Adam Smrdel from Carey Color

Adam Smrdel, who has worked at Carey Color Inc. since he turned 16, spoke at the FTA Forum
2016. He recalled some of the evolutions he has seen as a way to frame his urge to find what’s
next. A prolific author for FLEXO Magazine, Smrdel highlighted the material covered in his five
past articles, which touched on topics like elastomer vs. photopolymer, gray component
replacement (GCR) and under color removal (UCR), press profiling, elastomer advantages
and holding a KISS impression, and thermal contraction and expansion.


Adam Smrdel


“I have seen a very steady growth of engraved elastomer material—both through finding solutions
not possible with other materials and by word of mouth between printers sharing their positive
experiences,” Smrdel declared.

Details on DLE in Flexo Oct. 2017

Details on DLE

Direct Laser Engraving Basics, Benefits, Future Business

Brendan Pollard, Armin Senne & Adam Smrdel

At the start of this century, new laser technologies
emerged. YAG and diode lasers
started to become common in the plate
making process, at first only in mask ablation,
but later also for direct laser engraving (DLE).

Several engraving system manufacturers picked up on these technologies
and designed their systems around them. DLE technology for
flexo eliminates the costly outlay for multiple processing stages and
equipment commonly associated with more conventional photopolymer
sleeve/plate making technologies.

Flexographic engraving systems use single or multiple high-powered
CO2 lasers or fiber lasers to directly engrave continuous sleeves or
plates in a single step. The laser selectively ablates the non-print area
of an elastomer plate or sleeve to produce a print-ready surface without
the use of exposures or chemicals.

THE COMPOUNDS

Rubber has always played an important part in the flexo industry. Going
back to the last century, elastomer was mostly used in sleeve form
to print background colors in flexible packaging as well as printing on
tissue, wall paper and other materials for the decorative market.

There are several reasons elastomer did not really make its way
into the classic flexible packaging and label markets until recently.
Previously, engraved elastomer plates and sleeves were only suitable
for line work and relatively coarse linescreens up to 85 lpi. This had to
do with the limited elastomer compounds and the rudimentary laser
technology of the day.

A direct laser engraving workflow
involves fewer stages, reducing
the possibility for error. By
eliminating steps and variables,
we are eliminating failure points,
thus making the process more
consistent.

With the parallel development of high performance elastomers and
more advanced laser capabilities, new levels of quality are possible.
Current engraving technologies allow for resolutions of 4,000 dpi
and higher (i.e. 5,080 dpi in printed electronics applications). Screen
values of 200 lpi are used in everyday production throughout the
elastomer plate and sleeve producers around the world.

MATERIAL PROPERTIES

Today’s high-performance elastomers have more to offer than just improved
engraving capabilities. Most current elastomer printing forms
are made from a compound called EPDM (ethylene propylene diene
monomer). EPDM is a non-polar synthetic rubber compound that is
extremely resistant to UV light and ozone. Due to its polarity properties,
it also works very well with ketones, esters and alcohols, which
are polar substances, making it a perfect fit for flexographic printing,
not only with solvent-based, but also with UV and water-based ink systems.



The following fact can be used as a rule of thumb: Matching polarity
between ink and printing plate causes the former to migrate into the
latter, causing problems with swelling, premature wear and cracking.
Therefore, EPDM does not work with oil-based inks, gasoline and
aromatic hydro carbons (i.e. benzene); these substances are non-polar.
For printing applications using non-polar inks, such as offset printing,
the market uses NBR printing blankets (nitrile butadiene rubber),
which is an elastomer with polar characteristics.

Since EPDM-based printing forms do not swell with current flexo ink
systems and are extremely abrasion resistant, it makes them a good
choice in difficult printing environments, such as plastic cup, tube
and aluminum can printing, corrugated or nonwoven applications.
Surface properties, such as roughness and surface tension, but also
compressibility, are designed to neutralize the feeding characteristics,
which a lot of times are the cause of halo effects or mottling. The
compounds are also optimized to control ink pickup and release,
minimizing buildup.



ELASTOMER VS. POLYMER

Cost, perceived supply chain problems and limited inventories have
held back the use of elastomer sleeves in America, but new advances
in imaging and manufacturing are bringing their inherent advantages
to the attention of printers.

Elastomer sleeves are thicker and more durable, and can print two
to four times longer than polymer sleeves. This eliminates the need
to buy multiple plates or polymer sleeves for long runs and repeated,
abusive short runs that require many cleanings and press cylinder
mountings, and this leads to both cost savings and cost predictability
in the long run. A typical comment from printers who have switched
from polymer to elastomer sleeves is, “Elastomer usually costs less
than polymer, and we’re only buying one set instead of two—so the
savings are great, and our print results are more consistent.”

The following fact can be used as
a rule of thumb: Matching polarity
between ink and printing plate
causes the former to migrate into
the latter, causing problems with
swelling, premature wear and
cracking.

Further cost savings are realized because elastomer sleeves eliminate
the need to purchase expensive cushion adapters and replace them in
the future.

PRESSROOM PRODUCTIVITY

Flat plates have traditionally dominated the North American flexography
market. Even in the last several years, the limited amount of
cantilevered presses, the long lead time for sleeves and the perceived
high cost have hampered adoption. Printers are now demanding
ITR technology for several reasons, the most immediate of which is
efficiency.

ITR sleeves require no plate mounting stations, mounting material or
labor. This allows for quicker makeready. When mounted, digitally
engraved sleeves are aligned to each other during engraving (using
notches) for perfect registration. This leads to considerable savings
on labor, substrates and ink when getting up to color. With fewer
variables and a more uniform printing surface, press speeds can be
increased beyond what is capable with flat plates. Short run and repeat
jobs can be changed out quickly, and the increased durability of elastomer
sleeves allows for longer printruns.


Sarah Moravcik of Carey Color demonstrates loading of the elastomer sleeve on the Flexcel Direct System.


Since there are fewer things that can go wrong with sleeves during
the printing process—like undetected flat plate mounting issues, plate
lift, cylinder bounce, lack of uniformity, etc.—ITR can help eliminate
variables that lead to problems during printruns and cause press
downtime. While individual elastomer sleeves may be more expensive
than plates, increased productivity, combined with the elimination of
redundant plates, can actually lead to an overall cost savings over flat
plates.

The uniformity, consistency and registration of sleeves, combined
with the ink transference, density and resolution of digitally engraved
elastomers, allow for faster printing speeds with superior quality.
This allows printers to leverage new technologies to achieve ROI now
instead of later.

THE BENEFITS OF A DIGITAL WORKFLOW

A DLE workflow involves fewer stages, reducing the possibility of
error. By eliminating steps and variables, we are eliminating failure
points, thus making the process more consistent. With this process,
there is no essential ablation mask as with direct photopolymer laser
imaging.

