The Road Ahead for Flexographic Pressroom Processes

Productivity, performance, precision, process change, continuous improvement, speed, innovation, health, safety, sustainability, supply chain disruptions, new technologies, increased efficiencies…

The printing and converting industry has arrived at these and other pivot points. While all apply to the press, most step beyond it as well.

That’s the message put forth by Mark Andy Print Products VP Sales Tom Alba, who recently assembled a team of industry executives to assess the state of the industry, its ever-changing requirements, future considerations and the practice of conducting pressroom health audits. The presentation, carried live on Zoom and recorded as part of a Mark Andy webinar series, was aptly titled, “The Road Ahead.”

Beyond Alba, participants included Alix Guyot, applications solutions engineer and Joel Rivera, key account manager at tesa tape Inc; James Kulhanek, senior technical service consultant at DuPont; Julian Fernandez, business development manager at Esko; and Cheryl Cole, Mark Andy Print Products technical sales.

The six experts in flexographic operations espoused close collaboration in adopting new technologies and a strategic approach to develop products to complement digital efforts and foster that ever-elusive optimum productivity. Collectively, they called for consistent investment in research and development.

Little escaped their notice, from faster press speeds to improvements in press uptime; longevity of flat top dots to improved robustness of fine highlight dots, improved exposure parameters and longer-lasting plates; to surface screening and consistent ink laydown. Performance of the press, plates, blades, rolls lifts, chiller fluid and more were discussed as the team examined how flexographers most often operate in a pressroom environment. Action was called for, with the suggestion being that printers/converters regularly engage in self-examination as they chart the path forward.

Critical Communications

Fernandez summed it up when he said, “Red flag issues. Talk. Step back and take a look at the best way to make things run smoothly!” Emphasizing a single point, he stated, “Talk! It’s the secret to a successful audit. Visit all three shifts—visit the pressroom, prepress operation, mounting station, etc. Police plate making.”

He insisted, “Get the folks that create files up front to understand the entire process. When we involve prepress, we have the right technicians understand the implications of what happens when a curve is not run or a target not attained. Your mission is to find out where folks are looking but not seeing.”

Kulhanek expressed similar views. “Take a step back, refamiliarize yourself with what made you successful. Start fresh. Don’t assume things are as they were. Solutions and answers are not simple. Revisit the entire manufacturing process—audit it. Something may have changed. Consider re-benchmarking the process.”

Questions that Kulhanek stressed should be asked included: “Are plates lasting as long? Is the cleaning solvent the most economical blend, and did you compatibility test it with the plate? Are you experiencing poor ink transfer, dirty print or excessive plate wear? Can you eliminate waste and improve overall operating efficiencies?”

Among the advice Kulhanek rendered was, “Join continuous improvement projects. Identify pain points in the organization. Look at what is available.” He reminded listeners that unscheduled press downtime must be avoided and also observed, “One challenge faced today is training—numerous personnel changes, coupled with travel restrictions, require a virtual and augmented reality approach.”

Process Evaluation

Cole also called for disrupting the status quo and evaluating processes. “Things change in any organization—with or without our knowledge.” Recommendations that she voiced included: “Reinforce practices and controls. Keep best practices Where necessary, go back to basics—in prepress, plate making, mounting. Keep things on press on time!”

Offering further comment on the situation at hand, she explained, “Consider setting goals. Ask, ‘What do we need?’ ‘Are we expecting new customers?’ ‘New requirements?’ ‘Are we launching new products?’ ‘Replacing old technology—outdated equipment?’ Develop a plan and follow it to be successful.”

“In today’s environment, small orders mean increases in volume. Workflow becomes a key element in the production process. People move from three jobs to 20 or more per day. A lean, efficient workflow connects systems everywhere. Automation is inevitable. In the future, successful companies will have better processes and workflow. That will be where they focus investments.”

Julian Fernandez, Esko

Echoing the words of others, she pointed to the need to conduct audits. “Review what is working well. Examine daily challenges. Question whether standards, as they exist now—say, run to, or print by numbers as they were set up—is working properly. Investigate new offerings, materials, doctor blades. Address training requirements that speak to the ever-revolving door of new employees.”

Speaking directly to controlling variables on press, as well as getting back to basics, she commented. “Customers can take a plate—EFX—with flex red on it and come into compression with no need to keep readjusting every shift. Less impression helps eliminate bounce, chatter, motor gear catchup, and keep dirty print out. A simple change in drape of tape, changes print results.”

Similarly, she mentioned that coming up to color requires hitting densities. Then she suggested, “Clean plates prior to inking. Think about what is in the printing environment—greases, oil, handling—going over the surface of a plate with alcohol, results in much better density. Make sure ink is balanced. Make sure to use new seal metering doctor blades and clean anilox rollers.”

Guyot and Rivera also supported optimizing procedures. “Trialing is important to make sure you are optimized,” they said. “Change on the fly as needed. Customers have been using the same tape quality for years. It’s time to finetune printing quite a bit. We need to retest tape performance, based on changes made to other materials.”