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TLMI packs a crowd for Tech 007 conference

September 10, 2007

With a solid reputation for producing informative and educational technical conferences, the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute drew yet another record attendance to its latest, Tech 007, held in early September in Chicago's Fairmont Hotel. Themed by its producers after the James Bond book and movie series, the two-day event investigated a variety of technical and management topics for more than 300 converter and supplier attendees.

Eleven panels of experts comprising more than 50 speakers took the stage throughout the event, covering such topics as color control, press technology, digital platemaking, brand protection, printed electronics, and sleeve technology.  An evening reception featuring 87 supplier tabletops gave attendees a solid two hours for networking.

Attacking press downtime

The kick-off panel at the conference addressed the classic problem of press downtime from several perspectives. Paul Brauss, president of Mark Andy, stated the importance of measurements in all aspects of work flow, and singled out cycle time, first-pass yield and productivity as key measures. The objective in the plant should be to operate close to the customer's rate of use or demand, he said, and added that "the best answer to improve profitability is on the floor of the press room." Also important, he said, is "how we deliver the work to the shop floor."

Execution of improvement plans is difficult, Brauss noted, and requires organizing for systematic improvement, organizing to understand customer needs, establishing measures that drive behavior, and focusing on a few things at a time. Finally, he said, "Employ good people and get out of the way."

Tom Spina, president of Luminer Converting, related his company's positive experiences with the implementation of Lean Manufacturing in several areas of operation over the past year. With assistance from the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Luminer was able to dramatically reduce inventory and improve physical work areas. The company, he said, has experienced a "huge cash flow improvement" because of better materials management, and was able to shelve a plan to move to larger quarters because it opened up more space internally.

"A Lean company must develop formal, written procedures" to maintain effective Lean practices, Spina said. "And upper management should not write these procedures. The personnel performing each function should write the procedure for the particular task."

Alexander James of Harper Corporation of America addressed the graphic fundamentals critical to effective design and prepress. "If it's not right upstream," he said, "it gets worse downstream," and he added a caveat for those who work in the prepress department: "It's not about prepress. It's about the press."

Elaborating on that principle was Brad Elledge of Nosco. "Uptime depends on upstream functions, like scheduling to protect press efficiencies; checklists to facilitate review of staged job components and specifications; standardization of workstations and written procedures; and communications, such as the 30 minute rule: After that, get help."

Continuous improvement, Elledge said, requires building feedback loops through daily reports from press operators and shift leaders; collecting data, which gives an accurate state of current conditions; and solving problems with the entire team.

Concluding the session, Amir Dekel of Advanced Vision Technology focused on downtime caused by print defects. "Print defects can be avoidable by maintaining press tolerances, and they can be repaired without stopping the press if they are detected in time," he said. Automatic web inspection means early defect detection and creates a log of defects in a roll report. Through automation the burden of inspection is removed from the operators.

Plate proliferation

Seven printing plate production processes were the focus of the next panel. Speakers addressed conventional analog plates, thermal analog, conventional digital mask plates, thermal digital mask plates, pre-imaged digital mask plates, direct ablation, and applied mask.

Applied digital mask, addressed by Bob Kelsall of RBCOR, utilizes inkjet technology for imaging on most conventional polymers, and no laser ablation. It is an additive imaging process, leaving virgin polymer for exposure and cleaner solid areas, he said. It also has a low capital equipment investment.

Ray Bodwell of DuPont Packaging Graphics explained the digital thermal plate process, which requires fewer operator variables and the elimination of the vacuum step or lamination. Through digital workflow it provides color management and proofing consistency. Dots, he said, are sharper and feature "a unique digital shape", which is the result of UV exposure in the presence of oxygen and no light scattering from conventional films and vacuum sheets.

Using both digital and analog thermal plate technology was the focus of the presentation by Jay Luft of McDowell Label & Screen. "Without question," he said, "using digital thermal technology speeds up the process and reduces labor in the plate department."

Dale Patterson of Kodak discussed a new plate technology that uses a thermal imaging layer for eliminating the negative effects of oxygen, optimizing the dot shoulder and supporting remote printing dots. It offers increased gray levels, he said, and increased contrast, as well as faster setup, less cleanup time and faster imaging.

Ed James of Stork Prints concluded the session with an overview of the digital laser engraver (DLE), which creates a printing plate using only a laser. The image to be engraved is transfered to the laser, which ablates it directly into the plate material. The plate is then ready for mounting on the press. The process can be used for flat plates as well as for plates in the round.

Controlling color

In the segment "Control Color from Design to Press", four speakers discussed the importance of color. Arjen van der Meulen, worldwide product manager for color products for Kodak's Graphic Communications Group, discussed the importance of defining color. He stressed three steps: communication, control and confirmation. He said that by following these steps, converters will have an easier time producing correct color matches on their products.