DLE plates and sleeves are produced in a two-step process. First, the
non-printing areas are removed with a high-power laser imaging
system. A short, water-and-soap-based cleaning detergent wash-anddry
cycle follows, which is a lot less involved than the post-processing
stages for direct laser imaging or conventional flexo plate making
using photopolymer plates. Additionally, photopolymer washing
stages can often involve solvents harmful to workers and the environment;
laser engraving eliminates this. As sustainability becomes more
important to printers and brands, it’s essential to know that, from an
ecological point of view, there are no issues to be concerned of with
volatile organic compounds (VOC). The production of DLE printing
forms is completely free of solvent. Following that, the printing form
is ready to go on press.

The involvement of only two pieces of equipment and a true digital
output is especially appealing because the need for floor space is
greatly reduced. Taking a look into the future, it is fair to say flexo
printing form production will most likely move more toward the
printers, much as it did in the offset realm years ago. Data could be
sent straight to the printer, eliminating the shipment of plates. Remakes
are done quickly, with no auxiliary equipment needed.

FUTURE BUSINESS PROSPECTS

After this very broad overview of DLE basics, one question comes to
mind: If DLE is such an advanced technology offering this many benefits,
why is it not more popular? There is no simple answer to that.

DLE is facing the same issues as any other new technology, such as
digital plate making did in the beginning. These issues include slower
production speeds, machine and plate availability, initial investment
and so on. Just like in those days, development has to take place in
order to accommodate the market needs. However, over the last three
years, a lot of progress has been made. Engraving speeds have already
doubled and faster materials are now available.

Let’s look at DLE’s potential in specific markets:

  • Label printing: As label printers lean more and more toward UV
    inks, this will be one of the growth sectors for DLE technology.
    The smaller plate sizes, in combination with the material properties
    of the elastomer plates, will offer quite a few benefits when it
    comes to printing labels
  • Flexible packaging: With increasing production speeds,
    compressible plates that do not need cushion tape, coupled with
    all of the other benefits of elastomer compounds, the flexible
    packaging section of the flexo market has become increasingly
    accepting of laser-engraved elastomer printing forms. Faster
    press speeds and less “dirtying up” allow for more press uptime,
    adding to a significant cost savings
  • Corrugated printing: Pre-mounted, laser-engraved elastomer
    plates will result in an increase in print quality for corrugated.
    Eliminating registration issues and time-consuming mounting
    processes will attract corrugated printers to DLE. An increase
    in imaging speeds made possible with technologically improved
    engraving units with dual heads and four beams will make DLE
    even more appealing to this market sector
  • Specialty packaging: Dry offset printing (indirect flexo) for cups
    and cans has been lacking print quality due to the limitations of
    traditional plates, losing market share to IML (in-mold labeling),
    heat transfer and digital. Using DLE in this segment will certainly
    boost print quality, due to higher ink densities, higher linescreens
    and smoother vignettes (through the use of sub-surface
    dots in highlights). This segment is a classical UV ink application
    where elastomer’s natural material properties excel
  • Printed electronics: As this application becomes more mainstream,
    DLE plates will play a large role. With rotary screens
    being costly and limited in fine line detail, elastomer plates can
    provide a medium that will retain the intricacies while resisting
    the effects of abrasive inks and harsh solvents

 

IN CONCLUSION

The benefits of DLE will continue to grow as the technology evolves.
Faster lasers and improved elastomers will further drive printers to
the DLE process. The ecological advantages of DLE, driven by brands
and end users, may also determine how plates and sleeves will be
produced.


About the Authors: Brendan Pollard is managing director at Applied
Laser Engineering Ltd. Armin Senne is business manager, flexo at ContiTech.
Adam Smrdel is director of flexography at Carey Color Inc.

Pollard

Pollard

Senne

Senne

Smrdel

Smrdel

 

Thermal Contraction in Flexo Oct. 2014

An operator moves a sleeve that was just unpacked from a hot delivery
truck.

Hot & Cold

Thermal Contraction Can Dramatically Affect Press Registration

Carey Color

It’s January. Outside the window, the snow is falling.
On the schedule: a reprint of 400,000 impressions
for your biggest customer. You order the sleeves
from the warehouse and when it comes time to
print, the pressman calls. He can’t get the job to
register and you know the last time the job was on in
October, it printed flawlessly.

You walk down to the press and examine the results. Baffled, you lean
against the cold metal girder as it stretches from the ceiling to the floor.
You wonder, “What is going on here?” And then it dawns on you…

Temperature affects printing. One of the biggest ways is through
the expansion and contraction of polymer and elastomer plates and
sleeves. Material changes across temperature ranges can produce
registration and quality issues with your flexographic printing process,
which has tolerances in the thousandths of inches. Knowing how
different materials change with temperature is the key to planning a
printrun and mitigating mounting, registration and quality issues.

THE THEORY

The rate that a solid material changes in length with temperature
change can usually be calculated as the fractional change in length
per degree of temperature change. This number is called the linear
coefficient of thermal expansion and is often expressed in 10-6 m/m
K (or degrees Celsius), or in the U.S., degrees Fahrenheit. As long as
one stays in the same units for their fraction, it becomes possible to
convert this to inches and thousandths of inches easily. It is also
important to note that, with solids, the effects of air pressure differences
on thermal expansion are negligible.

But the theory becomes complicated in the flexographic printing
process, because printing plates and sleeves are not uniform solids.
They are compound materials bonded to other compound material.
Sleeves are usually composed of elastomer or photopolymer compounds
layered around a fiberglass core, bonded to the core with
adhesive. Plates are usually photopolymer plates mounted to fiberglass
cores using stickyback cushion tape. Because fiberglass formulations
generally tend to have a lower coefficient of thermal expansion than
most elastomer and polymer formulations, the materials mounted
around them cannot expand and contract without strain effects of
being attached to the fiber cores.

Because of the difficulty of studying
every single type of compound and
core, we decided it was important
not to study these separate
materials in a lab, but to study the
effects of thermal expansion on
plates and sleeves in real world
scenarios: on warehouse floors,
in storage rooms, and mounted on
engravers and presses.



Further complications arise because different formulations of elastomers,
polymers and fiberglass have different thermal expansion
characteristics, and it may be impossible to characterize every type of
material bonded to every type of core. In addition, not all materials
are isotropic (they do not expand at the same rate in every direction).

Often, the formulations and thermal expansion characteristics of the
materials are trade secrets held by the different manufacturers.

Because of the difficulty of studying every single type of compound
and core, we decided it was important not to study these separate
materials in a lab, but to study the effects of thermal expansion on
plates and sleeves in real world scenarios: on warehouse floors, in
storage rooms, and mounted on engravers and presses.


These four thermographic pictures, taken in three minute intervals, depict sleeves being placed on a cold warehouse floor. Notice how, within three minutes,  the bottoms of the sleeves start to get colder. The heat transfers away from the sleeves via conduction (direct contact between solids) with the cold floor, a much more efficient method of thermal transfer than convection (heat transfer from a liquid or gas to a solid). This illustrates why it’s a bad idea to storesleeves in direct contact with a cold warehouse floor.


