Selecting a flexo press can be a daunting proposition, though. With significant advancements, including faster speeds and automated features, label converters must navigate a wide range of options to fine-tune a press for their exact needs.
Manufacturers currently offer a diverse range of press technology, from narrow web to mid-web presses designed to accommodate flexible packaging and other assorted needs. Even with societal uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for this technology continues.
“The demand for flexo-printed labels has increased after a short cool-down period at the beginning of 2020,” notes Jakob Landberg, sales and marketing director, Nilpeter. “The increased demand for health and hygiene labels of course resulted in increased demand for new and more efficient printing equipment.”
“For narrow web printing and converting, the use of flexo printing is still growing because of its quite remarkable advantages for label printers and converters,” says Matthias Marx, head of marketing, Gallus. “The flexibility and productivity, combined with high quality, are the reasons that a whole range of applications for various market segments are produced with flexo presses, ranging from self-adhesive labels, glue-applied labels, sleeving like wrap-around and shrink sleeves up to in-mold labels.”
While converters have found success running legacy equipment, there are advantages to utilizing the newest technology. “What is important to understand is that label and packaging production today is part of a much bigger picture,” states Daragh Whelan, product manager of narrow and mid-web multi-process printing and converting, Bobst. “While that may seem obvious, there are still many printing companies that work in isolation, simply running their old flexo press and delivering labels to the customer, just like they’ve always done. In order to survive, flexo must become an agile, automated process that is connected to the value chain, so it can respond to market demands and deliver top quality print at short notice.”
MPS, which opened a new North American facility in Levittown, PA, USA in 2020, has continually touted its “talk to me” feature. This protocol promotes the exchange of data between Management Information Systems (MIS) and MPS printing presses. MPS presses can now be linked to prepress and post-press systems, as well as to ERP or MIS.
“MPS uses the highest levels of automation utilizing direct servo motors and drives,” states Michael Weyermann, vice president of sales and marketing, MPS North America. “This allows us to capture and record every occurrence on the press and output it to live data. With ‘talk to me,’ we can deliver statistical insight into the press’ performance and help guide our customers to better press optimization.”
The label and package printing industry was not immune to the workforce challenge prior to the pandemic, either. The challenges presented by the pandemic have only complicated this environment further. However, the newest products have been designed to accommodate these demands.
“The industry is well aware of the lack of skilled press operators,” says Steve Schulte, vice president of sales, Mark Andy. “It’s pretty straightforward: increased automation means that operators are required in fewer numbers, and can operate more efficiently, effectively and with less knowledge than operators traditionally need with more mechanical equipment. The use of software enhances the automation possibilities for flexography. Simple user interfaces, greater flexibility and increased control are just some of the reasons why flexo machines are having a major impact on productivity.”
Converters require flexibility and the ability to quickly pivot from job to job. For example, Gallus’ flagship RCS 430 allows for changing parts of the jobs without cutting the substrate. The web runs independent from the installed printing process and doesn’t need to be cut when the operator changes it. Thanks to that platform concept, the operator can switch between different printing processes, like flexo, screen, offset and hot-foil printing, within less than five minutes.
“This process flexibility and the certainty that this machine system is equipped for answers upcoming challenges and ensures future security,” says Marx. “Printing companies need to have as much flexibility as possible to react to their respective requirements. In addition to the RCS 430, the Gallus Labelmaster enables a process change from flexo to screen within a very short time.”
With SKU proliferation, many converters might lean more toward digital or hybrid presses to accommodate their short-run needs. “We’d be remiss not to mention digital hybrid when talking about advancements to flexo technology,” states Mark Andy’s Schulte. “Having the ability to integrate two powerhouse narrow web printing techniques into one single-pass solution is no easy feat. But the added capabilities and flexibility it provides converters is only going to rise as more people adopt the best technology to optimize their subset of jobs.
“Digital printing in our industry should not be perceived as a competitive technology but rather a complementary technology,” adds Schulte. “The veritable explosion of hybrid presses within this market space illustrates the unique demands of our industry to have both printing disciplines on a single line.”
Due to the sheer number of options available to converters, selecting a flexo press can be complicated. Suppliers have worked diligently, however, to make the process as painless as possible.
