FLEXO: Lasting impressions

21 January 2010

With a firm hold over the packaging print market, predictions of flexo’s imminent displacement in the short run are proving to be premature. Sam Cole discovers why

It is estimated that flexo accounts for around 40% of all packaging print produced worldwide in terms of value, and a whopping 80% of the flexible packaging sector, currently valued at just under €50 billion (source: the Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS)).

Flexo’s appeal is its versatility to print onto a wide range of absorbent, non-absorbent, flexible and rigid substrates. Flexible and straightforward to integrate into conversion lines, it also ticks most of the eco-friendly boxes required by brand owners’ sensitivity to consumer opinion. By whatever criteria it is assessed, flexo has consistently proved itself to be the most cost-effective technology for managing virtually all of the special colours and tricks of the trade with which it has been challenged: literally, a preferred process for all reasons.

What has threatened to shake its equilibrium, however, is the supply chain driven trend towards shorter print runs to ease pressure off inventory levels and, equally as important, to keep products at the forefront of an over-serviced consumer mind-set by continuous on-shelf differentiation. It is an apparent chink in flexo’s armour that digital print – requiring no more change-over or makeready than the press of a button - has been ideally positioned to exploit; especially so in the self-adhesive labelling sector, where it now outstrips its established competition in terms of new press installations.

Flexo may well eventually mature into a production process that will inevitably be superseded – as letterpress was by offset, and as gravure arguably has been by flexo itself – or far more probably, become fully assimilated within a multi-purpose press solution. For the time being, however, indications are that it has less to fear from digital than is popularly supposed; not least in the short run.

Contrary to an increasing interest amongst brands in digital’s potential for delivering rapid response, controlled cost and time to market solutions, a sizeable proportion of converters remain less convinced, arguing that flexo’s capabilities already have the job well in hand. And despite digital’s looming presence overshadowing the short run debate, there’s also an equally entrenched view that if it is the elephant in the room then it is merely a white one.

“Some of everyone’s business contains an element of short run; it depends how you quantify it,” says Daventry, UK, based Multi Labels sales director Nick Monk. “Quite a lot of our flexo work falls into the 4,000m and below category. It’s a highly predictable format. All of the finishing is in-line, whereas with digital it’s a secondary process; semi-rotary and quite slow running by comparison. We do a good deal of hot and cold foil work by flexo, too, so although digital by definition helps to reduce waste, it would also inevitably incur some, which rather undermines the point of it as far as we’d be concerned.

“Anything short run or fiddly goes on the day shift, with the longer runs or repeat orders produced at night. We’re easily turning orders round well within five days; it’s just a matter of managing the workflow between our Gallus EM 410S 10-colour system and an older Mark Andy 2200 13 inch width press, which is a really good workhorse for uncomplicated jobs.”

Despite recently installing a Xeikon 3000 digital press to fulfil those really short run orders, flexo has always been capable of retaining on low volume jobs, agrees Hine Labels’ MD Bill Hine. The Rotherham-based labelling specialist regularly runs jobs as low as 400m on an 8-colour servo-driven Nilpeter MPS press, which incorporates cylinder pre-sets, auto register and has a production speed of 130m/min.

Mr Hine is a staunch believer in flexo as the optimum solution. “There’s a bit of kidology going on in the industry that if you run 1,000m or less on your conventional press then you’re losing money. The only stumbling-block is cost of plates. If it’s a job that’s going to incur high origination cost, and you’re only going to run it once, then yes: it’s cheaper to go digital, because you’re not going to have to pay £30 – £40 per colour for origination. However, if that same job is going to repeat every month and your customer is prepared to lay down stock and call off quantities as required, then it’s cheaper to buy the plates and run it flexo.”

With around 40% of its work in repeat business, Mr Hine has found that by taking care with the way in which plates are cleaned after use, it’s quite possible to be able to amortise cost over 20 or even 30 cycles. Time lost on change-over or wash-up is another myth he’s keen to debunk.

