The ultimate aim of the narrow web converter is essentially the same as it is for their counterparts operating in wide web converting – that is to turn out a product to the highest quality in the minimum of time while realizing a healthy profit. Easier said than done. Overcapacity in traditional markets, customer consolidation, fluctuating currencies, trade wars and political uncertainties, high operating costs, overseas competition and the consequent need on the part of brand owners to find new ways to show off their products remains, as ever, a challenge.

The good news is that the labeling and narrow web converting sector has become more innovative, and the use of labels more wide ranging than ever before. But that’s not all. Opportunities abound in shrink labeling, security and electronics, in medical disposables and in sectors such as flexible packaging, particularly the production of pouches, product sampling merchandise and much more.

The sophistication and versatility of many of the narrow web presses coming onto the market and the various support and value-added technologies to provide the means for astute and quality focused converters with the technological edge to thrive.

For many narrow and medium web width converter, flexible packaging might add a few twists and turns with regard to the learning curve. However, narrow web presses are often highly suited for many short run requests. The ability to execute fast changeovers and process a wide range of substrates including combinations of paper, film and foil into an existing process workflow is relatively easy on standard machines. Thinner gauge flexible substrates are highly extensible and demand different approaches to processing and settings.

Establish Manufacturing Processes

If a move to flexible packaging is launched, it essential to establish good manufacturing processes and to understand the various characteristics of the materials that are available, taking into account substrates, inks, print treatments, coatings and drying and/or UV curing technologies. Partnering with ink, substrate and other key players is essential. So, too, is having the means to assess quality control. Color communication devices such as proofing can be used for color matching, determining printability, ink/substrate performance over time and for prepress trials of materials and consumables.

Narrow web machines can be ideal for those orders that are unprofitable for wide web machines. For instance: where brand owners engage in trials using a mailing campaign that involves the distribution of product samples, typically small sachets of perfume, hand lotion, shampoo, coffee or tea bags.

Generally, these rollouts are regional campaigns and are of low volume. From the brand owner and marketing perspective, they can be a relatively low-cost way of assessing how well a product will be received prior to a national product launch. Sachets or pouches are also used in magazine advertising campaigns, notably by leading cosmetic and perfumery brands in fashion publications. However, their use is not confined to the top end of the market. Seed samples are also affixed to gardening publications.

Reduced Production Costs

Narrower width presses always offer reduced plate and press costs and offer more flexibility than wider web counterparts. They use less substrate and less ink during make-ready procedures, and converting inline is considered more efficient because it does not involve multiple set-ups.

Narrow web companies benefit also from the fact that most manufacturers, especially those operating in the food and drink sectors, have widely embraced the concept of lean manufacturing. These organizations want to control inventory costs. For wide web printing and converting this translates into more frequent  —  but less profitable — orders owing to large minimum repeats and longer changeover times.

Flexible packaging, irrespective of whether it is printed on wide or narrow webs, typically involves the use of a combination of materials. Each material has its quirks and peculiarities with regard to handling and processing. Many of the filmic materials run unsupported.

Web handling and roll dynamics necessitate closed loop and sometimes ultrasonic or a hands-off approach to material handling to avoid issues such gauge band variation and web breaks. Most of the material involved in the production of sample pouches, and label replacement films (an increasingly important area of growth) are thin filmic or combo laminate structures that are engineered to provide specific degrees of barrier resistance or meet other desired requirements.

Products may be surface printed, in which case a varnish or laminate overlay is necessary. Some items may be reverse-printed, sometimes referred to as sub surface printing on the backside of the face stock and then laminated.

Choose Materials Carefully

Adhesive, varnish and ink selection must be undertaken with care. For instance: during sub-surface printing the inks will come in contact with the laminate adhesive so they must be compatible. Inks must be carefully balanced with controlled amounts of slip additives to ensure optimum bond. Top coating may be up for consideration to improve ink adhesion and appropriate coatings may be used when UV flexo printing, etc.

When it comes to trialling new materials or developing new products a converter or product developer (ink, adhesive, coating/varnish, substrate manufacturer) may opt to use one of its commercial production machines. However, this generally does not pan out too well. On-product trials, high levels of waste, downtime, makeready and adjustments simply don’t make the use of a production press a viable proposition. An important consideration is that a production line machine is taken out of production and is not generating revenue.

A pilot coating system that addresses the problem is the VCML-Lab/Pilot Coater. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater with a working web width of 300mm, designed and developed by RK Print Coat Instruments is used by ink, substrate, coating providers and converters, etc. This system can play a significant role in product development, quality control and in assessing formulas, coating applicator and drying/curing technology and other elements associated with bringing a product to market. It is able to undertake small-scale production, which speeds product development, minimizing the need to rely solely on a production machine for the highlighting and resolving of issues.

This machine enables operators to print, coat and laminate on all types of substrates and on a reel-to-reel basis. Configurable and adaptable, it may be used to apply various coatings including inks, varnishes, adhesives and even paint, using solvent and water-based materials. Featuring a cantilevered unwind and rewind, head mounting tray with lift and trough and a laminator station with pneumatic nip. Process options are varied and include flexo, gravure, knife over roll, reverse roll, slot die, offset-gravure and meter bar, etc. The VCML dries by hot air or infrared and can use UV curing. Edge guides, heated laminator and ATEX coating zone and corona treatment are possible.