According to Chris Baldwin, sales and marketing director, Omet Americas, there are a number of considerations when conducting press research and choosing a partner. “Does the manufacturer invest profits back into their company for R&D and push new technology, and is the equipment focused on reducing costs and ease of use for less skilled press operators?” offers Baldwin. “You also must decide if one press will replace several older presses and deliver the expected ROI. Plus, the financial stability of the press manufacturer and their ability to support their clients is key.”
Of course, a converter’s own needs are critical, as well. And in many cases, one must spend money in order to make money. Communication is also key. “Converters have to consider printing quality, label types, production volume, substrates and materials,” explains Nilpeter’s Landberg. “There are also budget considerations such as cost per label and ink costs, as well as your production environment, including space, cleanliness, temperatures and other factors. In short, converters have to take everything into account when looking at equipment by looking at Total Cost of Ownership. The fastest ROI is not coming from the cheapest press, but from a rock solid, lean machine that minimizes setup, waste, trouble and optimizes on performance in every way. Your machine must also be backed up by a global support setup, 24/7 and 365 days a year linked up with technically top-trained personnel.”
“There should always be a balance between user-friendliness, robustness, quality and efficiency,” says MPS’ Weyermann. “Even if the price of a press is a bit on the higher side, it’s worth looking at the ROI. An MPS press may not be the cheapest available, but if it saves work, waste, and therefore money, it’s definitely worth the investment. Productivity is one of our key pillars, as we’re focusing on the customer’s end result. We strive for the most optimal use of our machines in order to get the very best result.”
Purchasing a press should be a unique experience tailored to each individual company, as well. “The flexo press provider should learn all they can about the buyer’s wants and needs,” remarks Perry Lichon, president of Retroflex. “Retroflex feels that the client should consider what they actually and realistically need the equipment to do. What is the type of job they want to print? How long will the job run? How have they priced the job to their client? What is a realistic budget to get the job done? Having this information helps to decide how many colors, how fast, registrations needs, potential downtime and many other key specifications for a profitable production line. While many times a full servo line with all of the bells and whistles is exactly what is required, there are also times where the overall cost will not fit with the particular use of the equipment. We do not believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is in the client’s best interest nor is the thought of purchasing the latest and greatest just for the sake of having it.”
Application range is worth assessing too. “Gallus is always working together with customers to optimize the machine systems, as well as the applications produced on them,” comments Marx. “Gallus is continually reviewing and optimizing in order to offer stable running, productive and cost-efficient machine systems to our customers.”
Sometimes, a new flexo press is not the answer, either. According to Retroflex, there are improvements that can be made to existing equipment to drive better performance. “Depending on their needs, they may have existing equipment that can be modified or retrofit to allow it to meet the buyer’s needs,” states Lichon. “Upgrading the tension system, drive, dryers, ink doctoring systems, adding an automated unwind or rewind, additional color stations and numerous other features may allow the buyer to reduce their overall investment.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, as with all other aspects of life, has impacted the flexo press industry. While it has been a challenge working directly with customers during these times of social distancing, manufacturers have responded nimbly – using the challenge as an opportunity to provide enhanced customer service.
“When investing in press technology, flexo printers should always look for flexibility, agility and ease of use – attributes that have become particularly paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic,” remarks Bobst’s Whelan. “We have seen demand for labels and also flexible packaging grow rapidly, particularly in food and drinks, but also for pharmaceuticals, and of course, hand sanitizer and products directly related to the crisis.”
“The pandemic has created challenges with all businesses globally, but it has also caused Omet to be more creative in how we do business,” states Baldwin. “For example, we have used remote demonstrations and service and support to meet our customers’ needs. Remote webinars and virtual demonstrations have been quite common.”
“We have been very adaptable throughout the pandemic, running several one-on-one press demonstrations via Zoom, a number of virtual factory acceptance tests with screen and file sharing, webinars and more,” adds Nilpeter’s Landberg. “Our global 24-hour customer care service department provides virtual remote support through TeamViewer Pilot, which enables live interaction via mobile or tablet, Augmented Reality to pinpoint issues, and easy on-screen guidance for instant troubleshooting.”