“Let’s assume the press is always set up for four-colour process. With UV inks, we just keep it topped up - it actually only gets washed out maybe a couple of times a year – so in reality I can run 10 – 15 different process jobs per shift without any trouble. Running special colours can slow things down, of course, but the real-time equation you have to figure is what you gain on faster running speeds against what you lose on makeready and change-over. Because I’m three times faster at least I would reckon to run a 500m job with reflex blue or a green or whatever; get those stations washed out and be on to the next job while the digital press is still plodding away,” says Mr Hine.

Rather than halt production, he notes that it makes sense to simply lift off the ink duct and the anilox, trolley it all away for cleaning and replace with clean components so that the time taken by wash-up is spent off-line. It’s a practical approach with which Nilpeter UK’s MD, Nick Hughes, wholeheartedly concurs. “If you’re paying a labourer a lot less hourly rate, and you just dump all the dirty stuff in a cart and the clean stuff’s back in, that’s obviously going to be a lot quicker and a more efficient deployment of resource than having the operator do it,” he says.

“That aside, with flexo presses where the quality is a given, speed is irrelevant on a short run. If it’s only 5,000 labels it doesn’t really matter how fast you run it; it’s how quickly you get there and make ready. If it’s a 4-colour job and you’re only changing the plates, not the die or the ink, then the system can be back up and running within 5 – 6 minutes.”

Reducing cost

According to Mark Andy’s European sales director, Paul Briggs, change-over time is no longer an issue. It is now possible to load the filled print tray, the anilox, the doctor blade and the print cylinder into an empty print station on the latest Performance flexo press in under 30 seconds, and to facilitate a complete change of components in less than two minutes.

Reducing unnecessary waste has been the latest hurdle to be successfully overcome. “We now have an 8-colour machine that we can predictably make ready, including all the registration and impression, in less than one press length of 25m. When you consider the length of web that goes to a finishing line through to rewind I don’t believe a digital system can be much less than that,” says Mr Briggs.

The negative cost of waste to a job is something that Gallus has also addressed with its new EC340S press, says UK MD Wim Brunsting. “Set-up time isn’t necessarily the important issue; it’s the stop waste that has a major impact on the cost calculation, but hitherto hasn’t really been taken into account by the converter. By having the web path go through the machine horizontally, and integrating the roller in the impression cylinder against which is mounted the UV lamp, we’ve brought it down to 11m.

“We reckon that any system running on a normal basis will experience 4 – 5 stops/hour for one reason or another. That’s 150m of waste/hour. On a web width of 0.3m, that’s about 50m²; so, £20/hour of unnecessary cost. Designing a more compact press has effectively cut potential wastage by two-thirds on any run length.

”In any event, short runs are not always a critical factor, adds Mr Brunsting. If a converter has, say, 20 jobs in a year which are below 500m or even 100m, then they’re happy to accept the difficulties that might obtain because the bulk of the work is still above 4,000m.”

First-time adopter Medica Packaging (part of the Benson Group) needed little convincing in installing a 7-colour Gallus EM340S UV system to handle its growing label business, says director Charlie McGrath. “Flexibility was the key reason for purchasing flexo. It can still handle the shorter run, and we do produce those, but much of our work is in the medium to long run area. It also allows us to add additional elements into the process in-line, including such capabilities as foiling and silk screening.”

There could also be good news on the way as far as plates are concerned. FujiFilm Europe’s laser engraved flexo plate is scheduled to be commercialised later this year, confirms marketing communications manager Graham Leeson. “It’s a far simpler production method than the oblation mask, as you literally engrave it, then rinse and dry it. Whether that ultimately makes it cheaper is a very good question – but I think in the overall scheme of things and from the perspective of the actual running costs to the platesetter then it stands a fair chance.”

Nilpeter’s new short web path FA3 and FA4 flexo presses incorporate quick release anilox sleeve technology and cost between €500–€800,000 Nilpeter The Gallus EC340S anilox sleeve system Gallus Gallus EC340S UV flexo press installed at Medica Packaging Gallus

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Multi Labels
Gallus UK
Hine Labels
Medica Packaging
Nilpeter UK
FujiFilm Europe
Mark Andy Europe

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Gallus Gallus
Gallus Gallus

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