How Flexographic Printers Can Seize Opportunities in the Plateroom Today & Tomorrow

FLEXO Magazine: Twenty-five percent of Flash Poll participants indicated that plate processors and prepress systems are catching their eye. Fourteen percent point to cleaning systems as a valid and likely purchase. Environmental controls, which many say include cleaning systems, are targets of 7 percent of respondents.

  • In contemplating purchase of such products in support of their pledge to automate, innovate and standardize practices, what elements of the plate/processor workflow systems should they prioritize and why?

MacDermid Graphics Solutions: The places where plate making starts—the imager and exposure processes—drive the ability to adapt downstream. The critical first step in adapting to changing plateroom technologies involves choosing an option that is flexible to inevitable upgrades, linked to automation advances and independent to the end processing technology.

Meeting these criteria, will pave the way for evolution on the processing side to serve your business needs (i.e., thermal vs. solvent plate making).

The second step would then be to clarify your vision of a future best-practice process. Solvent and thermal can both provide high-quality, consistent plate making in today’s environment of balancing eco-responsibility with efficiency and quality demands.

AV Flexologic: We launched full robotization of the prepress department for the flexographic industry. From tape application to sleeve handling and plate mounting, everything is handled automatically—in work cells with perfect accuracy, incredible speed and reliability. Companies embracing this technology have a great focus on sustainability, long-term growth, and exhibit maximum efficiency and accuracy, while not being dependent on skilled manpower.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 4 - Priorities AV FlexoLogic Current Workflow
Image courtesy of AV Flexologic

AV Flexologic believes that the only way to stay ahead, have sustainable growth and ensure the vitality long term is to embrace technology, automation and use for the good of the company, of the employees and of the environment.

Mike Agness, HYBRID Software: Integration with data sources—most notably the MIS system—is most important. That is the fluctuating piece that needs to be controlled to drive automation. Embracing PDF for artwork is also imperative because it minimizes the conversion of art files, which reduces errors and improves the entire chain.

PJ Fronczkiewicz, DuPont Cyrel Solutions: When it comes to automated plate making, here is where we must carefully consider cost versus benefit—as well as plateroom size, as automated solutions typically take up quite some space. Generally speaking, large plate formats made in traditional stand-alone systems are prone to handling mistakes that can be easily addressed through automating the more difficult steps, such as placing a plate from a washer into a dryer drawer. But even then, a significant volume of plates to be made would be required to justify the additional cost of automating these steps. We encourage our customers to lean on their suppliers to help them realize what options they have and what could best balance their wants versus costs.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 4 - Priorities EASY BRITE Screens
A bright white takes the right combination of opacity, low mottle and low graininess. Cyrel EASY BRITE screens help deliver a superior white by balancing opacity, mottle and graininess. To help printers identify the optimal point, DuPont developed the EASY BRITE Index, a multi-dimensional measurement that combines opacity, mottle and graininess into a single number. The higher the index, the better your white. It’s that EASY.
Photo courtesy of DuPont Cyrel Solutions

Rick Mix, Fujifilm Graphic Systems: The plate has to have high-quality print results. This can only be achieved as a direct result of a plate and processor working together for optimum efficiencies. Flenex achieves this with process screens up to 200 lpi and excellent solid ink density.

Miraclon: To build a robust, automated printing process, you need to have a solid foundation to build on, and this starts with the plate. Better plate processes and performance can reduce waste, maximize what you put into the whole production workflow and limit unscheduled press stops, yielding a wide range of benefits across the whole value chain.

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 4 - Priorities PureFlexo Printing comparison
Miraclon’s PureFlexo Printing enables a wider operating window on press, increasing print latitude at all quality levels for wide web, solvent ink, flexible packaging applications, and reduces unscheduled press stops to allow for additional profitability and press revenue capacity. It adds another tool to the toolbox for improving ink laydown and controlling unwanted ink spread. Benefits include:

  • Allows presses greater print latitude to run with reduced unscheduled stops and more consistency
  • Ink laydown is more uniform, with no dot bridging or signs of ink build-up at the edge
  • Greater tonal detail, readable reverses and digital data reproduction

Photo courtesy of Miraclon

Flexo Wash: If converters want to automate, innovate and standardize their practices, the first place to evaluate is their cleaning systems. They should ask themselves the following questions:

  • How much of our cleaning is manual?
  • What are our points of pain in the production process?
  • Do we have a lot of downtime?

Next, determine the return on investment that automating your cleaning process would bring. Flexo Wash machines can pay for themselves in a matter of months, with production increasing exponentially along the way.

Finally, remember that nothing works in the production process if the integral parts of the printing process are not clean. Plates only work if they are 100 percent clean, properly stored and ready to go.

XSYS Global: This depends, ultimately, on the volume of plates being made, the size of individual plates and the most effective size of sheet material to reduce waste generated. There are different options available for making plates of different formats (35-in. x 47-in. vs. 50-in. x 80-in., for example).

