Thomas Dahbura doesn’t implement technology just because it wins awards. “But it sure doesn’t hurt,” says the Hub Labels president.
Dahbura, whose Hub Labels itself received a 2020 FTA Sustainability Excellence Award, says his company has been an active FTA member for as long as he can remember. “We’re inspired by the [FTA Excellence in Flexography Awards] winners and educated by the FTA Technical Innovation Award winners.” So, when it came time to implement technology with the goal of reaching offset and digital print quality, it was natural for Hub Labels to look to the best prints in FTA’s annual competition.
Simultaneously implementing two award-winning technologies—Esko’s XPS Crystal plate exposure (a 2017 Technical Innovation Award recipient) and the company’s Print Control Wizard (a 2019 Technical Innovation Award recipient)—is proving to be the right move. Print quality is virtually indistinguishable from offset and digital.
Hub Labels has historically been a proponent of pioneering advances in the label printing industry, having been among the first to introduce 4-color process, computer-to-plate technology, digital printing, servo-driven presses, linerless labels for skin pack trays and more. As a result, it has grown to be one of the largest single-location label companies in the US.
“We’ve long debated whether flexographic print quality was more closely related to prepress technology or to press technology,” says Dahbura. “We’re now finding it lies right in between.” He adds, “We have been making ongoing investments in both prepress and press… Crystal Screening and LED plate exposure helps us get our money’s worth from the investments we’ve already made.”
Photos courtesy of Hub Labels
“Plate exposure is the link between prepress and press,” explains Jim Shultz, digital integration specialist with Hub Labels consumables supplier Mark Andy. “You can have the best prepress technology and press equipment in the world, but if you don’t have a way to expose a plate with the highest possible quality, you’ll never rival offset or digital print quality.”
Bud and Mary Dahbura—Thomas’ parents—moved from Hagerstown, MD to El Salvador to serve the emerging label market in the early 1970s. After several years of label success in El Salvador, the couple realized the country was on the verge of civil war and decided to move back to Hagerstown. They started Hub Labels with a single press, which soon turned to two and then four, with a growing number of employees.
After growing out of two locations, the Dahburas built their first dedicated facility in the mid 1980s. The existing location on Shawley Drive has been expanded four times to its present size of 110,000 sq. ft. and the number of presses now tops 20.
Hub Labels serves three primary markets: linerless labels, pressure-sensitive labels and direct mail solutions. “We’re seeing demands for increased quality and reduced turnaround time in all three segments,” reveals Dahbura. “Of course, these demands are diametrically opposed, so pressing my organization to continually work harder was not an option.”
Dahbura adds, “We needed to work smarter.” While the end use functions in the three segments are very different, in terms of color quality, the technical differences are quite small. “It’s basically just a different substrate,” reflects QC Director Jesse Hood. “The key is to be able to make adjustments in prepress to compensate for the color difference caused by the substrates and press conditions.”
In the mid 1990s, Hub Labels implemented digital prepress and was one of the first label companies to install a digital plate imager. The backbone of today’s prepress department is an automated workflow system aimed at reducing turnaround time. “Like most label printers, we used to do everything manually in Adobe Illustrator,” recalls Prepress Manager Terry Kent. “We’ve been engaged in a continuous improvement process to automate as many tasks as possible.”
Automated tasks include step and repeating, trapping, screening and making contract approval-quality proofs. Hood offers, “It’s really the greater predictability of the Crystal Screening and the XPS plate exposure that makes for a near perfect proof-to-press match. It has everyone thinking we have new proofing technology.”
Hood, a student of quality management and a person who loves to tinker with color and QC tools, freely admits that he couldn’t have gotten Hub Labels to this point alone and cites the value of partners. “After setting up the hardware and software, Esko assisted in conducting screen optimization tests using the Print Control Wizard, fingerprinting the press to match G7, and profiling the press to facilitate matching our proofer to our press. Technicians also worked hand in hand with Mark Andy, which has a lot of experience with the thermal processible plate materials that Hub is using.”
Dahbura, who collects detailed information to make decisions on everything from heating and air conditioning to ink mixing, echoes the statement. “We partner with suppliers who will have our back. If we run into problems, we know they will be there.” He gives an example and points to the sustainability statement featured on the corporate website.
“We’re committed to using thermal-processed plates instead of solvent-processed plates. We initially implemented thermal because of the shorter throughput time. But now it goes beyond that. There’s a belief that solvent plates produced better quality than thermal plates. We believe these two FTA award-winning technologies change all of that. They are equalizers… they make thermal plates as good as any solvent plates.”
Print Control Wizard is three technologies in one. First, it generates test targets that are printed on press and analyzed for optimum screening parameters. Second, it generates curves to be used in the RIP. Third, it generates halftone screens—advanced halftone screens whose parameters are optimized for the specific printing conditions. Screens could be categorized as “transitional” or “hybrid” screens. They are AM screens (with or without ink receptive surface patterns) throughout most of the range, but transition to FM dots in the highlight.
On the optimization tests at Hub Labels, the Print Control Wizard chose a 175 lpi screen with a 19-pixel FM dot (about 25-µ. at 4,000 dpi) in the highlight.
Production Manager John Potterfield recalls, “PCW also recommended smaller FM dot sizes of 12 pixels and 16 pixels, but we saw no reason to go smaller than a 19-pixel dot.” FM highlight dots in the range of 19 pixels or more can cause a grainy appearance when exposed on bank light, yet they looked very smooth when exposed on the unit at Hub Labels.
Potterfield continues: “Our logic was to use the largest FM dot that does not create a grainy appearance. We could have chosen a 12-pixel FM spot and we could have even moved up to 200 lpi, but as production manager, I’m looking for stability. If the 19-pixel FM highlight dot appears no grainier to the eye than the 12-pixel FM highlight dot, I’m going with the larger, more stable option.”
LED plate exposure differs from conventional plate exposure in that it uses solid-state UV LED lights instead of UV mercury vapor fluorescent tubes to expose the flexographic printing plate. More stable output, more uniform illumination, less heat, longer life and lower energy costs are just a few of the benefits.
Hub Labels’ Crystal XPS 4835 exposure unit is directly connected to its new Crystal CDI 4835—two pieces of hardware designed to seamlessly connect. Time is constant. Plate maker Kirk Eiklerberger reflects, “I auto load and auto unload the plate on the CDI, then slide the plate to the XPS plate exposure unit and press the start button… It’s so simple, I never want to go back to bank light.”
XPS Crystal LED exposure has been adopted by the US’ largest premedia companies, as well as many wide web film printers. It’s adoption in narrow web flexography is relatively new.
Proof in Pressroom
Potterfield and Lead Pressman Jason Trenton are thrilled with the way the new plates perform on press. Potterfield recalls, “As we went through the sequence of press tests, it became more and more apparent that we were moving into a whole new quality level.
“The curves test—with the offset separations, downloaded directly from the Idealliance website—was a real eye opener,” he notes. “With dropouts and fades to zero everywhere, and no ‘flexography correction’ at all, they printed beautifully and looked just like high-end offset.” Trenton adds, “The plates come up to color faster and print cleaner than our old bank light plates. These are differences that our press operators notice and appreciate.”
Dahbura says, “It’s LED plate exposure that drives our new level of print quality. The same screens exposed with bank light don’t show the same quality… the difference is the LED plate exposure.”
He elaborates on points made emphasizing Hub Labels’ core business strategy. “In the end, all investment decisions are business decisions. High-end label printing has become a technology-driven business. Investments are required to stay ahead of the curve. Making the right choice is critical to business success.”