Earlier this year, FTA member Transcontinental Robbie (where I am general manager), with the help of fellow FTA member The ALC Group, won a gold award in the Excellence in Flexography Awards competition for Transcontinental Robbie’s Tops Herb Seasoned Croutons/Italian Seasoned Croutons packages. And at Forum 2017, Transcontinental Robbie’s print was named Best of Show in the wide web category.
The job was printed on a wide web flexo press, on a film substrate using expanded gamut (EG) printing. Like any project of this nature, there were many people who were responsible, and the print quality we were able to achieve ultimately was due to up-front process planning.
Our partner in the Excellence in Flexography Awards-winning project was The ALC Group, who has provided thousands of brands a combination of technology and craftsmanship. For the past 10 years, The ALC Group has operated an in-house department—prepress and plate making—right in our facility. Although the company is located only 15 miles away from us, we felt it was important it was a part of our organization. When plates are completed, they are walked into our mounting department. The ALC Group participates in all our new job meetings and can easily step out onto the press floor to see how a particular job might be running. Closeness helps us from a printing perspective.
When we received the Tops packaging job, the brand owner challenged us not just to match the rotogravure quality it had been accustomed to, but to put together something to set it apart on the shelf. The brand owner had noticed there were close comparisons between flexo and rotogravure. We identified a number of technologies with which to experiment and, of course, we had to determine how to get there.
We manage many SKUs for the customer. We have also been successful producing jobs at a 150 linescreen default, day to day. In an effort to exceed our customer’s expectations, we decided to convert the job to a higher linescreen and see what it looked like—and of what our software and printing technologies were capable. The brand owner did not specify the 250 linescreen we chose internally to push the available technology and see what it could do. A 150 lpi job is quite adequate and comparable to rotogravure at arm’s length. However, we wanted to close the gap even more.
As we worked to “wow” the customer, the Tops job came with a number of challenges. Significant to this opportunity was the need for flexibility to run multiple SKUs per pressrun in EG. We needed this to be done while demonstrating saturated solids and near-solid builds, along with highlight detail in nearly all colors on the same plate. Thus, we had to be assured all areas of the tonal range be well executed. The 3- and 4-color text builds on both sides of the web required extremely tight registration—on the platesetter and press. We needed to bring together the best of the latest technologies in prepress, plate materials and tooling with world-class pressroom execution to address these challenges head on, showcasing the capabilities of flexography.
From an EG standpoint, some other projects we’ve entered in the Excellence in Flexography Awards would have been more compelling—and we did receive a silver award in 2016 for a project that focused completely on EG printing (vectors and images). For the Tops job, we did print with expanded colors in the vectors. Yet, what this job really demonstrated was all-encompassing excellence from a technical print perspective, as well as a color strategy.
Developing the Process
There were many revisions. We got there by pushing the envelope and getting our capabilities to the next level. We look at it the same way we compare racecars to traditional autos—Many of the technologies you see on the road today first appeared on the racetracks.
As a company, we have for decades attended Forum and learned what new technologies have come down the pike. We have also engaged in conversation with people around the industry, namely FTA Hall of Fame Member Mark Samworth of Esko. The real story is both Transcontinental Robbie and The ALC Group received training that allowed us to do the work ourselves. What seems pretty easy today is due to all of the background work and discussions we’ve been having for years. It really is primarily about process improvement, and it came from a lot of experimentation.
“We control our color space through a press characterization that is accurate for the conditions we established,” adds Kerry Thonen, The ALC Group color specialist. “The file also goes to QC, where we check plate curves and distortion. We look at the micro dots, highlights and shadows, and send out proofs to Transcontinental Robbie. Proofs are sent to the brand as well.”
Getting the prep work right, up front, is important when you are printing with EG. The challenge for us was made more complicated by leaping from 150 lpi to 250 lpi and making sure the dot gains and tonality were compensated for.
This is where we discovered what could break down in the process. What causes inconsistency? Making our work repeatable took more than luck. We went through the characterization process and identified issues at each stage. The urge might be to create a production target where one could build a characterization profile in one pressrun. Instead, we go through a characterization a number of times. In this case, we identified in the process a number of things that could go wrong, and changed a number of settings. They would not have been evident if we tried a one-pull characterization.
We use a 7-color Esko Equinox profile to convert spot color L*a*b* values into dot percentages of the seven process colors (CMYKOGV). Once the
preparation is completed, this works on a regular basis. We trust and know we have taken everything into consideration in prepress. We pretty much press the button to produce plates and just go forward. While there are different tasks at 250 lpi and minor adjustments, processing the flexo plate is pretty standard.
If you set yourself up in the right way prior to the press and maintain your tools, the process does not have to be any more complex than that. That’s what made 250 lpi EG printing possible for us. We have eliminated all of the “noise” from the process. Every job is all worked out and our pressmen execute on every job, every day.
The focus is on detail: The doctor blades, checking plate exposures—everything on process. If done right every day, 250 linescreen becomes a reality, something you can do without much difficulty. We are really talking about consistency and reliability.