Partnership develops first-of-its-kind document-handling control system

In 2003, David Bartkowiak, executive director for Ancor, a provider of customized print and electronic document services, embarked on a quest to build the ultimate machine to automate label packaging preparation with 100% verification for client Ford Motor Company. He knew an outside vendor had to be used because of the complexity of Ford documentation packages.

By Julie Nemeth December 15, 2008
Monroney labels inform car buyers of the true MSRP of each vehicle on the lot. In addition to these labels, sticker packages had grown to include eight additional labels each for every automobile produced in 19 Ford plants throughout North America. Ancor employees were creating all packages by hand. Source: Control Engineering

In 2003, David Bartkowiak, executive director for Ancor, a provider of customized print and electronic document services, embarked on a quest to build the ultimate machine to automate label packaging preparation with 100% verification for client Ford Motor Company. He knew an outside vendor had to be used because of the complexity of Ford documentation packages. Immediately, he discovered nobody wanted to deal with two issues: the size of window-sticker labels, and the physical characteristics of ancillary labels.

Bartkowiak attended trade shows, interviewed vendors and finally, much to his relief, crossed paths with Patti Engineering president Sam Hoff in late 2005 — who ironically worked just north of Ancor in Auburn Hills, MI. They would eventually become partners in efficiency.

To understand the problem, you have to understand the labels. Once upon a time, advertised prices for new cars were misleading at best. In March 1958, Senator Michael Monroney, chairman of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Automobile Marketing Practices, proposed a bill that would visibly publish new car prices for legal accuracy. This bill required every automobile manufacturer to attach a label to the window of each new vehicle, which would show the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), transport methods, freight charges, and accessory prices. This would be the first time in 20 years that a consumer could enter a dealership and find an itemized, accurate new-vehicle price tag.

Prior to the proposal, there was often a large discrepancy between the showroom price and the actual price. Most quoted prices were for “stripped-down” models and did not include additions for preparation charges, freight charges, federal, state, and local taxes, or optional factory-installed equipment (such as windshield wipers) requested by the purchaser.

Fast forward 27 years to 1985 — Ancor, based in Troy, MI, produces millions of documents each month for multiple industries. Their integrated document processing and printing service offers multiple options for producing innovative and detailed communications materials.

Ford, headquartered in nearby Dearborn, MI, challenged Ancor to develop a cost-efficient, customer-friendly Monroney window label. In addition, the solution needed to support a 10-hour or less time frame for production of the Monroney label, production of other labels (called the vehicle label package), and delivery to all North American Ford plants.

Night after night for 18 years as a Ford Tier 1 supplier, Ancor employees hand stuffed each and every vehicle-label package. While they handled the process with few errors, Ancor’s Bartkowiak knew there had to be a better way to manage the label-printing process.

“The more efficient we could be; the better for everyone involved,” explains Bartkowiak. “Ford began asking us to provide 100% verification of label packets because improper labels would cause a delay in vehicle assembly.” Any delay involved moving the vehicle off the line, applying the correct labels and then moving the vehicle back.

Sticker packages had grown up to nine labels for each automobile produced in 19 Ford plants throughout North America, including Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, and Volvo brand models. Label packages include retail window labels, safety certification labels, Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act labels, ramp or transportation labels (which are used to route the vehicle from the plant to the dealership), bumper labels, alternative fuel labels, and a dealer invoice package providing the certificate of origin, and a new-vehicle information statement.

“We literally matched the vehicle identification number (VIN) on each of these labels by hand,” says Bartkowiak. “We did it exceptionally well. However, there was a high label cost, and a chance of error. I knew we could do better.”

One automation issue involved the physical characteristics of the paper used.

Inventing a solution

“Ancor’s problem is exactly what we specialize in,” says Patti Engineering’s Hoff, “a complex and highly integrated process that may make other companies shudder. Our engineers thrive on jobs like this one!”

Hoff began by analyzing the Monroney window stickers, the ancillary labels, and the envelope stuffing process in the Ancor plant. “I determined that our biggest challenge would be to deal with the physical characteristics of the paper and getting the machine to move the paper fast enough to meet Ford’s demanding deadlines.” Data download from Ford occurs anytime after 6 p.m. each day.

“I was very confident it could be done,” says Hoff, “the question was ‘How?’”

Additional complexities for Patti included:

  • Using a file broadcast from Ford to determine envelope contents;

  • Feeding only the required labels identified from the broadcast;

  • Scanning each label to ensure that the information matched the requirements;

  • Stuffing various sized labels into one envelope; and

  • Processing 3,000 completed envelopes per hour.