Plate Sleeve Processor Guide 4 - Priorities TFxX80_Imager
XSYS Global’s ThermoFlexX digital imagers offer the perfect imaging solution for the smallest to the very largest flexographic and letterpress digital (LAMs) plates available. Five sizes are available: TFxX 20 (25-in. x 20-in.), TFxX 30 (25-in. x 30-in.), TFxX 48 (35-in. x 48-in.), TFxX 60 (42-in. x 60-in.) and TFxX 80 (50-in. x 80-in.). Highlights follow:

  • Ease of use, fast plate setup, loading and unloading without taping maintains highest productivity
  • Open and modular system to integrate seamlessly into your existing workflow
  • Compatible with all open screening technologies » Offers the ultimate choice of resolutions. Any of the following resolutions can be provided: 2,400 dpi, 2,540 dpi, 4,000 dpi, 4,800 dpi or 5,080 dpi, with automatic “resolution switching” matching laser optics to file resolution
  • Dual laser head option for increased production speeds
  • Automatic loading and unloading for touch-free operation, minimizing the risk of plate damage. Specially designed to automatically load thick plates quickly and easily. No taping is required to run plates at high production speeds
  • FlexTray, a detachable trolley for seamless plate handling

Photo courtesy of XSYS Global

For small-format plate users (up to 35-in. x 47-in.), Xpress thermal processing provides a high level of quality along with ease of use, shorter press-ready time, and a significant reduction in generated emissions and energy consumption.

For large-format plate users, automation is highly beneficial—an “inliner” like the Catena WDLS, which combines the washer, dryer and light finisher into one connected machine is a great starting point for entry into an automated plate making workflow. From there, a fully automated plate making solution allows for even greater levels of automation with further reduction in human intervention leading to greater quality consistency.

Tim Reece, All Printing Resources: We need to determine areas for the greatest impact and ROI. Where are you experiencing pain within your company? The task of deciding where to start and how to invest can seem daunting. After all, this is not an exercise everyone is entirely comfortable with and certainly not decisions we make on a daily basis.

A good place to start is to reach out to your industry suppliers. Speak with someone who has an understanding of the entire flexographic process and how changes in one area ultimately have an effect on areas downstream, and even to internal suppliers and support areas.

Cutting right to the chase, with the exception of digital print which does not require a printing plate, we are faced with three primary areas of photopolymer plate processing. These three techniques include solvent, water and thermal processing. To say that we have seen advancements in all three areas is arguably the biggest understatement in this article. Here is a quick but powerful summary to consider:

Solvent plate processing has been regarded as a means of achieving the most optimal plate washout for many years. However, there can be concerns with in-house solvent recovery (distillation), dry times and VOCs. In short, there are solvent recyclers that can operate within an office space, capturing all fumes. There are solvent washout solutions that are non-hazardous and have even passed California Title 22 (fish test). There have been improvements to plate processors that implement a stage of the washout process to specifically remove the carbon mask of the digital plate, in order to avoid redepositing said material during relief washout. There are washout solvents that create such minimal swell that the plate returns to its original thickness in 25 minutes to 45 minutes.

Does this mean we expect to see a mass exodus from water and thermal systems, back to solvent? Absolutely not! However, if you are already using a solvent plate processor, you owe it to yourself to look into these technologies.

Thermal processors have continued to advance over the past five to 10 years. A process that was “good enough” for 120 lpi to 133 lpi has evolved to effectively removing relief material in ultra-fine reverse text, high lpi and with an extremely consistent floor +/-0.001-in.

Issues of the past of thermal processors not removing 100 percent of the polymer within screens have greatly been diminished. Both the equipment and our understanding of the equipment have evolved. Through understanding equipment limitations, we have been able to adjust exposure times to produce an optimal thermal plate versus mimicking the exposure settings used for solvent. Thermal and solvent processors are different animals and must be treated as such through the exposure optimization process. As thermal processors have evolved, they have maintained their two best-selling features: they process plates in less time than solvent, and they are very clean and user friendly.

Water-wash plates and processors may be the most misunderstood and underestimated plate technologies of the three. For years, water-wash plates were known for their longevity on press and quite frankly their rather poor print quality. In short, people felt they printed poorly for a rather long time. That statement doesn’t make for the best product promotion, does it? However, for well over a decade, the advancement of water-wash technology has soared while maintaining the resilience and longevity of the plates. Print performance rivals that of solvent and thermal processing technologies. Some water-wash plates have claims that they too have inherent flat top dot effects through their polymer formulations.

When it comes to throughput, you would have a hard time convincing a water-wash plate manufacturer that they are not the fastest through the plate making process. Most water-wash plates only dry 10 minutes, just to knock the water off the plate because the polymer does not come out swollen after processing. But talk to a diehard water-wash plate maker and the individual will argue that technically the plate doesn’t have to go into the dryer, as water does not affect the photochemical process, therefore they can blow off the plate and head straight to post-expose/detack. This probably shouldn’t be considered a standard operating procedure (SOP), since it only saves 10 minutes, but it does make for fun conversation.