Ian Pike, head of a team of specialists in the area of brand color management in the SmartColour Group of SunChemical, spoke about brand management of color. He pointed out the importance of achieving the correct color for brand owners so that consumers are able to recognize and associate a brand with certain colors. According to Pike, consistency and vibrancy are best achieved with specific spot colors. The ink system used has an effect on color that converters also need to take into account. Pike stressed that setting physical color standards will help converters and brand owners communicate and reach desired colors.

Drew Miller, technical manager at Multi-Color Corp., discussed quality assurance in the area of color. He said converters can use data to see if a color match is at an acceptable level, according to contracts with customers. By setting expectations based on data, Miller says it takes out the subjective measurements that can change from person to person. Data can be collected and analyzed in an objective manner so both converters and their customers know what type of color quality exists in the final product.

On the subject of technology advancements, Bill Pope, technical manager for RIT's Printing Applications Laboratory, discussed two approaches for color management: densitometry and spectrophotometry. He explained that densitometry can accurately measure solid ink density; dot area, dot gain and print contrast; overprint trap percentages; and changes in ink film thickness. It cannot, however, accurately measure color. Spectrophotometry, also called colorimetry, can accurately measure color by emulating the way we see lightness, hue and chroma (or saturation). Pope pointed out that both processes should be used because although the density measurement variance may be the same, the color can look different. The opposite can also be true.

2D bar codes

The next area of discussion, about 2D bar codes, included several speakers who discussed this emerging bar code technology. Chas Fritz, the founder of NeoMedia Technologies, gave an overview of 2D bar codes and where the technology is going. Currently, a popular use of 2D bar codes is on driver's licenses. Fritz explained that these new codes can hold a large amount of data in various forms, including binary information, text, fingerprints, photographs, and even voice data. He said that cell phones can be used to gather 2D bar code information by taking a picture. In the future, Fritz said consumers will be able to "click" a 2D bar code on a billboard or poster with their cell phones and the phone will tell consumers how to get to a store (using the phone's GPS system) for a promotion, such as 20 percent off a purchase in the next half hour.

Dan Briley, North American category manager for HP Indigo presses, talked about digital printing processes for bar code printing. He said using more complex bar codes is becoming more common as brand owners try to make their packaging less attractive to counterfeiting and fraud. He discussed 2D bar codes and color codes as alternatives to holograms. Briley said converters need to achieve high resolution and very good registration in order to print good color bar codes. He said digital color label printing is a good method for bar code printing because it offers high resolution, exact registration tolerances, enables totally variable label content, offers full variable color, and is cost effective.

Sean Skelly, director of marketing for EFI, Jetrion Industrial Inkjet Systems, spoke about hybrid printing, which he defined as digital and analog printing together. He cited several benefits of hybrid printing, including lower costs, higher speeds, no offline operations, and the ability to expand label converters' offerings and capabilities. According to Skelly, hybrid printing can be used for labels, packaging and specialty printing. Printing variable data and more sophisticated images, like 2D bar codes, can be accomplished with hybrid printing. As an alternative, Skelly said, converters can use thermal transfer, but that process is slow and requires expensive ribbons. Another alternative he discussed was ion deposition. He said the reliability is poor, however, and the process is temperature and humidity sensitive. It may also have a limited upgrade path for new 2D bar codes.

VP of Sales and Marketing for MCS Inc. Glenn Toole talked about implementing 2D symbology. He said converters need to think about inks, printing/marking resolution and production speeds. Numbering is another area of importance. As far as the actual 2D bar code is concerned, Toole said most industrial marking systems have embedded software to generate the 2D codes. Generating internal data needs to be discussed with customers. He pointed out that the size of the code and the amount of data encapsulated depends on the resolution, size and error correction mode. Toole also discussed verification options for converters. Pass/fail verifiers as well as graders with logging capability exist for converters and MCS offers ones with cameras.

Finally, Todd Kennedy of The Kennedy Group told conference attendees about how his converting company used 2D bar codes to help a food company with a label mix-up problem. The company had a product line with multiple flavors, but the label artwork looked similar. Kennedy explained that the company added a small 2D bar code to both the front and back label coded with SKU information. Scanners in the packaging line read the 2D bar codes on the front and back label immediately after the package was labeled to ensure the proper nutrition information was placed on the product. Explaining why 2D bar codes were used, Kennedy said that they allow a greater amount of data to be stored, they can be smaller and less obtrusive on the package and don't interfere with the artwork or design of the label, and there is no chance for mix up at check out with the product's UPC code.

Sleeve technology

Kevin Manes, manager of research and development at Mark Andy, gave an overview of sleeve technology, both for plates and anilox rolls. According to Manes, sleeves came from wide web and have an advantage in wider web presses. Sleeves are currently used on presses with higher end technology, like servo presses. He said combination printing is also a driver. Some issues he discussed were re-engraving, end seals between sleeves and mandrels and anilox cleaning systems.