Hoff’s next challenge was to find a vendor who could partner with Patti and Ancor to develop the machine. Through an Internet search and subsequent vetting process, he found Kepes Inc., headquartered in Kenosha, WI, which had been providing mailing and finishing equipment since 1979. Their background in feeders and sheet transports fit the project well. They also were determined to help their customers be the most profitable and productive in their respective industries. The company’s philosophies and work ethics matched those of Patti and Ancor, and its employees were proud of their mission to stay ahead of competition by searching the world for unique ideas to bring to their customers.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would ever work,” says Steve Buffmyer, Patti’s chief engineer on the Ancor project. “We spent a lot of time in the summer of 2006 going back and forth to Kepes. They would develop a new machine concept, then we would test it.”

First, the entire team tried a fully-built machine that fed all the labels at one time, then swept them into one envelope. “We couldn’t control the envelope at those speeds,“ Buffmyer recalls. “The envelope would bend and flex, so it was impossible to stuff labels into it.”

Next, the team tried suction cups, but they took too much time. Many things didn’t work simply because of the speed at which papers had to move. While the new process was similar to a matched mailing process, it had the added complexities of up to nine pieces to match with variable feed, label stocks of various sizes, insertion into a unique package which already had product in it, and 100% verification of the finished set.

A team involving the staffs from Ancor, Patti, and Kepes worked their way through the variety of challenges that came to the surface. Issues with products, speeds, tracking, and insertion were overcome one-by-one with a group of very creative people involved in all aspects from software engineering and mechanical fabrication to the installation and operation of the machine. They were able to communicate not only their ideas for improving the process but also the needs of their respective departments.

The ultimate solution incorporated eight document handlers feeding labels into one envelope. Source: Patti Engineering


What the companies ended up with were eight feeders that each held one of the required, preprinted labels and a scanning and conveyer system for the large envelope and Monroney vehicle sticker. “We had to do a lot of coordination,” explains Buffmyer. “We had the physical limitation of [keeping the label from getting] airborne and caught on something. Then, [there was] the settling time of newly-stacked labels before they reached the envelope coming down the conveyor. Then aiming the contents at the envelope with one, final shove in 1/3 of a second. That process doesn’t even include the feeding, scanning, and sweeping of the Monroney vehicle sticker and envelope just amazingly and insanely fast so it meets its appropriate label pile at the right point on the conveyor.”

Also included in the machine was an automatic reject bin. If the VIN number from every label didn’t match, that “reject” is automatically swept off the conveyor into a bin so it can be manually scanned to diagnose the problem.

To add to the project’s complexity, the system also layers stuffed envelopes (with the 100% validated labels) like shingles on the conveyor with a predefined gap to know where breaks need to be for the contents of one box to be shipped. The machine is given a count by weight because each and every label needs to be shipped very early the next morning, or Ford’s production is put into jeopardy.

The server side of the equipment also created coordination issues. When Ancor receives the broadcast data from Ford, it is processed into their database and forwarded to Patti’s database. The broadcast could include several runs from the same plant. At the point they want to start running a group of labels, they pull that data from the Ancor database to merge into Patti’s data.

“The run on Patti’s machine has to coordinate with the external printer. A Visual BASIC application controls the feed-scan-verify sequence. The server fires all the barcode scans, compares them to the numbers in the database, and interfaces with the PLC that actually controls the machine — it’s like hand shaking between the server and PLC,” explains Dave Foster, Patti Engineering’s chief engineer.

“This Ancor system is a great example of using tried and true technology in a new, innovative way,” Foster adds. “We took technology everyone already believed in, and integrated it in a whole new way.”

The result is that Ancor has passed significant cost savings to Ford via program efficiencies and the use of innovative technologies and thought processes.

“Our new machine was installed in December 2006,” says Bartkowiak. “We’ve surpassed our labor savings [goals] and beat ROI expectations in 30 months, versus our projected 36 months.”

Bartkowiak’s vision has become a reality through his company’s partnership with Patti Engineering and Kepes. “I’m pleased to say that in the two years of our partnership there has not been one mismatch on a label,” he beams. “Now, that’s what I call 100% verification!”

ONLINE extra

Three winners offer advice. Click any of the following to learn more, with a link to a free podcast.

More need for outside engineering expertise, says HiTech Control Systems

: Control Engineering System Integrator of the Year winner.

How system integration goals influence future: JMP Engineering


How to overcome the economy, grow with technology: Brock Solutions

Also see other articles in the 2009 print edition of the Automation Integrator guide .

Author Information
Julie Nemeth handles marketing and public Relations for Patti Engineering Inc.