When you think back on the evolution of the narrow web label and package printing industry over the last 25 years, an almost perfect parallel can be drawn between the industry as a whole and its daily maintenance and cleaning practices.
Two decades ago, converters were likely frustrated with the time and effort required to clean and maintain their printing presses along with many other manual processes.
It was in the 1990s that one label maker in particular, Henning Kongstad in Denmark, felt that cleaning was a point of pain in his printing process. He identified the biggest problem in his operation as dirty parts and the subsequent effect they were having on his overall print quality. Additionally, the manual process of cleaning was taking up valuable production time and only giving mixed results.
Kongstad decided to do something about it. He developed a parts cleaner—the first Flexo Wash unit. From use in a single plant, the technology caught on and Kongstad found himself supplying the narrow web sector in his native Denmark and neighboring Germany. Reach of stand-alone parts, anilox and plate cleaners now extends to all sectors of the global printing industry.
Over the last 25 years, the narrow web industry and the cleaning technologies it utilizes have evolved together. Driven by customer feedback and demand for better cleaning solutions, OEMs like Flexo Wash—the firm Kongstad founded—have created a portfolio of cleaning systems that were initially developed from firsthand experience to provide reliable performance under tough working conditions.
In the 10 years between 1980 and 1990, automated cleaning started to take hold. Trends evident at the time included the following:
- Most converters cleaned all anilox rolls, flexographic plates, press parts, rotary screens, etc. manually, by hand
- Some adopted soda/media blasting cleaners, or ultrasonic cleaners, for anilox cleaning, but neither was widely used
Throughout the 1990s, things evolved. Specifically:
- Automated washing of anilox rolls and press parts was first developed in Europe and began to spread around the world. Adoption rate was low
- Soda/media blasting cleaners, or ultrasonic cleaners, were still widely used for those automating anilox cleaning
- Rotary Screen Cleaner was introduced
Fast forward to the early 2000s when Mike Potter became involved with cleaning technology in North America. “Mike knew that if you combined great service with technology, it could help improve printing processes for the label and package printing industry in North America,” explains Patrick Potter, president of Flexo Wash. “He was right.”
That thought process was driven by customer demands at the time. Mike Potter comments, “If the anilox roll is the heart of the flexographic printing process and critical to maintaining a well-run operation, proper cleaning, care and maintenance of anilox inventory is essential to survival. The absence of good cleaning practices will lead to increased downtime and inconsistent print results.”
Cleaning equipment manufacturers therefore found themselves constantly adapting to all of the nuances in modernization and production in the packaging industry; whether it be cleaning multiple rolls at the same time with either laser or liquid anilox cleaners, or tackling the most difficult inks, coatings and adhesives, demands of narrow web printers were heard and met.
As the decade between 2000 and 2010 transpired, cleaning technologies continuously improved. Developments worthy of noting included:
- Shorter job runs drove more changeovers per day and increasingly put pressure on flexographic printers to find more efficient processes and decrease downtime
- Improvements to flexographic press design also encouraged quick changeovers and less downtime
- Flexographic plate washers were developed and introduced to the market, replacing the need for manual cleaning of dirty plates
- Automated liquid cleaning of multiple anilox rolls became possible, as opposed to cleaning just one roll per cycle
- Less adoption of soda/media blasting cleaners, or ultrasonic cleaners, occurred, as liquid cleaners provided a quicker cleaning time and helped reduce damage and downtime on press
- Converters adopted parts washers specific to cleaning flexographic press parts, finding them safer and more environmentally friendly since cleaning solutions recirculate the cleaner, rather than sending it directly to the drain
- Laser anilox cleaning was developed as a new solution for cleaning anilox rolls
- Anilox sleeves (versus journaled anilox) increased in popularity in wide web and some narrow web presses
Progress didn’t stop there. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, the flexographic printing and converting industry saw:
- Adoption of new cleaning technologies in North America that helped converters begin realizing return on investment from new technologies
- An increase in print jobs per day and speed of changeovers continued to challenge the industry
- Higher percentages of converters purchased multiple cleaning systems for anilox rolls, plate, parts, etc.
- More efficient systems and cleaning solutions were credited with leading to shorter cleaning cycle times
- Press manufacturers introduced Teflon-coated pans, sealed chambers and parts made from lighter-weight materials to make changeovers and cleaning easier
- As the challenge to develop and retain a qualified labor pool became paramount, converters looked to automation of mundane cleaning tasks as a way to provide a safer, more appealing work environment
- Adoption of laser anilox cleaning increased as technology improved and converters evaluated options to meet their anilox cleaning needs, before identifying the best fit
To illustrate the evolution of narrow web cleaning technologies over the last 20 years, here are stories of four narrow web converters, all with different challenges, but all with the same pain point in their processes: downtime.
These technology adopters are Flexo-Graphics of Milwaukee, WI; Steinhauser Inc of Newport, KY; Tapecon of Buffalo, NY; and Catapult Print of Orlando, FL. Here is a look at the different cleaning processes in the narrow web industry, as told through real life.