Demonstrating Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) in use on a real-world packaging job has been the guiding idea behind some of FTA’s most memorable individual presentations and even entire conferences. “I’ve been involved in a lot of these projects,” explained Mark Mazur, an FTA Hall of Fame member, “but they’ve always been on a narrow web press.”
To that end, Forum 2018‘s “FIRST in Motion – Wide Web Project” took the beloved approach and moved it to new territory, following the soup-to-nuts of a wide web, flexible packaging job. The session, co-chaired by Mark Mazur and Dr. Malcolm Keif of California Polytechnic State University, featured an all-star lineup of panelists that included:
- Richard Black from All Printing Resources Inc
- Forum 2018 Chair Bob Coomes from Plastic Packaging Technologies
- FTA Hall of Fame Member Mark Samworth from Esko
- FTA Hall of Fame Member Steve Smiley from SmileyColor & Associates
- Sean Teufler from Harper Corporation of America
Bob gave an outline of what the team intended to accomplish: The objective of the three-hour Tuesday morning session was to demonstrate the FIRST methodology in a wide web environment while producing three different designs in 7-color expanded gamut (EG) in one lane, while printing the same three designs in traditional 4-color with two spot colors, all in one pass. “We wanted to take all of these things we hear about in all these sessions with FTA and apply them to our project,” he said.
Next, Mark Samworth then elaborated on that objected, explaining the job consisted of 21 colors across 10 decks in a single press, printing six pouches. Foreshadowing the results, he said that “the biggest conclusion [from this project] is FIRST actually works.” And in adhering to FIRST, he recited and discussed how the production run followed its five steps:
- Process Control
- Continuous Improvement
“There was a time when we had no specifications—we were like witch doctors,” Samworth recalled, thinking back to the pre-FIRST era.
As he concluded the 30,000-ft. overview of the wide web project, Steve interjected, pointing out that, by tying process improvement into optimizing for future jobs, a printer can create a full circle or continuous loop. “So that’s why the word ‘continuous’ is in there,” Samworth joked.
The Hall of Famer offered some additional details of the job, including its width (41.5-in.) and repeat length (20.625-in.), the colors used in each of the pouches, and plate stagger, before ceding the stage to last year’s FTA Hall of Fame inductee, Steve Smiley, for an overview of technologies used in the printing.
The first, CRPC-6—one of seven Characterized Reference Print Conditions (CRPC)—defines a dataset very close to traditional narrow web flexo and modern wide web flexo, and, he said, should be the aim for primary packaging. He added that he tries to tie each of the CRPCs to flexo, because it is the dominant choice for print.
Steve took a moment to espouse the benefits of printing to standards, explaining that global brands, because different packages are all produced in different countries by different plants and even different companies, cannot allow printers to print to their own custom profiles.
Spot Color Tone Value (SCTV) was calculated using optimization and fingerprint spot color ramps. “The aim for SCTV is a straight line—a 10 is a 10, a 20 is a 20,” he said.
The third, Color Exchange Format (CxF) is a four-part standard. Dealing specifically with the fourth part, CxF/X-4 Spot Color Characterization provides data for creating .ase files (Adobe Swatch Exchange format), from which a designer can use the L*a*b*/RGB data; it also provides data for ink formulation, tint information and process control tools. Steve showed CxF in use with two specific colors used in the job: Pantone 185 C and Pantone Reflex Blue C. “Ink formulation with CxF—it is so cool!” he exclaimed.
Using these three technologies as tools for better communication, Steve said printers can better satisfy clients.
With the details of the job and the technology and standards behind it covered, Sean Teufler took the stage to talk about the press optimization for the run. “FIRST is not a day-of-trial philosophy,” he told listeners, explaining that it is something that has to be practiced, lived and breathed. Press optimization, being the base of the pyramid, is not a coincidence; that foundation is essential.
Sean began by explaining that FIRST asks its practitioners to communicate among teams, pay attention to individual steps taken (“measure along the way,” he said, so if you don’t get where you plan to, you can figure out why), evaluate steps by measurement and keep within stable parameters. For further reference, he pointed attendees to Communication 18.104.22.168 in FIRST.
