Flexible flexo

 What have the manufacturers of flexographic label printing equipment been doing to ensure their presses are still an attractive proposition? Have they been adding in digital engines to their rotary flexo presses? What inline solutions do they offer? What new applications are they targeting?

Volume production of labels in Australia has become a cut-throat business, with downward pressure on prices from the big boys at the customer end, namely Coles and Woolworths. The supermarket giants are keeping prices low to attract trolleys through the sliding doors, and to do this, they are keeping their production costs down.

And the sheer size of this virtual duopoly means that they can do this quite successfully with their suppliers, whether that is at the farm gate, the ad agencies, the packagers or the label converters – who, with the exception of niche specialists, are nowadays a subset to the packaging. Label converters rarely deal directly with the creatives anymore, at least that is what one label printer tells ProPrint.

A sliding dollar – with predictions of an Aussie worth only US62 cents in 2016 – means imported components such as boards and inks are pricier (one local label converter predicts by around 20 per cent) and if anyone down the supply chain tries to factor in those overheads, some cowboy competitor named Captain Risky will almost always show up and offer the contract at a price that recklessly absorbs their own costs.

It is a bit like the old adage of the two game hunters trying to outrun the leopard, where one tells the other, “I don’t have to run faster than the leopard, I only have to run faster than you”. The price slashers in Australian labelmaking do not have to beat the retailers, they only have to push their competitors out of the market, and then they can jack up their prices to more realistically reflect their own production costs, or at least try to.

In an economic environment that has seen the bottom drop out of car manufacturing, with motoring spare parts production set to bear the obvious consequences, Australian manufacturing, which is the lifeblood of the packagers and label converters, is in a precarious state.

All the more reason then to analyse the technologies and see what works best for what jobs.

 

Flexo and digital at Labelmakers

Iconic label printer Terry Rowney, who sold his Labelcraft business to Labelmakers in Sydney, runs a joint venture with Labelmakers in Perth, another partnership in Melbourne with Label House, and owns Label Plus in Logan, near Brisbane. Rowney also owns Visual FX, a large-format printing operation for point-of-sale and the outdoor market, which he describes as ‘a very different style of printing – one-offs, no volumes’.

The group of companies produce much of the labelling found on Australian-made grocery lines, pharmaceuticals, wines and beverages, and general consumer products.

Across these operations, there is an HP 6600 in Melbourne and a smaller 4600 in Brisbane, generating much of the shorter orders, while the mega-volumes are pumped out on various Gallus rotary flexo and offset presses, and Mark Andys.

There is a brand-new Gallus ECS 340, which is acclaimed as a cost-efficient, quiet and user friendly solution for commodity label production, featuring a short 1.1m web path between printing units, flexible on substrates, and expandable.

And rounding out the flexo kit, there is a new Mark Andy 2200 13-inch, eight-colour flexo press, with an electronic web guide, eight print stations, dryer, two waste wind ups, a laminator, a two-slot diecut module, a one-slot master control with sheeting, and dual rewind..

Additionally there are three Gallus TCS 250 offset label presses, two in Perth and one in Melbourne. The TCS 250 is a modular offset press with direct servo drive for the highest quality requirements. It can be configured and retrofitted, and is optimally suited for cost-effective production of small and medium-sized runs of up to 100,000 copies. The elimination of format-dependent printing accessories cuts job-specific costs, while the short setup and changeover times make it economical to run.

“The digital and flexo and offset are very close in print quality. There’s nothing between them,” reflects Terry Rowney. “Aside from jobs that require variable-data printing, the only demarcation rule between using the Gallus or Mark Andy machines on the one hand or the HPs on the other hand is lineal meterage, and that’s really an arbitrary thing.

“For example, you might run a job of 8,000 or 9,000 linear metres through your HP, even though it’s far more expensive to produce, because for that particular job you may not be able to hold the register on the other presses. But then again, you wouldn’t run 20,000 lineal metres through a digital press, not only for the cost factor, but because you wouldn’t do it quickly enough. So, the only rule is that it’s the nature of the individual job at hand.

