Flexographic Automation, Innovation & Education, Enabled by Plates, Plate Processors, Screening Software and More

FLEXO Magazine: Can you comment on the following statements made by respondents to FLEXO’s recent Printer Flash Poll? Feel free to reflect on how your firm applies similar commitments.

  • “Sustainable options are where the industry and brands will set their focus. However, supply chain issues, volatile pricing and personnel issues are currently taking center stage”
  • “Overall, business is very healthy. New innovations and equipment are allowing for much better process control. Sustainability will be driving the future of the industry changes”
  • “Flexo is the future! Plates and machinery have improved over the last five years. There will be growth! Expect to see a lot of new equipment and technology. We will need to position ourselves to take advantage of it”

PJ Fronczkiewicz, DuPont Cyrel Solutions: The topic of sustainability has an intense focus at DuPont throughout all products we manufacture, and Cyrel plates are no exception. An internal quote sums it up best: “Sustainability is at the core of what we do—from reducing our operational footprint and creating market-facing sustainable solutions, to addressing the global challenges of the future.”

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue EASY R
Cyrel EASY R series plates offer the same quality of the EASY family with flat top dots built in the plate and with extra robustness. The plates are credited with enabling trade shops and printers/ converters to process a plate in a timely and efficient way, print on a wide variety of substrates in a clean and easier way with high-quality highlights on printed package for flexible packaging and tag and label jobs.

Specifically to flexographic printing and plates, in 2021, the original DuPont life cycle assessment (LCA) from 2008 was updated by DuPont using the Ecoinvent 3 database for relevant inputs and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment values for the global warming potential impact method. The new results measured by DuPont fortified our stance in two key areas:

  • Flexographic printing remains advantaged over gravure. Flexographic printing leads to 46 percent lower non-renewable energy (NRE) consumption and 51 percent lower global warming potentials (GWP) than gravure printing
  • Thermal plate processing has a lower environmental footprint than solvent processing. Digital thermal processing is shown to have a 38 percent lower GWP impact and a 56 percent lower NRE consumption, compared to digital solvent processing, without including the raw plate manufacturing. When including the plate manufacturing, digital thermal has a 17 percent lower GWP impact and a 20 percent lower NRE consumption compared to digital solvent processing

Tim Reece, All Printing Resources: It is undeniable that we have all felt the effect of supply chain and pricing issues. Pair that up with employee retention and employee shortage, and you can easily understand why production managers are lying awake at night. Even before COVID and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our industry was beginning to feel the pain of limited people moving into manufacturing positions like plate making, mounting, press, lamination and converting departments. People with a desire to enter our industry do not come out of universities to enter these critical positions. I believe that, in part, is why there is so much discussion of innovation and automation.

What we have seen is that people are willing to think outside the box now more than ever. Raw material shortages have people who formally said, “We have to use this product,” now trying alternative materials—often with success. People are opening their minds to new standard operating procedures (SOPs), forward-thinking ideas and implementation of basic to advanced technology.

Speaking to the healthy business environment, we are all settling in to the new normal. In some cases, we have changed raw materials, went through a learning period, and are now running efficiently and effectively. Plates are made with performance capabilities we never considered five years ago—automatically being demounted without damage, automatically cleaned, experiencing longer plate life, and automatically mounted with precision. Perhaps the greatest benefit from the spike in innovation and automation is the level of consistency the complete finished product now possesses. We are not required to reinvent the wheel each time a job returns to press. The result is more press uptime, less setup time and waste, and ultimately a positive impact on sustainability and throughput.

Miraclon: Customers on every continent are using FLEXCEL NX technology to help brand owners large and small meet their sustainability targets. In line with Miraclon’s corporate purpose of making flexography the preferred print process of choice for the broadest possible range of package printing applications, its customers continue to benefit from a steady flow of innovations and enhancements that build on the core FLEXCEL NX Technology.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue Miraclon_FLEXCEL NX Central SoftwarePicture1
Miraclon’s FLEXCEL NX Central Software enables a step change in flexographic plate making productivity by enabling manual plate layout time savings of up to 90 percent and boosting plate utilization by up to 10 percent. It enables the integration of multiple advanced plate surface patterning features into one automated plate layout, which allows more jobs to be completed in less time, at a lower cost. Printers find they can get more jobs out the door, in less time, with the same workforce and equipment— maximizing productivity. Impression Label USA reports, “We save at least one hour every day, and we utilize around 80 percent of every plate instead of the previous 60 percent.”
Photo courtesy of Miraclon

Each innovation brings further sustainability as well as other benefits and is available to the earliest users of the FLEXCEL NX System, so there is no need for any long-standing customer to dispose of a current system in order to benefit from the latest developments.

