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With faster running speeds and slicker changeover between jobs, the latest generation of flexo presses are demonstrable evidence of what keeps the process ahead of any other flexible packaging print process, reports Archie McKendrick

Digital might be leading the rest of the pack in the business of winning hearts and minds in the labelling sector, but when it comes to the more lucrative added-value potential of flexible packaging applications, that prophecy of ‘what can be digital will be digital, and print is no exception’ looks to still be some way off from being self-fulfilling. Indeed, it’s estimated that flexo accounts for about three-quarters of the EMEA flexible packaging market alone – and in global terms, approaching 40% of the total printed packaging market valued at just over €220 billion last year (Smithers Pira).

Recent figures produced by sector specialist PCI Films Consulting have valued the EMEA market for flexible packaging at around €13 billion last year (of which all bar 10% represented converted materials), half of which was produced by less than 10 manufacturers including Amcor Flexibles (23% market share), Constantia (8%), Sealed Air and Clondalkin; all of whose turnover is generated via constantly upgraded flexo technology.

Investment in new equipment, however, is by no means constrained to the elite. Up and coming UK-based flexibles converter Ultimate Packaging, 70% of whose €50 million annual sales is derived within the fresh and chilled sector, is targeting to increase turnover by 20% on the back of its newly installed Bobst F&K 20SIX CS press, acquired at Drupa and the first one to be up and running not only in the UK but worldwide.

The new, €3.2 million system complements four further F&K presses and a Windmöller+Hölscher Primaflex that hitherto have made up Ultimate’s flexo operation, and will increase capacity at the converter’s custom-built Grimsby site by 5 million linear metres. Based on the FP16 series, the new 20SIX has a web width of 1,300mm and a faster running speed of 600m/min. Also key to its improved productivity is the ability to switch between jobs in around 20min compared with 90min or more on the existing flexo systems, notes Ultimate’s sales & marketing director Chris Tonge.

“Although we’re anticipating that average run length on the 20SIX will be twice as much as on our other F&K presses – so somewhere in the region of 50,000m – we are sometimes asked to produce as little as 1,000m. The 20SIX will also benefit from being the first of our flexo presses to utilise the reduced colour gamut that we have perfected via our own FlexEye prepress technology. This will not only enable it to complement the new ws6600 that we also installed post-Drupa, but also HP’s wider width 20000 that arrives here for beta-trialling next year.”

Wide web capability

Windmöller & Hölscher’s 8 and 10-colour flexo CI range incorporates three well established process technologies: Miraflex, Novoflex and Vistaflex with running speeds up to 800m/min across widths of up to 2200mm and repeats up to 1,250mm. Latest addition this year is the 600m/min 10-colour Miraflex CL press, targeted at transit and secondary packaging applications of beverages and hygiene products.

In common with other models in the overall range, the Miraflex CL benefits through the integration of W&H’s Easy technology set, initially developed a few years ago to facilitate the acceleration of job changeover procedures, optimised anilox and print cylinder settings, accurate register, ink and dot gain control on all models.

Easy has now been extended through the introduction of additional functionality including the automatic Turboclean ink supply and wash-up system, which provides a 20% reduction of energy usage as well as improved inking and wash-up efficiency down to 4min.

Other new developments under the Easy umbrella include Easy-Set HD: the latest upgrade of W&H’s proven automatic impression setting system and “ideally suited” to high resolution HD flexo printing; and Easy-Check C: an instrument to constantly check and verify the quality while printing, and whose crucial quality parameters viz. colour location, solids density, and dot gain are fully automatically monitored and simultaneously represented also in a trending display. In this way the press operator can instantly detect any deviations from the setpoint or target value and initiate corrective measures immediately.

While W&H claims Miraflex to be one of the industry’s most successful flexo systems, Vistaflex could soon be catching it up – literally so, as the ability of its innovative Vista-Port robot handling system to enable completion of a job changeover within 5min must make it the fastest running wide web CI flexo press currently available.

