Forum 2018 Session Will Examine Modern Efficiencies & Integration
What can flexography do? The answer to that question depends on when it’s being asked: Decades ago, the response would be given in a whisper indicative of flexography’s reputation as a cheap alternative to more mainstream print processes. In the recent past, the answer would speak to how flexography has grown—quickly—its capabilities and its quality, while holding on to that once-negative attribute and turning it into a benefit.
Today, the answer is observed by walking the aisles of any store: Flexography is everywhere, and that’s thanks to both the print process’ strengths, as well as its ability to work with digital, screen and the like to deliver a superior product. Forum 2018’s “New Capabilities: Look at Flexo Now!” session will delve into what’s possible today and what’s becoming a reality as emerging technologies come to market. Here, Michael Weyermann of MPS talks to FLEXO Magazine about his presentation, which will espouse the benefits of hybrid presses.
FLEXO Magazine: In layman’s terms, a hybrid press is a combination of a flexographic printer and a digital machine, but there’s a lot more to it than just duct taping the two together, right?
Michael Weyermann: A hybrid line is a combination of any different type of printing technologies. This can include flexo, offset, gravure, screen and, more recently, digital printing. In the case of digital, this typically consists of two pieces of equipment made by two different manufacturers, so proper integration is crucial. You want to have a machine that is seamlessly blended together with one control center operating both the flexo press and the digital unit. Another key to success is maintaining stable web tensions throughout both pieces of equipment to achieve tight registration tolerances between two platforms.
FLEXO: Give us an example of a hybrid press being used correctly—where the proper functions are being handled by each process—and an instance where a hybrid press is making things harder than they need to be—a “worst of both worlds,” so to speak.
Weyermann: Hybrid presses were developed to keep up with the demands of short-run jobs while maintaining the ability to produce high-end labels in a one-pass operation. They give the printer the ability to satisfy the needs of today while allowing it to expand into different growing markets.
There are many different thoughts and philosophies behind the proper use of a hybrid press, but it all comes down to the education of the label designer. They need to understand the process to make the artwork fit for the press. A hybrid press can produce high-end labels with variable graphics, while using the same enhancements such as screen and metalized effects. Harmonizing the conventional aspects of the artwork across SKUs will allow the press to run non-stop from one version to the next.
The classic example of the proper use of a hybrid press is the Coca-Cola “Names” label campaign. This could not have been done on a standalone digital press because of the relatively large amount of ink coverage versus the small variable portion with the people’s names. It was critical to match the color and quality between the two processes, so that it was seamless, but the program would have been cost prohibitive to do solely digital. The “worst of both worlds” would have been to try and do this project with either process on its own.
FLEXO: Why would a printer want to consider a hybrid press over standalone flexo and digital units?
Weyermann: The demands of the label consumer have drastically changed over the years. Job lengths have gotten shorter and shorter, but the quality and the designs have not gotten any easier. For a printer to keep up with these demands while still making a profit, it needs to find ways to cut costs. Hybrid presses offer the ability of quick changeovers and lower tooling costs by leaning on digital printing. An advantage of a hybrid press over a standalone digital press is that it gives the digital press inline finishing capabilities that would otherwise have to be done in a secondary phase.
FLEXO: Beyond the ability to integrate rival print processes, what are some other modern-day flexographic printing capabilities of note?
Weyermann: Where flexography has gone is nothing less than incredible. The advancements in servo motors and drives have allowed us to maintain perfect web tensions with stable dot-to-dot registration. When utilized in automated pressure settings, it allows for the most minute accurate adjustments, creating results that have never before been achieved.
However, press manufacturers are not the only ones who have progressed. With the advancement of lasers, the capabilities of both plates and aniloxes have gone a long way. Their technologies and developments have allowed us all to push the envelope of what’s possible and flexo today is able to do things of which offset, gravure and digital are incapable. This includes running higher linescreens, smaller type and better densities without trading off one for another.
FLEXO: What’s the significance of press automation? Are robots coming for press operators’ jobs?
Weyermann: In our industry, by far the No. 1 biggest issue we are facing is finding and retaining qualified operators. The skills gap is at the largest we have ever seen. Automation is being utilized not to take the press operators’ jobs away, but to help them maximize their productivity and quality. Through automation, we utilize sensors and motors to maintain consistency across shifts and between operators. It closes the gap between less experienced operators and your best operators.
FLEXO: Is there a feature or ability coming to flexography in the future, something that is in its infancy right now or just starting to gain traction, which could become a major strength down the road?
Weyermann: Industry 4.0 will be driving the advancements of the future for us all. Industry 4.0 introduces what has been called the “smart factory,” in which cyber-physical systems monitor the physical processes of the factory and make decentralized decisions. An example of this development is utilizing a vision system to measure dot gain and adjust the pressure settings of a station, allowing it to get back into the saved standard without press operator intervention. This goes beyond just the press, and ties all a factory’s processes together.
Another example is using systems to monitor a machine’s health and perform preventative maintenance. If there is anything unusual or out of the nominal threshold, a warning will alert maintenance that would indicate, for example, that print station No. 5 needs maintenance scheduled. Predicting an issue before critical failure occurs saves downtime at potentially inconvenient times, and minimizes the total cost for repairs.