THE STUDY

For the purposes of this study, we standardized on 48-in. sleeves
of different elastomermaterials and on 50-in. photopolymer plates
mounted to a fiberglass core. In addition, given the difficulty of
measuring diameters of bendable plates and sleeves not on a mandrel,
we decided to only measure sleeve lengths at this time.

The outside temperature was around 29 degrees Fahrenheit, so
cooling was as simple as leaving materials outside for a couple
of hours. Materials were first acclimated for 24 hours
off the ground to insure they were the same temperature head to tail.
Then the following procedures were performed, and temperature
and length were measured at each step:

  • Engrave the material with a measurement
    scale in the material 61-in. long
  • Set material outside for two to four hours
  • Set material inside and allow to acclimate
    for two hours
  • Allow material to sit overnight
  • Heat sleeve

All length measurements had a tolerance of plus or minus
0.002-in. All temperature measurements are accurate to within
plus or minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

ELASTOMER VERSUS POLYMER

Several trends were readily apparent. First, 90 percent of
elastomer is a formulation of EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer).
We found negligible differences in the variations of EPDM sleeves
with respect to thermal expansion and contraction. They
performed very similarly to each other.

Second, we noted that polymer versus elastomer plates had very
different coefficients of thermal expansion. Polymer tended to be
more sensitive to thermal expansion than elastomer. Below room
temperature, a 61-in. polymer plate mounted to a core tended to
contract (and/or correspondingly expand) around 0.003-in. per degree
Fahrenheit, while a 61-in. elastomer tended to contract
around 0.001-in. per degree Fahrenheit. Standard 0.25 undercut was used.
Polymer plates had a 0.015-in. stickyback, a 0.040-in.
base and a 0.067-in. plate.

BELOW & ABOVE ROOM TEMPERATURE

Third, the thermal expansion characteristics of sleeves and plates did
not appear to be linear across all temperature ranges. What we
noticed was that from 29 degrees Fahrenheit to room temperature
(72 degrees Fahrenheit), thermal expansion of plates and sleeves
appeared to be fairly consistent. However, as materials were heated above
room temperature, we found they did not expand at the same rate they
contracted. Above room temperature, a 61-in. polymer mounted
to a core tended to expand 0.0015-in. per degree Fahrenheit, while
elastomer tended to expand 0.0005-in. per degree Fahrenheit. The expansion
numbers were not nearly as consistent as the contraction numbers.

Fourth, sleeve sizes of 48-in. or more seemed to expand the same
per degree as sleeves of 51-in., 53-in. and 61-in. This supports
a hypothesis that after a certain length, elastomer or polymer
adhered to a fiber core, has finite expansion capabilities and,
with elastomers, the rate of contraction is 0.001-in. per degree
Fahrenheit, regardless of whether a sleeve is 51-in. or 61-in. (20
percent longer). This is clearly an area that requires more study,
as much of this was based on rough estimates.

The previous two observations would support a hypothesis that
the strain of the material being bound to the fiber core has a
limiting effect on how much the elastomer or polymer can
contract or expand, and has a limiting effect above
and below room temperature.

TIME TO RETURN “TO SPEC”

Another observation that was readily apparent, was that it took much
less time for polymer plates and sleeves to return to ambient
temperature than it did for elastomer sleeves. This is due to two
reasons that both have to do with Specific Heat Capacity (commonly
called “Specific Heat”)—the amount of heat per unit of mass
(or volume) required to raise the temperature of a material by
one degree. Specific heat is usually measured in joules
per kilogram per degree Kelvin, J/kg-K, or kilojoules per
kiloliter per degree Kelvin 103 J/m3-K.

The first reason polymer plates contract and expand more quickly
is that polyester, the base for most photopolymer sleeves and
plates, has a lower specific heat than EPDM elastomer
(1 kJ/kg-K versus 2 KJ/kg-K). It takes more energy to increase
the temperature of elastomer. Again, this is general, as
EPDM and photopolymer formulations for flexography are proprietary.

The second reason is that elastomer sleeves usually have much
thicker walls, which means there is more material to return to
temperature. As can be seen from the formulation for specific
heat, the more material you have, the more energy it requires to
raise its temperature—it takes longer to return to room temperature.

In our observations, it took most elastomer sleeves 12 hours to come
back to spec, while it took polymer only three hours. Fiberglass cores
took two hours to come back to spec. It is important to note that “back to spec”
means the material returned to its room temperature dimensions or file dimensions.
We did not base this timeframe off a measure of temperature, because only the surface
heat of the elastomer sleeve could be measured. We believe that a “return to spec”
meant that the sleeve’s core temperature, not just the surface reading
had returned to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. More study is needed and
ways to measure the core temperatures of sleeves is something that
manufacturers may want to examine.


In this time lapse, the sleeve was photographed every minute for 40 minutes,
cooling down to room temperature via convection (the air of the room in
contact with the solid sleeve). Note that the ends cool faster than the middle,
and that even after 40 minutes, the sleeve is not down to room temperature.


FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

There is still much to learn when it comes to how thermal expansion
affects polymer plates and sleeves. We feel that this rough study is
just a starting point, and that extensive research needs to be done to
improve our knowledge of all the effects of thermal expansion and
contraction in flexography.

Accurate linear and volumetric thermal expansion and contraction
statistics should be provided by plate, sleeve and core manufacturers,
and it is up to end users to make manufacturers aware of the issues.
Studying these issues in the lab will help increase the real world
knowledge for engravers, pressmen and production managers.

Despite the need for increased communication, manufacturers are
constantly making strides. New materials are continually under
development. One elastomer we studied had one third the thermal
coefficient of expansion as EPDM, putting it very close to the
thermal expansion characteristics of the steel bases of rotogravure.
We are also working with manufacturers and printers on methods
of acclimatizing plates and sleeves more quickly, and are exploring
the concept of using embedded devices to report core sleeve
temperatures.

Knowledge is power. Knowing how temperature affects the printing
process allows us all to continue to capitalize on the economic
advantages of elastomer and polymer over rotogravure, and the run
length benefits of elastomer. We look forward to continuing to study
thermal expansion issues and working closely with manufacturers to
best address them.


About the Author: Carey Color Inc. is a full service digital imaging
company headquartered in Sharon Center, OH, with locations in
Illinois, Wisconsin and the U.K. It employs more than 75 experienced
prepress craftsmen. Carey Color specializes in manufacturing laser
engraved plates and elastomer sleeves for the flexo, dry offset, emboss
and intaglio industries. Carey also provides prepress services for direct
mail catalogs, packaging, flexo and dry offset in addition to commercial
photography and offset plate making. To learn more about how Carey
Color can help you, contact 800-555-3142 or visit www.careyweb.com.

Kiss Impression in Flexo July 2014

Pucker Up

A Kiss Impression Is Key in Preparing And Executing an Ideal Pressrun

As the industry introduces new presses,
inks and substrates, it is important to
remember that it is often simple best
practices that determine the success
of a printrun. Methods for consistent impression
are some of the most important best practices a
printer can establish and the “kiss” impression is
one of the most essential.

