The Wide Scope of Narrow Web
Companies that actively seek to expand their capabilities often find themselves with a competitive advantage. When this can be accomplished with existing equipment, the benefits can become even more prominent.
Traditionally, narrow-web flexographic printing has dominated the label segment, along with a smaller percentage of flexible packaging. However, some innovative companies are successfully utilizing this technology to tackle substantial flexible packaging work, and are even entering the folding carton market — a stronghold for offset printing.
Alpine Packaging in North Versailles, Pa., began producing flexible packaging using narrow-web equipment about eight years ago, after being approached by two separate customers, says President Jan Lehigh.
“We were contacted by a local dairy that was looking for wraps to go on their single-serving, 16-oz. and 12-oz. bottles, and a cookie company that we were already producing labels for inquired about it [flexible packaging using narrow-web presses],” Lehigh recalls. “Those were the two main forces that got us started.”
Although suppliers have told Alpine Packaging that its equipment is not really meant for this type of work, the Western Pennsylvania-based shop uses a Mark Andy LP3000 press and a newly purchased CEI slitter-rewinder to produce flexible packaging.
“It was very challenging [printing flexible packaging on a narrow-web press], but fortunately we have some very technical employees that worked together to figure it out,” Lehigh says. “Mark Andy even said they were not going to say that we could do it.”
After Alpine Packaging installed its Mark Andy LP3000, Lehigh says the company produced flexible packaging samples that it could show off to vendors at a trade show.
“We laid them out on a table and their eyes just lit up,” she says. “They were really surprised and thought it was really great.”
Being able to offer customers shorter runs of flexible packaging work is a huge selling point, Lehigh maintains. For instance, Lehigh says that her dairy customer often wants to put out trial products or flavors and will need a shorter run to bring the campaign to life.
“We gave them the opportunity to do small runs so they can do those sorts of promotional trials and try new products out,” she explains. “We want to work with customers that are looking to put products out there but don’t have a large volume. We find that pretty exciting.”
Alpine Packaging prides itself on taking packaging from concept to design to implementation, Lehigh stresses.
“We have a customer that started with a prototype, and now we print millions of labels for them and it appears in all major grocery stores,” Lehigh says. “And that is really exciting for us. That is what partnerships are all about — working together.”
Using narrow-web equipment for what some shops might call nontraditional purposes is nothing new for Mimir Flexo in Troy, Mo. However, there is a learning curve, specifically when using narrow-web presses to produce folding cartons, Director of Operations David Henke confides.
“It is all about layout and design, because when you are dealing with narrow web, one of the first problems is grain direction,” Henke explains. “You have to make sure the carton is laid out in the correct grain direction.”
Mimir Flexo is home to 16˝ narrow-web Mark Andy advanced control convertible platform presses. Each press has moveable print and die heads that can be reconfigured to perform a different function.
Henke, who previously spent 11 years working for Mark Andy, notes that producing folding cartons on narrow-web equipment works best for high-volume, machine-fed carton jobs.
“And it is also good for what I would call low- to medium-volume, high SKUs,” Henke says. “We got an order the other day for 2 million cartons over five SKUs, but it is the same die.”
Henke contends that Mimir Flexo’s web pacing and drive control ensures accurate print registration. The company markets its flexibility and ability to print on a wide range of substrates, including paperboard, films and pressure-sensitive materials.
“Most of the customers that we do folding cartons for probably seek us out,” Henke says. “When you talk about folding cartons, offset is obviously a better quality of printing, but I am a rotary guy. Rotary cut dies, hands down, are the best because they are all the same. Engraved rotary tooling is an exact science.”
Henke adds that a big plus of producing flexo folding cartons is that printing, cutting, stripping and delivering are done at the same time.
“We are a total flexo shop,” Henke states. “That is our company philosophy. And because we print on so many substrates, digital is not the answer for us. We get a lot of jobs that digital can’t run.”
Another option for label, flexible packaging or folding carton production is the REVO Digital Flexo process, a technology developed by the REVO Project Team, which includes Americk Packaging, Apex International, AVT, Bobst, DuPont, Esko, Flint Group, X-Rite and UPM Raflatac.
Since the REVO Digital Flexo process is designed for a wide range of applications and run lengths, converters of all sizes can take advantage of the benefits, says Todd Blumsack, VP, business unit web-fed for Bobst North America.
“The technology is suitable for all run lengths, but it goes without saying that the greatest benefits are recorded for micro and very short runs,” Blumsack says. “Makeready time averages 20 minutes, with on-the-fly job changeovers taking just one minute to perform without stopping the press for changing the anilox rollers. Color matching, which can contribute to a large part of downtime, is no [longer] an issue as it is fast at makeready and then there is no need to stop the press to change the ink thanks to the use of the seven-color REVO Extended Color Gamut (ECG) technology.”
According to Blumsack, the REVO Digital Flexo process renders high print quality of 223LPi/90Lcm, while waste is minimized.
“In addition to label and flexible packaging production, because Digital Flexo enables [users] to produce boxes with high color consistency, excellent repeatability, and nonstop production via a digital workflow, it is a cost-effective alternative to the conventional offset printing process,” Blumsack says. “In terms of product quality and differentiation, it opens the door to a very broad range of high-end products and market segments, including security applications.”
When it comes to costs, the benefits derived from the low Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) are generated by the lower cost of cartons and the operational efficiency of the process in terms of lower waste, lower energy consumption, and shrinking downtime, Blumsack adds.
“The in-line, web-fed configuration allows for efficient production of added-value packaging,” he concludes. “A production line can easily be configured to add multiple processes, [including] hot foil, cold foil, silk screen, gravure, offset and inkjet.”