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Energy Efficiency in the Printing Industry

Examine the practical terms and problems of precise assessment when it comes to power usage.

The relevance of energy efficiency is not new in any industry that exists on the planet, but practices and associated principles certainly vary from country to country, with some rating excessive power usage far higher on their agendas for manufacturing across all sectors. Without a doubt, there are areas involving print where the cost of electricity – and its associated waste – tends to lack importance and rate fairly low on the list of criteria for businesses involved in heavy duty processes and production methodologies. But, regardless of the environmental principles that encompass power issues, the sheer cost and unnecessary redundancy that are all too easily generated should be viewed as detrimental to the way in which companies of all sizes operate today. Without clear benchmarks and auditing capabilities that apply nation by nation, even universally, monitoring is not a simple task and is impossible to impose. This is because there are so many variables that might or might not be employed, according to levels of importance, by different types of PSPs worldwide.

Regardless of the size of operation, print represents a manufacturing process; to bracket it generically is impossible because of its own divisions and methods that define exactly what it represents. Due to its many variants, which can range from traditional prepress to complex finishing, with many points in between, a clear definition in order to introduce any kind of standard or benchmark is not a practical proposition. Furthermore, certification programs tend to be fairly localized to individual nations and do not follow a specific set of international criteria. Add into the mix the vast range of production techniques that comes under the overall umbrella definition of print and it is easy to see the difficulties encountered by organizations and auditing specialists who want, and clearly need, to bring unified operating practices within a single set of principles.

Today’s print companies, including those only running one or two wide-format inkjet devices, should all be aware of the mounting responsibilities being laid at their door when mention is made of eco-awareness, overall carbon footprint, and the need to reduce waste. All of these categories, and more, are based on power. And energy, however generated, is going to cost money. Without it, there is no way to run a business because there are no viable alternatives to electricity. Although a utopian attitude might make one observe the potential of ethereal options such as hydroelectric or wind generation, the truth is that most businesses rely on their country’s grid as the only viable way of obtaining a consistent and reliable source that will keep machines running throughout the year. And these individual grids normally determine the source and method of providing power across a nation and its manufacturing operations.

Controlling Energy Efficiency
For generations, energy has been one of those costs where there is no alternative but to accept its role in a business’s annual expenditure. Without electricity, it is obvious that a company cannot exist and, even where 100 percent of manual processes are employed (think hand-pulled screen-printing production), a power source is still needed for artwork creation via computer, along with screen wash-down and reclamation and, of course, generating the necessary paperwork that’s associated with every order.

Realistically, however, power represents the backbone of every print company no matter its size or methods. Although recent market shifts have driven down the costs of raw materials, there is no excuse for excess which has no value yet can increase the price per order and then becomes a stealth charge passed on to end customers. Energy, and its efficient use, is arguably the most difficult element to control in the day-to-day running of an organization. One can’t solely depend on machines and production methods to maintain lower energy levels and optimize efficacy. A huge level of responsibility also weighs on the human race and its attitude toward the use of electrical power across domestic and commercial daily requirements. Everyone talks about greener appliances and less thirsty equipment, plus the potential for reducing energy spend; but, in practical terms, it is the running of capital equipment that universally carries the blame for high running costs. All too often, the human element in the equation is factored out when, in fact, efficient machine and system handling are the responsibility of the operator.

A company running printing equipment can only go so far in monitoring the actual energy needs required for its machinery and associated processes, such as air-conditioning, ducting, essential lighting, and other ancillary elements. All these combine to provide sensible working environments that must adhere to their own sets of rules, such as health and safety in the workplace, practical operating temperatures, and lighting conditions. While changes continue to evolve relating to environmental impact, not all of these can be attributed directly to energy use and its sensible and practical application throughout all elements of manufacturing and production. Ergo, the levels of power required across all processes might not seem to play a cogent role in enhancing sustainability and, in many cases, energy requirements in recycling processes can appear to be a negative factor within the overall benefits of improved environmental efforts and results.

The chain involved in energy reduction has many links, and these start at the point of converting a raw product into a usable product – whether this is the printing machine itself and the components used in its design and construction, the materials being used, its ink, or the overall modus operandi. However, quantifying measurements across single and cumulative products and processes is nigh on impossible, particularly for end users where no two operating environments are identical.

