Prepress Optimization, Print Quality Management (PQM) and the Total Supply Chain

LED Plate Exposure

Imaging the tiny microcells inside of the larger halftone dots (Figure 7) is no easy task. To achieve maximum quality, SGS & Co has added a total of six XPS Crystal plate exposure systems to its arsenal. “Holding fine ink transfer patterns and small isolated highlight dots is ‘hit or miss,’ with bank light plate exposure,” claims Schoen. “LED produces the most consistent plates I have seen in 32 years of managing flexo plate rooms.”

Esko SGS Co Samworth Thompson Figure 7
Figure 7: SGS & Co has found that Crystal screens—dots with cells to the edge of the dot and throughout the full tonal range—are best for most flexible packaging applications.

LED plate exposure may be the latest technology to hit the flexographic plate room, but it’s no passing fad. Over the next few years, flexographic plate exposure will continue to convert from bank light to LED. That’s a safe prediction due to the fact that virtually all lighting applications are being converted to LED. The reasons are the same for flexographic plate exposure as for other applications. In the long run, LED is more cost effective, more energy efficient, and more consistent than other forms of lighting (see “What is an LED?” from FLEXO Magazine’s November 2020 issue).

Many countries are in the process of strongly encouraging conversion of all types of lighting to LED. Tighter regulations are sure to follow. The reason is sustainability. The high energy consumption of non-LED technologies carries a large carbon footprint—a footprint that can be dramatically reduced by converting to LED. In addition to the carbon footprint, there can be hazardous waste issues. In the specific case of bank exposure lights used in flexographic plate exposure, the mercury in the tubes is a hazardous waste and must be disposed of accordingly.

Supporting Converters

The print services team not only assists in onboarding converters to optimize their printing conditions, it also follows up with direct support to the converter during production runs.

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Figure 8: Chuck Schoen (left) and Rick Best stand behind the first XPS Crystal LED Plate Exposure system in North America. Installed in 2016 at the SGS & Co Minneapolis, MN facility, SGS & Co has since installed five more systems at locations around the world.

“We support our clients’ brands by supporting their converters,” states Director – Global Print Support Mike Butler. CPCs invest millions of dollars in developing their brands, including marketing, product development, and packaging. Good print quality protects this investment, ensuring their brands are represented on the shelf as intended. Product packaging is a brand driver, as it’s the first attribute a customer sees when making a decision to purchase a product.

The color and quality of the package have a significant impact on the consumer’s perception of brand quality. Consumers will question the general quality of a product when the packaging appears to have some quality defect and may avoid purchasing it. This is where SGS & Co’s Color & Print – Field Engineers are engaged to verify print consistency and adherence to specifications; while the packaging is on press, they apply expertise and tools to ensure the best, most consistent production outcome. Often acting as the agent for the client in these situations, the team is trusted to approve the packaging on the brand owner’s behalf.

Obviously, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges for press support. Remote press support combines technical expertise and webinar solutions to enable consultative press support in real time. With the proper guidance, communication and client engagement, remote support can be a viable alternative to in-person site visits. It’s not the traditional approval process, but provides the technical expertise required to ensure the best possible outcome.

Press support isn’t the only area where PQM programs protect the brand. A solid PQM program includes several key components to support color consistency. It requires a collaborative approach with the print supply chain aiming to reduce waste, increase productivity and meet brand expectations.

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Figure 9: An SGS Color & Print Field Engineer verifies print consistency and adherence to specifications, while the packaging is on press.

One of the most important parts, if not the most important part, of a solid PQM program is the ability to collect, analyze, report and track color conformance data. SGS & Co has developed a dedicated web portal called HUGO to provide a specific tool for program information and metrics.

“Tracking and monitoring the quality on multiple production runs over time, against established aim points, is just as important as assuring the success of that very first job,” states Butler. “It’s all part of connecting the value chain to meet the needs of all of the stakeholders.” HUGO is a secure cloud-based site, providing 24-hour access to all information and critical program details, including print assessment results, printer information, sample verification and specific analysis reporting.

HUGO is also designed to work with printers’ existing color measurement strategies. There are several press-side measurement tools available in the industry… meaning printers must support several solutions depending on a customer’s PQM requirements. HUGO aims to collect data from whatever platform the printer utilizes (ColorCert, Measure Color, Press Sign, to name a few), rather than attempt to dictate a specific solution that may or may not meet the printer’s needs. This strategy is designed to deliver the customer’s PQM requirements, but not force the printer into unfamiliar tools and applications.

IT & The Future

SGS & Co and its stakeholders have been major beneficiaries of the information technology revolution. Riding this wave, it has evolved from a trade shop (a trade-oriented manufacturing business) to a brand impact company (an IT intensive service business). “We’ve moved from a business where the image carrier was the final product to a business where guiding brands through the packaging value chain is the final product,” states Gonzales.

She continues: “There has never been a time in history where the opportunity to add value to the packaging supply chain was so great. It’s about understanding brand needs and connecting the chain.” The printed package will always be one of the most valuable assets to the brand—whether the products are purchased from the store shelf or online. The core needs of the brand will always be the same; the tools and technology will constantly evolve.

About the Authors

headshot Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson, SGS & Co VP technical sales and innovation, is a prepress, print and color management executive with extensive experience in all facets of brand commercialization and packaging applications. Scott has been employed with SGS & Co since August 2000 and has held positions in technical sales, national account management and print quality. He has a strong background in operations and technology with a keen ability to articulate complex problems in an understandable way. Earlier in his career, he managed the prepress department at Pechiney Plastic Packaging.
headshot Mark Samworth
Mark Samworth began his career with DuPont, where he held numerous positions in the areas of flexographic plates and electronic imaging. Mark joined Esko in 1997 and is currently focused on consulting in screening, calibration, G7, color management and expanded gamut. He holds 11 patents in digital imaging, including FlexoCal, Hybrid Screening, Plate Cell Patterning, Concentric Screening, Equinox expanded gamut technology and PressSync. He has authored numerous articles in the industry’s major trade publications and presented many papers at trade conferences. In May of 2011, Mark was inducted as the 49th member of the FTA Hall of Fame. Mark received his Bachelor of Science from RIT and his M.B.A. from the University of Delaware. He lives in Wilmington, DE.