During the pandemic, Bobst has been offering remote service assistance to resolve any issues that customers have encountered, as well as giving virtual demonstrations. This strategy has proven quite successful, as Bobst has even attracted new prospects during these challenging times.
“We offer personalized virtual demonstrations on our machines, from prepress to printed sample, through every process, all live using the latest equipment and fast broadband,” explains Whelan. “Customers can also send their own files in for testing, which are discussed in detail with our experts so that any printing issues can be clarified. The final samples are then shipped to the customer so that they can touch and feel the quality and appreciate the performance of our machines.”
Future of flexo
The future of flexo presses will be categorized by increased automation and adherence to Industry 4.0 technologies. The next wave of innovation will focus on promoting efficiency and streamlining a converter’s operations. For example, Nilpeter’s Landberg states a modern FA-line press will replace several old, manual machines.
Manufacturers also envision converters going wider with their presses as they explore newer revenue opportunities such as flexible packaging.
Bobst offers high levels of automation on its inline flexo presses to eliminate variables that can be caused by operator intervention and to deliver non-stop production with only minimal waste of time, substrate and ink. The Bobst M5 is an example of a highly automated, inline flexo press that prints on any substrate and allows any type of label production while also being operator-friendly and easy to run, says Whelan.
Some of Bobst’s newest developments include DigiColor closed loop color control, which features color sensors on each print station for automatic color management in real time and reductions of ink usage. It works together with Bobst oneECG extended color gamut technology for the reproduction of up to 95% of Pantone shades with a 7-color setup.
Gallus has noticed considerable success with its Labelmaster and RCS 430 presses. With its price-performance ratio, the Gallus Labelmaster has widely been adopted in the market. With more than 160 sold machine systems, the Gallus Labelmaster has achieved the best sales figures for Gallus since its market launch at Labelexpo Europe 2017.
“The Labelmaster features flexo, screen, cold foil, hot-foil embossing and rotary embossing, as well as diecutting at any position,” says Gallus’ Marx. “Applications that can be produced on the conventional press are wide-ranging, from self-adhesive labels to tube laminates. As a modular inline press with direct drive technology, the Gallus RCS 430 can be configured and extended at will. Individual printing methods can be replaced without needing to separate the web. Thanks to the high degree of automation in all its modules, the press delivers impressive performance by minimizing waste and dramatically reducing changeover times.”
For Mark Andy, the company recently launched the Evolution Series E3, which is an affordable, full servo label press. But with that launch, it also introduced Mark Andy ProUV technology. Powered by Phidastien’s UV curing technology, ProUV is a fully integrated curing system, with power and air located on-press within a single cabinet to help converters maintain a smaller pressroom footprint. With high (up to 94%) efficiency power supplies, ProUV users can expect significant energy savings, notes Schulte.
In the future, Schulte is eyeing a few areas for improvement and growth. “I believe the next area of technological advancement in flexographic printing will be in the ink delivery system,” he says. “There have been some efforts already in this area industry wide but have yet to prove practical in daily industrial use. This will be a fertile area of development as we continue to strive for waste reduction, environmental sustainability, operator safety and even better print quality.”
MPS, which promotes connectivity on its flexo presses, has developed a “Beyond the Machine” mantra. To drive better efficiency, MPS presses are equipped with the latest automated features. The EFS automated multi-substrate flexo press, for example, has been designed for label production and flexible package printing on various substrates. Providing enhanced flexibility, the EFS enables operators to maximize press performance, thanks to its ease of operation and reliability. Meanwhile, the EFA press provides servo-controlled pressure settings for the print sleeve at each print station. For the next level of automation, the EFA+ package provides full servo driven automation of all print pressure settings.
“We’re much more than just a press builder,” adds MPS’ Weyermann. “We think ‘Beyond the Machine’ by providing the latest innovations in connectivity, advice about applications, best-in-class local service and a never-ending focus on productivity.”
To meet the demand for flexible packaging, Nilpeter has added the new FA-26" to its diverse portfolio. This new press line offers all the virtues of modern flexo label machines to the flexible packaging industry, with fast job-changes and low waste when changing jobs and material. Multi substrate and multi-functional flexo capabilities enable UV and UV LED curing, as well as the utilization of solvent and water-based inks, all in the same machine. “With our Clean-Hand Technology in mind, we have developed and introduced wireless controls across multiple operator interfaces,” says Landberg. “A new generation of our CleanInking system has been upgraded to maintain density of inks over speeds and time, delivering high accuracy manufacturing of identical printheads. That guarantees super fine register.”
