Flexo pre-press dilemma?

To in-house pre-press or not? That is the question. There are under 300 small, medium and large label converters in India with one or more than one flexo presses and overall 500 including letterpress and offset operations for labels. For pre-press needs, most of them have relied on conventional method of platemaking.

02 Nov 2014 | By PrintWeek India

Conventional process is a time-consuming process made through computer-to-film, where the computer image is transferred to photographic film, then to creating the printing plate by exposing it through the film. It’s a process which needs skill and the very nature of the process is fraught with quality control issues.

The next generation flexo process eliminates the need for films and transfers the image directly onto the plate. This removes the arduous, error prone computer-to-film steps, speeding up process as well as quality of the final product.  

There have been advancements in the digital front. In 2008, Kodak unveiled the Flexcel system, which was recognised as a game-changer. Esko introduced the high-definition flexo platemaking technology HD Flexo. The digital flexo technology by itself and later through advancements have offered the flexo converters in the narrow and wide segments, new levels of production efficiency, image quality and stability as well as sustainability.

The local culture
The last few years have seen Esko install 34 platemakers, with more than one installed in a few locations; Kodak has 14 (six in 2014) and Screen has one.

While most of the pre-press process bureaux like Creative Graphics, VeePee, Pinmark, Akshar and Ankit Graphics among others have all added digital platemaking systems to their arsenal, label converters have relied on having the services delivered instead of getting it in-house.

It is arguably true that doing your own pre-press can save time and money, may even garner greater control over the production process, many label converters say that getting flexo plates from a service provider is cost-effective, hence there’s no merit in getting it in-house.

While Mehsana-based Gujarat Print Pack Publications, in Gujarat depends on its in-house conventional platemaking machine, more than 50% of its pre-press needs are outsourced to Vee Pee in Benguluru. “We do not think that it’s viable. It’s not only about cost. The technology changes so quickly that in five years your machine becomes outdated,” says Ashish Patel the company’s CEO.

Mumbai-based Webtech Labels on the other hand, has invested in an Esko CDI Spark 4835 to boost the production capacity in pre-press. The new CDI Spark 4835 runs along side of the previously installed Dupont system.

The director, Amar Chhajed, is of the view that “if you have sufficient volumes to keep your pre-press set-up busy it is economically viable to have it in-house.” With 15 lines on its shopfloor, it makes great sense for Webtech.

Normally to get pre-press in-house or not would depend on the amount of material needed, the quality of people in house, investment price and the location issues. Hence it is assumed that small to medium printers would like to out-source this activity, the larger ones would like to have it in house.

“It is completely situational hence depending on the number needed per year in relation to the total investment,” says Ranesh Bajaj, managing director at Creed Engineers, which represents Lead Lasers BV, in India.

Kodak’s vice president for packaging segment, India cluster and CI solutions business, Abraham Prabhakar, said, exclusive flexo label printers having one or two label presses will have a tough time drawing good return on investment (ROI) from an in-house installation. However, printers with three or more label presses and those who have offset presses too can have solid ROI.” Kodak’s hybrid digital offset + flexographic is one such system Prabhakar is referring to.

Shrihari Rao at Esko says the answer to the question can be yes and no. “Yes because the trigger point for considering in-house is: number of presses/stations, plate consumption, number of artworks process daily, time to press, turnaround etc. And no because, in a global scenario, good manufacturing process insists in-house, new production development activity, along with brand owners.”

But should cost-effectiveness prevail over efficiency? Esko’s view is that better efficiency at factory with the right technology will give an edge over the competition, and thereby increase the value to their customer – taking the cost factor out of the scenario.

Bajaj says, “Efficiency will usually, lead to cost savings. To a certain extent, turnaround times as well as errors can be reduced by having it in-house. At the same time, it must be understood that pre-press is a very technical activity and printing companies need to invest in slicked manpower as well as continuous training to keep the quality of pre-press high.”

But it can be argued that from a printers’ point of view it is certainly cost-effective because he does not simply involve any extra management. They get what the need from the service provider. “Certainly,” says, Ganapathy Thillai of Esko. “But if having in-house, they can bring the flexo quality to the next level, prove their efficiency much easier and with latest technologies they can expand the printing gamut, standardise their press to each unit’s specific requirement and so on. To me efficiency is profit in disguise. To take flexo printing to a next level, it is much easier when it is in-house.”

Additional investment
Packaging today is a key component of a client’s marketing mix. To stand out from the competition, your customers look to you for bold ways to gain consumers’ attention—by making graphics more compelling, utilising unique package shapes and substrates, and adding elements such as hang-tags or pull-off coupons. For this you need to have proper colour management and workflow solutions.

