Published: 1 March 2022 | No comments yet
In the label and flexible packaging markets, there are many challenges facing printers today and they need a plate that can withstand modern demands. Michal Lodej spoke with plate manufacturers to understand how they overcome these issues.
The industry is busy at the moment, there is a lot of print volume going through flexo presses today, but at the same time there are acute supply chain issues. Materials of all kinds go through long global supply chains which are currently messed up, and trying to get everything at the right place at the right time is difficult. Lead times have been effected massively with some printers in the US going from eight weeks to delivery, to 22 weeks. So short run printing’s importance has again come into focus for flexo printers.
John Anderson, director of advanced print applications, at Miraclon, said, ‘Shorter print runs bring a big focus on efficiency, including reduced make-ready times, minimising unplanned downtime, and maximising on-press efficiency. Profit margins are being squeezed across the board, so if a printer can eliminate just one unscheduled press stop to clean plates, which takes about 10 minutes, for example, and with a typical billable press rate of around $700 an hour, you can easily start doing the math about the financial benefits in eliminating some of these stops. Add in the reduction of waste material and post-print capacity implications, and the need to address efficiency proves to be a particularly significant one.
‘For us, helping out printers requires a starting point of a consistent and repeatable product. If your product is variable, then when you get onto press you’re going to have some nasty surprises in your lead times, and you can’t guarantee the customer will get what they want. So by ensuring our materials are good, and making sure our plates are consistent, we can give our customers the technology to transfer the inks really well and give them more latitude on press, if you’re on the edge of latitude, then there’s no flexibility in your process, one day it will work, but the next it won’t.
‘One of the common problems in flexo today is unwanted ink spread, with trail edge voids one example of it. We’ve been working for many years to change patterns on the tops of plates and, although delayed by covid, these now make a big difference to printers who can use softer plates and a lighter impression which in turn helps to reduce defects and wear and tear. It makes the plates more friendly, and helps to increase print life. In addressing a common plate issue, it helps the printer get more out of the plate again.’
Dr Anderson concluded, ‘This is also where our FLEXCEL NX plate comes into its own. Back in 2008 we got better predictability with NX using a better laser, giving pixel for pixel plate production which helps matching proof. In 2010 we brought digigap to market which helped fix muddy colours issues and pin holing some printers were experiencing on press. Then NX advantage gave better whites and address the different anilox volumes, and the latest round we kept ink on the dot. Fast forward to 2021, our PureFlexo Printing addresses the causes of unwanted ink spread most commonly seen in wide web solvent ink on film applications. By solving the root cause of this issue, it brings a lot of flexibility and a wider operating window back to the press room and addresses many of the efficiency targets press operators have today.’
Quality is still king
For all the pressure and challenges facing printers right now, some things have not changed, and the major constant is that quality is still top of the list. Simon Top, product manager at XSYS, said, ‘Quality is still priority number one, and in several markets it is a given, and if you come with a plate which does not perform, you have no chance. In flexible packaging there are high speeds for the plate to cope with, but also many scenarios where jobs are being brought over from gravure printing. So we have a market where there is competition on speed and quality; but not only that there is the challenge of achieving consistent colour on repeat jobs, shorter run lengths, and cost pressures are more present than ever due to supply chain disruption and of course sustainability is getting more and more important.’
Florian Hoelzle, technical service and product management at XSYS, added, ‘We get more and more requests for quality improvement when they (the printers) want to move from gravure. And with LED exposure in platemaking we are capable of doing this now. In the Asia-Pacific region there are certain characters which need to be printed accurately, and that used to be a challenge for a flexo plate, but now with the recent improvements in technology we are able to do this.
Mr Top, continued, ‘At XSYS – we’ve already taken the decision to be more solution orientated, and this includes identifying surface exposure and screenings which are a good combination within our portfolio of plates. Doing this requires having the technologies in-house to apply these surface screens to enable our customers to get the results they want. When a customer comes to us, we first advise them on what plate is most suitable or is the best fit for what they want to achieve and we can guide them into other solutions and technologies in-house, we can advise first hand based on extended experience.’
Mr Hoelzle concluded, ‘When it comes to sustainability, if we get the request we need to reduce our VOCs and we want to create a more healthy environment for our employees, we can offer them our express thermal solution which is a portfolio of alternative plates which can be produced thermally.’
To no one’s surprise, the challenges for labels and flexible packaging printers today include the need to produce shorter runs with faster turn times, an ongoing demand for increased quality, pricing pressures and difficulty recruiting talent.
Dieter Niederstadt, technical marketing manager for Asahi, said, ‘One thing all of these have in common is the benefit that automation can bring to any operation. Automation not only reduces labour costs, but it also can improve quality standardisation and reduce waste, all adding up to a more productive and cost-efficient flexo platemaking operation.
‘Additionally, brands are increasingly looking for partners that can demonstrate clear performance against sustainability goals. This means reducing consumption across the board, including power, water, materials and more, while at the same time adopting technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’
Asahi Photoproducts’ AWP-DEW CleanPrint plates are water-washable flexographic photopolymer plates, which according to the company, deliver high quality print performance as a result of its engineered photopolymer chemistry design with no requirements for VOC based washout solvents. The water-wash technology also features a low surface energy plate resulting in fewer press stops for plate cleaning for significantly improved OEE in the pressroom and reducing press waste.
Time is money
Besides the pure quality aspect, there are several other elements that determine whether a print setup is considered technically and economically successful in the modern environment; access time, productivity and sustainability.
‘Cyrel FAST thermal platemaking systems allow plate production of press-ready photopolymer plates in about 45 minutes, all steps included, even when using the most modern high resolution imaging and UV-LED exposure techniques,’ explained Christian Apenberg, marketing manager east, DuPont Cyrel Solutions, ‘That is even more impressive, knowing that this reduces the access time from typically more than three hours in a conventional solvent washout workflow to less than an hour. Quick reaction times allow converters to react more dynamically and use their printing press equipment more efficiently as plate remake or short-term job changes no longer take several hours or even multiple days.’
Cyrel EASY R is an updated family of flexographic printing plates with built-in flat top dot geometry for tag, label and flexible packaging printing. These plates also offer flexibility as they come in dedicated versions for the thermal and solvent workflow. Customers can choose between a smooth surface variant that allows customised screening-based surface patterns – as well as an engineered surface version that fits most printing conditions by default. Furthermore, the new Cyrel Lightning plates now make full use of modern UV-LED exposure systems’ capabilities such as the Esko XPS.
Supply and demand
Richard Bunney, commercial director of Dantex Group, spoke about his clients worries for supply chain issues. ‘At Dantex our customers are in a wide range of different sectors and markets, so for us there are a lot of different stumbling blocks in different areas, however one common concern among our customers is the current shortages in supply chains.
‘Often they are asking if we have components in our range which can help with the delay in the supply chain, especially with silicone as there’s a global shortage of this right now and it is used in production of many plates. However, we use a different material and so far we are very fortunate with our distributors, who we’ve worked with for 25 years. Their business model has so many different products and they make sure we are at capacity, so we are very fortunate that when it comes to our Aquaflex and Rapidoflex plates, we are very well stocked.
‘But still customers are very concerned about what the next three to six months will have in store for them in terms of supply.
‘This concern about flexo supplies will often lead to a question, which is the elephant in the room, ‘Should we be considering digital printing?’ Now as supplier of digital technology we can obviously help customers in that acquisition, many customer have both technologies and are dovetailing them well, but its funny that these shortages are leading to that question.’