What is a kiss impression? Simply put, on an ideal printrun, the
printing sleeve or plate should just “kiss” the substrate. Technically, a
kiss impression is the minimum impression needed to transfer all text,
solids and halftones to the substrate. The advantages to a kiss impression
are numerous. The kiss allows pressmen to hold a fine dot while
increasing graphic fidelity. It allows for printing at faster speeds, with
less wear, and will protect the most fragile dot: the highlight.

But a kiss impression is an ideal. In most “real world” environments, it
is difficult to achieve. Lots of things in a print environment can ruin the
perfect impression, so every printer has to look at the printing process
from the center of the press outward and ask questions like these:

  • Is the substrate a perfect thickness on the roll and on every
    different roll?
  • Are the mandrels perfect in total indicated runout (TIR) without
    tapering?
  • Does the bridge mandrel have low spots?
  • Is there any “play” or movement in the mandrels from one unit
    to the next?
  • Do you trust that the plates are mounted to the cushion tape
    without waves?
  • Is the printing sleeve perfect in TIR and without tapering?
  • Have you ensured proper and consistent ink acetate levels and
    viscosity?
  • Have you ensured consistent surface tension that is within the
    substrate’s specifications?
  • Is the corona treatment of the substrate working correctly?

It is much easier to have a customer
approve a job that’s over impressed
with too much gain than it is to have
a customer approve a job that is
missing graphics because it was
under impressed.

Print managers have to be risk managers. Most pressmen and print
managers will err on the side of over impressing a printrun to
compensate for those real world problems. It is much easier to have
a customer approve a job that’s over impressed with too much gain,
than it is to have a customer approve a job that is missing graphics
because it was under impressed. And the difference between a perfect
impression and an under impression may be as small as 0.001-in.



In addition, substrates vary in thickness. A 40-μm. variation in a
substrate may produce a “wave” pattern of impression variances in
a printrun. And every printer knows that even if a substrate has a
rated thickness tolerance specification, it can still receive substrates
that are out of tolerance. Many substrates are also prone to stretching
during the print process. Printers regularly adopt a “make it
work” mentality, because they do not have time to deal with a manufacturer
on an out of spec substrate. It is easier to squeeze it and get
the job done with some over impression than it might be to change
out a stock or miss a press date.

Finally, plate and sleeve defects may necessitate over impressing.
Plates, by their nature, have more variables than sleeves:

  • Mounting tape
  • Cushion adaptors
  • Mounting errors

These can all change the pressure needed across the web. Heavy impressing
may be necessary to mitigate low spots, press bounce and/or
maximize the usable print area across the web when using plates.



…While many modern presses
take care of these practices with
automation, there is no substitute
for an experienced pressman
operating with a company’s unique
set of best practices for its specific
press.

Mitigating Consequences of Over Impression

As we’ve shown, there are a lot of reasons printers feel the need to slightly
over impress a job. But there are strategies for mitigating the effect
and need for over impression. Gray Component Replacement (GCR) in
the file prep stage can help immensely to minimize the negative effects
of over impression. GCR is the removal of most of the multichannel
whites and grays from a 4-color (or more than 4-color) process. Those
grays are then seamlessly added back as a full range black, maintaining
the shape and depth of the original. Neutrals that were once three colors
are now mostly black. With less ink behind grays there is less variation
in color throughout, as pressure is increased. GCR also produces better
highlights because a majority of colors are created by only one color (in
the case of a spot) or two colors (CMYK or expanded gamut) for hue,
and then black is added for shading.


Ice Cream

One of several GCR advantages (pictured,  black channel) is a reduced color ink 
consumption, as composite grays are replaced with less expensive black ink. 

Ice Cream

UCR — black channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Engraved elastomer sleeves mitigate the effects of over impression and
allow for wider tolerance in impression pressures. Elastomer compounds
can be specifically tailored to printers’ ink types, which allow
for optimized ink transference. A key component to direct ablated
elastomer sleeves is known as “below surface imaging.” By taking the
highlight dots below surface (1 percent to 5 percent) we can alleviate
dot gain and problems with damaging highlight dots, especially at
higher pressures. Laser engraved sharp shoulders on the edge of text
and borders help to minimize fat text and fill in on reverse text.

Engraved sleeves can also offer increased uniformity across the web,
especially when compared to flat plates. This can mitigate the need to
over impress and can greatly increase the life of a sleeve.

Another reason to use engraved elastomer sleeves is their durability.
Elastomer is inherently more durable than polymer. You can expect
two to four times the run length without degradation in highlight dots
compared to polymer. What does this mean? Elastomer decreases the need
to over impress to achieve the kiss impression at the later stages of
a typical printrun. There is no breaking down of cushion layers like a
cushion adaptor with polymer ITR or sticky back with flat plates.

As the industry introduces new presses, inks and
substrates, it is important to remember that it is
often simple best practices that determine the
success of a printrun.

We’ve developed a set of best practices for establishing kiss impression
when running fingerprints, discussed in Adam’s article
(see sidebar on page 26). It is important to note that while many
modern presses take care of these practices with automation, there
is no substitute for an experienced pressman operating with a
company’s unique set of best practices for its specific press. This
way, the press operator has the ability to manually make adjustments
for best impression, if conditions change during the course
of a printrun.


About the Author: Carey Color Inc. is a full service digital imaging
company headquartered in Sharon Center, OH, with locations in
Illinois, Wisconsin and the U.K. It employs more than 75 experienced
prepress craftsmen. Carey Color specializes in manufacturing laser engraved
plates and elastomer sleeves for the flexo, dry offset, emboss and
intaglio industries. Carey also provides prepress services for direct mail
catalogs, packaging, flexo and dry offset in addition to commercial photography
and offset platemaking. To learn more about how Carey Color
can help you, contact us at 800-555-3142 or visit www.careyweb.com.

 

Press Fingerprinting in FTA Oct. 2013

Testing The Limits

Best Practices For Press Fingerprinting

Just like the tips of our fingers, the way each press
lays down ink is unique. Each press prints at different
speeds, pressures, dot percentages, etc. But printers
must print customers’ products accurately and consistently.

This is why fingerprinting is so important. Today’s printing
industry is all about the customer. The newest and fastest
presses, the best proofing processes, the most efficient workflows—
none matter if the customer is not happy. If printers
do not test the limits of their printing process, to know exactly
how their press prints, they won’t be able to deliver the results
customers expect.

Carey Color has spent a lot of time working with printers to
help them adopt elastomer sleeves as their preferred in-theround
material. It’s come to rely on press fingerprinting and
developed a set of best practices for the process. The goal
is to help the printer control pressroom variables, achieve
tighter tolerances, improve print repeatability and match the
proof consistently. How do we do that?

