FIRST Advocate Stresses Importance of Optimization, Fingerprinting, Characterization

Measure, Document, Control

Commit to process control. Measure it, document it and control it. That is the goal of the exercise. Do a systematic measuring of all your original process parameters—everything from the plate making equipment and style of processing to the inks and substrates must be documented to be sure it is repeated all through the process.

Most likely, you are concerned with solid ink densities, tonal scales, ink trapping, gray balance, registration marks, slur targets, dot area and dot gain. All the parameters you originally chose should receive the same attention to detail regarding measuring and recording all data collected.

Measure several areas across the sheet and average the results. Analyze deviation trends. FIRST 6.0 is an excellent source to guide you through this process. This would also be a good time to create an anilox log using the data from your anilox roll audit. Utilizing the anilox log can mean the elimination of the wasted 20 minutes to 30 minutes normally used to rotate your preferred anilox rolls to the proper station to repeat the solid ink densities from your last run.

Adherance to a preventive maintenance routine will keep the press running and anilox rolls in optimal condition. Audits can verify condition—tag plugged cells and other issues and keep print clean.

Magnetic anilox roll tags are also another detail that aids in roll maintenance and helps ensure the press setup matches the job folder. Your prepress provider will use this information to determine your cutback curves for future runs. Be sure your press crew has been trained to recognize how press adjustments affect print targets and how to effectively make those adjustments.


Commit to a date for the characterization. Invite those vendors involved in the planning stages; they will prove to be helpful again during the pressrun. The improvements you see will be subjective based on your original goals and your applied budget.

You can make changes during the fingerprint, such as substrate, plate material or inks; but each change must be treated as a brand-new pressrun with its own set of samples and complete documentation.

Follow-up and commitment to the new methods and settings gained from the characterization is crucial to prevent regression to old practices during production runs. Make corrective actions a part of the process to document how you have progressed from your original practices.

I have seen details like bearer bars, control targets and documentation disappear once the “testing” is done and printers are back in a production mode. What were, at one time, constants in the process change back to variables in the printing equation.

Changes like this may ruin what was, in effect, a contract between the printer and the separator. That is an easy trap to fall into. Continuing to run control targets on production jobs will quantify your performance gains. Continued documentation will verify compliance with the new, more efficient procedures and settings. It will allow you to easily justify that initial investment with the practice of running all jobs more efficiently and more cost effectively.

“Planning, communication and documentation are key elements to the successful characterization.”

This documentation also provides proof to employees that may have been reluctant to change, but now have a genuine cause for renewed pride in their work. It can also lead to a boost in morale for all employees involved in the process. So many printers go through the investment portion of the process, throw test plates on a press, sacrifice press time and take a snapshot of where they are, then fall short of seeing the process through to the end. They spend the time and money yet fail to stay committed to the details, then come away frustrated and confused as to why things are not working any better than they were before.

Do not let the adage of, “We don’t have the time or money to do things that way,” prevent you from performing these lean activities that will give you excellent return on investment many times over.

Commit to your new capabilities. Through the optimization and characterization, you have not only improved your print quality, but also expanded your sales opportunities by increasing the market share of flexographic work that you can produce. You will shorten your makeready times, reduce waste and last, but certainly not least, improve your level of customer satisfaction.

In my career, I have seen flexography improve by leaps and bounds. Thanks in part to groups like FTA, documents like FIRST, and a vast array of schools and programs, the whole world is becoming aware of the ability of flexography to be a high-quality product. To be truly top tier quality, however, you must stay committed to that goal.

About the Author

Darris Smith headshot
Darris Smith has more than 40 years in the graphics industry with 18 years as a press operator in both flexography and offset. He has experience operating narrow web, wide web and sheetfed presses in the packaging and pharmaceutical industries. He also spent time in color matching, plate making and supervisory roles. His attention to detail led him to find a niche in process printing and being part of several teams to garner FTA awards. Today, Darris provides his vast wealth of knowledge to customers all over the US through Harper Corporation of America’s technical services group.