New-Generation Plate Processing: Solvent Quality at Thermal Speed

Sustainability is not a trend—It’s a fact. While being environmentally responsible may have been a “nice to have” in recent years, now it’s non-negotiable and, increasingly, a legal requirement.

When it comes to solvent processing of flexo plates for the packaging market, ecological issues had played second fiddle to improved quality, with the flexo industry understandably driven by the need for results before emissions.

Figure 1: Sustainability macro trends affecting the packaging industry.
All images courtesy of Flint Group Flexographic

Reducing emissions isn’t a commercial issue any more. Being “green” isn’t the preserve of a few artisan brands that aren’t driven by revenue and success. All companies of all sizes across all industries are having to wake up to the fact that sustainability is the only option. Changing European Union (EU) and global legislation regarding emissions is crucial, yet even they can be one step behind what is the right thing to do.

Organic chemical compounds that quickly evaporate due to their low boiling point and high vapor pressure are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they can be emitted both inside and outside from products such as paints, solvents and carpets, as well as industrial processes on both large and small scales.

Figure 2: Sustainability Model

For the printing industry specifically, VOCs are legally defined pollutants that are coming under increasingly strict regulations, but not for regulations’ sake. Whatever our profession, we are all consumers too, so we need to trust the air we breathe is clean, and the water we drink is safe, at work and at home. As Figure 1 demonstrates, that translates to production of clean technology—in this case flexo plates—at close to zero waste, in a circular economy—one that lives by the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.

  • In Europe, the VOC Solvents Emissions Directive is the policy driver for the reduction of industrial VOC emissions, which incorporates the printing industry among other traditionally solvent-using applications. The limit values of the EU Directive are under review, with the most recent values defined in 2004
  • In Asia, an ambitious action plan to reduce VOC emissions by 10 percent by 2020 from the 2015 levels has been approved by the State Council of China, while the Central Pollution Board of India amended its Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act from 1981 in 1987, addressing increasing concerns about air pollution nationally, particularly in industrial areas
  • North America and Canada are vocal on the need to reduce VOCs, with air quality both indoors and outdoors addressed in the latest advisory documents from the US Environmental Protection Agency, with exact legal VOC levels varying from state to state

Social Responsibility

Most industries now appreciate that, to stay relevant and competitive, operating in a sustainable manner is crucial to long-term success. Innovations in the flexographic industry highlight how environmental regulations, such as those related to VOCs, prove that the constant move toward sustainable practices, in both product and packaging choices, is unlikely to slow down.

Figure 3: Achievable savings with latest thermal plate processing

There’s no good reason to wait until customers vote with their feet or legislation forces change. As a progressive company that has long been focused on delivering solutions to the printing and packaging industries that are “Better. Faster. Easier to use” (see Figure 2), Flint Group has created a solvent-free processing solution that unites the speed of thermal processing with the recognized quality of solvent plates.

Jim Rogers, vice president, North America, says, “The drive to act more responsibly by reducing VOC emissions no longer means having to sacrifice plate and print quality. As the demand for thermally processed plates increases, the promise of reliable quality must tie in closely with the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) targets of global brands, as our customers—the trade shops, printers and packaging companies—are being pressured by their brand owner customers, too.”

He continues, “This responsibility driver is active across the printing and packaging value chain. Depending on location, the regulation for specific VOC levels varies, but the trend is the same worldwide—and it will only get stricter.”

Figure 4: Energy savings

The obvious need for a solvent-free plate processing solution that could reliably compete with the desirable quality of solvent-washed plates, pushed the global R&D team to analyze how it could create an ecologically responsible alternative that maintains that ethos.

Responsible Innovation

Peter J Fronczkiewicz, product manager, explains, “The nyloflex Xpress Thermal System goes beyond VOC savings; energy savings are considerable too, with a typical 6-color flexible packaging job using three 42-in. x 60-in. plates seeing 50 fewer kilowatt hours consumed when comparing thermal to solvent. That’s equivalent to recycling 24-lbs. of rubbish instead of throwing it in a landfill!”

In general, the most modern thermal processor for flexo plates now offers converters an estimated 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, plus a 19 percent reduction in process energy utilized, a 56 percent cut in water consumption, a 2 percent reduction in landfill waste and a 25 percent savings in power for every square meter of printing plates manufactured (see Figure 3).

Energy savings (Figure 4) comes in at the equivalent of taking 11.3 cars off the road, eliminating energy usage in 6.5 homes, saving power consumed by more than 2,000 light bulbs or nearly 7 million cellphones, when compared to similar plate processing units.

Figure 5: High print quality lies in the plate

“While the energy saving is nice, it’s the impressive quality of the finished plates that really shines,” Fronczkiewicz adds. “No solvents! No waiting! No worries!” he decrees. “Almost no VOCs or vapors are generated, thanks to the clever heating system that uses very little energy. Plates never overheat and, due to the special plate chemistry, we have solved traditional issues like shallow reverse depth and unwanted patterning of the plate surface, due to the non-woven developer material leaving its mark. As a result, the printing surfaces of developed thermal plates are now virtually indistinguishable from the surface of solvent washed plates (see Figure 5).”

That said, today’s high-tech thermal processors deliver both the speed of thermal processing with the quality of solvent plates. So, when it comes to servicing all thin-plate flexographic applications for integrated printers and trade shops while acting sustainably, quality comparable to leading, less ecologically friendly plate processing solutions is now achievable.

About the Author

headshot Ozan Öztürk
Ozan Öztürk, global marketing communications manager at Flint Group’s Luxembourg headquarters, is fascinated by how design and function can complement each other. He is able to transform complex technical facts and highlight the commercial value they bring to the customer, in a user-friendly and digestible way, by thinking about the audience first. This white paper turned technical article serves as evidence.

Flint Group Flexographic in Charlotte, NC specializes in photopolymer printing plates, sleeve systems for flexographic printing, processing equipment and washout solvents. Contact flexographic technical and sales experts to discuss how the nyloflex Xpress Thermal System, which incorporates the technologies discussed in this article, can support corporate social responsibility, as well as your print requirements.