“Today you can’t have just digital or conventional in label printing, you’ve got to have both, “ says Rowney, and he predicts that when inkjet presses become commonplace in label printing, “the speed and cost factors will be further reduced for digital … when the inkjet kicks in, it’s possible, of course, that all you might use is one press”.

In terms of special finishes, Rowney says, “You’re always trying to offer something special to your suppliers to give yourself a competitive edge.”

 

Gallus, Nilpeter at Pemara

At Pemara Labels’ label printing plant in Notting Hill, Melbourne, the investment has been in two state-of-the-art Gallus flexographic combination presses, supplemented by digital label production on a pair of HP 6600s and one new HP30000 Carton Printing press.

Across the group, with a staff of 260 (85 are employed at the Melbourne facility), Gallus presses and Nilpeter are in use. Common platforms are a priority at Pemara, so that label production of its FMCG and pharmaceutical labels, its two largest markets — and also its security printing — remains consistent throughout the group.

Damien Prunty, Pemara Labels general manager, tells ProPrint that while rotary flexo high-definition printing is comparable to offset digital printing of labels – PMS solids on a flexo press still beat solid colours on the digital presses – that is generally not a deciding factor in whether a job is printed conventionally or digitally.

Run length is the first criterion, he says. “If it is more than 5,000-6,000 lineal metres, we are going to run it conventionally, anything less is normally printed digitally.”

But design aspects will also influence the choice, he says. “For example, if it needs to be hotfoil stamped or screen printed, say, on a clear label, that will determine where we are printing it.”

Sometimes an ongoing job might have different print runs printed conventionally and digitally, for example, a large component on one of the Gallus presses, and a smaller run as a make-up quantity run on an HP.

Some jobs that used to be printed less often in higher run lengths using flexography are now done more frequently in smaller quantities, using digital. “In some ways, digital has changed some of the buying behaviours of some of our customers,” says Prunty.

Of course, any job requiring VDP would be printed digitally. While Pemara does not have any hybrid press lines as yet – that is, digital components integrated into its rotary flexo production line – he certainly does not rule that out, once manufacturers such as Gallus, Nilpeter and Mark Andy are more advanced in that field.

Rotary flexo presses have responded to the digital challenge with efficiencies that were absent from the technology as recently as five years ago, he says. “Gallus, Nilpeter and most of the large flexo press manufacturers are responding to the threat of digital, particularly by targeting waste of material and make-ready times. Servo technology, sleeve technology and advanced colour management are all contributing to faster make-ready and less waste.

“The cost of producing labels is all in time and materials, and the competition within that industry reflects the competition between the flexo manufacturers and the emerging digital technology,” he states.

“Now you have to consider inkjet as well. Theoretically if inkjet can do what flexo does and at the same speed, then it will become predominant. But to foilstamp, to screen, to run wide, to run fast, inkjet’s a long way from that,” he believes.

Inline integration of special effects is now a major aspect of flexo label printing, and both Gallus combination lines at Pemara have capabilities for inline foiling, hot and cold screening, embossing and die cutting, says Prunty.

“In the conventional space, everything is going inline. They can flip webs, split webs, they can print on the back, and they can delaminate and relaminate. Both the Gallus presses have those sorts of capabilities and they are obviously not work you can do inline on a digital press.”

In the next 12-18 months, Pemara will consider additional flexo capacity, he says, “but in terms of applications for flexo, the products we deal with, such as self-adhesives, in-mould labels and food contact lidding, our general flexo assets are able to produce those sorts of products.”

 

Quick changeovers, short runs

Aldus is the distributor for Mark Andy in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands and has more than 200 various Mark Andy rotary flexo presses in operation in the region. These range from two to 10 colours and up to 660mm web width, says Aldus general manager Ian Guanaria.

“By far the most popular Mark Andy press, both here and around the world, has been the model 2200. There are some 4000 installations of this model worldwide. In recent years, the new Performance Series press has become the machine of choice around the globe. There have been more than 400 installations since it was introduced at the end of 2009 of which 12 are installed in our area with two more currently on order.”

He sees the P-series setting the benchmark for low waste, rapid job change and ease of operation, “so much so that practically all recognised presses worldwide have chased its lead”.

