Midweb Flexo

By Jack Kenny | April 8, 2008

It's a big investment that comes with challenges, but a midweb press can open doors to profitable markets.

Omet's Varyflex 670 press
The market is small, and it's not for everyone to jump into. Yet there are signs that midweb inline flexographic printing is establishing itself as a solid niche between the narrow and wide web industries. The change is coming at the insistence of customers, because those customers are altering the way they do business around the world.

"There has been a big gap in the midweb range in the packaging industry, which has been filled only recently by press manufacturers," says Federico d'Annunzio, managing director of GIDUE, an Italian press maker. "Both printers and press manufacturers are looking for new growth opportunities, and the multibrand explosion has created fragmented, though global, requirements for multifunctional packaging. Inline midweb is simply the answer to a deep market change."

Narrow web label presses generally range up to 18" in width, some a bit wider. Above a width of 40" are the wide web printers and converters. Between 22" and 40", however, is a group of inline presses that can satisfy the needs of a marketplace in transition.

"Label printing companies are being forced to widen their offerings in order to follow the new requirements of global brands," d'Annunzio continues. "Whereas carton would require a major technology change (from web to sheet), flexible packaging seems a nice opportunity for label printers who usually fight with extremely short runs and multiprocess technologies.

"At the same time, wide web printers want to follow the job structure change of global and local brands, which involve a faster turnover and wider graphic latitude. Thus, they are looking for new solutions, including inline manufacturing (which allows for multiprocess technologies) and midweb printing widths (answering the needs for faster job change and limited waste).

"Tomorrow, we might face new challenges, but the door is open to a big industry change in the packaging industry. And nobody will be able to go back to older 'definitions' of a packaging converter."

Increased productivity

Comco's C2 press
Comco, the Cincinnati based press manufacturer acquired by Mark Andy in 2001, has long been known as a press that can satisfy wider width requirements. Its ProGlide press has been a flagship for years, available in widths from 13" to 26". Two years ago, Comco announced a major launch: the C2, a fully servo driven press in widths up to 32".

"The first C2 we sold is a 22" press, being used for the production of filmic labels," says Jerry Henson, manager of flexible packaging sales for Comco. "The second one is a 26" flexible packaging press. The third is a 28" carton press. Most of the quotes we have been providing lately are for 32" presses."
A consensus among press makers is that midweb presses are attractive both to narrow and wide web printers.

Changing a print sleeve on the Aquaflex FPC press
The main driver for the increase in width, says Henson, is increased productivity. "Traditional narrow web converters are getting wider to be more productive, to print at higher speeds on a wider web, to get more flexibility," Henson says. "We also are working closely with some wide web printers, who now use CI (central impression) presses, who want to satisfy the short run work that they are faced with. The addition of a midweb press would free up the capacity on their CIs."

A midweb machine could offer cost reductions to a wide web printer, he adds. "An inline press is ergonomically easier to set up. More important, it has smaller repeats and narrower widths, which means that plate costs are significantly less. Another factor is ink cost. Wide web printers are not too profitable in short run work, so this helps."

For narrow web printers, a midweb press is a high investment that comes with plates and materials larger and more expensive than what they are used to. But there is an incentive for some to make the investment.

"A mom and pop printer isn't going to shell out two million dollars for anything," says Mac Rosenbaum, vice president of the F.L. Smithe Company, the US manufacturer of Aquaflex presses. "But medium to large converters are looking to be more competitive. If they can buy a machine to replace three presses, they will realize lower energy consumption and less labor for the same or more work. And because of the web width and the speed, they are definitely seeing a fairly quick payback on an investment that can range from $2 million to $3.5 million."

Aquaflex introduced its FPC press two years ago, a 28" wide machine fully powered by servo motors (That press is at a converting company in New Jersey, USA. See page 40.)

"We sold an FPC to a wide web converter as its first press under 40"," Rosenbaum says. "Their run sizes are getting smaller. They now are producing product at a lower cost, on a smaller web with high quality printing.

"When you get up to 24" and above, every press is quite different. Everyone wants something special. Lately we are doing some unique customizations to our presses, especially the FPC. One press that we are building now will have three different delivery systems on the back of the press: a rewinder, a sheeter and a folder. The customer is doing the work now on three different presses. They are not replacing those presses, but they will use them for growth."

