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FLEXO Magazine : November 2009
FLEXO NOVEMBER 2009 www.flexography.org While some changes occurred quickly, most did not. Rather, it was a gradual evolution that is still going on today. This technological evolution that now makes it possible for flexography to compete with rotogravure on a level quality and value plane, has also had an impact on other process elements that were once considered to be secondary and relatively unimportant to the process. As an example, an ink supplier speaking at a Saturday morning FTA workshop held at the Holiday Inn at Newark Air- port in 1977 suggested... "If flexo printers were metering with a blade rather than a rubber wipe roll, they should consider using a quality Swedish tempered blue steel material." He also recommended on-press ink filtration. Today the use of a quality steel doctor blade and on-press ink filtration are almost a given, but not so in 1977. In the Q&A that followed the workshop, a press operator at a carton printer reported that, for doctor blades, his company used the same strip steel used to band pallets. While they had on-press filter vessels, they did not actually use filters be- cause, as these would quickly plug and prevent ink flow. Remember, in the late 1970s, flexo was still aspiring to be what it has become today. Then, the typical anilox line count was 220 to 250, with only some printers operating as high as 360lpi. Process print looked good---from across the grocer 's aisle. Since then, so much of the key process elements have changed. Along with these changes has come a real sense of the importance of process control. Today, in spite of the current economic downturn, many flexo pressrooms across the U.S., Canada and Mexico are making huge investments to better control their process and by doing so reduce waste and increase productivity. For some, it is possible to make significant productivity improvements to an existing press by upgrading elements like pumps, filters, and chambers to prevent defects, mid-run press stops and shorten job changes. For others, investing in new press technology makes sense. In addition to improving quality and productivity, printers say these investments will allow them to maintain existing business and to gain new business. They are also retir- ing older presses as never before and doing so primarily because they are no longer viable in achieving necessary performance levels. With actual sustainable operating speeds in excess of 1,500fpm, every minute a press is down adds up quickly. The newest generation wide web flexible packaging presses now include auto registration technology, such as the smartGPS system introduced by Fischer & Krecke at drupa last year. With this system, it is possible to move from the last billable print on one job to the next in less than 10 minutes. A conser- vative payback or ROI on such an investment is reported to be less than one year. This new registration technology could not be employed on a press just five years ago. Other press and process elements were not sufficiently developed until now. Similar advances are also being reported in the narrow web field. Mark Andy launched its new Performance Series press line at this fall's Labelexpo in Brussels. It features an enhanced print head able to maintain the highest levels of print quality at top speeds. Job changes and material waste have been reduced by 50 percent. The journey for flexography, from being a relatively low- quality process to becoming the preferred process for many demanding print buyers, has taken a little more than 20 years. In the beginning, this evolution concentrated on print quality while in recent years the focus has moved to seek- ing gains in productivity from on press process control and process improvements. NOT ALL THAT GLITTERS. . . Have we entered the Golden Age of flexography? Has flexo matured to the point where there are no more gains to be realized? That depends on who you are. For some the answer is, "Yes." Those individuals have achieved print quality and consistency levels equal to or bet- ter than competing print methods, and are often able to do so with minimum waste and high levels of productivity. They have made the investments and continue to foster an uncom- promising commitment to technology, to process control and to operator best practices. They operate with the best quality consumables. Both suppliers and print buyers want to partner with these companies. In short, these flexo printers are set for success. They operate securely in what could be called flexo's Golden Age. But for the majority of flexo printers the answer is, "No, this is not the Golden Age of Flexography "---at least not yet. Most still face basic on-press related challenges every day. Long runs are stopped to clean dirty plates. Doctor blades continue to cause premature anilox damage and wear. Chamber end seals leak. The list goes on. The average flexo printer still operates at waste and productivity levels common 20 years ago but at twice the speed. The fact is, not everyone is ready to buy a new press to low- er process waste and increase productivity. Instead, they can adopt some of the basic process elements used in new press technology to achieve a few of the same or similar results. As an example, most filters in use today by flexo print- ers filter to 400μ; not nearly enough to be completely effec- tive. Today it is possible to inexpensively invest in the same enhanced on-press ink filtration available on the newest presses. These filters operate at 50μ without ink starvation. Doing so eliminates metallic and non-metallic debris that otherwise contributes to end seal leaking, anilox wear, blade edge damage and print defects. Today 's most productive new presses operate with the highest quality doctor blades, even on short runs. While such a blade will last much longer than a cheaper one, their primary advantage comes from quick stress free seating to the anilox, superior metering and ink film formation especially on higher line count anilox rolls. Paying more for a blade is a small investment that pays dividends to those running them--- even on older presses. These and other opportunities exist for flexo printers who are open to modifying their practices to take advantage of just some of the many process changes resulting from the evolu- tion in flexography over the past 20 years. For those that do, quality and productivity gains assure them of a bright future. They are moving toward their Golden Age of Flexography. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sharkey is the president of FLXON Inc., a company advancing sustainability through enhanced process control and process improvement within flexographic and rotogravure pressrooms in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sustainable Fall 2009