After the ink is laid down on the substrate, the converting process begins. Laminations are applied, shapes are cut with dies, the waste is removed. Sometimes the pressure sensitive sandwich is delaminated and treated further, perhaps by the insertion of a radio frequency (RFID) chip. Then comes the inspection, the slitting, the rewinding, the removal to shipping pallets, the packaging. Much of this work can be performed, and is being performed today, in-line. Inspection and slitting often take place off-line and away from the presses, but diecutting, lamination, folding, sheeting and other postpress converting functions can be taken care of by press attachments.
What if, however, a big job comes in for blank labels, or one-color labels on a thermal transfer stock? Does the wise converter want to tie up a multi-station press to run a blank job? The full capabilities of the color press — and its money-making function — would not be engaged as the owner might wish they were.
"You'll always find that there is someone running blanks and taking up valuable time on a four- or six-color press, who should be doing more profitable work," says André Beaudoin, vice president for North America of Omega Converting Systems, Danbury, CT. "He would do it faster and better off-line."
Omega, an arm of the Burton Group, based in England, manufactures off-line converting systems. The systems are modular and can be expanded at any time to include various functions. Such converting systems perform unwind, inspection, slitting, diecutting, flood coating, matrix removal, delamination and relamination, chip insertion, and rewind tasks. Print stations can also be added.
"Blank labels are an evil necessity," says Joe Caparello, special applications manager for Rotoflex International, Mississauga, Ontario. "When converters have existing customers who want blanks, they do the work to appease them. The margins are puny, and there's labor involved. If you're producing blanks on a printing press and paying press operator wages, that's costing more than if you run them on finishing equipment, where the operator typically is at a lower wage level. Plus, you don't get the backlog of several jobs to print and tie up your presses."
Rotoflex, another manufacturer of high end off-line converting equipment, developed its diecutting system about a decade ago in conjunction with Monarch Marking. Today it is a popular piece of equipment, says Caparello.
"There's a lot of thermal label converting out there, and laser sheets as well," he says. "We have a customer who is bidding on a job for one of the major package shippers, and the order is for 26,000,000 blank labels a day. These companies deliver 13 million packages a day, so that gives you an idea of how many labels they go through."
Caparello says a recent estimate puts the converting industry at three times the size of the printing industry.
Non-print converting is growing, according to several industry sources. One of the major markets is medical products, including such items as transdermal patches and anti-snoring strips. Delta Industrial Service, of Minneapolis, is one equipment manufacturer that has seen a rise in converting of medical supplies.
"A lot of our equipment is process specific and custom made," says Erv Fringer, Delta's sales and marketing manager. "Our machines have done everything from transdermal patches to nasal strips, RFID insertion, blood test strips, sandpaper, and gaskets for cell phones." Delta produces a standard unit called the Crusader, which is directed toward contract converters. "It can handle several web paths, and it has six rotary stations for diecut and lamination, and six unwinds," Fringer says. "Any of the stations can be run left to right, or right to left."
Meeting converters' needs
Purchasers of finishing and converting equipment look for three things, says Rich Herbert, vice president of sales at CTC International, West Caldwell, NJ. "They want the best possible product, the best service and after-market care, and they want the best possible price. By focusing on the best product and the best possible after-market service, the true long term cost of ownership is minimized."
"People are looking for faster deliveries of equipment than they've gotten before, and they also want a higher degree of application engineering to meet very specific requirements. They want reliable equipment that won't break down."
CTC International manufactures machines that are ancillary to converting equipment, such as splicers, turret rewinders, matrix winders, and web accumulators. The pace of technology, says Herbert, is propelling advancements in equipment. "New electronics technologies allow us to continue to simplify our equipment and make it more reliable and flexible simultaneously." CTC recently introduced the Small Wonder Turret Rewinder. "It's aimed at the label manufacturers," says Herbert. "It allows them to make small rolls and achieve ultimate flexibility from a small machine."
Automation and glueless rewind
"The trend today is automation," says Keith Hamilton, sales representative for Deacro Industries, Mississauga, Ontario, which manufactures automated inspection turret machines. "It's an issue involving legislation to get away from repetitive motion work. Instead of cutting and putting rolls on manually, the operator can do it automatically."
"Everything is pushing toward automation right now," says Joe Caparello of Rotoflex International. "The technology is changing weekly."
Another trend in the converting equipment market is for glueless rewinds. Until recently, glue was used to secure the converted substrate to the core with glue, and then to add glue to the tail of the roll to fasten it to itself. But with an increase in production of thermal printing substrates, traces of glue can wreak havoc inside the expensive printing machines.
"We've been using low fugitive glues," says Robin Sherlund, sales coordinator for KTI, South Beloit, IL, which manufactures splicers and winders. "But many converters today don't want glue at all. The cost of the labels is high, and they want to save what they can. We are developing a system that automatically dispenses tape onto the tail of the roll."
"We used to use hot melt glue," says Hamilton. "Now our equipment uses a pneumatic taping system: It applies tape to the web to start the roll, and also to seal it at the end. If you're winding thermal webs you won't have the adhesive come off on the web and affect the surface."
"Label applicators, and the print heads in thermal printers, generate heat," says Beaudoin of Omega Converting Systems. "The heat will be enough to soften the adhesive, and it will gum up the print head and create a nightmare. We have pioneered the development of a fugitive adhesive where 99 percent of the time there won't be a problem. With our glueless servo-driven turret rewinders we have gone beyond that: We are wrapping the product around the core without glue within two cycles of the mandrel. At the tail the rolls are closed with a pressure sensitive label."
Omega also has developed a coreless rewinding system. "Think about how many millions of cores some companies run a month on commodity products," Beaudoin adds. "Some people don't need the core; you just have to buy a coreless mandrel."
Greystone Manufacturing, Norwich, NY, is the first company in the United States to manufacture a seamer for the shrink sleeve market, according to president Steve Manno. "There's tremendous growth in the shrink sleeve market, mostly in beverages," he says. "A lot of converters are jumping on the bandwagon." Other seamers are manufactured in Europe, he adds.
After a web is printed on a film press, Manno explains, the roll goes off-line to a seamer. The machine creates a sleeve out of the web, lays a solvent on one edge, and marries it to the opposite edge. The sleeve then gets rolled onto a core, and goes to the bottling plant, where each label is cut as it is applied. The maximum speed of the seamer, he says, is 750 feet per minute.