Flexographic Printing Efficiency, Enabled by Plates, Plate Processors, Screening Software and More

FLEXO Magazine: Printers, as indicated by a far-reaching FLEXO business prospects poll, have resolved to rapidly respond to customer demand, accommodate surprise shifts in material availability, nurture skills development of the labor force, spend wisely and utilize all resources ever-more efficiently.

  • How do product offerings like plate processors, plate mounters, plate cleaners and washout systems, automated workflow solutions, screening software and plates themselves, support those goals?

Mike Agness, HYBRID Software: The essence of a good workflow software system is the ability to accept artwork and make it print-ready to the designer’s and brand’s intent. Part of this is the adaptability to any substrate and any timelines in a cost-effective way. A good way to assure this is to make sure integration to a number of information systems—most notably management information systems (MIS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP)—is achieved. Supporting production software is also imperative. If you can do this in a way that makes it easy—and standardized for operators—the better you are.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency HYBRID Software PACKZ 7.5 Wired and Color View
HYBRID Software’s PACKZ, a PDF editor for labels and packaging, contains a blend of automated actions and dedicated prepress tools. With editing and quality assurance functions, it makes designs print-ready. PACKZ enriches designs with priming and finishing separation, handles ink sets and object-based screening, applies trapping, and generates dynamic marks and panels. Quality control, including preflight with auto correction and reporting, offers detection of delivered bar codes, “compare” to find differences and reporting, and objectbased screening view and conflict detector. Color management, powered by ColorLogic spectral technology with a link to GMG OpenColor, provides document and image color profile control, and color transformation based on device-link profiles. PACKZ provides fonts, text and character recognition; images, graphics and external links; bar code creation and recognition; layers with associated PDF processing steps and content data; and can export assets to MIS, ERP and business intelligence systems. Users define templates for dynamic document design and connect live objects to document content or external data. It offers intelligent marks and info panels.
Photo courtesy of HYBRID Software

For example, when changing substrates, one of the biggest concerns is color consistency. You want to portray the same, reliable color to the consumer as you have in the past. Color management and the ability to control color under changing conditions is where software is important. A press can print pretty consistently, but you need accurate profiles and dependable information to match color accurately.

To assure all the color information is available when a converter creates a package, you need to store the information in an MIS or ERP system and be able to access it (HYBRID Software can). Of course, you must be able to modify and make color changes without interrupting the intent of the original color. Systems from ColorLogic and GMG can do that. With good workflow software, you can drive color to the numbers without the need to rely on “tribal knowledge.”

That is why it is equally as important to train employees on processes on all facets of print production that focus on cost and production efficiencies—those that utilizes stable software systems—rather than depending on the few in-house experts with 20-30 years’ experience.

Miraclon: Whether brands, converters or prepress houses, players in the printed packaging industry are facing extraordinary and sustained inflationary pressure at the moment.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency Pure Flexo Printing Data
Figure 1
Graphic courtesy of Miraclon

In a print operation, every percent of uptime is highly prized. The answer is efficiency and longer plate life… Innovative plate processes and performance reduce waste and limit press stops while maximizing the production process, yielding benefits across the whole flexographic packaging value chain. For a printer, eliminating just one press stop a day can save more than $60,000 a year (see Figure 1).

Improved on-press performance can increase press latitude and eliminate unscheduled stops, making each job more profitable and freeing up time on the press for other jobs, making a significant ROI impact across the entire packaging production workflow.

It’s no different for prepress production in trade shops. For example, using automation software to optimize plate layouts can drastically improve plate utilization, reducing the number of plates needed. This not only cuts cost, but reduces energy consumption and solvent usage, helping to contribute to sustainability targets. Automating plate layouts also reduces errors by minimizing human intervention, while delivering consistent plates on press. This means the savings add up in reduced press checks and on-site assistance.

Kevin Bourquin, Cyber Graphics: In photopolymer plate making, the latest generations of automated plate making lines are being developed and installed. The automated lines, like the Catena WDLS from XSYS, continues to eliminate critical handling steps that minimize risk, while producing higher-quality plates that can deliver higher levels of quality that CPCs demand from flexography. This allows more attractive jobs for those entering the labor markets to focus on skills that add value to our products.

LED-optimized plates like LSH and exposure devices like Crystal XPS are driving consistency and repeatability to the process of producing photopolymer plates. They do this by reducing variation, driving savings in makeready and helping come to color faster, thereby allowing printers/converters to take advantage of the setup features on the press that take the pressure off having long-tenured skilled operators.

MacDermid Graphics Solutions: These elements of the plate making workflow have come a long way in adaptability. Whether you’re looking to change the gauge of plate you’re using, how you RIP your artwork, or adding specialized screenings to achieve different effects—flexography is primed for quick turnaround on adapting to market changes.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency LUX ITP
LUX ITP 60 is part of the award-winning LUX flattop dot technology that provides all the benefits of LUX lamination, but with the convenience of flat top dotsright out of the box. LUX ITP 60 is a 60-durometer plate that offers near 1:1 mask-to-plate imaging capability, thus eliminating or greatly reducing the need for a bumpcurve depending on linescreen, allowing printers to expand the available color gamut and print a smaller dot. LUX ITP 60 is a durable and extremely low-tack plate, which is perfectly suited for long and clean running printjobs. It has been designed to be processed in either solvent or LAVA thermal processing systems.
Photo courtesy of MacDermid Graphics Solutions

We’ve observed the need for resilience in every aspect of our industry, as well as with every step of the production workflow. One of the largest strengths of flexographic printing is the inherent adaptability of the process. During a time when resources are in short supply globally, our industry is still providing great product to CPCs and consumers themselves.

