Tomorrow is Right Around the Corner
As interest in computer-to-sleeve technology expands, manufacturers are preparing to meet the impending demand.
Despite availability for a number of years, computer-to-sleeve imaging has yet to become the established force in the industry that many predicted. packagePRINTING sought out industry insider Ian Hole, business development manager for Esko-Graphics, to provide some insight and answers as to the present status of CTS and when it can be expected to "take off." According to Hole, CTS technology is already poised on the runway and simply waiting for clearance, to bring package printing to new heights.
pP: We are just starting to see some movement in the flexo Computer-to-Sleeve (CTS) arena, even though the technology has been available for several years. What is the reason for this? Is it the cost? Or perhaps the difficulties of adding new technology?
Hole: As with any new manufacturing process, there are a number of factors that determine rate of acceptance and implementation. In the case of flexo sleeve technology, adoption is probably first and foremost directly related to the commercial availability of affordable sleeves.
Until fairly recently, there were only a handful of companies in the world that produced well-manufactured sleeves—and these companies were not necessarily the traditional, large-volume photopolymer plate suppliers. Rather, they were independent printers and prepress trade shops that made sleeves in small volumes for their own presses, or for very specific customers. As the benefits of sleeves became better understood, demand gradually increased. As the demand increased, the supply chain began to grow. The majority of today's new presses, both narrow-web in-line and wide-web central impression, are capable of running sleeves. And the big plate manufacturers are taking their sleeve technology out of research and development and putting it into production. We expect some significant announcements from the major players by the beginning of 2003.
It's a very exciting time, as we are finally on the brink of having large-capacity manufacturing and a distribution system for sleeves, making the technology truly practical.
pP: What doCTS capabilities allow companies to do that they weren't able to do in the past?
Hole: All things being equal, a perfect sleeve is better than a perfect flat plate because it is imaged, exposed, and processed in its final printing shape, while a flat plate is shaped for the press at the mounting stage. Sleeve-to-sleeve registration is very accurate, and elements such as open reverses of the image have already taken on the angle of curvature of the sleeve. There is no post-exposure print cylinder distortion—no plate stretch; it's already worked out of the process. This produces the ultimate, accurate image.
One of the most significant advantages of sleeve technology is that it allows flexographers to print continuous images. This creates a great opportunity for flexo in the flexible packaging arena. Flexo can now seriously compete with gravure for printing snack foods, pouches, and frozen food bags that typically have continuous images and only require a single cut prior to packing and sealing. For the same reasons, we also expect to see economic benefits in the wet glue, cut-n-stack label arena.
Sleeves eliminate a number of press variables and makeready considerations. Printers save mounting time. Setup and changeover is faster, and printers report they get to sellable color faster with less waste.
The future of computer-to-sleeve
pP: How have customers and end users responded to the new CTS capabilities? Are they aware of the benefits, or is it something that companies find themselves proposing to clients?
Hole: Print buyers are vitally interested in any new technology that holds promise for getting their products to the consumer faster. The snack food industry and other high-volume consumer product segments that utilize high-volume, wide web printing are particularly paying attention.
For that reason, we're beginning to see commitments from the major multi-national packaging printers. They are converting entire plants from flat plates to sleeves. Just one of those conversions can result in a demand for 15,000—20,000 sleeves per year. That in turn will be a huge motivator to the sleeve suppliers. As market demand expands, it will become easier for smaller companies to take on sleeves. Frankly, some will have no choice—the competitive pressure from end users will force them into technology changes.
The key is to learn as much as possible now. Work with your current plate suppliers; talk to your prepress partners; start calculating if, and exactly where, sleeves might improve your workflow and save you money. Find out from your customers whether they are aware of sleeve benefits. Be, so to speak, ahead of the curve.
pP: Do you see CTS as ready to take over the market and become the standard in the near future?
Hole: It's not an "either or" scenario. There will always be a big market for plates, even if, or when, sleeve prices are dramatically reduced, and they become readily available in large quantities. For one reason, there is a large number of installed presses that don't take sleeves, and may not be able to be retrofitted with an easy way to slip on a sleeve. For another thing, there are some mature, commodity printing applications where the investment in sleeve technology has little or no foreseeable return.