Flexo’s Evolution for Packaging’s Future
Printers and converters across the packaging industry are facing similar challenges. Run lengths are getting shorter, turnaround times are decreasing, color variation tolerances are tighter and labor is increasingly difficult to find. To combat these changes, companies have had to assess their printing equipment and decide if their legacy presses — which may have once thrived — are still the right tools for this rapidly evolving industry.
Advancements across the board in flexography are changing perceptions surrounding this technology, and have made it an automated, efficient and repeatable process, poised to remain the dominant platform in most segments of the industry.
Features such as automatic registration and preregistration, servo motor driven automation, quick changeover capabilities, docking stations and LED inks are leading companies like Olathe, Kan.-based Phenix Label into this new world of flexography. Since 2016, Phenix Label has installed five new OMET presses, and Hans Peter, president, explains the equipment has flourished, even as the nature of label jobs has changed.
“On our old machines, our up time was somewhere in the 30% to 40% [range] by the time we were actually in run mode,” Peter says. “Now it’s more like 50% to 60% — and that’s even with the jobs becoming smaller over time.”
An Era of Automation
While advancements have occurred throughout all aspects of flexography, a key theme of flexo’s evolution has centered on automation, and the advantages that computerizing essential elements of the process can provide in efficiency, accuracy and repeatability.
Jeff Cowan, director of business development for Mark Andy, explains that he likes to view these technological developments as methods for increasing the “ease of use” of a press. For example, he explains processes such as automatic impression and registration setting and quick die changeover capabilities have made the printing process an easier task for operators.
“Automation doesn’t necessarily have to mean servo motors moving components around,” Cowan explains. “It could mean that the ability to set impression on a job is simplified through mechanics, or changing the methodology of how traditional printing presses have been set up.”
Cowan explains that Mark Andy has implemented ease of use concepts into its recently launched Performance Series E platform of in-line flexographic presses. He explains that a preregister system allows the operator to reach near sellable quality of print without any intervention. This allows for registration to be adjusted at the camera system further down the press, rather than at the print station.
Additionally, servo controlled impression settings simplify job setup and provide complete job save functionality when running a repeat of a job.
“It’s all built on the same methodology of setting impression that the Performance Series is known for,” Cowan says. “We’ve just taken it to the next level and made it easier and faster for the operators to set up. It’s more of a pushbutton interface that can all be stored through a job save.”
In addition to the latest flexo presses being easier to operate, Peter explains that the automation aspects have provided Phenix Label with a competitive platform for mid-length runs. Like most label and package printers, Peter explains the run-lengths being requested from Phenix have decreased in recent years, presenting a challenge for older conventional technology.
He explains that Phenix invested in digital printing technology to take on some of these shorter runs, but found that jobs that fell between short run and long run were not economically viable on the digital or existing flexo equipment. However, with the OMET presses’ ability to turn around shorter runs faster, and with colors beyond CMYK, Phenix is now able to take on the run lengths that had been previously troublesome.
“We have a lot of jobs that are 8,000 to 10,000 feet and digital really wasn’t competitive,” he says. “We really had the same problem with the flexo side where we weren’t competitive on those size runs either.”
Consistent and Repeatable
Mark Mazur, whose career in flexography spanned more than 30 years, including a lengthy stint with DuPont and an induction into the Flexographic Technical Association’s Hall of Fame in 2009, explains that historically, the biggest knock against flexo was its inconsistency. But as brand owners have grown, they have come to rely on multiple printing partners in various locations. This often means having different printers producing the same products.
For printers, Mazur explains that adherence to color specifications has become increasingly important since a package being produced in one part of the country should appear identical to the same package being printed in another location. That is why he says adopting a printing standard, such as the characterized reference printing conditions (CRPC) standardized data sets and adhering to it is so essential in earning and maintaining steady business. However, he explains that printers have been reluctant to standardize their processes, and advises they focus on consistency, in addition to the visual quality of their images.
“Printers are always trying to talk about one aspect of the quality spectrum — the finer highlights and the greater contrast,” Mazur says. “But what they don’t talk about in flexo is the consistency side of quality and I think that’s what this standardization is driving in flexo.”