Omet, meanwhile, has added two new lines in the mid-web flexible packaging arena. The company’s X7 is a 670 mm servo press that has been engineered for shrink sleeves, flexible packaging and pressure sensitive labels. In keeping with the trend toward digital printing, the DigiPack is a mid-web finishing press for digitally printed flexible packaging and labels.
Retroflex offers inline flexographic presses, as well as stack and central impression equipment. These come in standard designs and customized versions to provide the client with equipment that suits their particular needs.
Retroflex can provide solutions that run the gamut from a complete line packed with all of the latest features to a complete hands-on type budget line, or improvements to an existing line. The company will work with customers to find the equipment that is right for their application.
“Retroflex has the ability to provide and customize a press to meet your exact needs,” says Lichon. “We can provide a very simple, hands-on, old-school workhorse or we can add automated deck positioning, all servo roll drives, on-press sleeve changes for the anilox and plate rolls, automated doctor blade system wash-up, as well as digital printing sections. These presses can be inline, stack or central impression. We will work with you to provide the most cost-effective solution that falls within your budget.”
By Garrett Taylor, North American sales director, Soma
When thinking about a new flexo press for flexible packaging, one of the topics that often comes up is, “Should I consider a wider press, and why?” It makes sense to consider a mid-web press, because it opens up opportunities for a greater variety of jobs – with very little difference in the way they are prepped. A wider press can be optimized to run labelstock paper and film packaging materials, and to bridge the gap between narrow and wide-web printing for products such as in-mold and wraparound labels, larger shrink sleeves, and stand-up pouches. And, for quicker runs, imposed step and repeat layouts result in greater multiple-up printing – and faster runs. For those looking to make the smallest step to mid-web, there are very viable options of 24.5" to 34.6", running at speeds of about 1,150 fpm.
This leads us to the most significant reason for wider presses: efficiency and economy, enhanced by the ability to accept shorter jobs because of faster changeover times.
In the past, one of the biggest fears was the expertise required to operate larger presses. With more press sophistication often found on mid-web presses, they can be efficiently run by as few as one and a half people, optimized for short runs, high-quality printing and maximum customization.
It’s now all about the workflow, and most of it can be automated – for example, mounting. Automated plate mounting is faster than a manual process. Because it is precisely defined, it can eliminate incorrect plate mounting, reducing press downtime during make-readies. Part of this intelligence comes from a number of systems where plate topography is measured, providing the foundation for automatic registration and impression setting on the flexo press.
What also helps is that some of these presses are built to reduce bounce and assure registration. If the frame and printing decks are built on a single frame, the press is much more robust and less prone to vibration. Because of the ability to hold tight registration throughout a press run, high-quality graphics can be printed at rapid speeds, with repeats as small as roughly 9" very common.
You can often find some features that are unique to the wider mid-web presses. For example, you can find ink cartridge systems that reduce ink costs where expensive LED, spot color, special effect, and metallic formulations are required. Reducing ink volumes (as little as one liter of ink in the inking loop with short hoses) results in minimal ink waste and clean-up time, letting printers maintain profit margins on each job.
It is comforting to know that most of these mid-web presses can handle traditional solvent-based, water-based inks, as well as UV or UV LED printing. UV LED, cured by a UV light source, opens up a wide world of flexible (including food) packaging, and labels; particularly beverages. As we know, UV inks offer tremendous density that makes design graphics pop out from the package. Fluorescents are brighter and don’t fade, and metallics look truer. There are variants of UV ink that are glossier and highly durable – resistant to smears, eliminating the need for lamination.
While mid-web presses can offer inline slitting and possibly laminating, the only disadvantage is that you cannot emboss and diecut on a mid-web CI flexo press. However, it’s not too tough to move a job off-line for finishing. So, while most labels and a good amount of flexible packaging is certainly viable on narrow web presses, the efficiencies, speed and extended product opportunities of a mid-web press are worth looking into. Along with some of the automated advantages that come with these presses, they can really change the trajectory of a business.