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

FLEXO: Again, please comment on the following statements made by poll respondents and elaborate on how current/plate/processor/washout/mounting systems, etc., support the need:

  • “Adding automation in as many of the day-to-day tasks—software to machinery—will greatly reduce errors and miscommunication, which in turn should improve overall workflow and awareness to other key aspects of one’s position and duties”
  • “Digitalization will help steer future production runs by eliminating waste, reducing makeready times and increasing uptime”
  • “Automation and innovation are key factors to growth. Everyone knows it!”

PJ Fronczkiewicz, DuPont Cyrel Solutions: We absolutely support the use and development of plate making automation where it makes financial sense for the user. In addition, we strive to make our stand-alone devices—such as the Cyrel FAST 2000 TD—as simple and user friendly as possible through clever design, and easily accessible information and diagnostics. The backbone behind these systems—automated or not—is proper training and support. Here is where Cyrel Solutions focuses much time and attention to help ensure customers are well equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful and productive.

Tim Reece, All Printing Resources: Whether you are on team Mac or team PC, Bill Gates holds credit for one of the most prolific quotes in regards to automation: “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Sometimes it is as important to analyze and prioritize where automation should be added to an operation. It is always best that the fundamentals of each stage of the operation are understood, in the event that automation fails. Maybe one of the best examples would be adding an automatic plate cleaner (APC). The benefits are unsurpassed cleaning, consistency, minimizing plate damage, and reduced physical wear and tear on the employee. But, if the APC fails, one can temporarily resort to carefully hand washing. Given the same situation to an automatic plate mounter and the system fails, the level of ability required to hand mount/register a plate becomes extremely important.

The previous statement is not at all made to put questions into one’s mind if automating areas like plate mounting, plate making or even prepress workflow. It is a statement made for the purpose of awareness. While an automatic plate mounter takes away the need for highly skilled mounting personnel, there is a shift in skill required to support such equipment—either internally within the maintenance department or it requires heavier reliance on outside expertise.

On digitalization, for many years some have viewed other printing industries, such as offset and gravure, as the evil empire we must conquer. Arguably, our level of flexographic print quality and consistency now rivals these competitive threats. We have been able to achieve these milestones through innovation and automation, while somehow realizing that the cost of R&D needs to be balanced in order to deliver financial benefits to the CPC.

We must not look at digital print in the way we looked at other competitive printing industries. There are no “ifs” when it comes to some market share moving to digital print. This is more of a question of when flexography, when digital and when hybrid? Look no further than historically flexographic press manufacturers. Most are working on hybrid flexographic/digital if not digital press solutions. Just as we achieved a means of being competitive with offset and gravure applications, we must strike a balance and embrace digital and hybrid solutions, or fear being left behind.

It is hard to argue that innovation and automation play a key role toward producing a predictable product consistently and promoting growth. Flat top dot technology built into photopolymer plates with advanced screening technology and combined with LED exposure position us to effectively deliver the highest SID and fades to zero the first time and every time.

Automatic plate mounting systems apply these state-of-the-art printing plates to the sleeve or print cylinder, affording near-perfect positioning to the press crew, virtually guaranteeing success. Even plates that are being reused have been cleaned to near perfection, even in fine reverses and screens by APCs.

Miraclon: We completely agree with the poll respondents. That is why a large part of Miraclon’s innovation and R&D strategy focuses on automation—FLEXCEL NX Central Software and PureFlexo Printing are the most recent examples of how we’re enabling automation within the flexographic printing process. More automation in the prepress and plate production process reduces errors and can bring better consistency on press, therefore increasing efficiency across the whole packaging value chain.

XSYS Global: Automation in the plate making process greatly reduces the opportunity for human error throughout the process, while simultaneously freeing up plate makers to focus on other areas of responsibility—preparation of new jobs, maintenance tasks, trimming and mounting finished plates, etc.

The automation from the Catena line ensures continuous plate flow with high productivity levels, optimum consistency and minimum plate waste that can be created by handling damages. With the ability of preforming unattended plate making, a printer has the potential to make more plates with fewer or zero operators, and they can take advantage of utilizing after-work hours.

ThermoFlexX offers fully automated plate loading and unloading for any thickness of plate. Additionally, the imagers also offer a unique assistance for thick plates, all with the goal of ensuring a problem-free operation.

On digitalization, XSYS highly encourages thorough digital record keeping throughout the plate making process as well as the printing process, which provides an accessible historical log of how plates were made and how presses were run, which can be a crucial component of reproducing jobs, understanding productivity and efficiency, and troubleshooting errors.

With respect to innovation, it goes without saying. A failure to innovate, to keep up with the times, results in stagnation. In a rapidly changing and growing industry, companies cannot afford to be seen as standing still—this applies to all facets of the community, including consumable and equipment vendors, prepress providers and trade shops, and printers and converters!

XSYS is a leader among plate manufacturers in developing fully automated solutions in the plate making space. These innovations provide consistent, efficient, high-quality plates for the reprohouse and the printer alike. Catena WDLS and ThermoFlexX imagers are great examples of how XSYS is innovating and automating. The rotec High Performance Sleeve contributes to faster makeready and short runs with Easy Mount technology, plus greater efficiencies and print quality with bounce reduction properties. You can speed up the press, eliminate bounce marks and help increase uptime.

AV Flexologic: This is especially true in the mounting department. Being dependent on the skill of the operators leads to inefficiencies across shifts and press downtime due to mounting mistakes. Having automatic checks with image recognition that ensure 100 percent quality improves the overall workflow and helps reduce the waste of unutilized talent. The staff can be empowered to grow and take on more diverse responsibilities, and not be at risk of injuries due to repetitive tasks.