While adhering to specific standards can help printers ensure they are producing products that will meet their customers’ specifications, technological advancements beyond the presses themselves have emerged to help flexographic printers maintain high-quality, consistent print. Shawn Oetjen, the lead instructor at Flexographic Tech, a not-for-profit, flexographic printing training program in Minneapolis, explains that while having a spectrophotometer in a pressroom is a great start, it’s important to understand how to get the most out of all of the components that play a role in color reproduction.
For example, automatic viscometers that maintain ink viscosity, the AniCAM from Troika Systems that measures anilox volume, automatic plate washers and laser anilox roll cleaners are all examples of technological advancements that can help flexographic printers ensure they’re providing consistent print, run after run.
“Color accuracy is important and we have the tools to achieve color accuracy,” Oetjen says. “It’s hard to walk into a pressroom now without a spectrophotometer. We have the tools and it really makes us more accountable for our actions.”
Plates Take the Next Step
Beyond advancements in efficiency and repeatability, advancements in flexographic plate technology have completely altered the reputation flexo once had as an inferior printing process. Mazur explains that plate imagers are now able to produce fine textures on solid surfaces, making significant improvements in the ink transfer capabilities of plates.
For example, Mazur explains that in the past, flexographic printers often struggled to achieve cyan and magenta densities above 1.3 when printing on film. However, with the latest plate technologies, they’re able to achieve a density of 1.6, creating a much more vibrant image.
Additionally, Mazur explains that when printing on clear film, printers will often lay down a layer of white in the background to enhance the colors being printed. With the latest plate imaging technologies providing finer textures than ever before, Mazur says printing white can now be done with improved coverage and less ink.
“Now what [printers] do is they can use photopolymer plates with these surface technologies and get much smoother transfers of white ink so there’s less pinholing in the white,” he says. “They actually use less white ink, so you get better coverage while using less ink. You save money and you still get those advantages.”
Another advancement in platemaking is in the type of light being used in exposure systems. Oetjen says the transition from fluorescent light to LED provides a more consistent light source with instant on and instant off capabilities without a warm up time. The result, Oetjen says, is a more reliable result in the final plate.
“The plates are more consistent and you’re actually able to get more intense light to the plate quicker, creating more repeatable plates,” he explains.
The imaging capabilities that are having a strong impact on the flexo industry are not just relegated to plates, however. Ryan Dufour, senior account manager for West Essex Graphics, a Fairfield, N.J.-based design, prepress and flexographic platemaking provider, explains that for printers in need of continuous printing capabilities with in-the-round sleeves, the advancements made in elastomer sleeves have changed some misconceptions in the industry about elastomer being an inferior technology to photopolymer.
“All these manufacturers that made imaging devices started to work on the technology in conjunction with the elastomer suppliers to say, ‘Hey we need something that can also engrave a little bit quicker, faster, better and not need as much power,” he says.
Though flexography has provided the backbone of the label and flexible packaging printing industry for decades, it can take time for companies to adjust when bringing the latest flexo technology in house.
Peter explains that when Phenix Label started the process of assessing equipment from various suppliers, a lead operator joined the conversation to weigh in on a preferred solution. And as Phenix has added its five OMET presses, Peter says it was important for the company’s operators to be able to transition between the machines.
“We really wanted to buy machines where an operator could start on the simplest machine and work their way up to do the most complicated,” he says. “With the controls, a lot of it was very similar and some of the tooling was very similar.”
While the printing industry has struggled across the board to recruit younger generations into the workforce, Oetjen says that the high-tech attributes of the latest flexo presses can be enticing for technically-minded young people. However, he says that if a company’s goal is to move an operator with years of experience in legacy flexo printing to a new press, the transition could be challenging.
Either way, he explains tempering expectations and ensuring adequate training is available is necessary to ensure operators can make the most of the new technology. Additionally, he says, it’s important that even with all of the automation available now in flexography, and the reduced operator intervention required, that operators have a strong understanding of flexo basics. Oetjen explains that the training press at Flexographic Tech is more than 20 years old. If students can master that press, he explains that when they get into the field and are tasked with operating more advanced machines, the technology makes more sense.
“The advances are awesome and that’s what continues to allow flexography’s market share to grow year after year,” he says. “We just need to be realistic and support our staff properly.”