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Natural evolution of the packaging industry – pharmaceutical printing house on the way to Industry 4.0

A comprehensive approach to the processes taking place in a given enterprise is the goal of each dynamically developing organisation. It should be focused on the external customer, i.e. the recipient of our products and services, and the internal customer - our employee. Comprehensive digitisation and process automation are the way to achieve the greatest possible business flexibility, process simplification and cost optimisation. This process is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution - Industry 4.0.

What does Industry 4.0 mean?

As I mentioned above, after the third industrial revolution that began in the late 1950s, it’s time for the fourth industrial revolution. What characterises the change under the term Industry 4.0? By this term we understand the implementation of IT solutions in all production-related activities. The Internet of Things, access to real-time data, Big Data analysis to increase efficiency and better understand the processes taking place in the organisation, and robotisation are the basic pillars of the fourth industrial revolution. I don’t think anyone will argue today about the necessity to follow changes. Enterprises that want to build a strong market position, regardless of the type of their business activity, must implement solutions that will make them more competitive, even more “agile” and will allow them to strengthen their market position. Undoubtedly, it was also influenced by the events of the last 12 months and the outbreak of the pandemic. Processes related to computerisation, incl. due to the need to perform many activities remotely, have gained an incredible pace. What was an option yesterday is a necessity today. The changes that are taking place have a huge impact on our work as a printing house specialised in the production of solid board packaging for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and dietary supplement industries.

The printing industry is still often associated with crude production made with heavy machinery with steel cogs, flooded with litres of oil and consuming huge amounts of electricity, as well as with clutter and the overwhelming “smell” of printing ink. In the case of modern printing companies, this has little or nothing to do with reality. Nowadays, a modern printing house is equipped with highly computerised machines, software for managing production processes, managing the flow of graphic files and an extensive IT infrastructure. In addition, in the case of companies specialised in production for the pharmaceutical industry, such as Preston Packaging, it also includes quality certificates and strict hygiene and cleanliness rules. Looking through the prism of the last 24 months, I would like to discuss the biggest changes that meet customer expectations and at the same time take us to the next stage of development on the way to Industry 4.0.


Remote quality control – the possibility to audit and standardise activities without the customer’s physical presence

The COVID-19 pandemic has played a huge role in remodelling the business processes that took place in our company. Due to the compulsory lockdowns, movement restrictions and the need for social distancing, the visits of contractors were completely stopped in most enterprises. From the perspective of a printing house producing unit packaging for the pharmaceutical industry, where supplier audit is a necessary condition to start business talks, this constituted a significant threat to the further development of our company. For this purpose, our Quality Assurance and Control Department decided to implement a remote audit procedure. It is a tool for customers who would like to verify the company’s quality and infrastructure system without being physically present at the supplier’s premises. This type of an audit is a response to restrictions in movement and the lack of possibility of the customer’s physical presence. In addition, it is a solution that allows to optimise the costs associated with organisation of the visit at the supplier’s premises.

Characteristics of remote audits:

  • the customer can remotely, without being physically present in the enterprise, verify the full quality documentation. The quality procedures and instructions are available in a form that enables remote presentation. During the audit, we can quickly and easily provide evidence of records from individual stages of the processes, thanks to the use of an IT system for production management. Everything is conducted, of course, with care for the security of the data transmitted;
  • during traditional audits, we have the opportunity to show the plant’s operation and answer customer questions live, while remotely only with high quality video streaming provided. Thanks to the use of high-quality audio-video equipment, we are able to broadcast live from the production area, so that the natural noise being there does not interfere with the quality of the sound transmitted. All customer questions can be answered without any disruptions during this broadcast. In addition, fast data transfer allows us to show the production infrastructure and employees during the plant’s operation;
  • the entire procedure described is carefully prepared by the Preston Packaging Quality Assurance and Control Department. This ensures that the remote audit will be as reliable as the traditional audit, while adapting to the applicable (possible) restrictions.

