Faster, more precise and sustainable – Kodak Flexcel NX Ultra at IGT

“Flexo is better than gravure” – Zaki Ali, vice president, Kodak FPD

Hector Elias and Rob Anderson of IGT standing between the Tresu and Gallus flexo presses – each press has more than 20 print units. Photo IGT
Hector Elias and Rob Anderson of IGT standing between the Tresu and Gallus flexo presses – each press has more than 20 print units. Photo IGT

Kodak announced its very fast water-wash Flexcel NX Ultra flexo plate system in September 2018. NX Ultra uses the same digitally exposed Thermal Imaging Layer as its Flexcel NX plates that have become a benchmark for quality flexo with their flat-top dots with engineered surfaces for good ink transfer. Hence, using the same Flexcel NX imager but with a new aqueous process plate and processor, Kodak has already placed its NX Ultra Solution at three beta sites in the United States. The system is due to be released first in North America in Q1 of 2019.

In mid-October, several trade journalists and analysts were given an opportunity to understand where Kodak’s flexo plate division is headed in terms of the overall packaging industry outlook and some first-hand insights to the company’s noteworthy flexo technology development. “I personally believe that flexo, especially in package printing, has a tremendous opportunity as we move forward,” said Chris Payne, president of Kodak’s flexographic packaging division in Orlando. “In a way we are still in the innovation phase and we need to continue to further transform flexo into a consistent, repeatable, predictable and sustainable process – in short, an industrial process that makes both packaging converters and brand owners happy.”

Payne added that as brand owners continue to look for efficiency and sustainability, modern flexo presses producing high quality packaging at 175 lpi and running at 350 meters a minute are increasingly taking away flexible packaging printing from other processes. He spoke of continued investment in R&D and the doubling of the company’s flexo plate capacity. Kodak’s new line for its Thermal Imaging Layer and its Flexcel NX and Flexcel NX Ultra plates is to be commissioned in Oklahoma Q1 of 2019 to keep up with demand that is outpacing the industry.

Scratch lottery cards produced by IGT at its Lakeland Florida plant. The company is one of the global leaders in the gaming and lottery segment finds the Flexcel NX Ultra solution not only fast and clean, but also key to achieving its sustainability agenda

Emma Schlotthauer, director marketing and communication at Kodak FPD, said that flexo has risen to industry-setting levels. She said that product managers and packaging designers now revel in a higher level of design freedom that is new to flexo. The process is transforming a craft to a standardized and optimized manufacturing process on a par with all other processes. “With the focus on improving consistency. . . Brand owners stress and want packaging that is print process agnostic.” “Nevertheless,” she added, “the new face of flexo requires an evolution in best practices.”

Hassle-free flexo

Kodak FPD’s vice president and chief technical officer Zaki Ali spoke of the ‘intimate contact’ that is at the heart of Kodak’s thermal imaging layer’s perfect image transfer to the Flexcel NX and NX Ultra plates and their in-built Advanced Edge Definition and expertly engineered flat-topped dots known as Advanced DIGiCAP and NX Patterning. Raising the stakes, he asserted, “Flexo is better than gravure. . . . The benefits that you get with the Flexcel NX Ultra are not measurable compared to the complexity of the process.”

Ali pointed to the simplicity of the new process—the new Flexcel NX Ultra 35 processing unit includes exposure unit, aqueous washout system, drying and finishing. “It’s built for production and represents an optimized, end-to-end digital plate making solution that can produce up to 25 plates in a shift—the first, in less than one hour, followed by others in just 15 minutes apiece. The entire process is hassle and hazard free.

Zaki Ali Kodak FPD’s vice president and chief technical officer speaking at the Kodak VIP Flexo Summit in Orlando

The event was broadened by hearing out two experts at one of Kodak’s NX Ultra beta sites—the International Game Technology (IGT) plant in Lakeland, Florida. The IGT plant produces scratch lottery tickets on each of its more than 20-unit mid-web Tresu and Gallus flexo presses. Rob Anderson and Hector Elias at IGT explained and showed the extremely specialized, high security and totally artefact-free printing operations at the plant.

At IGT’s neat and odor-free platemaking unit, we saw the production of the new Flexcel NX Ultra plate using the same imager that the company used earlier to image Flexcel NX plates, to create the same mask (Thermal Imaging Layer) and the new integrated exposure and water-based processing unit. It is a good example of an easy upgrade where only the processing component needs to be changed to produce the same high quality plate as the Kodak Flexcel NX and where the NX Ultra process becomes as competitively quick as thermal systems while maintaining the quality of Flexcel NX—delivering a 1:1 image transfer right from the digital file up to the robust press-ready plate.

The IGT beta site in Lakeland

The added benefit for companies such as IGT (which lists sustainability as one of its primary goals) is the totally solvent-free processing of flexo plates that are not only of the best quality in terms of ink transfer and image contrast but can also be run on CI flexo presses with water-based inks that are increasingly becoming available. Our hosts at IGT said they were pleased at the results of the totally solvent-free, VOC-free, aqueous solution-based processing that delivers the first clean, consistent, press-ready plate in less than an hour. After the first plate, NX Ultra system can produce subsequent plates at 18 to 20 minute intervals or 25 plates in an 8-hour shift.

“We have a green initiative in our facility,” explained Rob Anderson, IGT’s director of Production and Planning. “So, knowing that NX Ultra was to be a water wash product and we wouldn’t have to deal with solvent-based processing, was very appealing to us. The operators of our flexo presses really appreciate the Kodak plates. They see the difference in the dots and how they print and how vignettes, our fine screens, how everything looks so much cleaner and essentially it has made their job much easier. The NX Ultra product itself has been all that has been promised. We can get plates much faster and we’ve accomplished our green initiative.”

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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