Adam Irace and Jennifer Solorzano are food packagers who want their production routines to be as transparent as they are efficient. The quest for mastery of manufacturing data is principally what brought them and 1,300 other transparency-seekers to EFI Connect 2017, an annual learning experience for users of EFI software and printing systems.

Irace is vice president and technical director of Packaging Concepts Inc. (PCI), a third-generation producer of flexible and paperboard packaging in St. Louis, MO. The company began installing EFI business management software in 2009 and now has the full complement of applications for EFI’s Packaging Suite, a bundle designed specifically for controlling packaging production workflows.

Irace says that before he could turn to EFI’s Radius MIS and its related modules for the production information he wanted, gathering the data might mean combing through spreadsheets and manual records for days at a time. Now he says he can summon the details in a few clicks whenever he or his customers have questions about the progress of a job.

This yields deeper insights into job costs, and having that continuously updated body of knowledge, says Irace, is the key to making better, more competitive decisions about pricing and purchasing.

At EFI Connect, Irace found plenty of opportunities to compare notes with other users and to get the latest word on new versions of the EFI products at work at PCI. He says he especially appreciated having direct access to EFI software engineers—tech specialists who might write his recommendations into the next release of Packaging Suite.

For attendees like Irace, coming to EFI Connect requires spending two or three hard-to-spare days away from their plants and covering their own registration, travel, and hotel expenses. Irace believes that this is justified by the value that attending adds to the benefits he derives from the EFI solutions he relies on. One of the best way to protect his company’s investment in the solutions, he says, is to take advantage of the immersive user-group experience of EFI Connect.

The 2017 edition was Solorzano’s first taste of the event, but probably not her last—she found the networking atmosphere invaluable and her first exposure to the full scope of what EFI does eye-opening.

“It’s a lot more than I thought,” she said.

A procurement assistant in the in-plant printing operation of Tyson Foods in Springdale, AR, Solorzano has been using the Radius MIS for job scheduling, costing, and other functions for about three years. With its five flexo web-presses, the in-plant prints labels for the boxes that ship Tyson products to retailing locations.

Radius was the in-plant’s first MIS, and Solorzano says that it helped to solve a problem peculiar to captive printing operations: making too much profit on production.

As corporate cost centers that often have to vie with outside print service providers, in-plants are not supposed to enrich themselves at the expense of their parent organizations. But without reliable data on job costs to guide billing, says Solorzano, “we had no clue” as to what appropriate chargebacks would look like.

Radius has provided that intelligence, and now, Solorzano says, margins have declined from 50% to a more acceptable 15%. Job management and throughput have improved as well.

Helping other customers to record success stories like Irace’s and Solorzano’s was the aim of more than 200 user-group sessions and breakout meetings conducted over the three days (January 17-19) of the event.

In a parallel program for about 100 trade media writers and industry analysts from around the world, EFI painted a strategic self-portrait of the highly diversified source of software and imaging solutions it has become.

Packaging is now a significant part of the EFI platform. Two of the company’s six software-based “Productivity Suites” are dedicated to packaging production, and many of its other software products and business services support label and packaging workflows.

On the hardware side, EFI’s Jetrion division has installed more than 250 of its digital narrow-web and label presses. For high-volume corrugated, packaging, and merchandise display printing, there is EFI’s newest device: the Nozomi C18000, a sheetfed, LED-curing inkjet press built to print substrates from card stock and kraft to triple wall corrugated boards in a single pass in up to seven colors at speeds as high as 75 linear meters (246 linear feet) per minute.

Packaging and corrugated solutions had their own segments in the 16-track educational program, which together with computer-lab sessions and exhibits by EFI and its vendor partners formed the heart of EFI Connect. In their separate program, the journalists and analysts heard various references to packaging in presentations  by EFI executives and guests.

One of the latter was Joel Quadracci, CEO of Quad/Graphics, who recounted his company’s remarkable history of growth by acquisition in a “fireside chat” with EFI CEO Guy Gecht. Under 10 years of Quadracci’s leadership, Quad/Graphics has absorbed World Color, Vertis, Brown Printing, Courier, and other companies whose additions have transformed it from a magazine printer into a multichannel provider of media services.

The growth did not come without pain, according to Quadracci, who mentioned having to close 36 under-performing plants in the last six years. “Now we’re tuning up the Ferrari” that the company has become as a result of the streamlining, Quadracci said.

Under the hood is QuadPackaging, a $200 million business he built by acquiring a trio of packaging companies over the last three years. The division uses offset, digital, and flexo equipment to produce folding cartons, labels, inserts, and tags.

The objective of QuadPackaging isn’t just packaging for packaging’s sake, Quadracci said. The division exists to help customers plan and execute multi-pronged campaigns that could include retail display, social media support, and exotic elements like in-store shopper tracking via mobile beacons as well as packaging.

In this way, said Quadracci, packaging becomes part of the “campaign conversation” that Quad/Graphics wants to have with customers in need of the integrated services it can now provide.

Packaging-related product announcements from EFI included briefings on version 5 of the Productivity Suites, which are bundles of task-specific software modules built around core software that directs and captures data from the functions they carry out. The user-facing part of the suites is Productivity Workbench, a dynamic interface with assistive features such as job status display, filterable data search, customizable widgets, and chat.

Introduced at the SuperCorr Expo last October, the Corrugated Packaging Suite is the newest member of the family. It differs from the other suites in having at its core not an MIS (management information system) or ERP (enterprise resource planning) software but an MES (manufacturing execution system) designed to increase productivity, reduce waste and cost, and optimize throughput in corrugated printing and converting environments.

The Corrugated Packaging Suite can be run on EFI Fiery digital front ends driving Nozomi C18000 presses as they become commercially available this year. This is what the device’s first adopter, Rafael Hinojosa S.A. of Xátiva, Spain, will do when it installs the press in a March-April timeframe.

The company intends to use its Nozomi C18000 to grow sales in long-run, multi-SKU applications as well as in short- and medium-run work. Operating at top speed, the press can print up to 77,200 square feet (7,224 square meters) of sheetfed corrugated board per hour.

Ken Hanulec, EFI’s vice president of marketing for inkjet solutions, said that the Nozomi C18000 represents a huge opportunity for companies like Hinojosa because only about 5% of corrugated production is done with digital systems. The machine’s cool-curing LED technology may also be adaptable for other printing markets besides corrugated, he said.

Owing to the composition of its inks, the Nozomi C18000 isn’t suitable for food packaging applications. But Hanulec said that EFI, which has more than 40 chemists at work in its inkmaking facilities, will eventually turn its attention to developing food-safe printing fluids for the device.