Like other facets of the printing industry, platemaking has evolved. The modern flexo plate offers better consistency and lower solvent emissions into the plate room, as well as increased lamp intensity. “Current market demands force converters to produce shorter print runs under strict deadlines,” says Rory Marsoun, Esko’s VP of business development – Flexo, Americas. “Flexo platemaking has to keep up with these trends, so there’s no press downtime simply because the plates are not ready yet. Flexo plates need to be ready fast because printers detest press downtime waiting for plates.”
According to Ryan Vest, director of innovation at MacDermid Graphics Solutions, the changing landscape of platemaking has simplified the process. “Automation has also rapidly spread into the equipment world, reducing plate handling, plate room labor, and eliminated key areas of potential plate damage due to constant handling,” he explains. “Integration of newer technologies, such as UV LED technology, is also rapidly gaining adoption in the equipment world.”
One of the newer technologies includes digital platemaking. Here, the plate itself has the integrated mask that is formed through ablation of a laser sensitive mask layer, which occurs before the exposure cycle. “Digital has transformed the market,” adds Vest. “In terms of consistency in platemaking and quality, efficiency, and as a platform for higher resolution and quality capabilities, digital helps us compete favorably with offset and gravure.”
“From a platemaking standpoint, one advantage is that you don’t have to make film, and you don’t have to store these negatives that could be prone to damage because you have digital files,” explains Andy Kannurpatti, global strategy and marketing manager at DuPont. “The advantages are that the quality increments you get are significant. Also, you can now communicate digitally what the image is going to look like and you get a file that you can use to create the plate. It’s not that you couldn’t do that with film, but the proofing part was a little more complicated. Digital proofing has led to a completely digital workflow, which has been a significant advantage because it saves time and costs.”
The DuPont Cyrel Digital Imager (CDI) and digital platemaking technology were introduced by DuPont at drupa in 1995, which allowed plate quality to substantially improve from the previous film-based process. The next major innovation came in 2009 when Esko’s HD Flexo was launched, imaging plates at 4,000 dpi with high-quality line screens up to 200 lpi. Line detail improved, and the resolution provided smoother transitions to highlights and shadows. When inline main exposure was introduced inside the CDI, it offered much better control of plate quality. This technology also delivered a consistent LED light source for main exposure. Full HD Flexo and Pixel+ screening technology began producing excellent highlights, with an increased quality in shadows and solid ink density.
Many manufacturers still employ conventional platemaking, which can be used in several ways. The basic process features exposure, processing, drying – if necessary – and the post-exposure cycle. When dealing with analog plates, exposure involves the use of a film negative, which occurs separately. The plate processing typically involves solvent or water, although it can also be thermal. Thermal processing negates the need for a drying step, and operators can skip straight to post exposure.
“Since the early 2000s, the biggest thing that we’ve seen that’s changed in the label and narrow web market is the advent of thermal processing,” says Kannurpatti. “One of the things that our Cyrel FAST delivers is a significant improvement in cycle time, as well as the ability for a narrow web printer to have just-in-time plates.”
“The challenge is balancing all of the requirements in today’s market,” says Marsoun. “To produce equipment that offers quality, consistency and speed is difficult enough. To produce these machines so that they are attractively priced is tough. That is the ultimate challenge, and there is always a tradeoff.”
According to Emma Schlotthauer, global marketing manager at Eastman Kodak Kodak, digital platemaking has eliminated the variability and steps associated with chemical processing of a silver halide film and enabled better quality and higher line screens for label printers. She says, “A digital plate still requires the same UV exposure, processing, drying and finishing as a conventional flexo plate.”
What follows are descriptions of the latest platemaking equipment from some of the industry’s leading suppliers:
Anderson & Vreeland
Anderson & Vreeland offers a wide range of flexographic solutions to the printing industry. In addition to anilox rolls and supplies, cylinders, proofing systems and the Screen Truepress Jet L350UV, the company provides printers with a host of platemaking equipment and materials.
The lasers from Screen can be configured to image both flexo and offset plates, as well as Anderson & Vreeland’s line of water-wash processors and water filtration units.
Anderson & Vreeland relies on valued partnerships with other companies in the label and narrow web space. “One of our valued partnerships is the Thermoflexx imaging laser from Xeikon, along with plate material options from Flint Group,” explains Jessica Harrell, technologies manager at Anderson & Vreeland. “A Flint Group Flexo Toolbox app for iPhone or Android is designed to help converters narrow down the choices and make the best plate material selection for an application. This connection is especially important because identifying the optimal plate material is vital when working with nearly any ink or substrate.”