It starts with building a sleeve and continues by establishing
a database of tightly matched parameters for each sleeve
and fingerprint. We run an individual fingerprint for each set
of variables (press, ink, substrate, etc.), so that when those
variables change, we know what the printed piece is going to
look like

FINGERPRINT FILE

When building a fingerprint file, it’s safe to only include the
graphics, tables and linescreens that any press will print effectively.
But you’ll typically find with a good profile that not all
portions will succeed. Why? It’s important when building a file
to include linescreens higher than typically printed, reverse
copy smaller than usual and highlight dots you typically cannot
hold with the current process.

When simply preparing for something like moving from
one manufacturer’s polymer plate to another manufacturer’s
polymer plate, fingerprinting to determine minimum dot, dot
gain, line screen and registration is the standard practice.
But when embracing new technologies like elastomer and expanded
gamut, the goal is to build a fingerprint that reaches
beyond the boundaries of what you’ve printed successfully in
the past. With new technology, it’s good to know the threshold
and sweet spot.

It’s important not to take the safe route—If a print shop has
never printed higher than 120 linescreen, it should put 133
and 150 on the fingerprint, so that at some point, the print will
fail. By doing this, a printer can understand exactly where
its limitations lie. The printer may find that printing a higher
density or a finer linescreen is a real possibility when it hasn’t
been before.


When fingerprinting for elastomer, include target areas with slight
variations of dot height and shoulder angle. Include a target with
a slight bump curve in the mid tone, push targets with the highest
possible linescreen ruling and feature text and reverse text down to
one point. Story and art: Carey Color Inc.


PRODUCT ION CONDITIONS

Don’t roll out the proverbial red carpet when fingerprinting.
The goal is to print in the same environment and process a
printer normally would. This will create an apples-to-apples
comparison between the fingerprinting job and a typical job.
When preparing for a fingerprinting job, take these steps into
consideration:

  • Be mindful of what average printing conditions are and
    attempt to maintain them for every print job
  • Fingerprint with the same ink, density, pressure, speed
    and operators normally used
  • Mount the sleeves, bring the press up to speed, set impression,
    check density and pull sheets for evaluation

A typical 1-color fingerprint should take less than 20 minutes
from start to finish. The goal is not to create a product
that cannot be reproduced on a day-to-day basis; rather, the
goal is to develop a process that offers the best quality and
repeatability on re-runs and in matching proofs.

Key components should be documented and recorded for
future review. One option is to build a database for a printing
process so future runs will be engraved and proofed with
curves built from data collected in prior runs. By continuing to
take readings from live production, a printer can later tweak
the proofing and engraving curves.

FINGERPRINT READING

After it is printed, it is important to precisely read the
fingerprint and know what to look for. Here’s a breakdown
of Carey Color’s process—remember, we are not always on
the pressrun and not always capable of making density and
impression changes while the sleeves are running:

  • Visually check for imperfections like streaking or banding,
    ink bridging and impression
  • Evaluate visual consistency of ink laydown and density
  • With a densitometer, measure dot gain in the following
    areas:

    • 1 percent to 5 percent
    • 25 percent
    • 50 percent
    • 75 percent
    • Solids
  • Enter the readings into software that plots dot gain characterization
    curves. It’s important to take readings from
    four places across the sheet and then allow the software
    to determine an average

At times, run several different sleeves made with different
elastomer compounds. The purpose of this is to find the best
printing combination. By making changes in compounds and
anilox a printer is able to pick the material and durometer
best suited.

The goal in this first process is to build a dot gain characteristic
that will match General Requirements for Applications
in Commercial Offset Lithography (GRACoL) Standards
(ranging from 18 percent to 25 percent dot gain). This process
will be better defined after creating a 4-color fingerprint.

BUILDING in 4-COLOR

Once a curve has been built, the dot percentages should
translate across all channels. We then print a 4-color fingerprint
to create International Color Consortium (ICC) Profiles
for proofing and monitor calibration. In this process, the goal
is to get the printer to G7 standards using CMY-to-black conversion
patches. A typical target is a Color IT8 7.4.

We then measure the 4-color fingerprint to verify dot gain,
wet traps and overprint for the purpose of building a profile
for that specific press, substrate, ink and so on. ICC profiles
are then built to define the achievable color gamut of the
press with a 4-color process. The next step is to correlate the
relationship between the input data and the printed result and
develop a proof that can match the press consistently.

What is most important to realize—and this is where most
ICC Profiling falls short—is that just because a proofing target
is within G7 (or any other proofing standard) specification, the
proof may not be up to standards visually. Even if all colors
are within a Delta E of +/-2, seeing the visual deficiencies and
adjusting the proof to fix those deficiencies requires specific
levels of expertise. This is why including common graphics
and images is important in a 4-color fingerprint file: To allow
calibration of proofs for a visual match in addition to a specification
match.

There are many challenges in this step. For instance,
building a profile from a paper proof to a paper print is much
easier than understanding how proofing on clear material
overlaid on the printer’s substrate (like foil) will translate to
the printed piece. This is where experience comes into play.
Building a proof, when proofing onto the printed substrate
isn’t always an option, is tricky. The knowledge of an experienced
specialist is essential to create a match.

EXPANDED GAMUT FINGERPRINTING

As more and more printers start to print using a standardized
7-color process, fingerprinting best practices remain
as important as ever. Continuity and consistent horizontal
density across the press sheet and from corner to corner is
key for consistent fingerprinting with expanded gamut. This is
important because in a 7-color process, inconsistent densities
magnify just as much, or more than, traditional CMYK.

The evaluation process is similar in expanded gamut,
but due to the complexity, specialized software is required
to build the achievable color space and develop proofing
processes to match the press. It is important when switching
to expanded gamut to choose auxiliary colors that best match
the color gamut of what is typically printed: Choose from
green, orange, red, violet and blue to achieve the widest color
gamut.

Also, develop gray component replacement standards on
prepress files to minimize ink density on the printed piece.
Files that contain large Pantone solids and vector art are gray
component replacement converted more aggressively, while
CMYK images are converted less aggressively. This will get
fingerprints up to color more quickly and consistently and
result in better matching the proof to the printed piece.


Continuity and consistent density horizontally across the press sheet
and from corner to corner is the key for consistent fingerprinting
with expanded gamut.


ELASTOMER FINGERPRINTING

With laser-engraved elastomer sleeves, variables like dot
height, dot shoulder, relief depth and shoulder angle can be
controlled. Therefore, when fingerprinting for elastomer, it
is normal to include target areas with slight variations of dot
height and shoulder angle. Because elastomer generally
prints sharper, include a target with a slight bump curve in the
mid tone, which is usually a credible starting point.

Push targets with the highest possible linescreen ruling and
include text and reverse text down to one point. The result
is usually a very clean print with high ink densities and very
predictable dot gain, which allows printers to print highlights
more consistently by reducing impression/pressure.


KEY
1. Linescreens above and below your standard linescreen
2. Tints or images with sufficient highlights, shadows, mid tones and solids
3. Barcodes with different BWRs
4. Slur charts
5. Small to large positive and reverse copy (down to one point in most cases)
6. Vignette gradation target
7. 100 percent – 1 percent left and right impression check


THE NEXT ITERATION

About 90 percent of the work for fingerprinting is done
once the multichannel fingerprint is created. Proofs should be
matched on press and with correct plate curves and proofing
profiles, this should be very achievable. But there is always a
need to evaluate live production.

