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.


  • 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


  • 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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