In-the-Round Is on a Roll
Plastic Packaging won a Best of Show award for its “Disney Take Along Treat Pack” in this year’s FTA Printing Excellence award competition.
ITR sleeves are easily loaded onto adapter rolls, providing the capability for faster makereadies.
Introduced to the market less than a decade ago, continuous photopolymer sleeve technology has shown abundant mettle in enabling flexographic printers and converters to use their presses more efficiently, and produce higher, more consistent quality with less waste and greater accuracy than ever before.
Digital “in-the-round” (ITR) imaging is steadily opening up attractive opportunities for printers, converters, and end users. Digitally imaged flexo sleeves work well with less expensive substrates, such as tissue, napkins, and paper towels, and provide excellent lay-down of solid and metallic inks. Advances in flexo sleeve technology are yielding opportunities in markets traditionally dominated by other processes—paper or foil gift-wrap (rubber flexo or gravure), folding cartons (offset or gravure), and shrink sleeves (gravure).
Horse of a different color
Compared with the imaging of flat printing plates, continuous printing sleeves digitally imaged in-the-round use a digital workflow with platesetter-type precision for a repeatable process with perfect registration. In-the-round imaging differs from standard digital flexo imaging in that the photopolymer plate material is imaged in the same position on a sleeve to be loaded onto the press, preserving perfect registration. Images also can be stored in register, on sleeves, for reuse, with no plate mounting required. The resulting faster makereadies improve response times and promote faster time-to-market.
Based on lower sleeve-making cost, the elimination of plate mounting, and the overall favorable economics long associated with flexography, a printer using ITR technology can deliver a high-quality package at a lower overall cost than gravure. From a quality standpoint, ITR imaging eliminates the dimensional image distortion and color variations associated with fitting a flat plate around a cylinder. With proper care in handling and storage, sleeves have a longer life than flat plates, and can be mounted and de-mounted multiple times. For many flexible packaging applications that carry continuous images, digital flexo sleeves can match the quality, run length, or continuous-print capabilities long associated with gravure.
ITR early adopter
Plastic Packaging, Inc. is a privately held, 40-percent employee-owned flexographic printer headquartered in Hickory, N.C. Established as a supplier to the local textile market more than 50 years ago, the company today boasts a total of 188 associates and more than $46 million in annual sales. Product lines include laminated and non-laminated rollstock for form and fill production, as well as stand-up and side-gussetted pouches, and side-seal bags. Key markets include, but are not limited to, pet and animal care, candy and snack foods, lawn and garden, tobacco, personal care, and consumer products. The company operates a second manufacturing plant in Forest Hills, N.C. Plastic Packaging operates a combined total of eight presses, including three new Fisher & Krecke gearless, servo-driven flexographic sleeve presses installed at the Hickory plant.
The company was an early adopter of DuPont Cyrel Round imaging, and has never looked back, according to Vice President of Manufacturing Preston Bryant.
“We’ve had ITR capability for going on five years now through Southern Graphic Systems. We also partnered with DuPont to bring ITR imaging to the United States. We think it brings us a huge advantage in responding quickly and efficiently to our customers’ needs, and in meeting the challenge of overseas competition,” he says. “Another reason we had the DuPont Cyrel ITR system installed was to compete with gravure.”
For one thing, among many, Bryant says, “Sleeves are easy to print with, typically run at higher speeds than flat plates, and work extremely well for very long runs or for short repeat runs because they eliminate the mounting process. You don’t have to mount and strip the plate every time you run it. All you do with ITR sleeves is load them onto an adapter using compressed air, rather than mounting a flat plate with stickyback.”
ITR plates also have a long life with the potential to pay for themselves over multiple uses. “In our experience, you can go in and out of the press with them many times before they wear out, if you care for them properly,” Bryant explains. “You can easily triple your footage and usage compared to flat plates.”
Prepress and plating
The company’s plating needs are managed by DuPont, which delivers a one-piece, ready-to-image sleeve to Southern Graphics, which in turn delivers the imaged sleeves to Plastic Packaging’s pressroom for mounting.