Considering the above, we believe that remote audits are a full-fledged alternative to traditional audits. However, this does not change the fact that we are also ready for on-site audits and we are waiting for our current and potential customers who would like to visit us.


Remote quality control and standardisation in the printing process

Another element that has an impact on the flexibility of our organisation is a highly advanced machinery park. At this point, I would like to focus on the most vulnerable, in my opinion, process i.e. printing. Our internal analyses show that this is the stage with the highest risk. For this reason, when buying a new technological line for off-set printing, we decided to put emphasis on equipping the machine with error elimination and repeatability assurance systems:

  • the colour auto-calibration module in the printing press allows the customer to accept the sheet remotely, on the basis of ISO standard values. The data presented in the report allow for a precise colour assessment based on the obtained delta values without the need for the customer’s physical presence and approval of the sheet. This possibility can be very well associated with audio-video transmission. Without physical presence, the customer can obtain proof that the sheet printing and the colours are correct;
  • a vision system installed on the printing press – 100% of sheets pass through the quality control system allowing for full verification and automatic colour adjustment according to the parameters set in the order. Additionally, each sheet is assessed for quality errors in printing with marking and indicating them. The result of such control with a description and photos of the sheets is archived and stored in the system for analysis by the Quality Assurance and Control Department;
  • possibility of remote preview of the order printed on the machine. People responsible for production have the ability to remotely preview both ongoing and archived production orders. Current production data for a given order are available. It is possible to carefully analyse the progress of the process, the issues faced by the operator, or control the colour of the project on an ongoing basis and verify the quality errors in printing;
  • generating quality reports on colours and print quality. Automatically saved colour and print quality reports are available to the Quality Assurance and Control Department and used for product quality assessment prior to shipment to the customer. This allows for quick and easy access during the quality assessment as well as a detailed quality analysis of the execution of a given production order.

On the one hand, the above possibilities provide flexibility in relations with the customer, and on the other hand – guarantee high quality and safety of the final product.


Solutions for remote management of graphic files

Another element of the revolution taking place in our industry is the way of developing and managing graphic files. The proper way of preparing graphics and the flow of files itself, in particular control over file versions, is a critical element of the operation of any packaging printing house. Along with the radical change in the approach to the work system, including remote work, cloud based solutions have become a necessity. In addition, we know from our experience that the quality of the graphic files obtained is a very big challenge for every printing house.

At present, our company is making an implementation that will result in the following changes to the customer-printing house work system:

  • not sending files with the use of e-mail anymore. The customer has a link to view the file in order to add comments and view its content. He has the ability to add comments directly to the file being verified, and his comments are automatically converted into a “to do” list for the graphic designer. Additionally, if another version is sent for approval, the customer has the option to generate a preview that shows the comparison of the current version with the previous one;
  • preflighting (pre-verification) at the stage of uploading files to the printing house system. The loaded file is verified for the selected criteria of the correctness of the graphic preparation. In the case of companies that do not have their own graphic studio, this allows for the errors in the file to be detected before it is sent to the printing house. This has the following advantages: first, more security – files are verified both by the customer and the printing house, and secondly, it gives the customer the opportunity to react and explain errors before the files are prepared for approval. In my opinion, this is especially important for companies that deal with contract manufacturing (or have such products in their portfolio) and receive graphic files from the customer or an agency acting on his behalf. This allows to shorten the process of preparing the layout for approval and production. The last argument is time saving on the part of the printing house and the customer. The customer, the customer service and the graphic studio will not be burdened with excessive communication aimed at clarifying potential inconsistencies or doubts. Of course, this process is headed by an experienced DTP operator who makes the final assessment and prepares the layout for approval;
  • the entire process, i.e. working on the file and approval, takes place in the cloud. It gives the possibility of multi-stage approval and making modifications to one file by many users. This is a particularly useful option when working remotely. Thanks to this tool, many users can work on the file at their convenience and from anywhere. This tool eliminates the risk of not taking corrections into account or omitting the approval of one of the process owners;
  • the customer receives a file for substantial verification. The description of the work being prepared is generated automatically in the customer’s language from the file metadata and data contained in the MIS. After remote approval, the approved file is catalogued and stored. The work is done on one file, so it is not possible to mix versions;
  • automation of the graphic studio work (renewals, automatic generation of preview files). In the case of reprints, the entire prepress stage up to exposure is performed automatically. This saves working time and shortens the delivery time.


