State-of-the-Art Flexo Levels the Printing Playing Field
When Robert Hummell looks back on the start of his career 20 years ago, flexography would never have been mentioned in the same sentence as rotogravure in terms of print quality. And when digital printing first emerged on the scene, there was no way flexo could compete with its setup times and short run capabilities.
But over the past few years, flexographic printing has leveled the playing field across the board, rising to comparable quality levels of gravure at a lower cost. And, with the drastic increase of automated color control, registration and changeovers, many of the latest flexo presses can go toe to toe with the benefits that digital printing touts.
“We’re in a position to compete more heavily with gravure and give gravure quality results at a much lesser rate and lower run quantities,” says Hummell, production manager at Providence, R.I.-based Admiral Packaging, which was the first U.S. installation location of the MIRAFLEX C II from Windmoeller & Hoelscher. “If I go back to the beginning of my career 20 years ago, flexo was nowhere near the quality that gravure was. In 20 years, look where flexo has come.”
The Flexo Boom
It’s difficult to deny the impact digital printing has had on the industry as it has continually changed the way brands and printers think about packaging. But alongside the digital and hybrid presses that made waves at drupa 2016 and the past several Labelexpos in both Chicago and Brussels, a flexographic evolution has gone relatively unsung.
With the increase in servo technology and automated color control, the days when operating a press was essentially an art form seem to be dissipating.
Best Label, a label printer and converter with locations in Union City, Calif., Cerritos, Calif., and Guadalajara, Mexico, brought the latest in flexo technology on board when it installed a Nilpeter FA-4* in-line flexo press in its Union City location in February of 2016.
John Crammer, GM of Best Label, explains that with legacy flexo press models, it was ideal if an operator was more of a “gearhead” — someone who understood the intricacies of the machinery. But with the new press, which is controlled by a touch-screen tablet, Crammer says an operator needs to be more of a computer-savvy “techie.”
“I was fortunate my lead press operator that I put on that press was both a gearhead and a techie, so it was a real short learning curve,” Crammer says. “The interactivity and interaction between the electronic technology and the tablet specifically is very user friendly.”
In addition to the Nilpeter FA line, several other flexographic press suppliers have launched press models that incorporate automation aspects that align the printing process more with manufacturing principles.
The Mark Andy Performance Series has impressed with its intuitive print deck construction that drastically improves changeover times. Plus, with its automated 360-degree registration, converters do not need to rely on operator skill to keep their output in registration.
Breakthroughs in print speeds have been achieved by Gallus, which unveiled the fastest label press in its portfolio, launching the Gallus Labelmaster 440 at its Innovation Days event last fall. The new modular press can reach speeds of 656 fpm.
Automation has also become a major factor in flexographic printing, with MPS launching the Automated Print Control (APC) package for its EF series of flexo presses. The APC package gives converters the ability to automatically load print sleeves and achieve desired print settings for a specific job.
BOBST has also drastically increased the automation of its in-line flexo presses through the Digital Flexo technology platform developed by the Revo Project Team. The Digital Flexo system implements an automated color control process that creates highly accurate colors via a layering system. Uptime is also significantly improved. A job can be set up while the press is in motion and transitioned to at the completion of the first job without stopping the press.
Crammer explains that with the increasing demands from brand owners, being able to increase efficiencies throughout the process has been essential, and since installing the Nilpeter FA-4*, Best Label has been able to meet these needs.
“In today’s world with just-in-time deliveries and very time conscious, strict, regimented demands and due dates from the customer, being able to change a job and move onto the next one as expeditiously as possible helps us meet those demands placed on us by the customers,” Crammer says.
Focusing on What’s Important
Since installing the MIRAFLEX C II about six months ago, becoming the first U.S. printer to do so since the press was launched at drupa 2016, Admiral Packaging has been able to substantially improve its efficiency of output, says Harley Frank, the president of the company. But despite the press’s ability to help the company increase the quantity it can produce, it has not led to a decreased focus on quality.
With the 10-color press’s automated capabilities in color reproduction, registration and impression setting, Frank says Admiral Packaging can achieve excellent quality print without much operator involvement.
“We’re not trying to be a pit stop where we just changeover things real quick and blast it out the door,” Frank says. “As a job shop it’s really important you take that time to check your work and make sure you have the right film and all the color is right, the laydown is right, etc. While you want to be very efficient, you don’t want to be rushed and you don’t want to be chaotic. With the press being able to take a lot of those things off the operator’s hands, it allows them to focus on those variables that really need to have human intervention.”
What Frank stresses though, is these newer models of flexo presses do require a seasoned veteran to be at the controls, to maximize their capabilities. Operators need to have excellent printing skills and understand computers to get the most from the tools on the machine.
Because these presses are running at such high speeds, Frank explains that it creates an opportunity to generate more waste, which can quickly become costly. But with the computerized controls that run the machine, Frank states that a strong knowledge of both the intricacies of printing and computer operation are essential.
“You’re now asking your operators to be versed in two sets of skills,” he says. “They need to be computer literate because everything is run by the computer and they need to be able to move from screen to screen efficiently and they need to be good printers.”
In With the New
The complete Best Label fleet that spans its three facilities adds up to approximately 50 presses, Crammer says. But since the addition of the Nilpeter FA-4*, he says the company has been able to take two presses out of production and is nearing the time when it will be ready to take out another.
He explains that with the press’s increased capacity via its quick changeovers, increased throughput and higher running speeds on longer length jobs, it was able to accommodate for those presses that have been taken out of commission.
“The quick change aspect has worked out superbly,” he says. “Running is effortless up to 500 fpm. The registration goes without saying — with seven servos per head, it controls every aspect of registration.”
Hummell explains that as the first location in the United States to install the MIRAFLEX C II, Admiral Packaging has already noticed it has been able to achieve an advantage over some converters using older technology. But, he cautions that with any new technology, there can be obstacles to overcome and it’s important to work with a supplier partner that takes its customers’ needs into consideration.
“It’s really good to be able to work alongside W&H, which is such a great company, and partner with them to where we can help them innovate as well,” he says.