Digital press technology has welcomed a wealth of plaudits from those calling it the future of packaging, but innovation is rife in the flexo sector. Manufacturers are launching new presses, as well as improving and enhancing existing machines with modular additions, to help converters boost both production efficiencies and print quality. Tim Sheahan finds out more
Packaging converters, like many in the printing sector, are under constant pressure to boost production efficiencies in markets defined by customers demanding quality print output at the right price. And a visit to industry-wide trade events such as last year’s Drupa would lead many to believe that the future of packaging, in particular label production, was well-and-truly digital.
But delve a little deeper, and it swiftly becomes clear that away from the anticipation surrounding the latest inkjet presses and advent of Nanography, developments in the field of flexo show that this technology is in no mood to let go of its grip on the flexible packaging market just yet.
The latest Smithers Pira report into the flexible packaging market, released last month, forecasts that the sector is set to grow by an average of 5% per annum from 2012 to 2017, at which point it will account for 37 million tonnes of material. According to the research, the retail market is considered a key driver of demand, with a considerable 55% of flexible packaging materials being used in the construction of packaging for the wealth of products that flood onto the shelves of our local supermarkets on a daily basis.
These findings also tie into the figures released by PCI Films Consulting, which recorded the total demand for flexible packaging in Europe in 2010 at €13 billion.
Focusing on the converted materials sector, the value of the European market swelled, with sales up 5.1% overall, Western Europe growing 4.8% and Eastern Europe by 7%.
According to PCI Films, European production grew by 5.4%, with more than half (55%) concentrated in Germany, France, Italy and the UK.
With such growth taking place, it is perhaps unsurprising, then, to discover a wealth of development activity taking place within the flexo sector. Earlier this month, press giant Koenig & Bauer AG (KBA) continued its ongoing expansion programme with the acquisition of Italian flexo press manufacturer Flexotecnica.
Tavazzano-based Flexotecnica is a subsidiary of gravure specialist Cerutti and manufactures CIC central-cylinder flexo presses designed for flexible packaging printing. According to KBA, the acquisition, which was said to be in the region of the "high single-digit million" euro bracket, will enable the German group to build upon its position in the folding carton market and grow into the printed flexible packaging sector.
While KBA is expanding into the flexo sector, fellow German firm Windmöller & Hölscher is established in the field and has recently upgraded its range of automation modules for both flexo and gravure printing presses. The modules are designed to help cut makeready and press setup times, as well as optimising both material and energy efficiency throughout the printing process.
Complementing Windmöller & Hölscher’s CI flexo range of presses is Turboclean, the firm’s proven ink supply and wash-up system that now benefits from a 20% reduction in energy and solvent usage – with wash-up times cut to four minutes, according to the manufacturer. "This is tantamount to a marked improvement in both the efficiency and sustainability of the inking and wash-up process," the firm says.
Windmöller & Hölscher has also updated elements of its ‘Easy’ portfolio of products. First up is Easy-Set HD, which is the latest iteration of the company’s automatic impression setting system, designed for high resolution flexo printing. The system can develop a high resolution 3D graphic of the print design topography. This, according to the manufacturer, enables the printer to know the production conditions to be expected for the job as early as the proofing phase.
Another update is its Easy-Check C instrument for production monitoring and documentation. This product both checks and verifies printing quality, with solids density and dot gain automatically monitored and displayed so that the press operator can instantly detect deviations from the target value and, as a result, aim to immediately correct the process.
Industry innovation is also evident at flexo press manufacturer Edale, which recently added a raft of enhancements to its FL-3 label and packaging press. Designed for label, film and ticket applications, the FL-3 flexo press has integrated ducting as standard, as well as optional dual axis servodrives and a moveable rail system.
Offering up to 12 print stations and three die stations, the latest version of the press is available in a 430mm web width as well as the existing, standard 350mm width.
The optional dual axis servodrives, which can be retrofitted to existing machines, according to Edale, offer operators the ability to use an increased range of substrates that broaden the number of applications the converter can carry out.
The moveable rail system that is only available for the new Edale FL-3 has been designed to give press operators flexibilty to move modules such as laminating, screen and coldfoiling. In addition, the press has undergone a minor height reduction achieved through the introduction of a dual side plate construction. According to Edale, this feature gives operators easier access to the press’s print stations.
"The FL-3 is an extremely versatile and useable flexo press and now that we have a machine based in the showroom, we can carry out trials and press demonstrations quickly and easily," says Edale sales manager Chris Chappel. "The press will be coming out to Labelexpo Europe but we have an open door policy at Edale for those who would like to view it sooner."
Elsewhere, US manufacturer Aquaflex PCMC is enjoying traction with its new flexo press – the ELS MAX, a machine that combines in-line and wide web CI press technology.
According to PCMC, the machine is "the first truly gearless mid-range flexographic printing press available" at present. The ELS Max press is available in 24, 28 and 32 inch web widths and can reach production speeds of 1,000 ft/min. Equipped with plate and anilox sleeves, the new press also features Rockwell control technology.
Concept into practice
While Aquaflex is combining in-line and wide web CI press technology, Denmark-based flexo equipment manufacturer Tresu has impressed with its new range of modular presses.
Tresu is pitching its Flexo Innovator machine, which was developed by its Concept division, as the first for the general packaging market and, according to the company, targets a cross-over market that sits between wide web and narrow web flexo.
Shown publicly for the first time late last year to members of the Danish Flexo Forum, the Flexo Innovator was exhibited in a 7-unit, 1,100mm wide configuration, which printed in a CMYK formation plus two spot colours onto 220g/m² cartonboard.
The Flexo Innovator press is available in three web configurations, with 900mm, 1,100mm and 1,300mm web widths. According to Tresu, substrates that can be used include paper, paperboard, unsupported films, laminates and aluminium, among others, at speeds up to 400m/min.
In addition to a range of options, the modular nature of the Flexo Innovator means basic models can be extended and configured for specific customer needs, such as water or solvent-based inks and a choice of hot air dryers or UV curing systems.
Each press unit is equipped with a dryer and chill drum that are designed to ensure clean print and smooth press running. During its recent demonstration, units 1, 6 and 7 were shown with extended dryers to accommodate heavy laydowns and complete drying of coatings and varnishes.
Other Tresu technologies evident throughout the press include its chamber doctor blade system that is claimed to help maximise ink usability. In addition, print and anilox sleeves help facilitate accelerated makereadies.
Kim-Regin Sustmann, head of Tresu Concept, says: "The success of the demonstration to the Danish Flexo Forum will not only help us spread the word of the performance of this exciting new press, but it also means that we are ready to invite customers to submit jobs for us to trial and see their jobs printed".