New projects may reveal deficiencies in the proofing
process because of unforeseen color combinations or visual
inconsistencies that were not detectable with stock images.
This is especially important with the first few post-fingerprint
jobs.

Periodically providing printed material to a separator is
key to continual improvement. It is vital to develop a proofing
and printing process that, while consistent, can be adjusted
slightly as new information about how the press lays down
ink is discovered. Then, the goal is to run those jobs the same
way, every time they are on press.


About the Author: Carey Color Inc. is a full-service digital
imaging company headquartered in Sharon Center, OH,
with locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and the U.K. It employs
more than 75 experienced prepress craftsmen. Carey Color
specializes in manufacturing laser-engraved plates and
elastomer sleeves for the flexo, dry offset, emboss and intaglio
industries. It also provides prepress services for direct
mail catalogs, packaging, flexo and dry offset in addition to
commercial photography and offset platemaking. To learn
more about how Carey Color can help in the fingerprinting
process, contact 1-800-555-3142 or visit www.careyweb.com.

Carey Color FTA July 2013

“Soaring” Growth for Flexographic Printing

By Girard Moravcik

GCR Image Conversions, Laser Engraved
Elastomer Sleeves & ECG Printing Achieve
Heights Once Reserved for Gravure

The rotogravure process has been known for its ability
to deftly print fine art and photography, and for its
unmatched durability in long printruns. But rotogravure
continues to be among the most expensive printing processes
in our industry today; requiring hundreds of thousands of
impressions to be profitable. There is an alternative. You can
now achieve the quality and nearly equal the run length of
rotogravure for a fraction of the cost by using laser ablated
elastomer sleeves.

For shorter printruns that didn’t require quite the quality of
rotogravure, flexographic plates became an alternative, but
until recently, there was no clear cut alternative that rivaled
high-end rotogravure for print quality and longevity. Flat top
dot and high definition (HD) screening have helped bridge the
gap for flat plates; but flat plates still fall short when it comes
to longevity, registration ability, and razor sharp text. Now,
flexographic printing using laser engraved elastomer sleeves
offers all of these abilities.

Laser engraved elastomer sleeves can be leveraged along
with technologies like gray component replacement and
expanded gamut to offer a high quality, reproducible printing
product that is only rivaled by rotogravure.

Elastomer sleeves approach the run lengths of rotogravure
cylinders at a fraction of the cost. They are also extremely
efficient for short runs because of ease of mounting and
impeccable registration – leading to faster makereadies.
For a printer, they can make the difference between profit
and loss. For designers, this means you can change printing
processes, but do not have to change your designs to convert
them from rotogravure to flexography.

Subsurface imaging allows control of graphics and text.
Printers can now combine halftoning and line work into one
print unit. Engraved flexographic sleeves can hold below 1
percent minimum dot: allowing fuller range throughout the
highlight dot for vivid artwork and photorealistic images. This
is done with minimal size highlight dots, microns below the
surface. Only laser engraving allows control of the imaging
of the dot—from the floor, to the shoulder, to the surface, to
reduce surface tension and to control dot gain.

EXPANDED GAMUT

The traditional CMYK process limits today’s “jump offthe-
shelf” graphics intended to attract consumers in a few
seconds. Most high-end packaging is now designed for
8-to-10 colors, utilizing CMYK and an ever changing variety of
Pantone colors, specific to design families, brands, and logos.



Expanded Gamut standardizes the printing process to
CMYK + 3 Pantone colors, such as orange, green, and violet,
to achieve difficult colors not in the CMYK printing color
gamut. This eliminates the need to constantly swap Pantone
color ink formulations on press. By standardizing the same
seven colors, printers can purchase ink in bulk and produce
the majority of the color spectrum needed. This drastically
reduces press setup times, which will, in turn, reduce costs.

Software like Esko’s Equinox has extremely simplified the
conversion process for trade houses and printers to achieve
consistent great results. This lessens the need for graphic
designers to change how they are currently working. Experienced
separators can convert most existing designs on the
fly. Utilizing the proper ink set and quality conversion software
is the key to increasing the color spectrum, maintaining consistency,
and reducing makeready costs.

When using expanded gamut, reverse copy that was once
a single spot color may now be made up of two-to-three
colors to achieve the same PMS match. There’s now the issue
of holding reverse copy registration in these areas that wasn’t
an issue with a one color PMS spot. This is a challenge for flat
plates, especially when talking about press widths averaging
50-in. and more. Tight tolerances in registration with elastomer
sleeves allow printers to hold offset like traps as low as
.003-in., which has become critically important for these multicolor
reverses.

GRAY COMPONENT REPLACEMENT

One of the best ways to maximize the effectiveness of
expanded gamut is to partner it with advanced separation
technologies, like gray component replacement (GCR).

GCR is the conversions of full range colors, limited to hue
and saturation, as opposed to creating hue, saturation and
lightness. The lightening and darkening aspect of the color is
removed from the range and added into the black for neutrality,
consistency, and control.

Think of colors as white and black colors. White colors are
lighter printing and are only adding neutrality and shading,
like the cyan in a red apple. Black colors are the heavy printing
color, adding saturation and hue richness, like the magenta
and yellow in the red apple. In another color example, like
a green tree, the magenta would be the white color adding
only neutrality and shading and the yellow and cyan would be
the black colors, printing heavy and creating the saturation
and hue richness.

GCR is the removal of most, if not all of this white/gray color,
from each color and then seamlessly adding it back into a full
range black, maintaining the shape and depth of the original.
This process opens the window of latitude immensely for the
press operator to achieve color without compromise.

Because of the advantages and complexity of GCR, it is
important to partner with a company that is experienced in
GCR separations.

By using techniques like GCR, cost savings and quality
improvements are achieved simultaneously. Also, with files
converted to GCR; pressmen now have fewer issues with neutrals
varying on press. Neutrals that were once three colors,
are now mostly black. With less ink behind grays, you’ll experience
much less variation in color overall as environments
change throughout your pressrun. Hue changing neutrals are
a thing of the past.



ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

In the current “just in time” marketplace – longer pressruns
with large inventories are becoming less practical. Because
there is now an alternative to rotogravure with a substantial
cost savings, designers have more opportunity to change
their graphics as customer tastes change.

The decreased cost and increased flexibility of laser engraved
elastomer sleeves allows designers to match printed
designs to ever-changing marketing needs. Designers can
keep the look of their product fresh and original, and more
easily incorporate seasonal, promotional, and specialty run
instead of having to re-use last year’s designs.

Because of the high cost of rotogravure, many have
outsourced their printing to Asia. The advantages and cost
savings of flexo when using laser engraved elastomer sleeves
are allowing North American printers to reclaim work they
once thought lost. Moving work back to North America helps
customers speed up print cycles and have more control over
how their jobs are printed.