In addition, the system permits early positioning of anilox rollers and plate cylinders with sleeves in the integrated cylinder storage systems, according to order sequence. On top of this, Vistaflex is the only flexo press combining the use of sleeved print cylinders with fixed shaft anilox rollers.

Featuring a printing width of 1,650 mm and a maximum repeat length of 1,250mm, the CL 10 press is the undoubted flagship of the overall Vistaflex line; its first European installation was recently undertaken at Neeman, German flexible packing specialist in the hygiene and sanitary products sector.

Italian press manufacturer Cerutti’s flexo interests are represented by group member company Flexotecnica, whose latest generation of EXOXD and EXOXG formats have been designed to dovetail optimum short run efficiency with the highest quality standards. Integral to both formats is the company’s proprietary auto impression setting system (AIF), which is said to establish accurate register with minimal waste incurred.

The EXOXG format is available in widths up to 1,600mm (1,800mm optional) with production speeds of 600m/min, while the EXOXD format is available in widths up to 1,400mm/1,600mm (optional) with a speed of 400m/min. Both feature rigid side frames for high speed printing and are equipped to manage extremely fast automated or manual sleeve exchange solutions in line with the minimised press downtime needed for short run lengths.

Also attracting attention at drupa earlier in the year was Comexi’s upgraded 10-colour FPLUS wide web flexo press running at at speeds of up to 500m/min on widths up to 1,520mm and print repeats of up to 1,100mm.

Meanwhile, bridging the gap between wide and narrow web, US-based Aquaflex PCMC recently introduced its ELS MAX mid-range 800mm inline flexo system with a running speed of just over 300m/min and capable of printing onto a wide range of substrates suitable for both flexible packaging and labelling.

Narrower horizons

With the HP 20000 due to become fully operational in less than two years time, not to mention the looming spectre of nanographic printing, wide web flexo might be excused for casting the occasional nervous glance over its shoulder. At the other end of the slide-rule, of course, the roles have been steadily reversing, with digital systems now outselling their conventional counterparts – and where the digitally printed label sector is worth in excess of €1.7 billion.

It’s a spur to constant innovation, not least Italian manufacturer Gidue’s new 370mm width MX system targeted at the self-adhesive labelling sector. It incorporates eight flexo units and is suitable for UV curing and lamination and coldfoiling. Claimed to have the shortest web path currently available to minimise set-up waste, the press incorporates the same belt drive used on Gidue S-Combat systems to achieve perfect print register guaranteed over 10 years.

Meanwhile, UK-based packaging manufacturer Chesapeake has installed Gidue’s ‘futuristic’ M5 digital flexo press, incorporating advanced Print Tutor HD camera technology on each of its 10 print units. Print Tutor checks each printed label for colour consistency and “self-adjusts” print pressure, density and print register through the use of 7 servodriven motors on each unit. Machine set-up is fully automated print quality is monitored and adjusted at any manufacturing speed across a full range of substrates.

According to Chesapeake UK CEO Mike Cheetham: “The new M5 will support our ambitious growth plans. The capabilities of this press will help to extend the range of labels we produce, particularly complex designs requiring a high number of colours, 3 or even 5-ply formats, as well as using multiple substrates for the same label. The press is also equipped with many quality control features which will help us strengthen the quality and service we deliver to our customers.”

Introduced towards the end of last year, Edale’s FL-350 was initially installed by long-established UK-based customer Douglas Storrie Labels, who had already worked in collaboration with the manufacturer to help develop the system from its prototype stage. The versatile FL-350 utilises the latest servo technology providing pre-register, auto-register and print length control features to achieve the highest print quality whilst ensuring high speed changeovers, minimum downtime and minimum wastage. The machine employs Edale’s proprietary Pit Stop Colour Change system, which enables operators to complete a full print station colour change in less than 70sec, and a 4-colour makeready is achieved in under 10min.

Vistaflex CL flexo press Vistaflex-CL-flexo-press.jpg Bobst F&K 20SIX CS press Windmöller & Hölscher Flexotecnica Gidue MX