t its more sophisticated level, converters’ working methods do not differ much from one side of the globe to the other. Even the different patterns in the way individual print processes were once used, at least in the various European countries, have moved towards a flexo based homogeneity. But there are still some interesting exceptions to the rule. Take for example the case of John O’Brien. Until recently he was employed by Guy & Co., a member of the large Clondalkin packaging group in County Cork, Ireland. Wide web flexo dominated his working hours. Then he crossed the Irish Sea to become production director of The Label Makers Ltd. in Bradford, West Yorkshire, responsible for a variety of narrow web label presses.
Interestingly, much of John’s new job involves UV rotary offset production, with some UV flexo, letterpress and screen. In fact, when he joined the company a few months back, a major task was to commission its third 13" Nilpeter M-3300 offset based combination press. For the record, the seven-unit press joins to two eight-unit versions, plus a smaller-format, semi-rotary Gallus TCS250 offset press, served in part by a Nilpeter DI-3300 computer-to-plate direct imaging system.
Although larger than most, this type of offset installation reflects the way the process has gained ground among several of the world’s more prominent label converters serving high-quality markets. Arguably, this position is threatened by the rise of UV flexo, which after a few false starts gives near-offset quality at less cost than offset. How does John rate the relative merits of flexo and offset now that the latter occupies so much of his professional life? Also, shouldn’t we be questioning some preconceptions that many label converters have about the process?
To begin with, he is among the first to acknowledge flexo’s progress as a more predictable process. He recognizes that it stems from the R&D efforts of suppliers of consumables, machinery manufacturers, packaging converters and industry-specific steering groups. The advances are primarily cost driven, he adds, prompted by the pressure on prices from the major retailers (in Europe): “The label industry strives to find still more cost effective, fit-for-purpose methods of production, and the advancements in flexo typify these efforts. Nevertheless, the company’s rationale to expand its offset facilities was based on several factors. For example, our business has enjoyed considerable growth, especially with premium-grade labels for the international wine and spirits sectors.
“A core principle in our strategy for growth was to dispel the myth that offset is an ‘exclusive’ process and only of commercial benefit to the premium sectors. Where appropriate and through liaisons with certain customers, we have been able to sell the principles and benefits of offset where historically the customer may have thought offset was out of reach. The result has been sales growth in the volume, mainstream sectors, such as toiletries and food, and increased levels of customer satisfaction. Some 60 percent of our business is now offset or includes offset as part of the combination.”
He says that a third M-3300 press will improve the firm’s flexibility and help reduce manufacturing costs because of improved work scheduling. During the last four years several operators have trained on this type of press so any learning curve would be minimal. “Furthermore, we believe that the process — and more important, an efficient, combination press that includes offset print units — continues to offer maximum advantage not only to ourselves, but to our customers.”
Consistent print quality across a range of printed matter is a big selling point for designers and customers alike. A typical range may consist of cartons, point-of-sale items and direct-printed containers. Most of these items will be printed offset, particularly where the image may include fine screen effects, vignettes, screen process and hot foiling, or maybe all of them.
“There is an obvious advantage to complete the range with labels that match,” he adds. “In relation to the wine and spirits industry, the range of printed material may not be as diverse, but our experience shows both customers and designers are striving for a means of differentiation, while controlling costs. We can meet this goal by producing high-quality graphics with a combination of processes printed onto textured materials.
“As the person responsible for getting saleable product out the door on time, the Holy Grail from my perspective is to work with a print process that has minimal variables. It must also offer 100 percent guaranteed repeatability in terms of print quality, as well as processing times. In other words, if repro, prepress and press operators are to perform a prescribed action during the process, the outcome will be a guaranteed, specific reaction or consequence. With offset, we are closer to this Holy Grail than with any other process at this point in time.”
Responding to the cost issue, he acknowledges that the initial capital cost of an offset press is a third more expensive than a comparable flexo press. Over the longer term, however, this becomes of lesser significance after taking into account such “up time” production factors as ink profiling, off-line makeready of filmless directly-imaged plates, or the 10 minutes it takes to process conventional offset plates (which cost considerably less than comparable flexo plates). Other factors include the simplicity with which work is repeated and the added value that an offset based combination press can bring to the finished product. (The company produces only around 10 percent of its offset plates on the DI 3300 system, which uses Presstek’s Pearl thermal-reactive plate material. It awaits the commercial availability of Presstek’s second generation Applause media, which is said to allow longer runs and improved image quality.)
“From our perspective, the offset process is far simpler to control and gives a consistently high-quality end result. It gives us certified press fingerprinting, proven dot gains, solid densities and grey scale values. By using new plates every time and the GMI Ink Profiling System, we can accurately reconcile our estimating against cost versus performance. This allows us to offer our customers the highest quality printed product for the most competitive price. So I guess the M-3300 with its fully interchangeable print units is the right type of press for us after all.”