MacDermid aims to provide customers with the ability to adjust and adapt their plate making workflow to meet their customers’ needs. Dual-processible plates are a key component in making this a reality. We have one of the most adaptable parts of the flexographic workflow. Plates can do just about anything we want them to, it’s just a matter of getting all the right puzzle pieces together.

Plate development is also adapting to advances in imaging technology toward the more energy-efficient, consistent UV LED-based process, which has also been packaged together with advances in automation. These automation advances combine high quality with high efficiency, which will drive further advances in resource optimization.

Tim Reece, All Printing Resources: Whether it is an automated workflow engine, an automatic plate mounter or demounter, or even a basic automatic plate cleaner (APC), it takes a specific task that historically requires a low-to-high level of expertise to, in effect, conform that function into something that happens almost behind the scenes in a very predictable, consistent manner.

XSYS Global: Plate making plays a crucial role in the flexographic printing process and printers rely on their manufacturers to create products that are dependable and can produce consistent quality, while keeping up with the laborious demands of production. As a plate solutions manufacturer, it is critical to stay engaged with the challenges that printers are facing and continually provide solutions to an ever-evolving process.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency Catena-WDLS_00006
XSYS Global’s Catena-WDLS is a washer, dryer, light-finisher and stacker that provides the highest levels of automation available today in flexographic plate processing. After loading a plate into Catena-WDLS, no further operator intervention or contact is required until taking the fully finished plate for cutting or dispatch. Among its features:

  • Automatic plate grip makes it so plate punching is not required. Additionally, there is no need for manual transportation of the pinbars. A cleverly designed pinbar system transports the plate flawlessly through the washing process and returns for the next plate
  • A sealed environment with efficient extraction ensures minimum solvent fumes in the working area
  • Advanced plate queuing limits the distance between plates, maximizing throughput for the highest possible productivity. At the end of the washout process the plate feeds directly into the Catena-DLS section
  • Robotized movement loads and unloads plates from the dryer sections into the light-finisher, with a rest in the stacker to cool before post exposures. Finished plates are automatically unloaded from the lightfinisher into the stacker after exposures, ready for collection
  • UVA and UVC lamps are monitored and controlled to ensure ultimate plate consistency

Photo courtesy of XSYS Global

XSYS fully understands this. We work with our customers and partners to find best solutions to the challenges that shape the flexographic industry. It is important to not only provide the products that support printers’ goals but also offer expertise, technical services and consultancy on plates, solvents, equipment, sleeves and adapters. We want to provide printers with the actual knowhow on every step in the prepress and printroom.

Today, automated plate making equipment, such as the Catena WDLS, allows for improved throughput throughout the plate making process by efficiently managing the movement of sheet plates from one step to the next automatically, allowing for a faster response to customer demands. By automating the plate making process, plate makers are freed up to devote resources to other parts of the process, such as preparing artwork for future plates to be made, trimming finished plates to size, mounting, etc.—thus utilizing resources more efficiently in the plateroom.

When equipment provides a consistent, repeatable high-quality plate manufacturing environment at the reprohouse, or printer making their own plates, that reliability results in consistent high-quality print results.

Through its interface, automation and safety features, the ThermoFlexX imager provides extremely operator-friendly solutions. For example, larger imagers feature automatic loading and unloading for touch-free operation, minimizing the risk of plate damage. ThermoFlexX 60 and 80 also feature the unique FlexTray, a detachable trolley that can be used to assist handling throughout the plateroom. Between the speed, ease of use and loading/unloading without taping, operators can maintain the highest productivity. When making wise investment decisions, consider imagers that are industrial build quality for the highest productivity and long lifetime. Such imagers are designed with an open system approach for easy workflow integration and allow customers to decide how they use their unit. An example, imagers will accept 1-bit TIFF files from any workflow or RIP. LEN files can also be supported.

For efficiency, the imagers offer features such as the option of a second imaging head for increased imaging speeds up to 12 m2/h. The multi-plate feature is a beneficial tool for busy production schedules or surprise shifts, since it allows for jobs of different resolutions or imaging methods to be combined easily on the same plate.

Thermal plate processing (like nyloflex Xpress) provides the fastest turnaround for a plate to press by eliminating the need for drying plates (for up to two hours for .067 plates). nyloflex Xpress provides numerous avenues for cost savings; most notably a significant reduction in energy consumption due to the addition of smart heating systems, the elimination of chillers and catalytic oxidizers and solvent plate drying equipment.

