How One Converter Mastered Sheet-Fed Films

With a supplier alliance and four years of homework, Hammer Lithographic adds sheet-fed BOPP to its operation successfully.

After 90 years as a converter of sheet-fed, offset lithographic labels, boxwraps, premium envelopes, and packaging materials, Hammer Lithographic Corp. is still making history.

Four years ago, the Rochester, NY-based company saw the opportunity to form a strategic alliance with The Films Business of ExxonMobil Chemical Co. to help create and convert a coated, sheet-fed version of Labelyte biaxially oriented poly-propylene filmstock, which previously had been sold and converted exclusively in roll form.

Today, Hammer says it is the largest converter of sheet-fed BOPP in North America and possibly the world, running millions of sheets annually. And it believes its proprietary process for running BOPP, Hammer SYN, will keep growing, representing more than 25% of all material run through its facility. Hammer expects sales from the SYN process to exceed $10 million dollars in 2001.

Science and Homework
“The history behind this is a classic case of a private company reacting fast to capitalize on a market need,” explains director of sales Lou Iovoli. “It's become a strong niche for us along with a fantastic testimonial to the resourcefulness of our employees. Our SYN process has become a scientific formula based on which supplier of film we are running and which press we're on. Many of our competitors have attempted to run synthetic material and report that it is no problem, but they really just dabble in it and get themselves in trouble. We've done our homework, four years of it.”

Iovoli notes that while many converters, including Hammer's wholly owned subsidiary, New Frontier Packaging, can convert BOPP in roll form, doing so in sheet form “is a totally different set of variables.” But he says that converting sheets from 40-56 in. wide on Hammer's relatively new line-up of Mitsubishi presses, with each sheet containing literally dozens of labels, can be far more cost-effective and generate less waste than roll-to-roll converting.

There are, however, inherent difficulties in converting thin films in a sheet form.

“Can you imagine the complexity of taking a sheet-fed press and running biaxially oriented polypropylene through it?” asks Iovoli. “How low can you go in terms of the material thickness and still be able to pull the sheet through the press? How do you get the inks to adhere to the material and dry on press without distorting the sheet with too much heat? There are a whole variety of issues that come up.”

A Marriage Made in Heaven
Since ExxonMobil and Hammer are headquartered just miles apart, it was only natural that the chemical company turned to its neighbor when it decided to offer the popular label film in sheet form. After all, Hammer Lithograph already enjoyed a reputation as an exceptionally high quality printer of multicolor labels with a passion for innovation and technology.

ExxonMobil enjoyed free access to Hammer's state-of-the-art facility to view test runs of its material while in the design confirmation phase of new product development, and Hammer enjoyed access to ExxonMobil scientists and its state-of-the art test facilities.

It was a marriage made in heaven. Together, the team from Hammer and ExxonMobil gradually worked to control all the variables involved with printing BOPP in a sheet-fed form.

Explains Iovoli, “We appreciate the fact that there is a unique formula involved in running the press dependent on which press is running, which BOPP is running, and how big the sheet is. Some competitors will assume the press will run as fast as paper when they estimate BOPP, then they find out it does — but the ink isn't drying. The truth of the matter is that not only does Hammer have its own proprietary inks and coatings we have developed with vendors for both ultraviolet and conventional runs, we also have uniquely configured all our Mitsubishi presses to help control our defined key variables.”

Iovoli adds, “Film acts extremely different than paper, and printing it from a sheet rather than a roll only compounds the issue. When you print on paper, the fiber acts like a foundation for the ink, allowing the ink to “grow roots,” but with polypropylene, there is nothing for the ink to hold onto, so you have to be able to dry it efficiently on press.”

He adds, “Some BOPP materials are coated, including ExxonMobil Labelyte, and others are uncoated, resulting in even more variability on press. We find each BOPP material we print requires extensive testing to identify the key attributes clearly and allow us to document accurately in our ISO-9002 process how we should be handling each.”

After months of initial testing and four years of experience converting BOPP, Hammer reports it is capable of running the sheet-fed material with exceptional quality, getting it cleanly off press, and cutting and shipping the finished labels in an almost continuous process. “Our ability to turn BOPP labels in less than 24 hours is a feat unmatched in the industry and is clearly related to our experience,” says Iovoli.

The Right Film for the Right Job

Hammer also converts sheeted films from AET, Hoescht Trespaphan, and others. Notes Iovoli, “Each film is unique in how it runs in our process and how it performs in the customer's process. I take our responsibility seriously to tell the customer, based on facts and experience, what they need when they ask for a film recommendation. Hammer doesn't want the business if the customer insists on an inferior construction that we know will be disappointing. Everyone has time to rerun labels when the results are incorrect; our corrective action team is more like the Maytag repairman, because we insist the right film be selected for the application.”