Paul Roux, VP of development for Syracuse Label Company, gave the converter perspective on sleeve technology. He said sleeves are lightweight and offer quick changeovers. Syracuse Label uses a video mounter for mounting plates on sleeves, which Roux said saves a lot of time during the process both in the mounting stage and later on when registration is much more accurate than with hand mounting. One disadvantage he brought up is that sleeves are more sensitive to damage than conventional cylinders. He pointed out though that narrow web sleeves are much stronger than those for wide web. Using sleeves, Roux said there were no stress fractures or other damage and no evidence of gear marks or other print deformities due to cylinder design. He said operator acceptance was immediate and training was minimal. He's not likely to buy another flexo press without sleeve technology.

Joe Tremper, Northeast sales manager for Rossini, discussed sleeve technologies for narrow web applications. He said sleeves were initially supplied in ever increasing wall thicknesses to accommodate the increasing repeat ranges of sleeved presses. As the sleeve wall thickness increases with repeat length, sleeve weight, sleeve cost and delivery time all increase. Tremper said to reduce wall thickness, suppliers introduced carriers, which act as mandrel extensions. Using carriers, sleeve weight, sleeve cost and delivery time increase while total indicated runout increases. He explained that there are two types of sleeves: those thin enough to mount directly on the mandrel without a built-in cushion layer and those too thick to mount directly on the mandrel, requiring a built-in cushion layer. Tremper pointed out that sleeves are consumables, not capitol equipment, and converters should expect to replace their entire sleeve inventory every two to four years.

Brand protection

Ray Dickinson, who is responsible for developing and marketing brand protection, track and trace and authentication solutions for Hewlett Packard, gave an overview of brand protection. He talked about the prevalence of counterfeiting, how to detect it and what can be done about it. He suggested using several different deterrents on products and variable security data printing. He also said using simple means is best. He suggested avoiding solutions that require special readers and large infrastructures and deployments.

Bud Gray, business development manager of brand protection for Acucote, spoke about how to become a brand protection converter. He stressed that converters have the necessary equipment and resources to provide brand protection solutions to their customers. He talked about the three levels of security: overt, covert and forensic. He said different types of facestocks, inks, hot and cold stamping foils, and thermal transfer ribbons can all offer brand protection security. Selling the idea of brand protection may be the most difficult part, according to Gray, because companies often don't want to admit they have a counterfeiting problem. He said, however, that once converters get brand protection business, they keep it because companies don't want others to know they're being counterfeited. In a recent poll by the Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, 76 percent of all brand protection technologies were carried by pressure sensitive labels. Therefore, Gray said, converters can make big sales and big profits.

Lou Thurston, senior label business development manager for Corporate Express Document & Print Management, gave the converter perspective on brand protection. He said there is a medium to low cost of entry for converters because capabilities exist using current converting equipment and additional capabilities can be press add-ons. He pointed to new opportunities with pharmaceuticals, the automotive industry, processed foods, and health and beauty aids.  He also talked about resources for converters to turn to, including the Brand Protection Alliance (BPA) and the Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy (CACP).

Paul Fox, ER leader for global operations at Procter & Gamble, focused on counterfeiting and what can be done to combat it. He said a major area of focus must be the supply chain. He said RFID has been playing a role and adoption of the technology is accelerating in retail, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and defense, with case and pallet applications increasing. Other technologies Fox cites are taggants, nanotechnology, holograms, and hologram variants.

Printing on films

The continuing growth of film products in the label industry justified a session devoted to that substrate and its challenges. Nick Van Alstine, owner and president of Macaran Printed Products, gave a converter perspective. He cited several film market opportunities: health and beauty/personal care, beverage, agri-chemical, durable goods, pharmaceuticals/nutraceuticals, household cleaners, food, automotive, and electronics. Some challenges he cited were ink adhesion, press tension/heat, ink opacity on clear film, dust/static, higher cost of material (expensive waste), and the learning curve for press operators. Van Alstine said clear film applications typically require UV flexo and rotary screen, which in turn require UV lamp systems and chill roll systems. To convert existing equipment he said converters can add a corona treater, convert a water based station to a UV station, add a rotary screen station, test anilox technology, and talk with their press manufacturer.

Patrick Seemann, business development manager for label and graphic arts products at Innovia Films, talked about the physical properties of film and their effects on printing. He discussed top coating versus corona treated films and how films often have components added to them that converters need to keep in mind. Seemann also discussed film trends. He said the no label look continues to grow, as well as laminate sandwich print. He also talked about pressure from non-PS alternative technologies such as sleeving and in mold labeling.