Sleeves are also leading the way toward a greener printing
process. Rotogravure often uses very corrosive and environmentally
unfriendly etching chemicals and solvent inks. The
ability to customize the elastomer compound means that more
environmentally friendly inks can be used. Additionally, the laser
ablation of elastomer sleeves avoids the pollution involved
with the corrosive rotogravure etching process. Standardizing
ink sets with expanded gamut also reduces ink waste.

The most exciting changes in the printing industry are happening
in flexography. Laser engraved elastomer sleeves apply
the newest and most cutting edge technologies to achieve
print quality once reserved only for rotogravure. Flexography
can do it for less. Flexography can do it sustainably. And, as
an alternative to out-sourced rotogravure, flexography can
help keep North American printers in business.


About the Author: Girard Moravcik has been owner, CEO
and president of Carey Color Inc. since 1995. In that time,
Gary, who started out as a color manager in 1980, has been
at the forefront of innovation in color and printing. In 2008
he developed and patented “Stealth Screening” for the dry
offset industry to revolutionize “in-the-round” printing. He now
brings his expertise to the world of flexography where he is
consulted by printers and manufacturers around the world.
Gary has shepherded Carey Color from a small trade shop to
a fully diversified digital imaging company. Headquartered
in Sharon Center, OH, with locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, and
the UK; Carey employs more than 70 experienced prepress
craftsmen, and specializes in premedia, catalogs, commercial
photography, offset platemaking, and manufacturing laser engraved
plates and sleeves for dry offset, flexo, emboss, and Intaglio printing. For
more information regarding elastomer sleeves; please contact Carey Color
Inc. at 800-555-3142 or visit www.careyweb.com.

Girard Moravcik

New World of In-the-Round FTA Oct. 2012

Left to right: Dr. Douglas J. Edwards, president, digital packaging & functional printing, Kodak; Gary Moravcik, president and CEO,
Carey Color Inc.

New World of In-the-Round

Laser-Engraved Sleeves Offer Quality Control Advantages

By Nathan Smith, with Gary Moravcik, Edward Stolzman and Adam Smrdel

Just as explorers came to North America hundreds of
years ago and discovered a new continent, unparalleled
advances in digital engraving and elastomer
sleeve-making have arrived in the New World.

With these advances, a case for a 100 percent in-the-round
(ITR) elastomer workflow can now be made. Driven by unprecedented
efficiency, consistency, quality, and speed, identified
and acted upon years earlier in Europe; a new age of expansion
and innovation in the world of flexography has begun.

WHY ROUND VS. FLAT:
PRESSROOM PRODUCTIVITY

  • No plate mounting stations
  • Less material and labor
  • Perfect registration
  • Quicker makeready
  • “Up to color” quicker—considerable labor,
    substrate, and ink savings
  • Easier to repeat jobs
  • Longevity and durability on long runs
  • Fewer variables = fewer problems
  • Quality
  • Increased press speeds

WHY ELASTOMER VS. POLYMER

  • Durability = savings
  • Consistency
  • Customizability
  • Quality control in imaging and manufacturing
  • Supply chain and re-use
  • Cost
  • Production speed—from manufacturing, to
    imaging, to printing

Below surface engraved sleeve – side view.


EFFICIENCY DRIVES DEMAND

Flat plates have traditionally dominated the North American
flexography market. Even in the last several years, the
limited amount of cantilevered presses, the long lead time for
sleeves, and the perceived high cost have limited adoption.
But printers are now demanding ITR technology for several
reasons. The most immediate—efficiency.

ITR sleeves require no plate mounting stations, mounting
material or labor. This allows for quicker makeready. When
mounted, digitally engraved sleeves are aligned to each other
during engraving (using notches) for perfect registration. This
leads to considerable savings on labor, substrates, and ink
when getting up to color.

With fewer variables and a more uniform printing surface,
press speeds can be increased beyond what is capable with
flat plates. Short run and repeat jobs can be changed out
quickly, and the increased durability of elastomer sleeves allow
for longer printruns. Since there are fewer things that can go
wrong with sleeves during the printing process, like undetected
flat plate mounting issues, plate lift, cylinder bounce, lack of
uniformity, etc.; ITR can help eliminate variables that lead to
problems during printruns that cause press down time.

While individual elastomer sleeves may be more expensive
than plates, because of their increased productivity, combined
with the elimination of redundant plates, elastomer sleeves will
actually lead to an overall cost savings over flat plates.

Quality improvements with sleeves over plates are the
second reason that printers are switching to ITR. Digitally
engraved elastomer sleeves have unparalleled registration.
Because registration and uniformity problems with flat plates
are amplified across the web, there has often been a significant
amount of waste associated with flat plates.

For instance, a printer worked with eight lanes of fine detail
graphics printing on a 66-in. web, and was consistently forced
to throw away 33 percent of the printed material because of
registration issues. Switching the plant to elastomer engraved
sleeves allowed the production team to consistently hold a
.003 trap across the entire sheet, reducing waste to zero. Photopolymer
flat plates have a traditional tolerance of +/- .015
tolerance across a 66-in. web.

“The tolerance spec of elastomer sleeves is +/-.001,” boasts
Carey CEO Gary Moravcik. Printers are also able to combine
sleeves with flat plates to gain some of the advantages of the
sleeve without having to eliminate flat plates altogether.

One of the reasons for the slow adoption of ITR in North
America, as compared to Europe, has been the fewer cantilevered
presses in existence here. The last few years have seen
a marked increase in the installation of cantilevered presses,
but many printers have struggled to realize immediate returns
on their investment.

Print speed increases are easier to attain when using a 100
percent sleeve based workflow. Sleeves allow faster printruns
and allow more printruns on multi-million dollar flagship presses
like W&H, PCMC, and F&K. One print salesman recently
remarked, “Running a brand new press with flat plates is like
buying a Ferrari and driving it only through school zones.”

Sleeves also embrace new technologies like extended gamut
and Opaltone™. The uniformity, consistency, and registration
of sleeves combined with the ink transference, density, and
resolution of digitally engraved elastomers allow faster printing
speeds with superior quality. This allows printers to leverage
new technologies to achieve ROI now, instead of later.


Below surface engraving reduces the risks of printing shoulders
and inconsistent dot gains. Control of the shoulders allows for razor
sharp text even at 1 and 2 point and the ability to print smaller
reverse text without “filling in.” Imaging with a direct laser can create
stronger dots than that of the Laser Ablated Mask system used in
polymer plates and sleeves.


ELASTOMER’S INHERENT ADVANTAGE

Cost, perceived supply chain problems, and limited
inventories have held back the use of elastomer sleeves in
America, but new advances in imaging and manufacturing
are bringing the inherent advantages of elastomers to the
attention of printers.

Elastomer sleeves are thicker and more durable and can
print two-to-four times longer than polymer sleeves. This
eliminates the need to buy multiple plates or polymer
sleeves for long runs and repeated abusive short runs that
require many cleanings and press cylinder mountings.
This leads to cost saving in the long run, and cost predictability.

