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Where to next – for narrow web printing?

With converters under pressure to deliver more and better and faster and cheaper, the task of providing the technology to satisfy today’s brand-owners falls on the ingenuity of the machinery manufacturers. In the narrow web press market, converters have the choice of conventional technology, and an almost bewildering array of new digital offerings. In the first of a two-part feature, Converting Today asked Nick Coombes to take an overview of where conventional technology is heading, and to highlight some of the trends to look out for in 2013

In a market where quality is ‘a given’, pricing highly competitive, (not to say cut-throat) and delivery often frantic, how is the converter expected to survive and prosper? The problems faced in today’s narrow web market are hardly new, but perhaps, especially in the developed markets of Western Europe and North America, where growth has flatlined, they are more intense than ever before. But, in what is a relatively young sector of the print market that effectively began life in the second half of the 20th Century, narrow web technology has come a long way, and fast.

As with other print sectors, it is experiencing a fall in run lengths, and an increase in the complexity of work being produced. Both factors contain a clue as to why out and out production speeds are no longer the critical factor in being successful. One visit to a supermarket is all that is needed to see how the market for printed packaging has changed and continues to evolve. More colours, elaborate graphics, special finishes, and a greater variety of substrates than ever before, are just the beginning. Add in the multitude of legal requirements for food safety, tamper evidence, security, and the use of Braille for those with impaired sight, along with test marketing, and pack variations, and a picture starts to emerge of just how flexible production capability needs to be these days.

And that is the key – flexibility. The days of investment programmes where merely adding capacity to produce more of the same, are gone. What the converter needs now is a degree of lateral vision – the ability to monitor market trends and, where possible, be in a position to provide whatever new product the customer requires next. Sounds easy? Not in today’s fast moving global market, where instant electronic communication has shrunk the world to a single place that never sleeps.

To survive and succeed in this commercial environment requires skill, initiative, investment, and co-operation. No machinery manufacturer can respond fast enough to meet every change in demand. But, what they can do is design and build technology that provides flexible capacity, and production efficiency.

Of all the narrow web press manufacturers, probably none has a wider portfolio than Gallus in terms of printing and finishing variety, according to Wim Brunsting, managing director of Gallus-Group UK.

"Our technical expertise covers flexo, offset, screen, gravure, hot and coldfoil, laminating, multi-webs, diecutting embossing, slitting and sheeting – it’s a comprehensive list." The company claims that its diverse expertise and machine catalogue allows it to cater for any specific requirement. "I can only see the market getting tougher, so it will be those converters who seek out and supply niche markets, such as very high quality printing with special finishes and complex product decoration that will succeed," he adds.

Gallus claims to have been a leading pioneer in the use of combined printing and finishing techniques in one press line, and there is no doubt that its ownership of the former BHS company (now Gallus Stanz und Druck), and its partnership with Heidelberg, has benefited the company in terms of a cross-fertilisation of knowhow and technology.

If Gallus leads on variety, then of the major narrow web press manufacturers, Mark Andy must lead on global installations. The American company, with its European headquarters now fi rmly re-established in the UK, is enjoying one of its most successful periods with the ready market acceptance of its ‘P’ (Performance) series of flexo presses. According to Mary Sullivan, who is responsible for global marketing: "The P Series has cut changeover times by 60% and waste material by 50%, compared with a traditional fl exo line. Its open architecture makes for quick and simple job changes, which highlights its benefi t to converters handling a large number of short runs, but it also has the ability to hold tight register at top speed, making it a good all-round performer."

Introduced at Labelexpo in Chicago last September, and making its debut at an upcoming Open House in the UK, is Mark Andy’s QCDC unit. Designed to overcome the bottleneck of converting work printed at high speed, this Quick Change Die Cut system has reduced changeover times from, typically, 7.5min to 1.5 min. Its horizontal design allows a cart to be used instead of a hoist, which is quicker and more ergonomic. Existing tooling can be used, which saves money, and it can strip matrix at 240m/min.

Italy’s Omet is another manufacturer with a wide range of printing and converting technology. It understands the pressures that converters are under, as sales director, Marco Calcagni explains: "We have always pursued the principle of offering multi-process presses to reduce cost and improve margins. To embrace this concept you need the flexibility of a modular machine that allows you to adapt as the market changes."

The Omet range includes the X-Flex series in various web widths, both with and without glass fi bre or aluminium sleeve technology, as well as its larger VaryFlex system for printed packaging. Quick changeovers with short web paths, to minimise waste, are the hallmark of the X-Flex lines, and Omet offers a high level of register control with its own Vision-2 system, as well as its Mono Twin Cut unit. The company sees growth coming from markets where multi-substrate capability allows converters greater fl exibility in the jobs they undertake. It recently installed its first offset press at a customer in northern Europe. Visitors to Omet’s forthcoming 50th anniversary Open House will be able to evaluate this technology in detail.

Danish manufacturer Nilpeter has launched it FA-4* line "to meet the global challenges faced by printers of short run jobs and smaller repeat lengths", according to Jakob Landberg. "We see the key as optimising effi ciency in flexo printing while maintaining the highest print standards," he adds. The new FA-4* design includes the shortest possible web path, easy loading of tools, and Nilpeter’s own Cleaninking system. With press control so important to production efficiency, the new Nilpeter Power Link system claims to bring greater levels of lean manufacturing to the market. To maximise on flexible production capability, the FA-4* is compatible with all Nilpeter ancillaries and value-adding units.

For 2013, the news is ‘watch out’ for the newest in the FB-Line. The FB-3 is reputed to include all of Nilpeter’s latest technology in a ground-up designed platform. Each of the ergonomic print stations has five servodrives to provide complete automation of all adjustments including job-save, job-load, and job-change, as well as pre-setting, impression settings, and lateral register. Seen as the company’s workhorse press, the new FB-3 promises to bring better performance to the Nilpeter stable.

A rising star in the narrow web market is UK manufacturer Edale. According to managing director James Boughton: "The market is focused on high efficiency, maximum output machines, combined with minimum downtime and waste to handle the shorter runs. That’s why our new generation of printheads allow for quick colour and tooling changeovers, and our clever use of servo technology brings the press into register quicker for reduced waste."

The company’s latest press is the FL-3 – a multi functional and versatile flexo machine for label and entry level packaging work. Designed to offer a viable commercial alternative to digital technology, the FL-3 dispenses with many of the complex ‘added extras’, according to Boughton, and therefore offers the converter a ‘value for money’ package that fills a gap in the marketplace.

"We like to innovate, not complicate, and believe the FL-3’s combination of small footprint, short web path, easy and quick setup, and good control of print quality at speed moves the game on significantly for many converters," he concludes.

Although the Labelexpo circus now spans the globe, most companies will launch their new products at the biggest version, which occurs in Brussels later this year. During the upcoming months, the manufacturers mentioned here, and others supplying the market, will all preview new technology. They know the stakes are high. So, for narrow web converters looking to improve their efficiency and move into profitable new market sectors, 2013 promises to be an exciting year.