Purchasing a Flexo Press: Weighing a Narrow Web Machine’s Risks and Rewards

FLEXO Magazine’s 11th Annual Press Buyer’s Guide looks at the path to purchase from multiple steps:

In this article, find out how to evaluate the most important factors worth considering when selecting a narrow web press.

FLEXO’s Questions: What demands and conditions prompt people to consider buying a new press? Given today’s operating environment, what options should buyers explore—conventional, hybrid, multi-substrate, short web path, most appropriate widths for planned use, etc.? How should they assemble and populate the wish list and issue a call for proposals? How can state-of-the art-machinery bring new efficiencies to the plant, lower costs, speed output, and revolutionize or re-energize production?

Consensus: Productivity rules! Look to grow business, increase capacity and maximize earnings. Focus on output, the ideal press, the new applications it will support, efficiencies and employee engagement:

  • It’s about investing in the technology that is the right fit for your business and your customer
  • Economic cut-off points between flexo and digital are blurring
  • Conventional presses last a very long time, compared to digital presses
  • The press is critical in managing printing as a controlled science

Offering Commentary: Kregg Albrecht, sales manager, label market, Matik Inc; Mike Weyermann, vice president, sales and marketing, MPS North America; Todd Kotila, director of business development, Converting Equipment International (CEI); Jeff Cowan, director of business development, Mark Andy Inc; Jakob Lanberg, director sales and marketing, Nilpeter and Paul Teachout, vice president sales and marketing, Nilpeter USA

Mark Andy Performance Series P7E
Photo courtesy of Mark Andy Inc

Albrecht: There is a dichotomy that is always present in any contemplation to purchase a new press. It is exciting and the impetus is to grow your business’ top line, bottom line and possibly both. But at the same time, you feel there is risk. It is a large capital expenditure and you need to make the right decision. You can’t be too risk adverse; you need to make a good decision for today and for your “factory of the future.”

Press purchases are driven by at least one of three conditions in your business:

  1. You want to grow your current business in your current market, and need additional capacity
  2. You want to grow your business with new product offerings to support new applications in either your current market or a new market altogether
  3. You are facing price pressures and need to reduce operating costs, whether it be in increasing run speeds, reducing setup times or reducing waste

In my experience, while one of these conditions may be the driving force, a new press purchase with the latest technology and advancements will typically address all three and find you in a position to be competitive, with capacity and the ability to grow your sales.

The first step in purchasing a new press is not to determine the specifications and options you want, but to determine the market needs, pain points and pressures in your business that you need to effectively respond to in order to keep healthy and growing. The focus should be on what your ideal press will deliver in terms of its output: the physical product, the new applications it can support, the efficiencies, impact to employee engagement, and the market excitement it can generate. Once you have developed a strategy on the “what” you need to provide to your customers (products and service), only then should you focus on “how” to produce these products and provide these services.

Photo courtesy of MPS

What is the best press technology—conventional, digital, hybrid—and at what web width, what range of substrate capability? The answer is simply—It depends. It’s not about the press itself that makes it best; it’s more about investing in the right press technology that’s the right fit for your business and your customers. All of the variety of press technologies have a fit and they overlap, but each does have a sweet spot.

Digital finds its sweet spot in short runs; hybrid is also suitable for short runs and it’s especially suited for short runs with added complexity in embellishments or spot colors. Conventional flexo presses are king for medium-to-long runs. But of course, modern flexo presses with the advancements in automation are squeezing into the short run space, and digital presses are becoming faster and pushing into the medium-run-length world. There is a great deal of overlap and outside of the extremes (very short runs and very long runs), the economic cut-off point in terms of run size is getting more and more blurred. The other major differentiator to contemplate is true variable printing, which would require some type of digital investment and longevity of the printing asset. Conventional printing has the clear advantage here, as the presses last a very long time compared to digital presses.

Growing your business starts with a well-defined strategy. Most companies do a yearly exercise in the form of an annual operating plan that outlines the company’s key goals and the tactical strategies to achieve them. This plan should consist of strategies and goals surrounding marketing and sales, operations, new product development, finance and human resources. Companies should also pursue a long-term strategic plan. This plan is at a higher level and looks at strategies over a longer period of time, typically over a three-to-five-year planning horizon.