The company also maintains a long-term partnership with Toyobo for water-wash flexographic plates. Toyobo offers highly durable materials and supports flat-top dots.
Anderson & Vreeland says that its technology has evolved, most notably with laser capabilities, as they image faster and provide higher resolution options. “The user interface for ganging images is robust and user-friendly, and adds automation that enhances workflow and throughput,” says Harrell. “Lasers were once exotic devices, but they are now the present and future of cost-effective, accurate and efficient platemaking.”
According to Harrell, Anderson & Vreeland’s success goes well beyond products, machinery and equipment offerings. “A&V has a unique variety of analog and digital equipment options for every stage of the platemaking process. But more important is the expertise we share before the sale and in post-sale support,” she says. “A&V’s experienced flexographic printing engineers can respond on the phone, online or on-site to all hardware questions and repairs. And going a step further, our seasoned technologies specialists can assist with ongoing process improvement so every customer can continually leverage technology to make their operation successful.”
Dantex, a sepcialist in letterpress and flexo plates, currently has several platemaking offerings for the narrow web and packaging markets. The company’s latest innovation is the Rapidoflex line, which provides UV flexo printing plates in the fastest time possible. According to Dantex, Rapidoflex analog and digital plates can be produced in less than 18 minutes. In addition to providing an A2 plate in less than 20 minutes, Rapidoflex has a screen range of 175 lpi in analog and 200 lpi in digital. Suitable for quick turnaround flexo platemaking, Dantex features fast, clean processing that offers leads to deep reverses, finer resolution, and excellent ink transfer. Dantex also offers the AQF line of water-wash plate processing equipment. This range has been built for use with Torelief and AquaFlex plates, all in a compact footprint. The AquaFlex combination system for photopolymer platemaking provides users with a user-friendly touchscreen-programming interface, a light integrator for optimum coverage, an exposure/post-exposure drawer, and more. The company’s Aquaflex plates are compatible with water, UV and solvent-based inks. They are also available in digital and analog formats.
DuPont Packaging Graphics provides multiple Cyrel flexographic platemaking solutions to enhance productivity, quality and sustainability. The company’s platemaking equipment ranges from processors, exposure units, dryers and combination units.
The DuPont Cyrel FAST thermal workflow enables solvent-free thermal processing to produce a press-ready finished plate in one hour or less. According to DuPont, this technology reduces the total plate production time by 75% and plate consumption by 15% compared to conventional platemaking.
There is also an environmental benefit to the Cyrel FAST process: the equipment’s small footprint leads to 53% savings in greenhouse gas generation and up to a 63% reduction in non-renewable energy consumption. “Because of Cyrel FAST, printers are able to simplify platemaking and do it press-side,” says Kannurpatti. “Since they can make the plate right next to where they need it, they’re able to easily make changes if there are mistakes on press, or if there’s a rush job that comes in, printers can make the plate right there. That has changed this business, especially with short runs in the label and narrow web market.”
DuPont has developed multiple generations of FAST technology and most recently launched Cyrel FAST 2000 TD at drupa 2016. This product is designed for the narrow and mid-web markets. “It is a completely new architecture and has many generations of technology embedded in it,” says Kannurpatti. “It really makes some fantastic printing plates, and we’re getting excellent feedback from customers who have been testing it. We’re going to showcase this technology at Labelexpo in Chicago.”
Cyrel EASY technology, which was launched at Labelexpo Europe in 2015, builds flat-top digital dots directly into the plate. These plates are based on a new polymer that provides higher ink transfer and better resolution.
“EASY, combined with FAST platemaking, is delivering some phenomenal results,” says Kannurpatti. “It is improving print quality to such a great extent that it is allowing flexo printers to compete with other technologies. UV inks have always done a great job of printing, but now with a plate that can deliver high ink density and good color, our customers are able to make transitions in and out of runs much faster.”
DuPont also provides support through an equipment service team. Partners like Agfa Graphics assist the company’s service engineers, as well. “We don’t just invest in creating a plate, we view it as a total system,” he adds. “The plate has to work with the equipment and any other consumables.”
Esko, a global supplier of prepress software and platemaking equipment, offers a large ecosystem of solutions to assist in the platemaking process. The Esko CDI flexo plate imager plays a large role in the company’s goal to help label and package printers further automate the prepress workflow, including platemaking.
