Paper Converting Machine Co Wins 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award for SteadyPrint

SteadyPrint Is a Hardware/Software Approach to Combating Bounce

While you literally put a Band-Aid on something—like a cut or a wound—it is never a good idea to figuratively “put a Band-Aid” on something—like a problem or a dilemma.

To put out a fire, you don’t point an extinguisher at the tips of the flame; you spray its base. To fix a ceiling leak, you don’t put a bucket down to catch the water and then continually empty it; you close the opening on the roof. To deal with a squeaky brake on a car, you don’t crank up the volume on the radio; you bring it to a mechanic and have it looked at (and wind up paying to have seven other things fixed).

“Putting a Band-Aid” on something is a short-term solution. It should be done when a problem can’t be foreseen, and only until there is time to find a real remedy to the underlying issue.

Paper Converting Machine Co (PCMC) had a similar line of thinking when evaluating common problems faced by its customers—specifically the persistent issue of bounce. “The idea came from the fact that every flexographic printer struggles with certain bounce jobs,” explains Rodney Pennings, the company’s director of sales. “The team at PCMC thought that if we could create something to help alleviate issues with that pain point, it would also help combat the challenges of shorter run lengths and printing higher quality products with a faster turnaround time.”

To fight that fire, plug that leak and quiet that squeak, the company created SteadyPrint, a combination of hardware and software that has shown in PCMC’s testing to reduce bounce and improve press speeds anywhere from 200 percent to 400 percent, while reducing waste by 35 percent. For the achievement, the company was awarded a 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award, the only winner in the Heavy Metal category.

SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award before 2
SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award before 1

SteadyPrint reduces press bounce and its side effects. Above, a pair of images from a job run without SteadyPrint; below them, the same job run with SteadyPrint. Overimpression and dot gain are greatly reduced.
All photos courtesy of Paper Converting Machine Co

SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award after 1
SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award after 2

“We entered SteadyPrint in the 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award competition because we recognize that it is cutting-edge technology,” Pennings states. “It is an innovation that we are extremely proud of, and we appreciate the accolades that showcase it within the package printing industry.”

Brainstorming to Beat Bounce

Press bounce is not something new to flexographers, and the number of remedies to it that already exist—bearer bars, job staggering, specialized plate/tape combinations—is a testament to its continued persistence as a thorn in many a printer’s side.

Pennings describes a design that could have come off press decades ago—“an image with full cross-web solid lines or heavy coverage at the leading edge of the print”—as a typical bounce-prone job, and says the problem is only compounded for those printers making use of expanded gamut (EG). “The combination of challenging artwork with process screens required to hit brand colors and the use of EG creates further challenges for printers.”

Looking to fix a problem that had both staved off previous solutions and was still finding ways to interfere as printers take on more complex designs, PCMC more than two years ago began work on what would become SteadyPrint. The company held “innovation sessions” where a team of engineers, product managers and customers brainstormed new approaches to beating bounce. Those meetings yielded various ideas, each of which was tested internally and at customers’ facilities. Through iteration, redesign, re-evaluation and repetition, SteadyPrint was born.

One aspect Pennings says was “fairly apparent” from the beginning was the need for a software component in addition to a mechanical solution. That hunch bore out in the final design of SteadyPrint, which is two-parts-hardware-one-part-software and can only be found on PCMC’s Fusion Max, Fusion, Fusion Compact and ELSMax presses. Those three parts:

  • Conventional blocking and tackling of mechanical design aimed at minimizing deflection of key components of the deck
  • A mandrel support arrangement that increases deck stability
  • A disturbance-canceling algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to “learn the electronic signature” of each job and “cancel out the negative effects of challenging graphics”

Put together, Pennings believes they “increase both deck stability and the printer’s ability to run challenging print jobs with greater ease.”

SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award press
The hardware side of SteadyPrint features specially designed print decks and a mandrel support system to increase stability.

A Trickle-Down of Benefits

Bounce is one of those obstacles that widens the gap between how a printer wants to run its press and how it has to run its press. To minimize the problem is to also minimize that gap.