Nobody has a crystal ball for the future, but any plan based on data and a well-thought-out strategic approach is always better than no plan at all. The document itself should be reviewed at least annually to gauge progress and make necessary adjustments. Key to any strategic plan is to understand your target markets, and the trends impacting your business and your customers. Once you understand this, you will be in a better position to make the best capital investments to meet these growth area trends or address gaps in your products and services to help you grow your business into the future.

CEI’s hybrid BossJet press
Photo courtesy of Converting Equipment International (CEI)

Weyermann: The demand for a new press can come from many different factors. Are you looking to replace an existing press that is getting older and not very efficient? Are you looking to grow in a new segment, like shrink or stand-up pouches, or does the existing customer have other lines of work it could pick up if it has the proper equipment?

Demands in our industry are constantly changing, which makes it tough for any printer to predict or forecast what it will be challenged with tomorrow. A wish list is usually created from current needs and new business. Our presses are modular, so if a future need ever pops up, we can handle it without any issues.

The decision on what type of press really comes down to the type of work that will be printed on it. With the increased demand of short-run, multi-SKU jobs, many are investing in hybrid lines. Hybrid presses can run at reasonable speeds with minimal changeover. You have the capability of printing, embellishments and finishing into box, all in one pass. Another type of investment we see for this multi-SKU demand is an investment in automated presses and smart presses with connection to the company’s MIS.

Width and speed are having a great impact on many purchases. More and more printers are looking to go wider to get that extra lane and increase productivity while bringing speeds to new levels, all while maintaining repeatable, high-quality work.

Kotila: It’s not uncommon that the top reasons for buying a new press include replacing an older piece of equipment or simply to grow business/increase capacity. Sometimes, we find converters face increasingly demanding customers with more sophisticated, higher-quality label manufacturing requests. Sometimes, a buyer finds itself with a shrinking skilled workforce that needs easier pieces of equipment to operate. Digital hybrid presses are about as sexy as it gets in the printing industry. Employees with videogame skills often take to the presses most quickly.

Cowan: When consulting converters, the common theme that drives the need to purchase new capital label equipment is most often productivity. During the evaluation process, there are many factors that contribute to what kind of equipment is being evaluated: Are you looking for straight capacity? Efficiency in short runs? High-margin applications? One, some or all of the above?

The current book of business will dictate what type of press will add the most throughput. A converter may need additional capacity or have a new application that requires equipment, in which case, it should be looking for a press manufacturer who can meet the requirements. Mark Andy offers flexo, digital, hybrid and finishing solutions, and a team of resources that can get you into the right equipment to maximize your earnings.

Edale’s FL3 Label Line, represented by Matik Inc, features AiiR (Autonomous inking, impression and register) for the highest level of repeatable quality and ease of use.
Photo courtesy of Matik Inc

Landberg: Converters are focused on replacing obsolete technology with highly efficient solutions—both conventional and digital. More and more turn their attention to niche areas, such as short-run flexible packaging and expanded content labels (ECL), avoiding the downside to commodity printing, creating a huge market for modern technology with multi-substrate and application capabilities.

The borders between different product decoration techniques are disappearing. Narrow web converters continue to increase their abilities and offerings in a large number of applications, such as self-adhesive labels, in-mold, tube laminates and shrink sleeves. Inkjet hybrid solutions, personalization, and event-specific labeling and decoration are gaining an even stronger position and additional market share.

Teachout: Our industry has transformed itself from a craft requiring a high level of expertise to a predictable science, based off data and predictable results. Innovations have provided a safer working environment for staff and more enhanced human interaction with employees and production tools. Our culture has shifted from a conventional manufacturing mentality to a smart factory, utilizing modern manufacturing practices and principles.

Narrow web platforms now are fully automated to engage with a modern press operator and are managed by wireless interconnectivity, offering smart and intuitive operation. There are no longer any knobs or handles on the front of the press; everything an operator could push, turn or pull is now done through automation, so all data can be saved and retrieved.

All press settings are stored in a job bank for predictable and repetitive operation, regardless of operator skill or experience. Adding to this automated advantage is the ability now to employ the methodology of Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) to a fully automated platform. Managing printing as a controlled science, where all variables are characterized and profiled, then applied to a fully automated platform, allows efficiencies to soar while increasing quality and customer satisfaction.