From the outset, improving sustainability through better on-press performance was a key objective of the development team behind the FLEXCEL NX system. Members saw the potential of flexography and set out to overcome the limits of the existing technology, in the process transforming flexography from a craft to a modern manufacturing process. When launched, FLEXCEL NX technology supported sustainability in two primary ways: by reducing on-press wastage of ink and substrate, and by reducing the number of plates per job.

Since 2008, the great achievement of FLEXCEL NX technology has been to build on these benefits by steadily delivering greater latitude on press, improving the predictability and reliability of the printed result on a wide variety of substrates, including paper, flexible film, foil and label stock.

That core technology has enabled development teams to explore and optimize the fundamental process of how ink transfers from a plate onto a substrate at high speed during printing. This is why the surface of a FLEXCEL NX plate is engineered by the plate maker using micron-level patterns of varying shapes and depths, all specifically defined for the type of print job. The result is optimized print performance—cleaner print, faster press setup, higher speeds and lower ink usage for similar solid density—all of which drive efficiency and sustainability benefits within the environment of the flexographic process.

Kevin Bourquin, Cyber Graphics: Sustainability is often thought of as the creation of recyclable, PCR components, compostable or biodegradable packaging. But one of the largest impacts we have now is to limit usage of current materials by downgauging and focusing on makeready to eliminate the use of virgin plastics. This, of course, has to be done in conjunction with developing the next generation of sustainable plastics.

XSYS Global: nyloflex Xpress thermal processors develop plates in less than an hour, from imaging to light finishing. VOCs are reduced, as no solvent is required to process our thermal plates that are formulated to meet every printing application in the narrow and wide web space of label and flexible packaging. XSYS manages its supply chain in a manner that reduces volatility by forward purchasing and seeking alternate sources for raw materials to ensure stability in our operations.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue XSYS_nyloflex_Xpress_thermal processor F IV
XSYS Global’s nyloflex Xpress system is a revolutionary thermal processing system for greater production with less maintenance, less downtime and lower operating costs. Components of this system include a thermal processor, five nyloflex thermal printing plate options and a uniquely developed, lightweight nonwoven developer roll. Processors are available in two sizes with surprisingly small footprints: FIV size for plates up to 42- in. x 65-in. or FV size for plates up to 52-in. x 80-in. Features and highlights include:

  • Near elimination of VOCs, low energy usage, and up to 30 percent less fabric in developer rolls will substantially contribute to sustainability efforts
  • High-quality thermal plates, comparable to solvent quality, in only 55 minutes from imaging to finishing
  • Lower electricity consumption with the unique, short-wave IR preheating system, cleverly designed for precise control of heating depth; no chiller or vapor handling system is required
  • All plates greatly resist the non-woven impression and exhibit excellent cleanout between dots and reverses for printing quality

Automated plate making equipment provides unparalleled consistency by eliminating as much human intervention and error from the equation as possible, providing for better process control.

AV Flexologic: In today’s political and economic climate, supply chain issues and volatile pricing are definitely taking center stage and affecting most businesses. At the same time, there is a labor shortage mainly due to prepress staff retiring/aging and skilled staff being harder and harder to come by. All this creates extra bottlenecks in the printing process. Our solution is waste elimination through automation. Looking at the value stream in the prepress department and analyzing how to reduce/eliminate non-value activities ensures the highest productivity with minimum waste. This means sustainable businesses are the ones who will prosper in the long term.

All these comments show how ready the flexographic market is to transform and become the best it has ever been and the most advanced. We believe in driving this change and being at the forefront of innovations. We envisioned a fully robotized prepress cell and actually brought it to life. We strongly believe that this is the future of flexography, and indeed, flexography is the future!

