Flexible packaging printers today face mounting pressure as the walls representing increasingly shorter press runs and greater focus on lean manufacturing initiatives come closing in. As the variety of options that packaging printers have to combat these challenges grows narrower, many of these companies choose-perhaps ironically-to leverage narrow web printing and some of its inherent advantages to remain competitive.
“The biggest trend in the narrow web market is adapting to print jobs that have typically been run on gravure and [central impression] presses in the past,” says Jerry Henson, flexible packaging sales manager at narrow web press manufacturer Mark Andy. “Increasing numbers of SKUs, lower inventories and reducing steps within the manufacturing process all have led to a market shift in quantity of runs. Because these order quantities are not being serviced well by wide web printers, narrow web printers have an advantage.”
Although wide web presses clearly have the benefit of significantly greater output, today’s printers realize the smaller scale of narrow web presses means smaller plate sizes, faster setup times, and reduced waste, or in other words, increased savings. But as Henson points out, narrow web’s intrinsic advantages represent but a few of the benefits today’s most innovative narrow web presses can bring to a packaging printer.
“Another one of the potential efficiencies for today’s narrow web is incorporating converting processes in-line, leading to one-pass manufacturing processes,” says Henson. While adding in-line lamination or resealable fitments presents challenges that dwarf simply printing on a monolayer substrate, Henson points out this may be a key point of differentiation for flexible packaging manufacturers, especially in certain applications that demand innovative techniques on-press.
While the narrow web arena has been marked more so by larger market changes in terms of order quantities and manufacturing efficiencies, that’s not to say the segment hasn’t seen specific product changes. In fact, Henson points out that until recently, narrow web presses were traditionally label presses later modified for use in flexible packaging-specific settings. Last year, Mark Andy changed that approach with the introduction of its Performance Series presses, which were designed from the ground up for unsupported film applications.
“The three primary factors that make a press a good film press are tension management, heat management and drying capabilities,” says Henson. The latest generation of Mark Andy presses can comfortably manage tensions as low as 0.25 pounds per linear inch (pli), nearly unthinkable for traditional label presses. Further, the new presses use in-line chill drums to preserve the qualities of film that might otherwise be compromised in previous processes. Finally, the Performance Series presses feature innovative film drying/curing processes that often vary greatly from the requirements of label or supported film substrates.
Another significant product change in the narrow web market comes in the form of digital narrow web, a format that capitalizes on the same short-run, waste reduction trends but has been the source of many innovations in recent times.
“Initially, digital printing was probably synonymous with the name Indigo (a Hewlett-Packard brand),” says Sean Skelly, director of product management for EFI. “Now printers actually have choices, both technology choices like toner-based or ink jet systems, as well as company choices.”
EFI markets two inkjet narrow web presses, the Jetrion 4000 and Jetrion 4830, capable of printing widths up to 5.5 and 8.3 inches, respectively. While digital’s print widths or speeds may not currently compare to those of traditional narrow web flexo presses, Skelly points out that the elimination of printing plates and the constant introduction of new products indicate that digital presses may be a clear contender in the future of narrow web printing.
“Our new 4830 unit, for example, includes an option to print a super-opaque white that we believe is as opaque as flexo and more opaque than any other digital device using white,” says Skelly. “That opens up even more markets, like pharmaceutical, direct-to-product or clear labeling.”
In addition to opening up new markets, narrow web’s recent digital advances are virtually reinventing the way packaging printers provide solutions to existing markets. Hamilton, Ohio-based label printer Innovative Label Solutions recently outfitted an HP Indigo digital press with Digilam in-line laminating technology. In brief, the Digilam equipment was developed by U.K.-based A.B. Graphic and adds a water-based lamination station and four-stage dryer mechanism to the digital press and allows a converter to laminate a thin, reverse-printed film to a barrier film before winding and further processing or converting.
“This process really helps us to serve the single-serve, sample, promotional, new product launch markets in addition to enabling us to handle multiple SKU-type runs,” says Kathy Popovich, director of marketing and communications at Innovative Labeling Solutions.
Popovich believes her company’s Digilam installation to be the first in the U.S., and the immediate benefits of the innovative installation are already clear.
“Superior graphic quality, along with the ability to produce labels for optimal supply chain efficiencies-on demand with reduced obsolescence and late stage differentiation-is quite compelling for brands, large and small,” notes Popovich.
Both specific product innovations and changes in market drivers or demands have clearly changed the way today’s flexible packaging printers approach narrow web. Challenges presented by decreasing margins and shrinking batch sizes no signs of abating, but as some narrow web innovations illustrate, remaining competitive in narrow web is a goal that’s certainly within reach.
Innovative Labeling Solutions