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Blanket selection – best to make it specific

Bob Whitney, sales area manager printing for the UK and Ireland at Trelleborg Printing Solutions, shares his thoughts on the current trends setting the offset industry agenda – and more specifically, the carton and packaging sector

Dealing with printers in every sphere of offset printing provides a real insight into which sectors are moving, and in which direction. This can be particularly useful when it comes to spotting new opportunities and understanding the different requirements each presents.

Press downtime continues to be a major nuisance within the industry, and in many cases it’s more of a problem, and easier to overcome, than some managers realise. However in the newspaper market, it’s to be avoided at all costs and the use of more expensive metal-backed blankets, which can be changed extremely quickly, is increasingly common amongst European newspaper printers.

In the packaging field, however, operators are perhaps not under such unforgiving time pressures (although I know many who might disagree!) and this is reflected in their approach to purchasing. For example, Trelleborg recently launched a product called Vulcan Quickstart where the packing was an integral part of the blanket.

I demonstrated Quickstart to several UK carton printers and without exception they all loved it. Presses could be operated with less pressure, resulting in sharper dots and cleaner print, while the resistance to smashes was phenomenal. However, no-one quite loved it enough to pay the extra 30% and, despite its many undisputed advantages, the product never took off.

Around half of the respondents in a Trelleborg survey* carried out recently amongst UK and US printers reported that they had more than five hours of unplanned press downtime each week and some 11% of this was the result of a blanket smash. Almost 80% said that they specified one blanket for all offset applications, completely ignoring the total cost of ownership and creating a situation where there are likely to be higher levels of poor ink transfer, registration and reproduction.

An incorrectly specified blanket is likely to drive up paper waste, the number of wash cycles and cleaning chemicals used, as well as the degree of downtime. However, this situation often can be easily avoided. It’s perfectly understandable that in these difficult times printers are continuously looking at cutting costs, but this mindset can prevent them from improving profitability.

People have to look beyond the initial purchase price to see the real situation.

For example, I have a sheet-fed commercial customer who switched from using a standard blanket, to a Trelleborg Rollin PrintX instead. The latter costs around 25% more, but provides greater durability which means that he has reduced his blanket usage to around two thirds. Today, he is actually paying roughly the same annual blanket cost as he did before the change. However, perhaps the biggest saving to the printer is that he has eliminated the press downtime that used to be incurred when changing those damaged blankets.

In the carton sector, the potential for smashes, where it’s normal to print a diverse range of thicker stock, is high and I believe we’ll see a greater acceptance of the benefits of blankets designed to provide more resilience in the future. It just hasn’t happened yet. Something that has become more popular on packaging presses is the use of plastics underpacking, which generally remains on the blanket cylinder for several months and provides excellent recovery from impact with stock.

Throughout my career, I have been involved in solving production problems at various companies throughout the UK and Ireland. Blankets from the leading manufacturers can be purchased in the confidence that they will be of a consistent quality, with a thickness that is precise across the entire surface area. The days are long gone when you regularly had to use a micrometer to check gauge (although be wary of this if you choose a cheap import).

Technical difficulties with a blanket at carton printers tend to be fairly rare, with the most common scenario occurring when someone uses the incorrect wash on a press dedicated to UV.

The situation I encounter most is when someone is tempted to try another, perhaps less expensive, wash that contains hydrocarbons. If the press is dedicated to UV, it’s almost certainly fitted with EPDM rollers and blankets, and bringing these into contact with any product containing hydrocarbons will cause swelling. This also means the press cannot be used to print certain inks, such as metallic or fluorescent.

Overcoming recent concerns about the use of UV inks on packaging for certain food products may result in a surge in popularity for this technology amongst certain printers. Certainly, the attraction of high gloss levels and print that come off the press immediately, ready for the next process, is appealing, particularly as packaging printers are increasingly used by food packers to provide fast turnaround items so that they can reduce stock levels.

It’s difficult for busy print managers to keep up to date with new developments in blanket technology and if they’ve got a decent deal on a product that “sort of does the job”, then you can understand why they stick with what they know. The price of an offset blanket is generally a very small proportion of producing a print job, yet its function is vital and the impact it can have on profitability is huge.

Trelleborg has been creating ‘blanket computer models’ which allow printers to simply input some basic data about their presses and work handled, then calculate how they can reduce costs. It’s all part of our philosophy of exploring, with customers, the total cost of ownership in regards to offset blankets.

*The full results of the survey carried out by Trelleborg Printing Solutions can be obtained from the company’s website

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and may not be shared by this publication.

Bob Whitney Bob Whitney

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