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Digital Flexo Plates: From Pioneers to End-Users

Over the past 15-20 years, our digital prepress cousins in the publication and commercial printing arenas have “blazed the trail” for us in the packaging world. They were the first to implement digital prepress solutions, digital proofing, color management, and most recently, computer-to-plate (CTP) for offset printing.

We can be grateful to them for helping to “get the bugs out” of many of these systems before they came to us in the packaging industry. Once they did come to us, these systems had to be further defined and refined so they would fit our needs.

Thanks to this relationship, almost all packaging prepress today is done digitally. An ever-increasing number of offset package printers are using CTP systems as the package design and production process becomes digital from end to end.

One area in which this symbiotic relationship has not been applied is in the fast-changing arena of digital flexo plates. Precision Color Graphics, Franklin, WI, and GAC/FlexoPrep, Portland, OR, are two companies that have taken up the mantle of “pioneer” in the use and development of digital flexo for package printing. Their hard work and early involvement has helped to bring this technology from small-time, niche usage to mainstream, fast-growing usage in only a few short years.

Serving Both Narrow and Wide Web
Precision Color Graphics has been producing high quality image carriers for package printing since 1992. In late 2000 Precision became a beta site for Creo by installing a ThermoFlex 2630 flexo platesetter.

“This 26-by-30-inch system is ideal for the type of work our clients are looking for,” says Precision's operations manager, Bob Fischer. “With the system we have, we are able to provide plates to both our narrow web and wide web customers.”

With a variety of customers and customer needs to contend with, Precision has worked hard with the development team at Creo to make sure its system can deliver everything the company needs.

In any given shift, Precision can produce plates at 175-line screen for narrow web use to 133- and 150-line screen for use by wide web customers. Precision uses a variety of plate materials, including MacDermid's Digital Epic and DuPont's Cyrel and Cyrel Fast.

“We pride ourselves on providing just what our customers need,” says Fischer. “We give them the kind of plate they need and one that will run the same way on press, day in and day out, on any shift. This is the kind of process control you get when you have a good digital platemaking process.”

Adds Dan Raasch, VP of sales and business development for Precision, “Our customers are seeing a variety of advantages by using our digital plates. The most impressive difference is seen in highlight dots and smooth vignettes.”

For a long time digital flexo proponents have been advocating that 1% and 2% dots can be generated, leading to great flexibility in the highlight areas. Precision has found this to be true but is further impressed these fine dots hold up even after washup.

User Success Stories
One of Precision's customers and a user of its digital flexo plates is Seville Flexpack, located in Oak Creek, WI. Seville, a wide web producer of flexible packaging, has been using digital flexo plates for about two years. Operations planning manager David Graf says his decision to go with digital plates for a certain job is based on the art. “If the job has a lot of process color, very high quality graphics, and a need for lots of fine detail, that job will go digital.”

David offers some recent examples of projects he sent through digitally. Seville produces the wrappers for baseball and football cards, which are reverse printed on polyester laminated to a metallized oriented polypropylene. “These packages all have CMYK and three to four special colors and have a lot of very fine detail,” Graf explains. “Sport stars like Kurt Warner or Alex Rodriguez are printed on these wraps. Everyone knows what these guys look like, so we have to make them look just right.”

For these wraps Seville had to pack a lot of detail into an area about 4 × 5 in. Digital plates give them extremely high detail as well as consistency as the company runs these packages eight lanes wide, Seville reports.

Another project Seville saw as ideal for digital flexo plates was one for Sun-Maid Raisins. “In addition to Natural Raisins, Sun-Maid has Raisin Crunch and Yogurt Raisins flavors,” says Graf. “The Yogurt Raisins were a real challenge, because the raisin images were made of very small amounts of magenta and yellow but still had to show detail and depth. Digital flexo plates gave us control of these highlight areas where conventional plates would never have been able to perform.”

On an operational level, Seville has found digital plates come up to color and register more quickly than do conventional plates. The company reports it has seen enormous benefits from the press characterizations done when initiating the use of digital plates. Seville's press operators have found the Digital Matchprint and Iris proofs Precision provides easy to work with and match on press.

Wide-Ranging Trade Shop
GAC/Flexoprep has been in the engraving business since it was Hicks Chatten Engraving, started in 1903. Today it is part of the Mail-Well Co. A packaging trade shop that focuses on the flexo market, GAC/Flexoprep produces plates for a full range of flexographic printers with a focus on preprinted liner and high-end paper and label products.

In 2000 GAC/Flexoprep became a beta site for Creo and installed the large ThermoFlex 5280 machine.

“This system allows us to provide the large plates [up to 80 in.] our customers need,” says plant manager Scott Benjamin. By the end of 2001, 45 percent of our plates were being produced digitally. That has expanded to more than 60 percent digital by this spring.”

GAC/Flexoprep has made it a priority to keep digital plate costs in-line with conventional plates. “While material and equipment costs are higher for digital plates,” says Benjamin, “the digital workflow is more streamlined and efficient. That keeps the overall cost of digital plates equal to that of conventional ones.”

Due to the large-format size of the ThermoFlex 5280, GAC/Flexoprep's customers reportedly are seeing better turnaround time for digital plates than for conventional. “We have been able to shave one to two days off of a five-day schedule by virtue of our digital workflow and its efficiencies,” Benjamin reports. “Some projects with very large plates — 80 inches plus — can be turned around as much as a week faster.”

Bonita Pioneer, a producer of high quality gift wrap and retail shopping bags, has been using digital plates since 2000. Bonita has seen particular benefits with its screen printing in the highlight end of vignettes.

Willamette Preprint West (a Weyerhaeuser Co.) produces preprinted liners with repeats up to 100 in. According to Benjamin, “Willamette has a diverse customer base, including the computer and peripheral markets, produce, beverage, and snack foods, as well as sporting goods. They have been particularly impressed with how clean reverse images come out. Combine that with their presses coming up to color and register more quickly, and customers are quite pleased with our digital plates.”

Saying Thanks
Bob Dalton, product manager for Creo's ThermoFlex product line, notes the drive for continual process improvement at many package printers has led to their use of digital flexo plates.

According to Dalton, “The process used to produce digital flexo plates is very tight and controlled. This leads to a predictable and consistent output. Converters looking for tight process control and pressroom efficiencies are finding digital plates to be very helpful.”

The customers of both Precision Color Graphics and GAC/Flexoprep are living testimony to the virtues of digital flexo plates, says Dalton. “Precision and GAC/Flexoprep are two of many trade shops producing digital flexo plates and helping customers meet their quality and efficiency goals,” says Dalton. “Thanks to companies like [those], digital flexo plates now are mainstream for many packaging converters.”

Dalton sums up: “The entire industry owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of digital flexo. They are one reason the flexo printing process is growing in both quality and market share while other segments show slow growth or declines.”

Kevin Karstedt of Karstedt Assoc. Ltd. has been in the packaging digital prepress arena for 18 years and now consults on graphic process and workflow automation issues for packaging converters and consumer products companies on a global scale. He can be reached at 716-992-2017; or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

SUPPLIER INFO
Creo Inc., Vancouver, B.C., Canada; 604/451-2700; creo.com

MacDermid Graphic Arts, Atlanta, GA; 404/696-4565; 800/348-7201; macdermid.com

DuPont Cyrel Packaging Graphics Products, Wilmington, DE; 302/999-4566; 800/345-9999; dupont.com/cyrel


 

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