The Flexo Challenge

By Jack Kenny | July 11, 2005

As the flexo industry matures and its practitioners perfect their printing arts, new challenges emerge.

Flexo is huge. Converters and suppliers throughout North America have rejoiced as this fascinating printing process has developed over the past couple of decades. It has satisfied printers and customers, and has brought many new believers into the fold. It is difficult to say whether the grandest stages of its rapid evolution were in the beginning or recently. Certainly, the past decade has witnessed the most remarkable growth.

Today, flexography is mature. Just look at the size of the Annual Forum of the Flexographic Technical Association. Look at the penetration of flexo into the lives of the American consumer. No longer is it that rugged process that was described in Adobe Magazine recently as once "having a reputation for being coarse and crude." Flexography today is capable of exceptional brilliance, sensitivity, bravado, and a host of other superlatives that underscore its high levels of quality.

With the maturity comes a plateau effect — that old familiar slowing of the rise up the curve.

"Flexo is just about at the level of the S-curve, and we'll have to jump to the next one," says ken Daming, product marketing manager for flexible packaging, folding carton and digital presses at Mark Andy, Chesterfield, Mo. "it will take some revolutionary design to go to the next step. The question, however, is why. We are at a level of good quality printing today, and we're taking people away from offset every day."

Dramatic changes
All of the elements that make up a successful flexo print job have undergone detailed and dramatic changes:

- Photopolymer plates are constantly being improved, and the dot structures are getting finer year by year. The construction of the plates is always evolving, and the once mythical computer-to-plate concept is now a reality. DuPont recently introduced a dry thermal plate which could change the complexion of the prepress aspect.

- Anilox rolls seem to have hit the rim of the galaxy with the ability of manufacturers to create smaller and smaller ink cells on ceramic-coated rollers. The laser technology improves year by year, and the opportunities for various ink laydown options continues to grow.

- Ink manufacturers, ever more sensitive to the needs of converters, have created inks for every possible job — for films, for a myriad of papers, for foils, for security applications. The latter arena is growing significantly, and the ink companies are exploring more and more ways to combat counterfeiting, theft and tampering using smarter ink products.

The challenges
Flexographic presses have gone far beyond what they were 10 years ago. UV flexo, once thought to be only for the few, has succeeded in penetrating well into the marketplace.

Today the industry is seeing the creation of niches for specific narrow web products. The major press manufacturers have concentrated their efforts on creating presses specially for flexible packaging film converters, for folding carton converters, and versatile machines for those who wish to convert labels, flexible packaging and folding carton.

But are these super machines for everyone? Are the changes that flexography has undergone been recognized and accepted and welcomed by all converters?

"One of the challenges I face every day is that a very small percentage of flexo printers have utilized all of the tools that are available today," says Bill Mulligan, global director of OEM services for Harper Corporation of America, the Charlotte-based anilox roll maker. "Press manufacturers and anilox suppliers and prepress suppliers all offer tremendous support, and yet we still have the challenge of converting people from the art of flexo to the science of flexo. Over the next few years we have to get people to convert from art to science."

Mulligan is not alone in that train of thought. It is reported that Mark Herr-mann, founder and chairman of Comco International, the Cincinnati-based press manufacturer, wants the following epitaph on his tombstone: "He converted flexo from an art to a science."

"We, as suppliers, are at a crossroads as to how we are going to automate all of the improvements to our machines to minimize operator involvement," says Chris Faust, Comco's marketing manager. "That's one of the biggest issues facing the converter today: What if they can't get people to run their machines? What do you do? Do you need to have a mathematician to run your press? We are working on systems to automate our presses, to make the press more numerically oriented.

"A big question is: How is flexo going to standardize?" Faust asks. "How can we get everyone to play by the same rules so that we are standardized. The FIRST program being run by the Flexographic Technical Association is the latest and best attempt to standardize the industry. I think the industry needs to move to standardized color measurement, to a color reproduction system."

With a computerized numerically controlled printing press, the operator would "go to the numbers," says Faust, which would include inputting specific values for such aspects as pounds of pressure on impression, tension zones, and so forth. "Instead of being a craftsman, the operator is a scientist."

Some might ask: Do we really want flexography to be a science rather than an art? "Yes," says Faust. "We have to have a standardized process — that's where FIRST comes in. Then we need a numerical system developed whereby you can control the main operating system through the computer. That's where Mark Herrmann thinks we need to move as a company down the road. We're already pretty far along."

Your servo
Propheteer International, Palatine, Ill., is at work on perfecting a servo-driven press. Servo technology, involving separate electronic motors to drive print stations through computerization, can be a major technological breakthrough.

"The price of servo drives is going down," says Propheteer VP Mike Polkinghorne. "And what you can do with them is definitely going to expand. It's a superior way of achieving auto-register. The servo system is not an added system that is being brought into monitor and regulate a mechanical system. It's an electronic system from the get-go."

Immediate benefits of the servo system include infinitely variable repeat lengths and the elimination of gearing. One of Propheteer's presses has no shafts or gears, and the other has independently driven print and impression cylinders, so that surface speeds can be adjusted finely and difficult substrates such as thin films are under more control.

Comco is also pursuing the servo driven press. "When we feel that the technology is reliable and consistent," says Faust, "they will be on our presses." Right now, he says, there are different operating systems to overcome, a price challenge, and the fact that repairs to a servo motor must be done by an electronics engineer, which most companies don't have in-house.

The big investment
"The percentage of people who have bought into the new technologies is still small," says Mulligan of Harper. "A lot of converters don't see the changes, some are skeptical, and still others think that they are not part of the exclusive club — that's for the bigger guys, those with deep pockets. People are hesitant to take advantage of what is available today. Some walls have been built up.

"But if they don't grow they'll be left behind," Mulligan believes. "Everyone else will have gone to the science, the printing by the numbers, and taking all of the art out of the process. It will become streamlined, and wholly unlike the art that it used to be. Along with the science comes efficiency and many other benefits."

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