Technology Solutions for Challenging Trends
Packaging is becoming more complex, as printers and converters are being challenged to take decoration techniques beyond just long runs of ink on a substrate. Run lengths are decreasing, turnaround times are getting shorter, and more pressure than ever is being placed on color consistency and eye-catching embellishments.
As these packaging trends have led to significant challenges to overcome for printers and converters, the rise of digital printing technology has provided a new option for jobs that would have once created bottlenecks in conventional production. However, as these pressures have led packaging companies to rethink their operations, offset and flexographic equipment suppliers have given their own technology a boost, revamping conventional printing processes to be highly competitive in the evolving packaging landscape.
As Doug Schardt, director of product management for Komori America Corporation explains, when producing packaging with more complexity in a tightly constrained environment, printers and converters need to rely on equipment that can mechanically handle tasks that were once done manually.
“We’re making the presses more intelligent these days than they used to be,” Schardt says. “Rather than just be a machine that would do what the operator would command it to do via a button push, today the machines are proactively doing many of those tasks automatically.”
An Unconventional Approach to Short Runs
While each individual packaging segment faces specific challenges, one challenge that has proven to be a widespread concern over the past several years is the sharp decrease in run lengths. In fact, according to “Understanding and Mitigating Packaging Industry Business Challenges,” a 2018 report from Packaging Impressions and NAPCO Research, shorter runs and increased SKUs are among the most pressing challenges printers and converters face. Out of a survey of 155 package printers spanning all packaging segments, 51% stated that “Keeping up with decreasing run sizes/SKU proliferation” is among their top three operational challenges.
Though the emergence of digital printing has provided printers with a welcome solution for short run lengths, another viable technique to implement is highly automated conventional technology.
For example, the offset printing process has made a significant transition from the press relying on the operator to carry out each individual task, to the operator relying on the press to perform its necessary functions. Processes such as setting up the feeder, infeed, printing pressures, and making ink key adjustments were all reliant on manual intervention as a job ran through the press. Depending on the skill of the operator, printers and converters were subjected to higher or lower material waste and potential defects, along with the critical component of actual time versus quoted time to run the job. However, with these processes automated internally by the press, makeready times are drastically reduced, allowing printers to push more jobs through the press.
“Before, the time a job took was truly dependent on an operator,” Clarence Penge, VP of sheetfed product management at Heidelberg, says. “Today, on the WallScreen, you’ll see that job time and how long it’s going to take for that makeready to be completed. It’s counting down because it’s carrying out the task.”
For Heidelberg, the Intellistart 2 feature available on its sheetfed offset presses drives the automation of all of these formerly long processes, such as a complete changeover, including plate changing, while washing the ink rollers and changing out an anilox roller. Most important, Penge says, is that Intellistart carries them out all at the same time. Rather than having an operator manually instigate them, the press does, with the operator only stepping in when the process needs to be stopped. Heidelberg has dubbed this its “Push to Stop” functionality due to the autonomous manufacturing approach. The operator can remain hands-off from the process until it is time to end the run, or a navigated approach can be implemented as indicated by Intellistart. For example, the press may indicate the operator must physically remove the ink from the ink fountain at this time during the process.
Similarly, Koenig & Bauer’s ErgoTronic AutoRun feature for its Rapida line of sheetfed offset presses provides automated processing of important print production steps. The operator is able to determine the desired makeready steps, process sequences, and production settings.
“Koenig & Bauer has developed ErgoTronic AutoRun for the Rapida sheetfed press allowing for key automation features to operate simultaneously throughout the makeready process on every job programmed in the ErgoTronic console,” Walter Chmura, VP of technical sales for Koenig & Bauer, said in a written response. “Koenig & Bauer has seen a 50% reduction in setup time when the printer has installed a highly automated Rapida sheetfed press in their manufacturing facilities.”
Automation has had a similar impact in the flexographic world, with shorter runs for labels and flexible packaging in high demand. According to Steve Schulte, VP of sales and marketing for Mark Andy, some of the innovations on the latest flexographic presses include job memory, in which the exact settings of a job can be reinstated no matter how far removed the press is from the last time the job was performed.
Additionally, Schulte explains that press operators do not need to have as much influence over color consistency as in the past, due to the press’s ability to hold its settings during a run.
“Once impression is set and once inking is set, it does not fluctuate throughout the start of the run, through higher speeds, slower speeds or when you put the job on in two months or two years from now,” he says. “That’s a stable, repeatable process that operators have down.”
Advancements Extending Beyond the Press
While the press itself may be the first place to look to solve printing challenges stemming from the latest trends in the industry, the components that comprise the other attributes of conventional printing have also undergone significant advancements that have led to more robust printing.
