Today's printing presses are whatever you want them to be.

There isn't really one type of printing press that's dominant in the converting business. Because our industry is so diverse, each unique niche has developed its own special press requirements. However, if there's one technology that is rapidly gaining in prominence over others, it would certainly be flexography.

Reports Dr. Jules Farkas, VP, Comco International, Milford, OH, "Since 1985 the number of flexographic presses in the flexible packaging market has grown 6% to 10% and now commands 60% of market share. In the folding carton business, in the past five years, the growth has been 12% to 15%, taking over 20% of the market from sheet-fed. And in the label industry, growth has been 9% to 14%, capturing 80% to 85% of that market's share."

Also showing tremendous growth is ultraviolet flexo. "That's the emerging technology of the 90s," says Farkas, who adds that UV flexo is challenging rotogravure and offset with its high quality print capabilities. "Flexo and UV flexo can now print the four-color process as fine as gravure and offset. Because flexo and UV flexo have become the most cost-effective way to print, I see this new technology continuing to reduce the market share of gravure and offset."

At a recent conference of the Tag and Label Mfrs. Institute, John Little and Dick Chesnut of Nilpeter Co. give an excellent presentation on multiprocess printing. They began by discussing both the strengths and shortcomings of the major printing systems and proceeded to show how combining one or more of these conventional printing processes can result in a press with a greatly increased range of capabilities.

"When you combine letterpress with screen printing for labels, the resultant image literally pops off the shelf," said Little. The ultimate system for label printing, they noted, was a combination of offset, UV flexo, and screen printing.

By taking what has been perfected through long years of use, and combining it with other printing processes, not only is obsolescence averted but an improved system is actually created.

According to John Eulich, president of Mark Andy Inc., Chesterfield, MO, "The main features customers want in any new press are the ability to hold register while laying down a consistent film of ink and equipment that's rugged enough to hold up for a number of years without the need for a tremendous amount of maintenance."

Future Trends

Narrow web equipment is getting wider, says Eulich. "For some packaging applications there is a demand for equipment that is wider than traditional narrow web but narrower than traditional wide web."

Other long-term developments are platform presses, which will offer the possibility of quickly changing out printing or converting processes. "It goes beyond simple modularity. Our equipment today is modular, but it takes several hours, if not a day, to add or subtract a print station," says Eulich. "With a platform press, you could do that in minutes."

Versatility - the ability to handle a very wide range of materials on the same press - is another direction Eulich sees press manufacturers taking. And he expects the demand for quality labels to drive manufacturers of offset equipment to create products with lower tooling costs to make variable repeats on offset presses economically feasible.

What about digital? Eulich is skeptical. He admits that, with no prepress, makeready, or registration, much time is saved, but he believes all the hoopla is a bit premature and that it will be several years before its true impact is felt.

Martin Maloney, spokesperson for Indigo, disagrees. Digital technology is perfected, he says, pointing out that more than 500 of one of Indigo's digital offset models are in use worldwide. He adds that R.R. Donnelley estimates the market for digital printing at $36 billion.


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