Sun Automation - Innovation Outside of the Box

High Quality Inkjet Printed Corrugated by Sun Automation A few days ago I headed down to see Sean Moloney and his team at Sun Automation in Bristol to see the new machine he was passionately telling me about over the phone. Sean's enthusiasm was infectious enough to get me to venture the 260 miles or so to meet him, view the machine and write this blog. Proof itself that passion makes a real difference in business.

It was worth the effort. Sun Automation have created, by all accounts, a cracker of a new machine, the Corrstream, and I learned about an enlightened company.

Who are Sun Automation?

Sun Automation were established back in 1985 by Lou Sardella & Pat O'Connor. Out of the US they produced the first lead edge feeder dedicated to corrugated sheet, over 9000 are in use today making it the industry leading feeder application. This innovation set the scene for a company that has since gone on to develop chamber blade systems (Accuprint), Rotary blanket systems (Microgrind) and now its own OEM equipment with the revolutionary SUN 625 Rotary Die cutter and more recently the equally ground breaking CorrStream. Growth through innovation and a reputation for quality engineering, backed by service and support now places Sun Automation as a world leader in corrugated solutions with one of their products likely to be a part of most corrugate plants, particularly as they also own and support the IP of Langston Machinery.

Sun Automation, with their five main analogue products, is also owned through an ESOP - which means that it is 100% owned by the 150+ employees it employs globally. This perhaps explains the high levels of energy and passion displayed by Sean and his colleagues! Sean explains, "This culture energises people as they get a share back from the business. Everything we do from leadership down is totally transparent and every team member will go the extra mile in ensuring our customers success through our equipment and services. This becomes particularly exciting when products such as CorrStream come along".

Sean Moloney with Sun Automation's President, Mark Eaton

Clear leadership and ongoing innovation

Whilst Sun has a commitment to continuing innovation of their analogue products, some 10 years ago they embarked on their digital journey determined to create a digital printing machine capable of producing print onto industrial corrugated. Sean himself has considerable experience of running 'box plants' for the corrugated packaging sector so he fully appreciates difficulties in creating a digital inkjet printing machine that can produce the output necessary whilst being able to handle the uneven nature of sheet fed corrugated.

"Despite the significant technical challenges, creating a machine that can reliably produce output to the right quality, whilst being as fast as possible, has been significant. We are now there and incredibly excited about it. The trends towards mass customisation and the potential for this new machine are exciting because shorter lead time and flexibility in production are truly what our customers customers want. CorrStream is the first application to arrive in corrugated that not only answers the needs of the box maker to reduce costs at what are now typical batch volumes of below 5000 sheet passes, it is also a technology that answers the brand / retailers calls for shorter lead times, reduced inventory exposure and more shelf presence."

Single pass printing directly onto the sheet has advantages over web and multi pass inkjet. The set up time is quicker as it is closer to market and the finished box can be produced in hours instead of days making production far more competitive. This is further refined when one considers that CorrStream can also print post die cut blanks.

Print on demand

The principle difficulty to bringing a reliable inkjet system to corrugated is material handling – the Sun lead edge feeder has been critical to bringing a machine to box makers that meets industry standards. CorrStream operates alongside conventional equipment in terms of output and reliability.

The second, more obvious challenge in bringing inkjet to corrugated is the print engine. They deploy drop on demand technology utilising the Kyocera print heads.

Sun Automation has first-hand experience of working with continuous flow for several years prior to its move to the more reliable drop on demand – specifically with the Prosper head system. “Continuous Flow proved challenging on sheet fed corrugated” explained Sean, “hence a move to the new technology once it was robust enough was inevitable”.

For the engine, Sun has adopted and mirrored some of the successful combinations that are used in textile printing production.

Sun believe the print quality to be comparable High Quality Post Print (HQPP) standards, in fact the quality, Sean believes, surpasses that especially as they complete testing on inks that allow box plants to use coated substrates. This  in combination with the CorrStream dedicated workflow and RIP software allows box plants, brands and retailers to completely revolutionise how they use secondary packaging in their supply chain and on shelf.

"For example, a biscuit brand will be happy to gain flexible performance to create print that can change its message as it will increase sales"

Corrstream by Sun Automation

Will digital migration occur within the corrugated sector?

Sean thinks that box plants will migrate to digital naturally as the brands want the performance that digital can give you.

Sean says "We see lots of different customers interested in using this disruptive technology to open up a completely different set of opportunities. Unusually for an OEM we are talking directly to brand owners just as much as the box plants themselves, the brands and their manufacturers fully appreciate what is coming as they look for competitive advantage from their secondary packaging".

Will it replace conventional print methods? Perhaps but not – but it doesn’t need to, what is does do is create new potential and opportunity in corrugated.

The big picture 

Sean explained that the past 30 years has seen industrial output move to zones such as Eastern Europe, Mexico and Asia. This left western markets focused upon Retail and FMCG, to hold volumes, and even greater efficiency in order to compete. The market consolidated leaving fewer and fewer players, to the point where nearly half of all corrugated output is now produced by only four players in Europe. In the US it is more than half.

Retail and FMCG has shored up volume but it has cost the corrugated industry margin. Hence it consolidated to get the volume to gain the margin from traditional production. Are we as efficient as we can be with traditional workflow and processes? Digital brings the balance back the box makers especially as retailers now see an advantage for digital production as it can respond quickly to help them grow sales.

Retailers know they are the lynch pin and production for corrugated in Europe seems to be at a 'zenith point'. One way out of this is to introduce disruptive technologies.

Europe is in front

 Europe has seen all the large corrugated Groups aggressively consolidate over the past 10 years as they search for volume.

Despite this 3500-5000 sheets per job is the average. This is very low on workflow and equipment designed to operate on batch runs at least twice this level so by the time they have set the print job up, accounted for unplanned downtime and waste they are not adding value so not getting a decent return.

The main analogue OEM players have presented technology as far as they can, even with the best originators, plate makers and box plants - hence their inefficiencies become apparent when new techniques present themselves. This is what CorrStream is all about.

For Sun Automation these facts add weight to the adoption of inkjet in corrugated in support of existing equipment. Corrstream can print up to 80% of the time, reducing costs, at the same time as helping companies up sell and version in the interests of margin.

The technology is high output single pass, industrial level inkjet providing comparable output levels to analogue but with the flexibility of inkjet.

The quality of production is truly outstanding and Sean believes this is a very important - a new genre, a real game changer.

The Corrstream has 3 machines in range; Corrsrream 20, Corrstream 40 and Corrstream 66 – each modular and designed to be backward compatable to ensure the box plants are protected from obsolescence in the fast moving world of inkjet.

The ink has been designed specifically and the finish is superb under CMYK and the machine is capable of jetting over 2million drops in a M2 sheet - in less than a second, which is mind boggling to me.

So innovation that is truly outside of the box:)

Sun launched earlier this year and are scheduled to place their first installs early 2015 - watch this space for more news and developments as it seems corrugated is set to become the next big user of industrial inkjet technology.

For further information Contact; Sean Moloney, Global Product Manager,Digital

Sun Automation Print Centre Bristol