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FLEXO Magazine : September 2010
Technologies & Techniques Digital Convergence with Flexo Hybrid inkjet Technology Bridges the Process gap By sheila nysko and Kristof Dekeukelaere They say that anything that can be digital, will be digital. Packaging alone seems to buck that trend. As one pundit once put it, “You can’t e-mail a Snickers. ” But while product packaging may never shed its analog coil, the printing process is another animal altogether. Today we know that there are different kinds of presses— screen, offset, flexo, etc. For all their differences, the one thing all the known processes have in common is putting ink on substrates. Regardless of process, printing presses have been designed specifically to handle and print on a variety of these materials. Digital printing’s greatest limitation to date has been its ability to effectively handle a large enough gamut of printable materials at production speeds and competitive price points to meet industry requirements. Now, though, there is a convergence happening. We are calling them modular hybrid inkjet presses. Modular hybrid inkjet technology allows you to take any kind of substrate and print on it. This is the result of combining inkjet stations with a press design that can handle anything from thin films nor- mally suited to flexo, to board stocks for which offset is often preferred, and run it all on one machine. A HAppy MArriAge The whole printing industry has been about developing presses that allow you to be able to print on all different types of materials. The press frames and the plates were built around that. But today ’s inkjet inks are far more capable of adhering to almost any substrate. Combine that with versatile material handling capabilities, productivity, color accuracy and economics, and you have the future of printing. This is not the traditional digital or inkjet press. The ma- chine starts with a flexo packaging press frame of 25.6in., and then builds in up to either four or six inkjet stations. Unlike other digital or inkjet presses, this is not exclusive for ultra- short runs (5,000 units or less). While it is effective for short run lengths, it is also affordable for medium runs, up to 50,000ft. Modular hybrid inkjet technology eliminates the need for making and mounting plates, yet still utilizes six colors. The plateless, digital format is effective for regionalization, sea- sonal changes and similar such markets. In fact, if desired, every single unit that rolls off the press could be unique and personalized. It is the best of both worlds. The biggest advantage is flexibility, though. Specialized metallized inks, screen print, foil stamping and other features are available as a result of modular print decks. Even tradi- tional flexo print decks are an option. CoMing TrenDs Make no mistake. This is a disruptive technology. All new technologies are disruptive, though. They change the way we think—not all at once, but over time. Still, this will never replace the industry as you and I know it today. That’s why we call it a convergence. It is designed for specific types of ap- plications and for situations that make good business sense. Hybrid inkjet technology offers benefits for versioning, fast turnarounds, no-inventory type business and the demand in all these areas are growing. One of the drivers of digital printing is shorter runs. The private label industry as a whole is a growing area of packaging, and this adds to the increased demand for shorter order quantities. In addition, product categories are growing. For example, go into the supermarket and look at Tropicana. There you’ll see an entire wall with 15 differ- ent types of orange juice—some pulp, a lot of pulp, with or without calcium, etc. There’s also language variation. Toronto is far more diverse than some of us in the U.S. realize. And we all know the U.S. is going down that route as well. There is also a growing impor- tance of inventory management, whereby companies do not want to maintain large inventories, yet must have necessary product quantities available at a moment’s notice. All of that means shorter make readies, less platemaking and more efficiency. This has already happened in commer- cial and label industries. But, packaging has struggled with this, largely due to the variety of substrates and the number of colors typically needed for a job, as well as brand colors and low migration inks for food package printing. JusT THe Beginning Modular hybrid inkjet printing is no longer in its infancy. The highest speeds possible are up to 13,013sq.ft an hour, or 105 linear feet per minute (fpm), depending on ink density, but 80fpm is more common. Another drawback is the cost of the inks, which are somewhat more expensive than most flexo inks. At the same time, plates are not required, along with other savings, so the technology is competitive for many applications and scenarios. So while this is certainly a game-changing innovation, people are not about to start throwing out their flexo presses. Modular hybrid inkjet technology is starting out disruptive, but is ultimately an augmenting technology. As is often seen in la- • Print on most substrates. • No plates. • Six-color digital inkjet heads. • Modular: emboss, foiling, screen or flexo stations are possible. 74 FLeXO sePTemBer 2010 www.flexography.org modular hybrid inkjet technology combines all the flexibility of flexo printing with plateless digital inkjet capabilities. Photo by Victorio loubriel, nYCity media. FLX_Sept2010_mech.indd 74 8/31/10 5:42 PM