The Gallus Intro press
"We are seeing an increased demand for added value applications from brand owners," say Joe Posusney, marketing manager for Gallus, the Switzerland based press manufacturer. "This has been traditionally an offset market, but the efficiencies and throughputs go down due to the discontiguous finishing processes. We target this market to put these applications inline, resulting in higher throughput efficiencies and lower cost for the converters."

Currently, he adds, converters are expressing interest in presses with widths ranging from 20" to 26". For labels, Gallus offers the Smart press in widths up to 26" and the Intro up to 32". For folding carton, the company has the CCS 510 (20"), the ICS 670 (26") and the Intro 830 (32"). In 2005 Gallus acquired a 30 percent stake in BHS Druck- und Veredelungstechnik, of Germany, a company well known in the midweb and wide web arena as a manufacturer of high end shaftless presses and converting machines.

MPS, based in the Netherlands, makes servo driven presses as wide as 22". According to Denny McGee, who runs MPS America, the company will extend that width to 26" (with speed up to 1,000 fpm) this year. "When a press is that wide, in my experience, they are dedicated roll-to-roll film presses, with no die stations. I see the narrow web printers going wider, but not as much movement among the wide web guys to a narrower width. The wide web flexible packaging companies, with CI presses, have gone wider yet, up from 50" and 60" to 70" or 80".

"No doubt you have label converters who have moved into film work, to shrink sleeves and flexible packaging. They're the ones who want the wider width. I call them wide narrow machines. It's a big reach for a label printer to get a 32" press."

Films seem to be the desired material for midweb presses. "Film is a challenge on older geared presses. It is difficult for older presses to hold the web tension required for film applications as well as print in metric repeats," says Steve Leibin, sales manager for Matik North America, which markets Omet presses. Omet's Varyflex gearless-shaftless servo press has a servo driven web tension control system and tension points at each station (to control tension at every point in the process) in the press that enables converters to easily print from 0.5 mil unsupported film to 28 point board, and can print in US or metric repeats since there are not any gears in the print train."

Folding carton has a reputation among narrow web converters as being a challenge greater than that of film. Diecutting on a midweb press is a part of that challenge. "Omet's presses can run up to 1,000 fpm," Leibin says. "That said, diecutting and stripping can present issues that require the press to slow down to gain production consistency. Production speeds can be influenced by the shape of the diecut and waste matrix. Further, the downstream capabilities of the press are critical as speeds increase. Folding cartons delivered on a conveyor or a stacker can greatly effect production speeds. It is difficult for packers to manually pack off a press conveyor running multiple streams at 1,000 fpm. Even a stacker running at that speed will need to have rapid cycle times to keep up with production. We have found that jobs typically run in the 500-800 fpm range, depending on the factors mentioned above."

Nilpeter, which manufactures narrow web presses in Denmark and in the US, has a 22" press designed mainly for flexible packaging. "We do have some requests for label converting, but for the most part it's just flexible packaging," says Lenny DiGirolmo, vice president of US sales. "We have had inquiries about folding carton as well." The company also has had inquiries about whether it will issue a wider press. "Probably in the last 12 months we have had eight requests for a wider format. But for now we will stay with what we know best," he adds.

Is a midweb press for everyone?

GIDUE's Athena press
Who should enter the midweb converting market? The question is well answered by GIDUE's d'Annunzio: "The question should be: How much business am I losing by not purchasing a midweb press? Growth is an issue for every converter, and 3 to 4 percent growth in the pressure sensitive market is not a warranty for an exhilarating future, though stable and safe. Thus, every opportunity for growth should be evaluated in companies which feel that their growth opportunities inside their existing market are reduced by historical, social or geographical reasons. Other companies are obliged to enter flexible packaging through midweb presses because the global brand owners they serve do not give them an alternative.

"We have also seen cases of start-up companies in the label industry which immediately migrated to the flexible packaging short-run industry. These are successful companies, but the transition has been fast and easy for them due to the limited size and historical culture of the company. Very often this is not the case.

"In short: Companies that feel they can restructure their sales network and be very aggressive can enter the midweb short run flexible packaging market. Some converters who have done so are now considered the "angels" of the flexible packaging industry. It is not for everyone. It is for innovative and 'hungry' companies."
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