“Bounce jobs lead to wasted time and materials,” Pennings says. “It takes significant time to find the best running speed for the job and time to tweak the job to run best at that speed. Often, the job needs to be run at a slower speed than the press’ maximum—reducing output and productivity.” In PCMC’s benchmark tests, SteadyPrint reduced waste by 35 percent and enabled presses to run anywhere from 200 percent to 400 percent faster.

Increasing impression is one way printers have compensated for bounce, however that can be seen as swapping one set of problems—those which are caused by bounce—for another—increased dot gain, excessive plate wear and decreased print quality. SteadyPrint eliminates the need for overimpression and with it, its negative results.

“SteadyPrint can print bounce jobs with a light kiss between rolls and keep that kiss impression setting through a wide range of press speeds,” Pennings says. “This gives the press operator the confidence to increase speed as soon as they begin to see a good, quality print.”

PCMC cites several additional, less-obvious benefits to its bounce-reduction system: less press vibration and noise, mandrel bearings that operate at a cooler temperature and continuous printing through different speed ranges without adjusting impression.

“We were recently told by one of our plate suppliers that our flexo printing quality is very close to matching the quality of offset. Our print quality is a testament to what SteadyPrint can do.”

Plant manager at a printer using SteadyPrint since 2018

On the software side, as SteadyPrint monitors a run and identifies those challenging areas of its design, it implements the disturbance-canceling algorithm to minimize or eliminate bounce’s impact on print quality, and provides the press operator with real-time feedback. “This allows the operator to visually see the effects the artwork and print adjustments have on the control system, and provides yet another tool to assist with finding the optimal print settings,” Pennings says.

(Not So) Slow & Steady

Because the effect of bounce is different on every job, it would take a wide range of runs to accurately average out how a solution like SteadyPrint fares in reducing it, as well as the side-effects of printing with minimal bounce.

One printer who has used a press equipped with SteadyPrint since 2018 says it has enabled operators to run a variety of jobs at higher speeds. “For example, one particular job that we now run with SteadyPrint has allowed us to increase our speed from 325 fpm to more than 500 fpm,” according to its plant manager. “It has without a doubt increased our speeds and increased our productivity and output.”

Internally, that plant manager notes that press operators and company management are “extremely happy” with SteadyPrint. But maybe more important, he adds that the effects are showing externally as well.

“We were recently told by one of our plate suppliers that our flexo printing quality is very close to matching the quality of offset,” the plant manager relays. “Our print quality is a testament to what SteadyPrint can do.”

SteadyPrint Paper Converting Machine Co PCMC 2019 FTA Technical Innovation Award waves
Real-time error feedback from the control system depicts press bounce before and after SteadyPrint’s corrective algorithm is applied. The readings are displayed live on the operator’s screen.

Becoming a Better Print Partner

To be a true “partner” to a brand owner, a printer can do a number of things. It can invest in new technologies and offer new capabilities. It can reduce turnaround time and bring ideas to shelf quicker. It can be active rather than passive by offering up solutions instead of waiting to be told about them.

There are also things a printer can not do, like not get in the way.

“Marketing and graphic artists are inspired to create artwork that is geared toward grabbing consumers’ attention and pulling them to the product being marketed or sold. The ‘runability’ of the artwork on a press is not the primary focus of the graphic artist,” Pennings admits. “Sometimes, the artwork and designs that our customers have to print contains straight, hard edges, which are a key contributor to bounce. In addition, the downstream converting processes sometimes hampers the ability of a printer to stagger jobs to minimize potential bounce.”

If neither the designers who work on a job before it goes on press nor the converters who work on it after it comes off press have to do anything differently—if a printer can make bounce a problem that starts and ends with it—then that is doing something by not doing anything; addition by subtraction.

“SteadyPrint allows brand owners to have more freedom in their graphic art design with less pushback from printers on the challenges around printing their jobs. It will have a profound impact on print quality and how printers respond to customers’ demands,” Pennings says. “Customers expect the color and printed image of their products to be unfalteringly accurate on their packaging—no matter how challenging those graphics are. SteadyPrint will enable printers to run those challenging jobs more efficiently, with exceptional print quality.”