So bringing in-house pre-press does not just mean getting platesetters and exposure units, processors, etc. It also means colour management, and workflow. These are additional factors, costs.

Thillai of Esko, says, “We should not consider these additional factors as bells and whistles in a set-up. To simply put, these additional factors not only delivers overall control, but these are / will be your key enablers in achieving your flexo milestones quickly and in an efficient manner.

Rao of Esko, adds, “Pre-press should mean – predicting the press, and making changes to the artwork keeping in mind the print process.” He explains that, a strong workflow can ensure a perfect translation of artwork through the process, and that is key and colour management is one of part of the whole process. There are factors like trapping, preflight, barcode, re-touching of images, etc. “A good workflow is the one which can help automate while also reducing error,” he says, adding, “money saved is money earned.”

RS Bakshi of Chennai-based Colour Dot and a pre-press service provider offers a counter. He is of the opinion that in India, cost-effectiveness is a major consideration and can overrun a more efficient process. Bringing pre-press in-house means platesetter, processes, just colour management and workflow solutions, it also means having manpower to be able to take everything into consideration. And that costs a lot,” he says.

He feels that the overall results, in most cases where the process is done in-house, does not match that of outsourced material. “This is because the suppliers of equipment prepare the customer for a standardised output within which the work has to be completed.”

Screen’s Nitin Wani, adds to Bakshi’s concerns. He says, “It’s not just about buying the set of equipment’s from the specific vendor. One must evaluate the supplier based on his ability to support on delivering the overall quality requirements and bringing in the control over the production and therefore production costs. The customer should also evaluate the supplier based on implementation experience and after sales support they are offering.”

Prop up print jobs?
In the world of offset printing, we have seen companies moving to in-house, even in remote sites. But not so in the world of flexo. 

Rao of Esko, says speed is considered prime result of in-house pre-press. “This will enable printers to plan better and optimally use their state-of-the-art high speed/high quality better and get more out of it.” He cites the examples of Wintek Flexo (ITW Signode India), Sel Jegat, Zircon, Webtech, Barcom, Any Graphics among others.

Anthony of Esko, chips in. He says, “The primary goal of pre-press is to prepare artwork designs for the selected printing process. Doing this efficiently in-house with all the controls as mentioned above will allow printing companies to feed the presses with more accurate ‘right first time’ plates which print with predictable results on the press. Such predictability will result in less make-ready, faster to colour, higher quality and greater productivity and job-turnaround.”

Wani while agreeing adds that it applies both for regular jobs as well as proofing job for new market launch, new package design etc as companies are responding to customer demands being in buyer’s market to improve / maintain their end customers. Given the case, having in-house prepress will certainly lead to flexibility to print more no of jobs, offering quick turnaround with reduced lead time for retaining customer rather than losing them on service level agreement (SLA) issues.”

Bakshi rubbishes the theory that bringing pre-press in-house will speed up print jobs. He terms it as a marketing strategy. “The number of jobs you can print will depend on various factors and the ability to change over jobs on the press as well as the inks shades being used for the jobs. If you have to change inks for all stations for each job than no matter how fast you get the plates ready, the press makeready takes more time.” 

Environmental concerns
Digital platemaking is less taxing on the environment than traditional platemaking methods, but is it good enough? 

“There is no doubt that the issue of sustainability is important to all of us as we make purchasing and production choices. Selecting a flexographic plate for printing is no different, and we believe that customers shouldn’t have to compromise on cost or performance to be sustainable,” says Abraham. 

Anthony says, “Cutting a chemical process from the process of platemaking is certainly and obviously a ‘greener’ step. Digital plates (solvent) need no film and associated chemical processing of film. Digital plates (thermal) need no liquid solvent to process the plates.  

While plate suppliers like Kodak, Esko, Screen and Dupont have plates of different types, Bakshi of Colour Dot says, that using polymer plate for flexo is not really very user-friendly process, no matter which way you look at it. “All the companies supplying plates are talking very nicely about this to convince everyone that they are doing everything to reduce pollution. Actually they are only adding to pollution.

He and Bajaj of Creed, say a better way will be to use elastomer instead. “Elastomers are more eco-friendly than photopolymers because no chemicals or solvents are used in the washing, hence there is no impact on the environment.”

Bakshi however cautions that the cost of making plates will increase.

Even with the latest developments, one must agree that pre-press in flexo remains more of an art than of science unlike a push-button technology in pre-press for offset. Even when a firm brings flexo pre-press in-house, it requires proper handholding and a significant learning curve to reap the benefits of the technology.