The Power of Digital
Independent testing of each machine as part of a company’s workflow is the only way a truly accurate set of statistics can be generated, and even these are fraught with anomaly. This is particularly relevant with digital print as its very nature has, as a major benefit, no need for common run lengths and associated up- and downtime according to the volume being produced. The more versatile a print engine, the harder it is to establish its total energy costs because of changeover and setup versus job volume, and this makes it hard to assess which part of the process is the most expensive. For example, with a typical flatbed printer, the print element might not be the most costly. If a wide-format machine relies on compressed air for vacuum hold-down, it could easily transpire that this is the least energy-efficient component running in the entire device, yet this same feature remains a vital part of the overall machine’s operation that cannot be compromised.

Today’s digital equipment does its best to bring energy-saving and eco-driven principles into its design, build, and ultimate operation. Historically, solvent-based printing machines tended to be less energy efficient because of the heat required in the drying part of the process. In addition, venting and ducting were both essential requirements for extracting solvents away from the print shop floor. Likewise, one of the early criticisms regarding latex printing also related to the power required for pre- and post-heating processes that provided the essential adhesion and bonding of the ink onto the end material. But UV-curable lamps have not been without their critics either, and mercury arc (Hg) curing also needs energy for initial warm-up periods as well as during job production. One of the great selling points for LED-curing technology is its comparatively low running costs as the lamps themselves are relatively inexpensive to run and have the benefit of instant startup. Yet, as part of an overall printing machine, the during- and curing-cost factors can be difficult to isolate from the total running expenditure and energy consumption. Each element represents a part of the whole, and that whole must factor in end-to-end energy usage in order to become truly accountable on a per-job basis.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink
Regardless of the type of printing machine being used, improving and reducing power use can never be the responsibility of a single element in the process. Overall, energy efficiency results from the combination of every electrically driven device in a user workflow; too often forgotten is the time element involved in job production, preparation, throughput, and finishing. Many of the criteria required to become a leaner operation are those factors where control is purely down to the way the elements are handled by the workforce. Thus, the attitude of people toward efficiency and waste reduction can be based on whether or not they feel responsible for improving energy practices at their place of employment.

Using the involvement and attitude of manpower as part of a structure, the only true way that individual companies can accurately determine individual levels of energy efficiency is by formulating their own comparative statistics, and these cannot be achieved overnight. Organizations that set standards in print might be equipped to evaluate a machine or an overall end-to-end process but, because of the variance from business to business, actual testing has to include a catch-all set of criteria based on a mean average that might or might not have accurate roots. Additionally and, perhaps, ironically, power reduction overall is not necessarily attached to the most economic production methods, particularly when equipment that is put on standby mode needs to be “woken up.” And it is up to the individual operator to determine when the decision to power down a piece of equipment is more efficient than sending it to “sleep” for a few hours.

Without doubt, and regardless of universal costs of raw materials needed to generate power in the first place, there is a finger of responsibility that is pointed at every industry and its associated equipment and processing methodologies. Sustainability encouragement encompasses energy usage, but efficiency needs to be tackled holistically rather than as a piece-by-piece exercise. The overall resources required for every order that comes through a print company’s door extend way beyond prepress, production, and finishing; also incorporated are building use, warehousing, and staff facilities, as well as transportation and delivery. The shift in dynamics from analog to digital has also resulted in PSPs adding flexibility and versatility to their range of services; the drive for just-in-time production doesn’t necessarily always encourage the most efficient use of resources. Renewable energy might not prove to be cost-effective in all environments, and “doing the right thing for the environment” can actually take some years to justify in terms of its existence and in order to present a return. A typical example can be seen with solar panels where initial investment into the potential for “self-power” needs to be quantified against generating a financially beneficial future within an acceptable period of time.

Regardless of incentives and the potential for accurate energy audits, no matter how great the desire, businesses are going to be reluctant to sign up for initiatives unless they ultimately prove to be financially worthwhile. There are few clients in most customer bases today who insist on accreditation and, without greater encouragement through client practices and legislative measures, no business wants its profitability to be affected in a negative way simply because it is adopting greener working principles. From an environmental perspective, it is generally accepted that green doesn’t necessarily mean cheap and that voluntary or compulsory eco-schemes can add both time and additional expenditure in both administrative and practical applications. Nonetheless, there cannot be many businesses that remain blissfully unaware of the moral and ethical aspects of adding sustainability improvements to their bottom line and, with energy usage being one of the easiest conditions to pin down and monitor, this is as good of a place as any to start introducing operational efficiency into everyday workflow and production practices.

For more, read "Energy Efficiency: A Closer Look at Textile Printing" and "Energy Efficiency: One Size Doesn't Fit All."

Read more from our March 2016 "Running the Tables" issue.

View more from this Big Picture issue