Our customers swear by the automation and digitalization of their processes. Eliminating press downtime due to mounting mistakes and optimizing the workflows to eliminate waste and non-value adding activities immensely increases uptime. In addition, automatic tape application makes tape waste almost non-existent and makeready time shorter, while ensuring great consistency.

At AV Flexologic, it’s even in our tagline: “We innovate.” We live by those words. Automation changes businesses to be bigger, better, more profitable. We have numerous patents on our technology and every year we continue to bring the best technology to the flexographic market.

Rick Mix, Fujifilm Graphic Systems: The increase of digital print in the flexographic market has made it necessary to look closer to options to be better in the flexographic plate department. There is an increased need for efficient, high-quality flexographic plates. The competition will make us better and more efficient. High-quality Flenex plates are ready for press in less than an hour.

Flexo Wash: With the ongoing labor shortages that are affecting our economy, automation has come to the forefront of the industry. The main reason is the savings automation brings to the printing industry, especially in regard to cleaning systems.

Consider that by automating a cleaning process, printers are freeing up valuable labor to help in other areas of the printing process. For example, instead of one person manually cleaning plates for an entire shift, automating the cleaning process allows that valuable employee to set up for the next job or perform another more valuable task.

MacDermid Graphics Solutions: Automation, wherever possible, is key in reducing redundancies, minimizing errors and creating consistency in your output. Automation to plate processing equipment is a huge focus for us as a plate provider and an equipment provider. Automation needs to be balanced with the human element, drawing upon customer knowledge and practical knowledge of the implementation process.

The more components we can control digitally, the more control we see in every aspect of the plate making workflow. We can work together with our prepress software partners in the industry to find the best solutions to optimize usage of artwork layouts on plates, and at the same time minimize mistakes that may occur. When the process is easier on the front end, everybody wins!

Automation and innovation truly go hand-in-hand. We have to not only automate, but continually try to build upon automation and ask, “How can we make this even better?” Customer and partner collaboration is ultimately the key to a successful end product, not just an idea. Solutions are the end goal, not simply creating more complicated materials. There has to be a pathway to a better future that is well-defined within even the most painful implementation cycle.

Scott Thompson, SGS & Co: Plate production can address both automation and quality in several ways. For starters, extensive quality checks are in place to ensure the plate meets stringent requirements for all aspects of the plate deliverable. It’s also notable, that the automation available today significantly reduces the handling of plates between the plate production phases. Gone are the days of manually moving plates from imager to exposure to processor which have been replaced by more “start to finish” systems.

Finally, by working with printers and press manufacturers, we understand the criticality of today’s sophisticated registration and press mark systems. Ensuring the accuracy of these is priority and supports the printer’s goals of waste reduction, increased uptime and automation.

Julian Fernandez, Esko: For packaging and label trade shops, premedia service providers and printer converters, we digitize, automate, and connect the entire print production process with software and hardware solutions for CAD design, prepress processes, flexographic plate making and print inspection.

Speaking to driving productivity in the plateroom, Esko recently introduced the PlateHandler, a robotic device connecting the CDI Crystal imager with the XPS Crystal exposure unit. Integrating the Esko PlateHandler into the system reduces the number of operator touchpoints, freeing up to 50 percent of time and enabling performance of other more value-adding tasks, such as quality control, plate storage and plate mounting.

The new Esko PlateFeeder-S has been designed to solve common issues. It enables distortion-free transportation of plates, avoiding damage when they are transferred manually from storage to the CDI. The table can be tilted to pass through doors and docked onto the CDI to ensure perfect plate positioning and digital connection to the CDI Crystal. Its cover sheet can also be removed to provide free access from all sides without static charge input.

Integrating the PlateFeeder-S into the setup also prevents idling between plates due to the operator attending to other tasks, boosting productivity further by enabling an additional plate to be positioned for automated transportation into the CDI Crystal immediately when available.

The operator only needs to attend the machine once within each imaging cycle, to load a new plate and unload the exposed plate from the XPS Crystal. Manual positioning is prone to errors and can be time intensive. But with the PlateFeeder-S, once docked, it becomes visible on the CDI touchscreen and integrates into the automated workflow, enabling the operator to position a new plate at any time during the 15-minute imaging process. Built-in sensors secure accurate plate loading, avoiding plate waste and further errors. The PlateFeeder-S eliminates 100 percent of the plate loading idle time on the CDI Crystal XPS, resulting in uninterrupted plate making, reducing system idling by up to 40 percent and delivering a 40 percent reduction in human touch points.

Mike Agness, HYBRID Software: Adding automation requires the ability to respond to the variability of each job. This necessitates the ability to accept and react to specific job data. The only way this can be done is by assuring very tight integration between production workflow and MIS/ERP systems, where the details of each job come from.

Digitalization—and the elimination of waste, increasing uptime and even reducing makeready times—is no better exemplified by the digitization of quality control and inspection systems. It starts with the validation of incoming files through powerful preflight systems and ends with tight integration between workflow and inspection systems. Communicating effectively to online inspection systems helps to best analyze which areas on artwork are vital, and what determines acceptable quality criteria.

Every industry grows with sustained innovation. Everything we have mentioned—integration between all business and production systems, creation of even more powerful production software systems, attracting and training an employee base, monitoring quality, reacting to produce new products like unique flexible packaging and substrates—all point to a sustained, innovative effort to build new automated systems.