Whatever Happened to Mid-Web?

By Mac Rosenbaum | July 17, 2006

A brief look at the short history - and promising future - of an overlooked web format.

The Aquaflex FPC Servo press
Mid-web. It's been quite a while since we've heard the term. Is the concept of mid-web dead or is it just living in another space? In this article we explore wider format inline printing from its emergence in the late 1990s to today and see if it's alive and well or just a passing idea.

The birth of mid-web was the result of two factors. First, narrow web press manufacturers found that they could build presses wider than the traditional 20" web width with only modest engineering changes. This increased the capability of the presses and opened a new spectrum of work — namely carton printing. The second factor was a change in the way packaging buyers wanted to buy their packaging. JIT or Just-in-Time delivery created a new set of problems for the package printing industry, and one of the most challenging was the trend toward ever shorter print runs.

In the late 1990s, the CI (central impression) press was king of the road when it came to high volume flexographic printing. The narrow web platform had its performance niche in the tag and label industry, and everyone was happy until the market dynamics changed.

At the time, CI presses had a time-intensive changeover process, making the platform less efficient than narrow web presses for short run printing. But web size became a limiting factor in narrow web, and a no-man's land resulted. Generally there was business to be had for web sizes greater than 20" and below 40" (mid-web territory). A few narrow web press manufacturers rallied to the opportunity by offering new presses in 23", 26" and 32" web widths.

CI press manufacturers made valiant attempts at scaling down their central impression technology, but found that reducing the press sizes did not exponentially reduce press costs. They also found that their offerings were not competitive with the wider inline offerings. With wider inline presses came the ability to print and convert cartons. With their wider formats and faster changeover times, mid-web printers were poised to lure business from the traditional offset carton printer.

These were heady days for inline flexographic printing. Technology was rapidly advancing the ability to print cost-effective high-quality process color. At the same time we could tout the cost advantages of "single pass productivity". As wider inline presses gained popularity among carton buyers, we discovered another distinct advantage — reverse printing.

The ability to reverse print in register tilted the scales in favor of wider format inline presses. This was a pre-servo-driven world and CI presses were driven by large bull-gears. This limited repeats and hampered reverse printing. On CI presses of the day, good reverse printing registration was measured in fractions of an inch while narrow and wider format inline presses easily mastered tolerances in the thousandths of an inch. The mid-web inline platform had come of age.

A print head on the FPC
CI press manufacturers, being the good competitors they are, made sweeping changes that included automation-aided changeovers. They were quick to adopt servo drives, and in a relatively short span of time they were very competitive in the mid-web zone. Mid-web inline found itself giving up or sharing ground with the new and improved CI technology. At the same time, significant improvements took place in the offset world to enable them to hold on to a great deal of their paper based production. So, was this the death of mid-web? No — change tended to favor the inline flexographic process.

In the wonderful world of package decoration, change is always inevitable. Enter flexible packaging. Flexible packaging hit the market like a tsunami. Beginning with the now familiar pouch bag, flexible packaging began to replace traditional boxes, jars and even cans. Convenience packaging went into warp speed, bringing us the ultimate in convenience-food packaging — the single serving. Brand managers began to salivate over the possibilities of high impact packaging for less cost. Double-digit growth was projected and realized and a new star was born. Also reborn was the demand for wider format inline presses that could capitalize on this growing demand for flexible packaging.

Flexible packaging is now a staple in today's supermarkets. Though the wave may have crested, the demand will continue to grow and be strong for a long time to come. Printing unsupported film on a 16" press can be challenging, but successfully printing 60-gauge film on a 32" web requires an amazing level of precision. Engineering an inline press to accomplish this feat is not for the faint of heart. That's why there are so few press manufacturers who offer web widths above 20". You might be able to manage paper at a 32" web width but film is a whole new ball game. This level of precision is now amplified with advanced servo technology.

There was a time when an eight-color flexographic press was the norm. Today, with more and more elaborate package decorations, we are seeing that norm shifting to 10- and even 12-color configurations. Unlike CI presses, there is no limit to the number of colors or combination processes that can be added to the inline platform. Inline flexography has gone from being primarily a label-printing process to the premier package-printing platform of choice for an increasing number of packaging buyers.

Is mid-web dead? No — it's just been absorbed into the narrow web class, where it has always belonged. Is there a future for wider format inline flexographic presses? Yes! Wider format isn't for everyone, but for those looking to expand their capabilities and capture new business in package printing and flexible packaging, wider format inline is an open door to opportunity. The ability to expand colors inline while offering a rich assortment of added-value combination processes makes today's servo-driven wider format inline press a formidable competitor and a smart choice for a future where change is inevitable. The term "mid-web" may be gone but the need is still alive and well.

Mac Rosenbaum is vice president of F.L. Smithe, which manufactures Aquaflex presses. F.L. Smithe has been using servo technology to drive and control complex envelope converting machines since the mid-1990s. The company acquired the Aquaflex press line in 2003 and made a commitment to support flexible film printing across its entire product line. Believing in the growing need for a high-performance wider format packaging press, the company's first new product was the FPC servo, a multi-substrate press available in 17", 20", 24", 28", and 32" web widths. This year the company has introduced the ELS Servo, a value-priced servo press for the tag and label markets. The ELS is available in 10" and 13" web widths and prints both paper and film. For more information on Aquaflex products visit www.aquaflex.com.

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