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While carton printing remains largely a sheet-fed offset operation, and flexible packaging a flexo or gravure process, web offset is making a bid to improve its market share. Nick Coombes finds out what’s behind this move and looks at some of the technology available

Under pressure from brand owners to supply package print in smaller quantities and at shorter notice, converters, who know that premium quality remains an essential element, are looking at alternative methods of production. And the focus is falling on what rotary offset can offer to a market that is extremely price-sensitive.

Renowned for its high quality in the commercial print market, offset litho has been slow to make the transition to package printing. But, with lower prepress costs than flexo or gravure, its major competitors, it is enjoying a new level of interest from converters who see an opportunity to improve margins, and from press manufacturers, who in many cases are seeing their traditional market sectors decline in the wake of the internet.

Muller Martini is one manufacturer that has used its offset know-how to provide a genuine alternative to flexo and gravure in the package printing sector.

The key factor is the variable size printing offered by its VSOP and Alprinta V technology. Ideally suited to shorter run work with frequent job changes, the simpler and cheaper prepress, faster setup times, the use of UV or EB cured inks and varnishes, and reduced substrate waste, move rotary offset into the area of highly cost-effective production, as one of Muller Martini’s customers, Christian Steeb, general manager of Swiss company Nyco, confirms: “We use rotogravure for long runs, UV-flexo for short runs, and the VSOP for any length of run, so are well placed to make direct comparisons. The offset press offers us a lower cost per square metre, which helps to keep our price competitive.”

Viable alternative

With run lengths continuing to fall, down by at least 50% in the last decade according to many converters, the pressure to produce cost effectively has never been higher. In the flexible packaging market, there has always been the need to produce a range of print lengths, which, until the advent of variable technology, ruled out many web offset presses for anything other than long run work.

Now, by changing just the lightweight plate and blanket sleeves, offset becomes a viable alternative to the established flexo and gravure presses in the field of shrink sleeves, labels, wraparounds, in-moulds, pouches, and folding cartons.

In the label market, Danish manufacturer Nilpeter has used its narrow web expertise to develop the MO-3300 and MO-4 offset presses. Designed around an open platform principle which allows production flexibility by combining other print and converting processes inline, the use of offset printing, in a market largely dominated by flexo, is customer driven, according to sales director, Jakob Landberg.

“The major brand owners view offset as a quality process and insist on global consistency,” he explains. “For them, a label or shrink sleeve printed on a narrow web offset press is going to be the best match for their cartons that are printed on a sheet-fed offset press.”

The other issue is cost. “Offset prepress is cheaper, and the use of a large flexo or gravure press for short run work makes no sense,” Landberg says. “With offset print quality a near-match for gravure, it makes runs of say 10-20,000 metres commercially viable.” Like Muller Martini, Nilpeter uses sleeve technology for ease of handling and rapid size changes.

Another manufacturer to move into offset is Gallus. Long known for its narrow web label presses, the Swiss company has developed two of its high specification lines for offset printing. The all servo driven RCS 330 set a new benchmark when it was launched as a flexo press for label production. Its success prompted Gallus to use its 15 years of offset experience to design and produce an offset version, now also available in a 430mm web width.

Flexibility is the major feature of the RCS series, with a modular design that allows a wide range of substrates to be handled with the precise control that full servo drive offers. According to the manufacturer, the quality of flesh tones used so frequently in the health and beauty care markets, along with fine control of vignettes, make the RCS offset line a creative tool that designers can use to maximise product appeal on the shelf. Once again, the lower costs of printing plates is cited as an offset plus-point, while the standardisation that the process offers is attractive for consistency of global branding.

One new entrant to the market for package printing presses is America’s Goss International, which has adapted its Sunday Vpak range of variable sleeve offset lines, and used Drupa 2012 as an international launch pad. Based on the company’s experience in medium and wide webs, the Vpak lines will be available in seven web widths from 520 to 1,900mm and capable of speeds up to 450m/min. The technology is based on eliminating the blanket gaps that impose restrictions on conventional offset presses.

According to Peter Walczak, the company’s director of product management for packaging presses: “Packaging in particular needs variable print length capability, which is at the core of our Sunday technology. We know how to make web offset presses run fast and efficiently – what we have to do now is educate the market to see us as a serious contender in package printing.”

For this reason, the launch of the new Vpak series began in the company’s heartland of North America, but with two static units on display at Drupa, Goss is convinced the time is right to exploit the opportunities in the international market, and believes web width is crucial.

“The majority of discussions we have had with potential customers have been around the wider web widths,” says Walczak. “Carton printers are used to 40 inch sheet-fed presses, so why would they want to invest in web press half that size?”

Lateral thinking

So far, the rotary technology discussed has all been inline. But one Spanish company, Comexi, has taken a different approach to offset development for package printing, and launched its CI8 central impression line for short run, high quality flexible packaging production. The concept is based on eight offset printing stations located around the CI drum, with the option of having the first and last as flexo heads for special ink or varnish applications.

The CI8 is specifically aimed at the lower calliper flexible packaging substrates, like PET, PE, and BOPP, and is capable of running an 860mm wide web at speeds of 300m/min with as little as 30m of waste.

Speaking for Comexi, commercial director Filip Ferrer explains: ”Offset has quick and easy prepress, is clean to operate, fast to make ready, and offers top print quality. Importantly, in the highly competitive market for flexible packaging, the CI8 can be seen as the perfect press to complement existing flexo and gravure capacity.”

The overwhelming message to come out loud and clear from press manufacturers and converters alike is how to keep control of rising costs while continuing to make a profit in what has become a globally squeezed market for package print.

All admit a degree of lateral thinking is essential, and the gradual move of web offset technology into the arena certainly fulfils that brief. Only time will tell if it can change old habits!

Halfway house

For those looking to move into short run offset printing, but who are not sure that full rotary is the right move, French manufacturer Codimag offers an interesting alternative with its Viva 340 semi rotary (intermittent) press series. The modular press enjoys the benefits of offset, such as a simple prepress, cheap plates that do not require double-sided tape for mounting, and no need for costly tools or cassettes for different formats. And its latest Aniflo keyless anilox system takes the best of offset and flexo techniques to stabilise the print process by removing variables such as ink key control.

Pierre Panel, Codimag head of export sales, comments: “Viva 340 delivers a constant flow of ink in regular volumes, reduces waste, and cuts makeready times.” The Aniflo process will be demonstrated at Labelexpo Americas in Chicago, printing four jobs with Esko Equinox prepress on an expanded gamut 7-colour process.

According to Panel: “Its capability of producing short runs in a single step from roll to diecut label, including a variety of printing and finishing techniques, makes the Viva 340 ideal for cost-effective processing – and all without a click charge.”

Comexi CI8 – this new development combines offset printing with central impression technology for printing flexible packaging Comexi Muller Martini’s VSOP brings variable repeat length and lightweight sleeve technology to web offset package printing Muller Martini Goss International has adapted its Sunday Vpak range, which will be available in seven web widths – the latest mover into package printing believes wide web is a key issue for the sector Goss International

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