“In essence,” explains Ray Bodwell, marketing manager for DuPont Cyrel in North America, “you carry the registration right on through from the electronic prepress front-end on through to the press, and that’s the key point around the accuracy and the registration of ITR technology.”
“One of the reasons we brought prepress and plating by Southern Graphics into our plant was to cut down on time-to-market for our customers. Starting up any kind of platemaking operation is very capital-intensive,” Bryant explains. “That said, Southern Graphics has the ability to work with a company like DuPont, say, and bring a much broader base of business to them. Our base of business would not be as large.” Moreover, “We use Southern Graphics because they keep us on the cutting edge. If we were doing it ourselves we might not necessarily be able to afford to do that.”
“Trade shops like Southern Graphics specialize in prepress file management and imaging, freeing printers and converters to focus on maintaining optimum pressroom conditions and improving product quality,” Bodwell adds. Viewed in this way, he concludes, the working relationship between Plastic Packaging and Southern Graphics “shows both parties working toward their strengths.”
Period of adjustment
“Even without the prospect of in-house platemaking, the process of implementing ITR technology across the company required some adjustment,” Bryant says.
“We had to get buy-in across the operation, definitely, not least because of the expenditure related to platemaking, but also because of the special adapters needed to run in-the-round.” he explains. “It also requires a different mindset on the part of your press operators, who have to learn how to print to a standard, such that printing becomes more of a science than a craft,” with less eyeballing and tweaking and more attention to the numbers. All of Plastic Packaging’s operators are FIRST certified through a training course offered by the Flexographic Technical Association. Finally, “You also have to have the support of your ink supplier to ensure consistency,” Bryant adds.
Plastic Packaging’s ITR capability, which currently accounts for 20-30 percent of its overall business, enables the company to provide its customers with high-end graphics and continuous-print work over the short or long run.
“Right now, we use ITR technology for our personal care, pet, and packaging tape products,” says Bryant. “We also think it could be used more extensively in the food industry, as well as in lawn and garden and tobacco.”
This is not to say so much that certain markets are lagging in the adoption of ITR imaging, but rather to confirm Plastic Packaging’s habit of latching onto promising technologies early in the game.
“We’ve always looked at new technology,” Bryant says. “We also were one of the first to adopt digital proofing with DuPont digital proof, and one of the first to try digital plates; so we’ve always been a little ahead of the curve. Moreover, we’re the right size to be nimble enough to maneuver in areas like that.”
“The infrastructure to supply sleeves, workflow, and everything else needed to support their utilization, is really coming on line now,” adds Bodwell. “Plastic Packaging was a little bit ahead of the curve, and I think much of the industry will have to hustle to catch up with them.”
Plastic Packaging claims a sustainability advantage as a result of its use of DuPont Cyrel Round processes (both solvent and thermal FAST), as well as DuPont Cyrel round Thin plates. This thin version of DuPont’s sleeve plate is built on a thin base and mounted on a compressible adapter that provides the same layer of compressibility that a cushion mounting tape would provide for a conventional flat plate.
With Cyrel round Thin sleeves, Bryant says, “You have a component that uses less material and answers some of the sustainability issues that are important for our company.” For example, “As a certified Sustainable Green Printer through the FTA, we are very conscious of our carbon footprinting and waste disposal. We process 95 percent of our waste through a recycler, and we are very proud of our record on that. The Cyrel sleeve process plays into this because of the life of the plates, and the fact that you wind up using less disposable material.” The company also has an in-house recycling system that distills and recycles 70 percent of the solvents used in its printing processes on a daily basis.
The Cyrel FAST round thermal process uses no solvents, and the developer rolls used to process the sleeves are taken back by DuPont and sent to an alternative fuels electrical generation system. This eliminates a waste stream for either Southern Graphics or Plastic Packaging, and demonstrates that DuPont, like Plastic Packaging, is trying to minimize its carbon footprint in as many ways as it can. pP