Data security and IT infrastructure stability

The last aspect I would like to discuss is the equipment. In order to meet the requirements of machines and software as well as to ensure the security of IT infrastructure, it was necessary to expand the server facilities of our printing house. In addition, it was also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to switch to remote work model. The investment in IT infrastructure was aimed at ensuring data security while providing the comfort of work for people working in a remote or hybrid model. The above conditions have resulted in the following changes:

  • to ensure remote work, it is necessary to provide an infrastructure that will guarantee that every user connecting remotely can use the company’s resources through VPN (Virtual Private Network) tunnels. The mechanism of operation of the VPN network is based primarily on hiding the real IP address of the device and encrypting the data sent during the Internet connection. In order to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of data transmission from/ to the company, the data is encrypted and sent by the SSL protocol. Thanks to a technologically advanced router, all Internet traffic that “enters” the corporate network is verified by algorithms that check various types of anomalies. Additionally, the input data is checked with anti-virus software to detect as many threats as possible and eliminate them before delivering the data to the user;
  • to ensure the data security (of graphic and production files), we have focused on a number of security measures in our company. Data copies are made both on local servers and stored in the cloud. Cloud services are provided by companies with appropriate resources (data centres located in different parts of the world) and certificates. Additionally, to ensure the continuity of production work, a virtual backup system is implemented in the event of a failure of servers responsible for production processes. In the event of a failure or damage to one of the servers, we are able to restart all the necessary services on the backup servers. All this thanks to hardware and software redundancy;
  • hacker attacks on corporate data have gained in strength in recent times. They consist in encrypting it and demanding large sums of money for its decryption. We are protected against this type of attacks by appropriate procedures and hardware solutions, the characteristics of which, unfortunately, I cannot disclose due to the company security;
  • to avoid data loss as a result of random accidents (fire, flooding), local data is also stored outside the main server room.

The above measures are only a part of the applied solutions. Having a stable, redundant, properly secured and managed network infrastructure is a guarantee that the supplier protects confidential customer data properly, and also ensures smooth cooperation. Undoubtedly, technological progress is these days so rapid that the procedures created today are outdated tomorrow. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of these changes and to appoint a competent person who will be responsible for taking care of the strategic area of the company’s operations, which, in my opinion, is IT security.


Summary – where are we in it?

With this article, we would like to present the changes brought about by the implementation of Industry 4.0 solutions in the printing industry, and more specifically in plants specialised in the production of solid board packaging for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and dietary supplement industries. These solutions are to facilitate the work of both external users, i.e. our customers, and internal users – our employees. With this in mind, we have introduced them at Preston Packaging. Technological progress has radically changed our habits in recent years. We are following this change to keep pace with our customers and employees. Today, nobody wants to do the tedious work that can be easily accomplished thanks to automation. We all live fast, we want to see immediate results and feel safe. We must be flexible and we should optimise costs to stay competitive. Taking all these aspects into account, each organisation must adapt its activities so as not to fall victim to progress. And here let me make a small digression at the end. I believe that processes, automation and all technology are worthless without real business relationships based on trust and “chemistry” between a customer and a supplier. Industry 4.0 that we are creating together is great, but it is only an addition. Human remains the brain of the entire operation.


*The article was prepared for the magazine Świat Przemysłu Farmaceutycznego 2/2021.


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Isabella Szymanski

Isabella Szymanski

Key Account Manager





Małgorzata Ławiak

Małgorzata Ławiak

Customer Service Team Leader