In flexography, the work that has been done to plates to get them to print more vibrant and consistent images, while being able to keep up with increasing press speeds, has helped take flexo from a technology that was considered to be an economical approach to printing to one that can compete on the same level as offset and gravure.
One example of flexo plate advancement has come in the form of flat-top dots, says Jason Cagle, North American Account Manager for MacDermid Graphics Solutions, an Atlanta-based flexo plate manufacturer. Cagle explains that flat-top dots were once the standard in the industry through analog plate making, but when digital platemaking was introduced, many flexographic printers were drawn toward having round top dots on their plates, due to their ability to produce substantially lower dot gain in the highlight region at kiss impression.
However, as round top dot plates began to take hold, Cagle explains that printers began to see inconsistencies from run to run. As an example, he says that if a press operator on one shift is producing the job properly, and an operator on a subsequent shift increases the pressure of the plate on the substrate, the consistency of the job could be impacted by noticeable dot gain.
“We realized that there was a need in the marketplace for the quality you would achieve with a highlight dot of a round top plate at kiss impression, yet the consistency you would achieve with a flat-top plate,” Cagle says. “This is why we came out with a lamination technique, known as LUX lamination, that created a flat-top solution from a round-top plate. We then later released a flat-top out of the box product family called LUX ITP.”
Not only does a flat-top plate provide consistency, but flat-top plates also have the ability to hold much more detail in a highlight region, providing the user with little to no bump in their highlight dot size, like what would occur with a round-top plate.
From an efficiency standpoint, Cagle explains that advancements in how plates are made are having an impact on flexographic printers’ ability to meet the demands of fast turnaround times. The rise of thermal processing, he says, as compared to solvent-based techniques, can get a plate on press and operational much faster.
Unlike solvent processes, Cagle says that with thermal processing, the approximately two-hour dry times associated with solvent washout techniques can be eliminated. In many instances, printers utilizing thermal platemaking can have a plate on press within two hours from receiving the image file. Despite the efficiency gains, however, Cagle says that printers may be hesitant to make the switch from solvent to thermal platemaking, largely due to concerns over the print quality of thermal plates. While Cagle admits that quality was lacking when the technology was first introduced, the difference has become negligible over the last 15 years.
“With today’s technology for thermal processors, we’ve closed the gap on quality between solvent and thermal, so there really is no downside to thermal,” Cagle says. “It’s just a different way to peel the onion.”
While the press components that contribute to print production have enjoyed technological advancements in recent years, the systems that monitor production have done the same. Electronic vision and inspection systems, for example, can be implemented into a press to help mitigate the potential for errors to slip through in an evolving print environment with faster run speeds and more jobs to produce.
What makes Komori presses particularly powerful, Schardt explains, is how they take on oversight of several tasks automatically.
“You have the initial software getting you to color,” he says. “Then the camera inspection system is performing automatic registration and keeping you in color with constant adjustments, beyond just defect detection. Between the software and cameras, the press is doing all the things a person would do and now we have the person as more of an overseer.”
Introducing the State of the Art
As technology becomes more complex, and the stakes for the output printers and converters are producing increase, it’s imperative for them to instill a tightly controlled production environment. Catherine Haynes, director of digital solutions and training for All Printing Resources, a Glendale Heights, Ill.-based provider of flexographic services and solutions, refers to this as process control.
In the day-to-day operations of many print shops, Haynes says it’s often easy to get bogged down in attempting to mitigate problems via various “band-aids,” which generally only serve as a temporary solution. As process control tools and software solutions continue to improve collecting meaningful data, she foresees the wave of the future being improvements for data analysis. Collecting the data is step one, but printers need to review that data and make sense of what it is telling them. This will give printers the details they need to make informed decisions based on precisely what is happening within their facility. Additionally, she says, that with overall industry data being collected, printers can also compare themselves against competition and adjust their operations accordingly.
“I think the next phase of this is going to be data analytics with better ways to take all this data we’re gathering from process control and being able to more easily dive into that data for informed root cause analysis based on real data,” Haynes says. “The same way we’re managing color by the numbers, we’re going to start managing troubleshooting by the numbers.”
But at its core, Penge says the most important attribute a press can have is the ability to keep running, avoiding unplanned downtime and maintenance. In addition to the latest conventional printing presses being able to automatically make adjustments throughout print runs, conduct makeready processes, and catch potentially costly errors, he says Heidelberg Assistant with internal predictive monitoring capabilities are key to keeping the wheels turning and printers profitable.
“There are components [of a press] that are wearing or have the potential for failure based on temperature or based on how it’s acting,” he says. “We’re monitoring many of those and notifying the customer so repairs can be done. Maintenance can be done when it’s scheduled, rather than when it’s unscheduled and people have to deal with the unplanned downtime. That’s the Achilles heel of the packaging printer — dealing with unscheduled downtime. And this drives up the net output.”