Greg Pas, Fujifilm Graphic Systems: In 2017, Fujifilm developed a Sustainable Value Plan through 2030 and has yearly reports on progress and required changes. Fujifilm is deeply dedicated to improving environmental actions through its business and bringing about a sustainable society through innovation. Our group companies and stakeholders pay very close attention to changes that occur each and every year, and create improvement proposals to continue successful approaches to help meet the goals and objectives of its Sustainable Value Plan 2030.

Rick Mix, Fujifilm Graphic Systems: Introduction of new and innovative processing equipment is our plan for continued improvement in flexographic plates and processing equipment. Enhanced processing systems are critical to improving plate quality and efficiencies, as well as reducing time allocation of personnel.

Fujifilm has introduced an automated washout system for 42-in. x 60-in. plates to allow for both larger-format size and greater plate processing efficiencies. In addition, in 2021, we introduced the AR Kit which can be used with our 25-in. x 30-in. and 36-in. x 48-in. systems to extend the life of the washout bath and reduce the frequency of cleaning the washout system.

Flexo Wash: Even with the turmoil in the supply chair, our focus continues to be sustainability. We believe that evaluating how you clean and your cleaning systems are the first steps here. We are focused on the following in our efforts to lessen our footprint on the industry.

  1. Environmental solutions for each machine
  2. Sustainable cleaning solutions
  3. New generations of cleaning technology

In addition to new products and built-in upgrades, we have a line of environmental solutions which can be combined with different Flexo Wash cleaning units to reduce the water and/or liquid consumption (if that is what you choose). The next generation of cleaning systems promises easier handling, improved technology, and focus on less liquid consumption and sustainable solutions. They have a long tank life, which makes for easy handling, a trouble-free operation and long service intervals. This makes sustainable cleaning solutions an affordable alternative to solvents, thus providing a safer cleaning of press parts and a cleaner environment.

MacDermid Graphics Solutions: We must assess the challenges we’re facing globally and work together to balance the unprecedented variables in our businesses now. MacDermid is partnering with customers to provide the best support we can in order to navigate these variables together. MacDermid has also focused on balancing the need for sustainable development while seeking solutions on the current challenges in supply, material and personnel logistics.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue XPERENCE CENTER LOGO
MacDermid Graphics Solutions’ Flexo Xperience Center (FXC) is a collaborative center for premedia suppliers, printers, converters, brands, CPCs, students and educational institutions, and anyone interested in the best that flexography has to offer. The FXC tells the print story from start to finish. With the common goal to move flexography forward, FXC works with experts and partner representatives to take your testing from idea to reality, all in one location. It’s a place to collaborate, research, experiment and learn to achieve.
Image courtesy of MacDermid Graphics Solutions

In fact, one of our key aims of The Flexo Xperience Center is around the availability of print testing in a time where testing availability is limited, as well as the access to new-employee or future-employee training and education.

We’re all stakeholders in advancing sustainability initiatives—the future of our planet depends on these. We, as an industry, must work together to find the best path forward. Our sustainable strategy at MacDermid is supported and driven into the organization at the CEO level. This strategy needs to be cultural rather than simply an initiative.

At MacDermid, innovation is at the core of everything we do. Finding the best ways to help solve flexographic challenges. With the infinite opportunities available at The Flexo Xperience Center, we believe we’ll see the next big innovation in flexography come to life with the collaboration of all partners involved.

Scott Thompson, SGS & Co: Being a leading premedia and image carrier producer for a large segment of the industry is constantly driving SGS & Co to lead in the areas of plate production and related workflow systems. Based on this, the goal is to support our customers’ efforts to standardize and innovate.

It’s critical for the industry to examine how all the elements combine to achieve identified goals, including the areas related to plates and workflow systems. It’s one thing to automate, but without the correct tools and color management alignment, the full benefits may not be realized. Prioritizing the overall premedia steps, from artwork to print (including print tools), with the right solution providers is critical.