On the topic of ink control, Sean pointed to measuring temperature and viscosity, using identical Zahn cups to ensure equal measurements, and checking viscosity during the printrun. For further reference, he pointed to On-Press Ink Control 20.2.6, also in FIRST.
Ink metering, the “black hole of printing,” Sean said, is under-represented. He called attention to things like enclosed chambers,
low pressure and kiss impression.
Sean then offered advice to printers who find their conditions out of control:
- Examine mechanical issues
- Examine process controls
- Look at training possibilities
- Seek outside help
- Do not proceed with a bad foundation
When it came time for the pressrun, Sean was happy to report the recipe for the job was followed, a critical step to ensure this job (or any job) is repeatable.
Back to the stage, Mark Samworth covered process control. “During the pressrun, we weren’t anywhere near gray balance,” he said. The team used the H35 curve to adjust each color. “You’re going to use SCTV, and you want your 50 to print a 50,” Mark explained, as the move from Murray-Davies to SCTV has undone the old idea of printing a 50 to somewhere in the 60s.
Mark showed to the audience curves from both the curves run and profile run, and explained that, with no real changes to any variables, the unavoidable variance led the team to average the results.
Richard Black took the stage next to discuss characterization. “Characterizations need to be treated like a job from your best customer,” he explained, adding that it is a representation of a printer’s quality and not “just a bunch of color squares.”
The first question Richard considered was why the team aimed at a specification (in this case, CRPC-6). The answer was consistency and he drew parallels to real-world products like a Big Mac or Iced Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. The job’s fingerprint had both MC16P and MCWSI; after analysis, The ALC Group chose MCWSI for the characterization run.
The second question was: “What is the difference between running to a density specification versus running to a Delta E and/or colormetric specification?” Richard pointed out that solid ink density is a measurement of lightness and darkness; “it’s no good for color—it’s not a color measurement.” Delta E is the measurement that represents color differences.
Examining the Delta E for several of the colors, the team found values of 4.50 and higher for magenta and orange. That led to the third question Richard pondered out loud: “What are my options if we cannot hit the colormetric specification like CRPC-6?” Realizing they could not hit magenta still, Richard said the team took the values it was getting and instead made them the standard.
Other questions Richard asked and answered:
- How many pulls should I have once we reach our desired color? (three or four)
- How often should I do a characterization? (“More than once!” he exclaimed)
“Great! So we’ve done it—we’ve done the FIRST methodology,” Malcolm said, passing the microphone to Mark Samworth to go over the prepress work The ALC Group performed for the job. Based on the press profile, ALC went about converting the spot colors to 7-color EG. Of the 21 colors, four had a Delta E greater than 3.0. Mark showed the minimum GCR and maximum GCR for each of the colors in the 4-color version of one of the job’s pouches, calling attention to the differences and potential for dropouts.
At last, it was time to analyze the printed results. Looking at the Delta E values for various colors on the job, nearly every measurement came in at 1.0 or less; only green shifted, coming in at 2.4. Tints were a different story: Examining a handful of colors, Mark noted that the team was printing dark in every case. He also called attention to the spot colors printed with 7-color EG.
Bob came back to the stage to deliver what he deemed an epilogue—a printer’s perspective of the project. He acknowledged that it’s possible to get caught up in theory, but in action it becomes clear the process works. Two different separation methods were used and printed at 175 lpi, side-by-side in one pass through the press.
In closing comments, Mark Mazur recalled the various similar projects in FTA’s past. “When we’ve done those, we came in and we took over for a week,” he said of their prior setups. By printing at Plastic Packaging Technologies, where the company had money-making jobs to print, that was not the case. The group worked semi-remotely, with only a few of the team’s members at the final pressrun. “There is no magic here,” he concluded. “It’s measurement and it’s doing it. There are no excuses not to do this.”
In a Q&A after the session, Mark Mazur posed an obvious question: If the 7-color half of the job clearly looks superior, why isn’t every printer doing it? Steve replied that if a printer cannot print four colors consistently, they shouldn’t opt for more, and that process control is key to being able to make that leap.
Bob pointed out that part of the consideration is whether the job calls for 7-color or 4-color printing. “I think the whole world is moving toward expanded gamut, it’s just a matter of how long it will take,” Mark Samworth added.