Woodpecker surface screening—such as Sharp and Nano—allows for effective surface texturization of plates for improved ink transfer on press, while also providing very fast imaging speeds compared to traditional surface screening applications on the market which require higher-resolution imaging. Woodpecker is an open system without any extra studio or workflow steps. A number of workflows are easily supported, with TIFF or LEN files.

XSYS manages raw material inputs through sophisticated purchasing practices to ensure continuity within our plate manufacturing operations. Products like nyloflex FTL help printers maintain high-quality print results with the resiliency built into the plate. FTL helps the printer maintain consistent contact (impression) with the substrate, allowing for better and more consistent ink laydown. This can be especially important when printing on high-recycled containerboard that many printers use today in their efforts to meet sustainability goals.

rotec sleeves and adapters are high quality and very reliable products that are produced with the shortest lead times in the industry and are fit for use as soon as they are delivered. Services also contribute to help printers respond to customers’ demands.

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

Scott Thompson, SGS & Co: Plates and subsequent advancement in technology related to plate production have greatly improved quality, speed to market and competitiveness against other print processes. This supports printers’ goals by providing flexibility in printing from a capacity/utilization perspective (not constrained to one print technology or solution).

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency SGS & CO Plate
SGS & Co brings state-of-the-art technology and innovation to market. It provides customized solutions that marry the perfect combination of screening, imaging and materials to deliver best-in-class flexographic plates designed to bring the highest quality for the corrugated, multi-wall bag and food service industries. A fit for almost all applications, this premium line can produce results that compete with other print technologies.
Photo courtesy of SGS & Co

The enhanced quality provided by new screening and exposure techniques make the print setup and production more consistent, which supports the labor force development by removing an often-challenging perspective of the process.

Julian Fernandez, Esko: Our corporate goal is to make it easier for CPCs and pharmaceutical businesses to manage their packaging, labeling, regulatory and marketing content. With our packaging management platform, brand marketing and packaging teams can increase their productivity, reduce costs and save time.

For the prepress department in particular, we are introducing collaboration and communication tools to speed up the process of jobs approval. For the plate making department, we have software and hardware solutions to speed up the plate making process with automation and waste reduction, while minimizing the need for user intervention.

AV Flexologic: We would like to break this down specifically to the last three items: nurturing skills development of the labor force, spending time wisely and utilizing all resources ever-more efficiently. Automatic plate mounting and robotic tape application and mounting systems represent a combination of innovations that are working to lessen the manpower burden and provide maximum utilization of skilled labor in areas where previously it took more staff to do so.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency RoboTAM 3 no back
AV Flexologic believes continuous improvement, continuous innovation and waste elimination are the three pillars on which to build technology. Automation is the key to solve the most common issues in the flexographic industry. The prepress department can be optimized and robotized to provide the best quality, consistency and accuracy. The RoboCELL offers the complete robotization of the prepress department. It provides robotic sleeve handling (RoboSLEEVE), robotic tape application (RoboTAPE), robotic plate loading (RoboPLATE) and fully automatic mounting (FAMM 3.0).
Photo courtesy of AV Flexologic

One automatic mounter replaces two manual mounters and at the same time reduces the full-time equivalent (FTE) needed for a shift from two FTE to half FTE, due to the high level of precision and efficiency. This allows any printer to increase productivity without being dependent on operators.

The robotic tape application ties into our processes to eliminate waste and non-value adding activities for printers. At the same time, consistency and reliability make these innovations a must in the future of flexographic printing.

PJ Fronczkiewicz, DuPont Cyrel Solutions: The pandemic forced us all to find creative ways to do more with less and to do the same with different. Situations that once would have been rare, full-blown crises became a normal part of our daily routine. While we’ve largely managed to weave our way through these challenges, it has not happened without having to introduce additional variation into our flexographic process—new substitute substrates and inks, newly-hired labor, etc.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 1 - High Efficiency LSH Plate
The DuPont Cyrel Lightning series are the plates of choice for LED exposures to achieve highquality printing across a broad range of packaging segments. Cyrel LSH is the photopolymer formulation for the solvent workflow. It allows high exposure productivity, improved plate quality and superior print quality.
Photo courtesy of DuPont Cyrel Solutions

To assist our customers in minimizing the potential impact of this variation, DuPont focused then (and now) on three key areas:

  • Remote support: The diagnostic capabilities of the Cyrel FAST 2000 TD Thermal Processor allow us to rapidly assess and predict potential issues before ever setting foot on site, thereby greatly shortening downtime or avoiding it completely
  • Plate innovation: Launched during the pandemic, the Cyrel EASY R family of plates with increased durability can offer printers more assurance that the plates can meet the challenges of new substrates and inks, as well as the physical demands of long runs and reuse. And Cyrel EASY Brite surface texturization screens can help provide flawless laydown of ink applied with high-volume anilox rolls, allowing printers much more freedom in their selection of ink, should they need to respond to a supply issue; not to mention reducing ink consumption to help preserve supply and reduce cost
  • Technology compatibility: Honored with a 2022 FTA Technical Innovation Award, Cyrel Lightning Plates—the first of this new platform of plates which are tailored for LED exposure—greatly reduce the access time of plate making with such systems without compromising the plate quality or consistency offered by LED technology