For example, ExxonMobil BOPP films are coated while those of AET and Hoescht are not. Consequently, each requires different drying times, inks, water balance, and press speeds. Some have higher waste than others. Hammer has identified which run well with UV coatings and which do not. Others react well to chemical resistance and scuffing, while some will fail immediately. All in all, Hammer considers that it has turned film selection and runnability into a science.

“Finishing in a sheet-fed operation is just as critical as the printing process,” says Iovoli. “All the little things we have documented in our quality system over the years commutatively make the difference. When people come to Hammer, they can rest assured it will get done right every time. We pride ourselves on consistency.”

He continues, “We have gone through so many experiments and such a long, tedious, documented learning curve, that today we are absolutely ready to handle any sheet-fed BOPP application, UV or conventional, a customer challenges us with. We have invested enormous resources to make this happen, and I guarantee nobody does it better!”

BOPP and Beverages
Iovoli reports that beverage companies have been most interested in utilizing BOPP cut-and-stack labels, though end-users in other potentially caustic markets such as household chemicals and petroleum-based products also can benefit from using BOPP.

The primary reason for the popularity of BOPP with the beverage industry, Iovoli explains, is that the PET containers themselves expand and contract after filling while in distribution, and film labels can move with the containers without tearing. Also, since many beverages today are sold out of ice chests, film labels have unlimited ice bath strength and will not deteriorate in the water and abrasion like their paper counterparts will. Lastly, film will not react to humidity that often is present in beverage filling plants. Humidity is an enemy to paper labels, Iovoli points out, because it makes paper want to curl, thereby creating inefficiencies on the labeling line.

Plus, says Iovoli, “You can drop a gallon PET bottle six feet and our SYN label will not come off at impact. You will have a failure with the cap before you do with the label.”

According to Iovoli, converting BOPP labels using sheet-fed lithography rather than roll-fed flexography offers end-users a number of quality and economic advantages. “For example, a 16- or 22-inch web press can fit only so many labels across the web, while our 56-inch sheet-fed press can lay out significantly more, thereby improving the efficiency, not to mention printing with offset quality.”

On that subject, Iovoli says, “Many customers believe offset printing is still superior to flexo, but Hammer's New Frontier Packaging Division is printing some excellent work using UV flexo technology. Flexo has made tremendous improvements in recent years. I'd be the first to say that our 16-inch Comco press, using High Definition Flexo Consortium standards, can print very near to the quality of lithography. But you can't get the sharpness in the graphics that you can get with lithography; it still doesn't have that depth.”

Helping Perrier Toward Brand Equity
The company converts BOPP film labels on four Mitsubishi presses: a 28×40-in., six-color model; two 28×40-in., eight-color models; and a 40×56-in., seven-color model with in-line backside printing capability. One of the eight-color presses, Model 842, was retrofitted with an in-line UV coating system from Aradiant at a cost of $500,000 early last year. (Ink suppliers are proprietary.)

Hammer installed its first UV press specifically to produce labels for Perrier, as Perrier sought greater market share in the crowded bottled water market that it helped launch. While other bottled water suppliers are commoditizing their labels, Perrier is actually investing in brand equity.

Iovoli says that Perrier felt a UV-coated Hammer SYN label would enhance its image and increase sales of what was then a new wide-mouthed PET bottle.

“Perrier came to us and said, ‘We have this unique looking wide-mouthed PET bottle, and we want to put the most dynamic label we can find on it,’” recalls Iovoli. “That label turned out to be the award-winning UV-coated Hammer SYN label.”

“Everything about the synthetics has been a success story,” Iovoli says, “from ExxonMobil being able to get into the market and expand its products into sheet-fed applications, to Mitsubishi working with us to configure our presses to run sheet-fed BOPP, to Perrier getting a premium-look UV coating on a film label out there in the marketplace.”

In addition to the Mitsubishi presses, Hammer operates another 60-in. press that converts board and heavy paper stock. That press is used primarily to convert seed packets, another one of Hammer's largest product niches. In fact, the company reports that it produces 90% of the seed packets used in North America.

Iovoli says Hammer has approached the sheet-fed BOPP market much in the same way that it did the seed packet market, which is why it has become equally dominant in both fields.

“We're a niche-focused company,” he sums up. “When Hammer goes into a niche market, we become completely proficient in meeting the needs of that market. We target being the leader in those markets by staying focused on them.”


SUPPLIER INFORMATION
ExxonMobil
, Macedon, NY; 315/966-1000

Mitsubishi, Lincolnshire, IL; 847/634-9100

AET Films, New Castle, DE; 800/688-2044

Hoescht Trespaphan, Swindon Wilts, U.K.; +44 (0)1793-644-526

Comco Intl., Milford, OH; 513/248-1600; 800/UVFLEXO

Aradiant, Palmyra, PA; 717/838-7220



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