Advancements in technology have helped alleviate some of the bottlenecks typically experienced by package printers in a flexographic workflow. However, it’s not just press advancements that are helping to maximize efficiencies in flexography, it’s the advancements in the components that keep the presses running consistently and effectively that can make all the difference in a successful workflow.
Take, for example, the notion that customers could do away with keeping track of their orders via paper trails, and instead access everything they could possibly need in terms of order history and status, online 24/7. Package printers can also improve efficiency by standardizing the color management process, which can also lead to a reduction of inconsistencies and improved customer relations. Additionally, advancements in platemaking and mounting can have a significant effect on the efficiency of a flexo workflow.
Seeing Success with Software
Advancements in the technology consumers interact with every day has altered expectations of what capabilities technology should provide.
“Everyone is used to Amazon now,” says Ken Meinhardt, president of Label Traxx, a producer of business management software for label printing. “You have all of your order history information and you can see what you did. You don’t have to pay attention to keeping track of data because you can just log in, when you want, to see that information. And that is the end user experience that we have now built into Label Traxx.”
The Label Traxx Siteline web interface connects the end user customer to the converter’s manufacturing data. Meinhardt describes a label buyer who was more than happy to rid herself of folders upon folders in her office filled with information about past orders, because the information is now available at her fingertips through Siteline.
Workflow software makes it so the printer and their customers can easily access order information via their mobile device or computer at any time. Not only does the workflow software give customers access to order history and status, it can provide accurate job estimates up front.
While business management software is a growing necessity in 21st century printing operations, as brands place a heavier emphasis on brand identity and consistency, color management can be equally important.
Bruce Bayne, founder of SpotOn! Flexo, a print process control solution offered exclusively through All Printing Resources, says historically, press operators would check for color consistency by eye or by using a densitometer. Now, he says it’s best practice to manage color consistency by measuring CIELAB color values.
SpotOn! Flexo can measure the difference between a printed color and a target color as a measure of Delta E. The advantage of that, Bayne explains, is that the software can tell an operator when the color starts to vary even if it isn’t perceptible to the naked eye.
“If you use vision as your tool, you won’t notice a difference until it’s very far off,” he says. “By the time it’s visibly out, before you can correct it, it’s gone even further out. Then you correct it and you have a wave of color difference throughout the press run.”
Although implementing software to manage color can also be an effective strategy to minimize waste and increase consistency, Richard Black, VP of business development for All Printing Resources, says the key to successful color management is process control. He explains that there are tools in prepress, as well as “new tools in the pressroom to help establish and monitor process control. The FTA FIRST 6.0 is essentially a quality control manual and has in-depth sections on how to establish and monitor quality control throughout the flexo printing process.”
In fact, the tools used for color consistency in a flexo workflow have come a long way in just the past decade. Black says that although the use of a “systematic approach to color management” in a flexo workflow has become commonplace, 10 years ago, it was not.
“Advances in flexo plate, screening and press technologies have brought the use of color management to the forefront,” he says. “These advances have drastically improved flexo print quality. Today, it is common to see screen rulings of 175 lpi or more, which just a few years ago was rarely seen. This increase in print quality has pushed process control requirements, such as color management.”
Plates Add Automation
As Black mentioned, advances in plate technology have helped push advances in process control, specifically advances in automation and efficiencies in platemaking.
Jose Felipe Garcia and PJ Fronczkiewicz, product managers of flexographic for the Flint Group, explain that the ways the market has changed have affected the development of plate technology.
“There’s a lot of automation in platemaking that’s coming to fruition,” Fronczkiewicz says. “There’s been an increase in the number of what we call ‘automated’ or ‘in-line’ plate processors, or in the past what you would call ‘car washes,’ where the plate is introduced to the washer and then automatically transferred into a drying section, then automatically into a light finishing section and then into its stacking section.”
The advantage to that automation, he explains, is that it eliminates the need for all of the individual pieces of equipment to complete that same process. Before the automation of the process, the operator would physically move the plate from one section to the next.
Another platemaking advancement is the change to inherently flat top dot plate technology versus the process of converting round top dot plates to flat top dot plates by means of a special process or piece of equipment. Flat top dot plates can be provided now directly from plate manufacturers.
“The advantage of flat top dot plates is that they’re longer lasting and they provide greater control over the ink carrying capacity of the plate surface,” Fronczkiewicz explains. “It gives you some freedom on the press to adjust impression as needed. We’ve responded to the demands for convenience, higher print quality and longer plate life by offering a growing portfolio of inherently flat top dot plates.”
Garcia points to advancements in plate mounting as another driving factor behind efficiency in a flexo workflow. A recent advancement in sleeves, for example, is Flint Group’s Eco Bridge, which reduces the amount of air pressure needed to mount sleeves on top of adapters and will also reduce the airflow, in turn making it easier to complete the process.
There is also a new high-performance sleeve technology soon to hit the market that will have a different construction, Garcia explains. The base of the sleeve is made with fiberglass and a compressible layer to make mounting and dismounting easier, in addition to the fact that the sleeves are up to 25% lighter, making it easier for them to be transferred on and off the press.
Can Culture Affect Workflow Efficiency?
Despite the technological advancements that have made flexography a more efficient process, Bayne and Meinhardt explain that a company’s culture also plays a crucial role in workflow efficiency.
“I think the biggest thing is to adopt a culture of process control and then fully embrace it and use it,” Bayne says.
He says culture change should be part of the process when instilling new processes and procedures for workflow management. Many times, he explains, printers are reactive to what customers have to say about a specific job: only when there is a problem do they change the process to make it right, and usually only temporarily.
“There’s an 80/20 rule,” he says. “If 80% of your customers are happy and only 20% complain, then you live by the 80% and jump through hoops for the 20% to keep them happy.”
But with proper processes and procedures in place to control variables, he says it’s possible to meet the needs of the 20% and make the 80% even happier.
Similarly, Meinhardt points to the need for a culture of exploration. He explains that there are hundreds of customers running Label Traxx software around the world, but it’s the companies that experiment and push the envelope to find more efficiencies that see the most success. It’s the operators who “ask questions and look for better ways to do things” that end up helping the company progress.
“If you can build that improvement thought into the culture of your company,” he says, “it will have a huge difference.”