A typical comment from printers who have switched from
polymer to elastomer sleeves is, “Elastomer usually costs
less than polymer, and we’re only buying one set instead of two.
So, the savings are great, and our print results are
more consistent.” Further cost savings are realized because
elastomer sleeves eliminate the need to purchase expensive
cushion adaptors and replace them in the future.

Sleeve durability does not just come from elastomer’s increased
ability to stand up to press pressures, corrosive
inks and cleaning solutions, but also from the way they are imaged.
Digital control of the halftone shoulders contributes
to dot stability and reduces breakoff, which adds durability and
consistency. Below surface engraving also produces a more
consistent product by reducing highlight press gain, even if a
job is slightly over squeezed from pressto- press and operator-to-operator.

We’ve been told by many print customers, “Our pressmen love sleeves.”
They love elastomer sleeves even more because below surface engraving
reduces the risk of printing shoulders and the risk of inconsistent dot
gains. Control of the shoulders allows for razor sharp text, even at one
and two point and the ability to print smaller reverse text without filling in.

Elastomer customization is possible through the chemical
and physical processes of sleeve manufacturing itself.
“It is now possible to create a special elastomer compound
specifically for your press to get the absolute best from your
fingerprint,” says Moravcik. “Because elastomers have no
photographic layer, which is the time consuming part of new
polymer development, customized materials for your specific
needs can be developed in weeks and not years.” He continues,
“Slight changes in elastomeric compounds can increase
ink transfer for specific inks and substrates where polymers
have hit a dead end.”

A wide variety of elastomer materials with different durometers
and ink lay down characteristics are now available.
Higher ink densities allow printers to achieve higher press
speeds and maintain print contrast. At a test run with a set of
custom laser-engraved elastomer sleeves, a customer was
amazed at an unprecedented printing event, “The density
was so high we had to cut it… That’s a good thing!”

Quality control is another area where elastomer sleeve
manufacturing and imaging have grown leaps and bounds.
Kodak has developed a system (Flexcel Direct) whereby all
sleeves are quickly pre-scanned on the engraver to check for
a flawless surface and rejected before imaging if any imperfections
are detected.

Laser-engraved sleeves also have an inherent quality control
advantage over photopolymer. Laser-engraved sleeves
have three steps to imaging: file prep, engraving, and rinsing.
This means that the sleeve only has to be mounted one
time, engraved, rinsed, and shipped. Photopolymer sleeves
have many more steps: file prep, mask ablation, exposure,
development, wash-out, and several options for drying, post
exposure, etc., and then shipment. This adds several more
variables to the imaging process, each of which adds more
analog steps and points of failure in the imaging process.

“By increasing the market volume and bringing in multiple
suppliers from around the world, we have created a competitive
atmosphere in the USA manufacturing infrastructure:
increasing the quality, reducing the supply time, and reducing
the raw material unit cost of elastomer sleeves,” says Moravcik.
New covering methods which allow even higher quality
sleeves, with no joins and no overlapping are in development.

Another supply chain innovation has led directly to cost
savings with elastomers: the ability to regrind and reimage
sleeves. “Elastomer sleeves can be produced with wall thicknesses
from .125-in. to .500-in. with phenomenal print results
on all,” claims Carey salesman and flexo technology expert,
Ed Stolzman. Elastomer sleeves can be kiss ground to the
next lower repeat and re-imaged once the sleeve is done being
used, creating as many as three-to-four uses of the same
sleeve. When considering overall ROI, this will drastically
reduce costs.

ENCODED ELASTOMER SLEEVES

Flat plates can’t talk, but elastomer sleeves can! Carey
Color is spearheading a revolutionary innovation for
sleeve manufacturers, which allows them to uniquely
encode each sleeve and track that sleeve throughout its
lifetiime. Carey’s encoded elastomer sleeves can tell you
where they’ve been and what they’ve done from manufacture
to regrind, to the last impression.

Senior Developer Chad Gray remarks, “Print managers
can scan a sleeve in their warehouse with a mobile
device and determine its size, when it was made, elastomer
composition, how many times it’s been on press,
etc. It’s now possible to track the entire lifecycle of an
elastomer sleeve!

“By linking this information to our secure, yet globally
accessible customer database, production managers
can get a new job from sales, and instantly be able to
see how many sleeves are in the pipeline that will fit
that job or what could be reground for that job.” Gray
says proudly, “This idea was conceived and developed
at Carey Color as a direct response to our customers’
needs. Printers need a way to manage their inventory
and know where and what every sleeve in their enterprise
is at a moments’ notice. We are giving them that.”


Variable sleeve wall thicknesses of elastomer sleeves.


BELOW SURFACE IMAGING

Because of their increased ink transfer and contrast
capabilities, the fastest running, highest ink density materials
for press speeds of 1500 to 3000 fpm are direct engraved elastomer
sleeves. To best leverage elastomer ITR technologies,
Carey Color was chosen to partner with Kodak to be the first
North American install for the Flexcel Direct System.

Flexcel’s TIFF Front End takes below surface engraving to
unprecedented levels. Shoulder angles, undercuts, variable
relief depths, and other below surface imaging can all be
controlled through the conversion of a traditional 2-D 1-bit
TIFF to a 3D TIFF. The 3D system has been combined with the
extremely precise laser diode array imager that is faster and
more powerful than any of the high resolution modulated C02
or fiber lasers on the market. This gives the quality advantages
of engraving digitally while approaching the speed of
the LAMS process.

It also features redundant diodes, autofocus optics, and
cantilevered sleeve loading. This all leads to faster prep,
imaging, and handling times and has afforded dramatic reductions
in actual engraving time, thus dramatically reducing
overall costs of imaged sleeves to customers.

“What’s the most exciting part of all of this?” asks Moravcik
with a smile, “Even though it blows the doors off everything
out there, this architecture is still in its infancy stage, with
nowhere to go but even faster, with even better quality.”
Welcome to the new world!


About the Authors: Nathan Smith is the senior network/
systems analyst for Carey Color Inc., a full service digital
imaging company headquartered in Sharon Center, OH, with
locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, and the U.K. The firm employs
more than 100 experienced prepress craftsmen. Due to their
expertise, Carey Color was chosen in 2011 to partner with
Kodak to be the North American alpha site for the Flexcel
Direct Digital Engraving system. Carey also operates four
additional laser engravers at multiple sites in the U.S., and in
the U.K., manufacturing laser engraved plates and sleeves
for dry offset, flexo, emboss, and Intaglio printing.
This article was compiled with significant technical guidance
provided by Gary Moravcik, president/CEO of Carey
Color Inc., and Edward Stolzman and Adam Smrdel, flexography
division sales representatives. For more information
regarding elastomer sleeves; please contact Carey Color Inc.
Carey Color Inc., Sharon Center, OH. at 800-555-3142 or visit www.careyweb.com.

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