items like ink and glue. This capability allows manufacturers to minimize their environmental footprint by optimizing material use and adhering to sustainable practices and certifications, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). 

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The software's emphasis on improving operational efficiency, reducing waste, and decreasing energy usage aligns with broader sustainability objectives. By enabling higher throughput with less energy and in shorter times, AC4D supports a more sustainable manufacturing process. 

AC4D's introduction marks a shift towards advanced technology used in the corrugated industry, promoting more efficient practices and positioning itself as a potential industry standard. This transition towards digital transformation is expected to drive efficiency across markets, demonstrating the corrugated industry's capability for technological innovation and leadership in sustainability and operational excellence. AC4D's role underscores the industry's move towards a technologically advanced and environmentally responsible future. 

And the impact on workforce labor? 

AC4D addresses the corrugated industry's labor shortages by leveraging technology to minimize manual process reliance and human error. By automating data collection and analysis, AC4D enables staff to focus on core tasks like machinery operation and production efficiency, alleviating the need for manual data handling. This approach streamlines operations and boosts workforce productivity and reliability. 

By offering solutions to labor market challenges, AC4D aids manufacturers in navigating one of the industry's most significant hurdles, positioning technology providers and their clients for enhanced success amidst a competitive environment. This strategic use of technology bridges the gap created by labor shortages, ensuring smoother, more efficient manufacturing processes. 

In your opinion, what impact will AC4D have on the future of corrugated manufacturing? 

For manufacturers in the corrugated industry contemplating a data collection solution like AC4D, the essential advice is to recognize the paramount importance of speed to market. In a landscape where speed is increasingly critical, the ability to quickly progress from order receipt to product delivery is essential. 

AC4D enhances this capacity by offering precise tracking of work in progress (WIP) throughout production and shipping. This provides visibility and control that can significantly boost competitiveness. By improving throughput, reducing turnaround times, and enhancing delivery efficiency, manufacturers can leverage AC4D to meet evolving market demands and ensure success in the fast-paced corrugated industry. 

Based on your experience, what advice would you give manufacturers looking to implement data collection solutions like AC4D? 

The advice is clear: prioritize solutions that enhance operational speed. Implementing AC4D can significantly contribute to this objective, offering a tangible means to increase competitiveness in a market where every second counts. This approach accelerates production processes and facilitates quicker revenue recognition, positioning corrugated manufacturers to thrive in today's fast-paced market environment. 

Lastly, why should companies choose AC4D over other solutions? 

AC4D distinguishes itself as a premier solution in plant floor data collection for the corrugated market. It offers unmatched capabilities that transform manufacturing operations. Its game-changing value lies in its unique ability to innovate and significantly enhance manufacturing processes. 

What sets AC4D apart is its unparalleled flexibility, proven workflows, and real-time feedback and visibility to staff - features not paralleled by competing technologies. This approach makes operational efficiencies visible, demonstrating tangible benefits and process improvements to companies. 

The technology behind AC4D is specifically designed for the corrugated industry, offering a bespoke solution that addresses manufacturers' unique challenges head-on. The positive experiences of early adopters have validated AC4D's effectiveness and transformative potential, making it not just a viable option but the definitive choice for companies aiming to improve their operational capabilities and secure a competitive advantage in the market. 

Do you have any final comments? 

The enthusiasm to bring AC4D to the market is palpable; there's a keen interest in engaging with anyone who sees potential in this technology. The corrugated industry isn't just a sector of focus but a personal passion; there's a deep commitment to positively impacting the market.  

This invitation to reach out is extended to all interested parties who wish to explore how AC4D can revolutionize their operations. The journey towards transforming the corrugated industry with AC4D is just beginning, and collaboration with like-minded individuals and organizations is eagerly anticipated.

 

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