Owners of many small-to-medium label and packaging shops can sometimes feel as if their business prospects amount to chickens one day and feathers the next. For some, it can seem as if our evolving industry is accelerating past them, fueled by the relentless pace of technology.
Admittedly, this is less of a concern among larger shops, due to the economies of scale that come with larger jobs, bigger presses and longer printruns. Smaller shops nearly always feel the pinch, especially when it comes to the adoption of new technologies.
Fortunately, there are solutions.
Hounded by shrinking print volumes and declining run lengths, the daily challenge for these smaller shops is how to best survive, maintain and hopefully grow their businesses. In too many shops, old plate makers, image setters and aging water-wash systems huddle on shop floors, demanding toxic solvents and rendered less efficient by the declining availability of film and requisite processing.
In many cases, shop owners face difficulties in finding skilled personnel to run old machines that are becoming less reliable, more difficult and expensive to maintain, and for which parts are becoming unavailable.
Meanwhile, larger flexo businesses are reaping the benefits and profits that come from having upgraded to newer technologies. Ever creative, imaginative and persistent, owners of some smaller shops find ways to manage, but still have to make hard choices. Some have migrated to digital presses, which can be a good fit if customer needs match the press (and the monthly lease payment!), but there are other options that are better aligned with the customer mix and skills of many small, narrow web shops.
The Leap to Digital Plate Making, Processing & Color Management Systems
In many of these smaller shops, automated digital systems for plate making, processing and color management can be a better choice than investing in a digital press. The various systems available today can be used to produce labels, flexible packages, folding cartons, corrugated containers and envelopes.
The size of the devices for these applications obviously varies, but digital technology is nothing if not scalable, and the levels of automation available today increase efficiency and productivity.
For instance, if an employee learns how to use a small digital plate maker for 20-in. plates, the biggest difference in shifting up to a 60-in. machine is the plate size, not operation of the device, because they use the same software and work the same way. This is true of most digital devices, all of which are typically easy to operate, intuitive to use, and significantly more environmentally friendly (no solvents!) while providing consistent, high-quality plate imaging and processing.
The “intuitive and easy to use” parts are especially important. Owners of most flexo shops, regardless of their size, say finding and hiring qualified employees is one of their biggest challenges. Part of this is the present low unemployment rate, but it is also the decreasing number of younger people who have interest in any type of printing. That is a much broader topic than we have room for here, but the larger point is that the simpler, more automated processes, enabled by digital technology, all but eliminate the legacy of old school plate making.
In the past, apprentice and journeyman workers learned from an older, skilled craftsperson who taught younger workers the subtleties of a craft. Now, the training comes at the hand of the equipment maker and it is reinforced on the job. There are nuances, to be sure, but the entire process is automated and streamlined. A plate is placed in the plate maker, the cover is closed, the digital file comes in silently, the plate is made and is ready for processing.
Old skills are becoming history! Other procedures are further simplified, with plate processing now highly automated. Even complex tasks, such as color management, are handled by software and specialized machines that “know” and “understand” how to identify even subtle differences in color.