Esko is now offering the new CDI Crystal 5080 XPS system, which is designed to make flexo plates a coordinated, linear process. The integration and automation of digital imaging and LED UV exposure improves consistency and ease of use. This product frees up operator time and reduces maintenance, as well.
“The CDI Crystal 5080 is a new digital flexo plate imager, based on current industry leading CDI technology,” explains Marsoun. “The CDI Crystal 5080 XPS combines plate imaging and exposing into a single operation. The XPS Crystal 5080, sitting right by the CDI Crystal 5080, combines UV main and back exposure in a single exposure device. The CDI comes with a new, touch screen user interface. It is simpler to use and requires less training.”
According to Esko, its new imaging technology has reduced manual steps by 50% and operator time by 73%. In addition, the time needed to create a press-ready plate has been cut by 70%. “Plates are made automatically, and exposures are controlled automatically,” explains Marsoun. “A plate made today will be virtually the same as one produced next year.”
There are additional components to Esko’s workflow as well. Automation Engine allows files to be pre-checked for errors and submitted into the plate production schedule. This limits operator intervention and reduces overall waste. Device Manager, a new module in Automation Engine, moves operational control upstream to the prepress department. This provides effective integration of flexo platemaking and the prepress workflow. Esko’s Digital Flexo Suite, a collection of Esko’s platemaking software, is another tool used to automate flexo plate production.
“Digital Flexo Suite allows platemaking departments to image a number of label plates on one larger piece of platemaking material, with the ability to automatically cut them accurately with a Kongsberg digital cutting table,” says Marsoun, adding, “Automatically, instantly and with exceptional accuracy, a job is sent to the imager, files are created to cutting, and data files are made for mounting. The Digital Flexo Suite offers a number of ways to ensure faster, more efficient flexo plate mounting.”
Flint Group, which has a broad product portfolio ranging from inks to sleeves, maintains the latest technology in photopolymer platemaking. Flint Group’s plates are designed to handle the newest substrates and faster printing speeds. The company specializes in nyloflex platemaking and processing equipment, which can run as combination or single units.
Flint Group’s portfolio features all equipment necessary to transform raw photopolymer material into finished plates, including imaging devices (ThermoFlexX), exposure systems (including the flat-top nyloflex NExT exposure), washout units, dryers and post/detack light finishing equipment, as well as the nyloflex Automated Plate Processor (APP), a fully automated plate processing system. The company also offers platemaking equipment.
“From an imaging perspective, Flint Group’s ThermoFlexX line of lasers are capable of ablating ultra-high resolution images of up to 5,080 dpi onto the LAMS layer, and can reproduce super-fine surface screen patterns to enhance print quality in shadow and solid coverage areas,” explains Andy Knapp, technical advisor, Flint Group Flexographic Products. “Large-format lasers can now be equipped with two laser heads to dramatically reduce imaging time, increasing platemaking productivity. Our nyloflex NExT exposure technology leverages high-output UV LED lights to produce flat-top dot plates, which are capable of holding the finest details that are imaged into the LAMS layer.”
The nyloflex APP combines washout, drying and post/detack light finishing into one machine, which simplifies the platemaking process for higher volumes. In addition, Flint Group’s offerings are designed to meet the newest trends in the market, including the desire for higher quality and faster turnaround times. “To that end, Flint Group is focused on providing photopolymer products of exceptional quality, such as nyloflex ACE digital printing plates, which allow printers to come up to color faster, run cleaner and longer without the need to stop and clean plates throughout the press run,” says Knapp. “These benefits save printers time and money. Flint Group also looks forward to introducing new products and technologies in the near future to enhance plate quality, while reducing platemaking time. It will truly be platemaking as you’ve never seen before.”
Fujifilm, which is regarded for its products in a broad range of markets, offers flexographic printers analog and digital solutions for their platemaking needs. Flenex plate offerings are designed to provide the highest quality at the lowest possible cost.
In addition to the Flenex FW waterwash plate, Fujifilm provides two flexo waterwash processors. “The C-Touch is a traditional clamshell design combination unit. It includes everything needed to process a flexo plate except for the digital imaging,” explains Jon Fultz, packaging product manager – Americas, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division. “It includes exposure drawers for back and post expose and de-tacking, as well as three drying drawers.”
The Clamshell washout section uses brushes, a mild surfactant and warm water to remove the non-cross-linked particulate from the plate after main exposure. The C-Touch includes high definition lamps and a light integration system to assure plate consistency, regardless of the age or temperature of the lamps. These features come as standard. The system is available in all common sizes up to 36" X 48".