So how do flexo presses hold their niche in an increasingly digitising Australian label industry? Guanaria recalls that when the P-series press was introduced at LabelExpo in 2009, it was a quantum leap forward in press design. Its short web path, automated setup, quick job change and low waste set it apart from any other flexo press on the market. It became an immediate viable alternative to digital presses, which until then had the upper hand in the short run market. “Of course digital presses have got faster over the years and flexo manufacturers worldwide have been focusing their attention on even quicker changeovers for the short-run market.”

Guanaria identifies the bottleneck on any conventional rotary flexo press as the die change. “It’s no good being able to change print stations within a few minutes if it took 15 minutes to change the die. Mark Andy then developed the Quick Change Die Cassette, QCDC, which allowed the die to be changed in less than one minute, or with dual QCDC change on the run. This eliminated another short-run hurdle and allowed flexo presses to compete with digital at even shorter run lengths.”

Flexo presses are more than holding their own, when it comes to unique functionality that digital so far cannot provide. The Aldus gm sees conventional flexo presses as still more efficient in the high-speed, long-run market. They can encompass all the inline finishing in one pass, something digital presses are still catching up with. Flexo also has the advantage that it can print on a wider range of materials, including down to 12um films and using a wider range of inks such as metallic inks. Flexo can also incorporate UV and water-based print options on the one press, adding even more versatility.

Nowadays there are some conventional/digital hybrid lines used in label printing. Guanaria refers to Mark Andy’s digital press, released at LabelExpo in Chicago last year, and due for release to the European market at LabelExpo Brussels in September.

“This press, the first in its class on the market, can incorporate any number of flexo stations and value-add finishing options, such as rotary screen, laminating, hot and cold foil, embossing and die cutting, plus four-colour process digital, all in one pass at speeds of 75mpm,” he says.

Inline solutions to streamline the label production workflow are also growing in popularity, he adds. “Mark Andy flexo presses can offer the full range of inline finishing options, such as reverse printing, hot and cold foil, laminating, rotary screen, gravure, sequential numbering, multi-layered extended content labels and die cutting. The options with conventional flexo presses are almost endless.”

 

The flexo field

Rotary Engineering, a wholly Australian owned company, offers its Rotamag range, in formats from 250mm, through 340mm and 520mm, up to 1000mm. Features include corona treating, UV, foiling, and high-velocity infrared drying for packaging. A servo-driven die unit can be retrofitted to older machines to enable diecuts to register.

Gulmen Engineering offers the Gidue flexo range, with the entry-level eight-colour Gidue MX1, the Gidue M1 Combat and M1 Combat Plus, considered the long-run workhhorse of the lineup, the M3 Combat, M5 Master, M7 Xpannd, as well as the Iwasaki TR2 wet offset label press.

The Currie Group targets this sector with its Omet range, including the Varyflex V2, and the Xflex family of X2, X4 and X6 presses. The cost-effective Xflex X2 produces high-quality conventional labels, as well as being able to print on special materials. The X4 is designed to satisfy all customers using printing cylinders. With servo-motors on each printing unit, it shares the main features of the larger X6 using conventional printing cylinders. The X6 offers premium control of print register and its high level of automation allows significant waste reduction, combined with the shortest web path in its class on the market.

Aldus Engineering’s Mark Andy range comprises the XP5000, a converting system that features both hot and cold foil cassettes, as well as cassettes for rotary screen, inter- station die cutting and inkjet-variable information. The LP3000 makes light work of all labels and tags with the range of 2 mil (0.05 mm) to 14 mil (0.36 mm) material, whether water based or UV cured. Cold Foil Cassette. The 4150, 2200, Scout and 830 presses, and the Comco ProGlide MSP, complete the line-up.

At Gallus Oceania, the star of the stable is the Gallus RCS 330/430, which supports six printing processes. The platform concept, modular design and high level of automation enable printers to produce top-quality small and medium-size runs cost effectively, says the company.

Nilpeter Asia Pacific equips label converters with its FA-Line flexo range and its FB high-performance flexo presses, as well as its MO-Line offset machines – and Caslon presses for digital label production.

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