Julian Fernandez, Esko: Our commitment is to focus on sustainability—all our products should help users to save on energy or to reduce waste.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue Esko_Asahi Crystal Clean
Esko’s latest innovation in automated flexographic plate making systems is in partnership with Asahi and Kongsberg: the CrystalCleanConnect. The only thing the operator has to do in this case is to position a plate on the CDI or on a table next to the CDI, and remove the protection film—the system takes care of the rest, including cutting each separation to the final size, so it is ready to be mounted. For water-wash plates, it is the first and only fully automated plate making process in the market.
Photo courtesy of Esko

Esko, the global developer of integrated software and hardware solutions for the packaging and labels markets, has collaborated with Asahi Photoproducts, a pioneer in flexographic photopolymer plate development, on CrystalCleanConnect, an innovative flexographic plate making solution. It fully automates the entire plate making process, from imaging and exposure through to plate production, reducing the number of steps from 12 to just one. This equates to a reduction from 36 minutes in plate making and plate cutting to just 2.5 minutes of operator time to complete all processing steps. With the removal of so many process steps, there’s an immediate 90 percent reduction in required operator time, which not only eliminates the potential for human error but also delivers immediate efficiency gains.

Quality is assured through Asahi and Esko technologies working in complete harmony, and the combination of improved efficiency and quality delivers an average increase of 25 percent in press overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). The innovation brings together key hardware and software technologies from both organizations to deliver a number of breakthrough advantages from design to print. It delivers a cleaner, more environmentally balanced operation that simplifies the flexographic plate making process, improves safety and boosts print quality consistency.

An intelligent automation hub serves as the backbone and heart of the solution. CrystalCleanConnect is truly pushing boundaries to the current scope of plate automation delivering a mount-ready plate as well as being the first automated production solution without the need for VOC-based washout solvents in the plate making process.

Mike Agness, HYBRID Software: We have to assess short-term needs versus future benefits. Right now, supply chain deficiencies are having a major impact on packaging. That’s not to say that short-term solutions can’t find their way to long-term practices.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 3 - Direct Dialogue HYBRID_CLOUDFLOW - IC3D
HYBRID Software’s iC3D is real-time, all-in-one package design software that lets printers generate live 3D virtual mockups on-the-fly. It encompasses all design applications and model types, and allows cartons, labels, standup pouches, flexibles, bottles, shrink wraps, POS/POP and in-store visualization to be seamlessly combined in any scene. It allows creatives to use their imagination while delivering fast turnaround and up to 80 percent reduction in the design lifecycle. Ray tracing accurately simulates effects of light on virtual objects for photorealistic, ultra-high resolution photo studio effects, while Light Map Editor recreates studio lighting, editable highlights and shadows. Dynamic Backgrounds and Perspective Control allow real-time merging of 2D photo images with 3D designs, so that users can visualize a product from every angle and in any setting, from store shelves to gondolas, chiller cabinets or freezer displays. iC3D opsis, a free cloud-based viewer and storage, makes collaboration easy. Users can also share designs by email and as animated movies. No specialist programs, hardware or outside assistance is needed—just a single application using a simple Adobe Illustrator file or PDF for photorealistic results in minutes.
Photo courtesy of HYBRID Software

For example, learning to work with new substrates that are more available can lead to efficiencies in color management or 3D modeling (if we decide to get into flexible packaging).

Software can also alleviate personnel constraints. People are retiring and it is challenging for our industry to fill those needs. Why? Like it or not, we are perceived as a dirty industry. Utilizing more software will make us look more contemporary, with vibrant tools that will attract talented labor. We have seen companies transform themselves from male-dominated to more equally represented employee bases by implementing software that can more intelligently drive production.

Not only can adding software offer a way to reduce the need of bodies—it can offer ways to do things generally more efficiently—relying less on the tribal knowledge of experts.

What we are finding is that while the quality and production efficiencies utilized to create packaging have never been better, consumer demand and governmental controls for more sustainable packaging will certainly be important drivers for innovation. What does that mean for software? We will need to monitor those ink, substrate and press developments that will affect how artwork is developed for the press. It could be new color processes, more attention to the creation of screening to best place dots on a substrate, or just file development and proofing for more 3D software designs.

Flexography is viable today and will continue to be relevant in the future. With research and training from industry associations like FTA, exceptional advanced educational institutions, and corporate-driven initiatives like The Flexo Xperience Center, the future is very bright.

A lot of the new software and equipment will be developed to take advantage of flexible packaging alternatives. If overseen correctly, flexible packaging can resolve some of the go-to-market and product versatility requirements on the shelf. This has exponential growth volume potential.

The future seems to be welcoming companies specializing in digital flexography, with rapid 30-in. wide aqueous presses working with inks friendly with flexible materials. One only needs to look at coffee bags that Tetra Pak is offering with 30-in. wide film and paper materials.