Kurt Hudson, general manager of UV products for Water Ink Technologies, discussed UV curing and drying on films. He said inks must be cured or dried instantly, thoroughly and uniformly. Ink adhesion is an area of concern for converters. Hudson said good wetting doesn't guarantee good adhesion. He pointed out the following adhesion mechanisms: low shrink, thorough wetting, plastic to ink resin contact, pore and texture contact, thorough cure/drying, dissolving of surface materials, and polar bonding.

Exploring digital print

Low- and mid-cost digital printing products were the topic of another panel presentation. Jim Frankiewicz of Degrava Systems started off by outlining the forces and trends that could influence a converter's decision to add digital printing: market tests, short runs, presentations, and brand launches; fast turnaround jobs, customization and numbering; no plates, no setup time and less waste; less inventory and frequent reorders; and increased revenues by providing additional service to existing accounts. While high-end digital presses print with dry toner or toner in a liquid base, low-cost options utilize inkjet and thermal transfer, and mid-range digital presses use dry toner, he said.

Ken Stack, VP and GM at EFI/Jetrion, spoke about UV inkjet systems, noting that they offer strong adhesion to many substrates and demonstrate outstanding print quality. He added that a hybrid system, composed of a conventional press with an inkjet applicator, offers the "lowest total cost of ownership; efficient, high-speed process; high reliability due to UV inks; and no additional labor."

The thermal transfer perspective was presented by Dana Goodale of Gerber Scientific Products. The process involves application of color from a thin polyester film coated with pigments, brought into contact with the substrate and transferred using heat. "It's ideal for short run production and custom diecut applications, and offers a broad range of colors and printing substrates," he said. "It's easy to use: no inks, chemicals or solvents to deal with or dispose of; no press setup, and low maintenance. The results are consistent and predictable."

Packaging trends

Three different trends in the packaging world were discussed in this session. Stephen Lapin, senior technology manager for Ashland, spoke of the advantages of laminated packaging. They offer superior initial appearance and graphics protection, plus barrier properties and heat resistance. He went on to explain the different options converters can choose to make the laminates, including solvent based adhesives, water based one- or two-component adhesives, UV curable adhesives, or EB curable adhesives.

Ronald Golden, president of FocalPoint Consulting, spoke on the growing interest in the safety of food products and their packaging. Migration through and from packaging is a potential cause of food contamination, he said, and pointed out in detail the impact that such contamination could have on all parties involved in creation of the packaged product. If packaging is found to be a cause, the lowest cost liability would be encountered if the problem was identified at the manufacturing stage, then scrapped, rather than continue to a product recall phase, which could cost millions of dollars in claims and/or damages. The key is proper testing that meets government regulations, along with the implementation of good manufacturing practices.

Packaging and its impact on the environment was the subject of Anne Johnson's talk. Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, said that packaging was becoming more and more of a concern to communities large and small. It involves significant use of materials, it is a municipal burden, and it's a short term product. Quoting the European Union's minister for the environment, she described packaging as the "poster child for waste".

Correction of this problem can come from healthy materials, she noted. "Envision packaging that is sourced responsibly, is designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely using renewable energy and once used products, and is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations."

More retailers will follow Wal-Mart, she said, in forcing suppliers to meet environmental best practices. "They will do it in different ways, but over the next several years it will have an impact on your industry."

Printed electronics

The final session of the TLMI Technical Conference focused on electronic products that can be made via the printing process. Randy Stigall of UPM Raflatac observed that the electronics industry is eager to lower costs and decrease the complexity of its manufacturing processes, and that printing technologies such as inkjet, thermal and gravure, combined with nanotechnology, are viable options. "The display and semiconductor industries show the most activity today," he said, "and these will lead to business opportunities for advanced printing platforms."

Dave Uland of WS Packaging, one of several companies active in the production of RFID tags and labels in North America, said the project has had its ups and downs. "The problem is not that we can't make tags that work; the problem is that we can't make money making tags that work." The RFID opportunity, he added, has not grown to levels expected early in the technology's life. "RFID has become a solution in search of an application." Printed electronics, he said, "has the potential to break the price barrier for some applications. It has a real chance to beat the assembled chip technologies because the chip and the antenna can be printed at the same time. It's a versatile technology."

Nashua Corporation has had some success with RFID products, said Bob Pernice. "The market will dictate product sweet spots when volumes ramp up," he said. "RFID component suppliers may push more assembly to converters, and inlay manufacturers may standardize to accommodate various insertion processes." Echoing Uland, he said that RFID adoption is increasing, "though more slowly than even conservative projections."

Jie Zhang of Motorola gave an overview of the company's success in printing transistors for use in electronic devices, including RFID systems for supply chain logistics. "Printing offers the ability to leverage existing graphic arts infrastructure for early market penetration," she said.

Concluding the session, Gerald Steinwasser of Mühlbauer presented a video that showed the potential for manufacture of extremely thin silicon chips, which offer greater possibilities for printed electronics in labels and other products.
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