Fujifilm also offers the S928 processor, which has a new design that eliminates the raised clamshell lid resulting in a better working environment. Plates are preloaded onto a platen, where it is then loaded into the S928B and pulled inside where both washing and rinsing occur.
“The C-Touch and S928 are the first combination units (all-in-one wash, dry, expose) to implement light integration as standard,” adds Fultz. “In the past, these were only standard on ‘Exposure Only’ units. The unique design of the filtration system of the Fujifilm units allow for less residual waste and easier cleaning of the units.”
Fujifilm’s platemaking equipment has improved in its photopolymer technology, as well. “The new technology Flenex FW plate is a rubber based photopolymer instead of the traditional plastic based photopolymer,” says Fultz. “This technology allows for extremely high quality plate and print capability while processing with only water and a mild surfactant. The new plate technology has driven several improvements in C-Touch and S928B waterwash equipment.”
Fujifilm is currently developing solutions to further platemaking automation, as well as improved filtration systems designed to reduce waste. In addition, frequency of cleaning and bath changes is being explored, which would allow for recycling of the wastewater.
Kodak is currently offering platemaking products to work in tandem with a wide variety of substrates and a multitude of ink systems. The company’s Flexcel system gives flexographic printers the latest imaging technology for their label and packaging needs.
Kodak released the Flexcel NX System in 2008, with the goal of bringing the company’s expertise in offset platemaking to flexo. The Flexcel NX System is a fully integrated solution for digital flexo plate imaging. It includes a digital imager, software, a patented platemaking process and proprietary imaging materials, with goals of faster job changeovers and more cost effective production.
“We’re going to a bigger array of substrates, a lot of focus on film labels, and on the paper side the focus is on printing recycled papers and uncoated papers,” says Schlotthauer. “All of those substrates require slightly different ink transfer capabilities than if you were to print on coated labelstock. Some of these innovations really allow label printers to get the optimum result regardless of the substrate type or the ink system that they’re using, as well as getting a level of quality that enables them to compete with other technologies.”
The company unveiled its newest line of Flexcel technology at drupa, Flexcel NX System ’16. The new offering is designed to provide the best flexo match to digital printing, offset quality process printing, as well as better solid ink laydown for spot colors, metallics and varnishes.
Kodak does not require customers to purchase new equipment to accommodate updates, either. “Anyone that bought a system in 2008 – all of the capabilities that we’re adding to that in Flexcel NX ‘16 – are fully upgradeable to that core platform,” says Schlotthauer. “We’re basically unlocking more capabilities from that core imaging technology.”
The Kodak product’s new imaging features simplify plate inventory with Advanced Digicap NX Patterning with Advanced Edge Definition. Platemakers can digitally customize the Flexcel NX Plate surface to provide fine-tuned high-performance print results for each specific application.
MacDermid Graphics Solutions
MacDermid Graphics Solutions has worked with its suppliers, such as Vianord, Glunz & Jensen, Photomeca, and more, to supply exposure and process equipment to the corrugated, wide web, and narrow web segments of the flexographic printing market.
MacDermid offers the LUX laminator, which enables the production of flat-top dot plates. This occurs when oxygen is eliminated during exposure by laminating a membrane layer to the surface of a freshly ablated digital plate. The LUX laminator allows for a simple, less capital-intensive methodology for producing flat-top dots with varying flexibility. Users can produce smoother or textured surfaces, and one has the capability to utilize the same plate material for traditional “round top” files, as well as flat-top files.
“The introduction and integration of UV LED platemaking is also rapidly evolving into a commercially viable technology for MacDermid,” explains Vest. “It’s already there on the narrow web print side, but several OEMs are highly focused at commercializing exposure technologies on the plate side. From MacDermid’s point of view, our focus is meeting these suppliers halfway with a fully optimized plate chemistry solution that enables the maximum utilization of the new technologies. This means developing new photopolymer technologies that fully take advantage of these light sources.”
MacDermid also provides LAVA thermal processing technology as a means for eliminating solvent processing, solvent use, and the drying step. “MacDermid specifically has advanced its LAVA thermal processing technology in the narrow web market, as it uses a smaller footprint processor specifically designed for optimum narrow web plate offerings,” says Vest.
The company also prides itself on its collaborations with other leading suppliers. MacDermid works in tandem with Esko, relying on the prepress supplier’s ablation systems that impact plate material. From plate handling mechanisms located in ablation workflows, with companies like Esko and Xeikon, to the transportation of plates into and within processing systems, with companies like G&J, Vianord and Esko.