As a result, the group – now operating country-wide – is a shining beacon in reproduction services for the flexographic sector; something that’s clearly evident at PolyGraphics – the Western Cape arm of the group, established in 2007 with the acquisition of Capital Graphics.
Since our previous visit four years ago (PPM Nov 09), the business has undergone a complete revamp of its equipment line-up. If it was impressive then – with a recently installed Hell CDI as its centrepiece – it’s even more impressive now!
‘These are hugely exciting times,’ says MD, Martin Stewart. ‘We’ve made significant investments in the latest hardware and software, which has allowed us to quadruple our production capacity over the last four years. And we’ve done this without increasing our staff complement, which makes us extremely competitive,’ he adds.
The most recent shopping spree has included a brand-new Esko CDI Spark 4260 (replacing the Hell – now relocated to KZN headquarters); an as-new DuPont Cyrel 1000P washout unit (purchased after an eight-month stint at Uniprint in Durban, where it was quickly replaced by a larger unit); and the latest Asahi platemaker.
With these larger-format processors, and enhanced capacity, Martin is intent on pursuing additional business in the corrugated sector. With this in mind, he reveals that he’s in the process of acquiring a camera-assisted mounting table specifically for this purpose.
Prepress workflow automation
Apart from this hardware, a fully-integrated MIS and workflow system based on Esko’s Automation Engine 12 is taking productivity to the next level, and setting new standards for prepress workflow automation.
‘We’re achieving increased efficiency and throughput, and saving time and money,’ Martin explains. It is, he insists, an exceptional answer to the daily challenge of increasing quality, reducing errors and driving out costs.
Automation Engine 12 is linked directly to PolyGraphics’ MIS, allowing all job parameters to be drawn directly from the company’s databases. This eliminates double entry and ensures the application of correct stepping, distortion and dot gain curves, without operator intervention. ‘Job information and PDF file are automatically extracted from our MIS system,’ Martin continues. ‘They’re automatically preflighted and proofed without manual handling. This system allows us to provide improved accuracy at a fraction of the speed of the manual system. Now we can handle the workload with fewer people and still have extra capacity.’
For origination, ArtPro is the system of choice. ArtPro is well established as the leading software for the packaging industry and PolyGraphics’ DTP operators are trained in its operation. Working in conjunction with the company’s integrated workflow system, PDF files can be created for proofing purposes. Proofing is carried out on a bank of three Epson printers.
Move to HD Flexo
Further unpacking the benefits of the various hardware investments, the Esko CDI Spark 4260 has paved the way for PolyGraphics to join the ranks of ‘HD Flexo certified’.
It was at drupa 2012 that Polyflex (KZN) celebrated its HD certification, at the time acknowledged as a ‘first’ for Africa. Now the exercise is to be repeated at PolyGraphics.
‘This will make us the first trade house in Cape Town to attain Esko’s HD Flexo certification,’ comments Martin exultantly. ‘It will allow us to supply flexographic printers, especially packaging converters, with plates that enable them to print gravure-like quality. Gaining this standard will place us on the global map of outstanding plate suppliers.’
The move is achieved by moving to a higher productivity level on the CDI 4260 – called Optics 40 – that features a throughput of 4m2/hour.
Asked how this works, Martin answers: ‘It’s a combination of hardware and software upgrades – a hardware upgrade to Optics 40 and a software upgrade to enable HD Flexo screening [see sidebar]. I’m very excited about the amazing results that can be achieved.’
From a plate technology perspective, both DuPont Cyrel and BASF plates are used at PolyGraphics.
Washout and platemaking advances
The next impressive piece of equipment is the DuPont Cyrel 1000P solvent processor whose features include an innovative washout concept consisting of six transverse flat brushes and contra-rotating round brushes that wash out the non-polymerised parts of the plates.
The speed at which plates pass through can be pre-set to accommodate different plate types. The integration of fresh solvent is controlled via a viscometer that constantly monitors solvent saturation. The unit is operated and controlled through a large colour touch screen panel that can store 21 different washout programs.
It was also at drupa 2012 that Martin and the Polyflex/PolyGraphics team investigated Asahi’s platemaking systems and subsequently purchased a unit for the Cape Town operation.
Among the many benefits of this Combi Unit 912, Martin particularly highlights its temperature-controlled bed that ensures consistent quality.
It also features an automatic pneumatic lid; PLC control with a colour touch screen; and a light integrator for automatic compensation of UV output variations. ‘All these features add to the guaranteed consistency of plate exposure,’ Martin points out.
Aside from technology advancements, the Polyflex group – led by Brett Pollock and the team at Pinetown headquarters – is engaged on a constant search for better ways to do things.
‘We’re currently well advanced in our quest to produce textured plates that can transfer more ink – especially for printing on corrugated board,’ Martin reveals. ‘While flat-top dots produce good half tones, the highlight areas tend to be grey,’ he contends. ‘We’ve now found a plate that produces flat-top dots with excellent highlight tones; and we’re busy trialling these with CTP flexibles.’
‘The support we received from the Pinetown team is a huge benefit for us here in Cape Town,’ he continues. ‘By the time we offer the latest developments to our customers, we’re confident that the technology is tried and tested.’
Apart from offering concept design and origination through to prepress and beyond, PolyGraphics also represents Polysleeves, another KZN-based sister company dedicated to the production of flexographic sleeves.
Staff upskilling in progress
With investments now complete, Martin is turning the spotlight on to ‘softer’ issues such as staff training, particularly upskilling the sales team.
Evidence of his commitment to this process comes with the news that last year one staff member, Darryn Breach, completed IPSA’s One-Year Diploma in Packaging Technology and this year three more employees are enrolled on the course, as well as one registered for IPSA’s Advanced Diploma in Packaging Technology.
And a final feather in PolyGraphics’ cap is that the company is certified as a Level 2 BEE contributor.
‘With all these products, services and company attributes, we’re able to offer a seamless and flawless flexographic repro and prepress solution, in keeping with our group-wide policy of striving to exceed customers’ expectations,’ Martin asserts.
‘We’re definitely a major – and strongly growing – force in the Cape’s flexographic repro sector!’
A repro house for the future
Repro Flex is filling a particular niche, producing print-perfect prototypes and top-quality plates, reports Gill Loubser.
Afripack’s decision to dispose of ACF Repro (inherited during its acquisition of Astrapak’s flexible packaging operations in 2009) had a number of ramifications for the prepress and repro fraternity in Durban. Just one direct result was Craig Oliver’s decision to establish his own platemaking facility.
Craig had been a long-time manager of the ACF Repro facility – in fact, since its establishment by Astrapak back in 1999 – and with its purchase by Polyflex he decided the time was ripe to ‘go it alone’.
In the event, however, he and Jamie O’Neill agreed to join forces, pooling their joint resources and expertise, and established a new business called Repro Flex.
Jamie’s existing business, AFS (African Flexographic Solutions), operated by Jamie and his sister, Callie Hill, was incorporated into the new entity and today the two businesses run side by side in a highly-effective way.
Undoubtedly, the AFS operation, managed by Callie, provides Repro Flex with a special niche and sets it apart from the general run of repro houses. The trio’s combined understanding of reprographic design, brand marketing and platemaking, not to mention their refreshing zeal, has resulted in an innovative packaging design and mock-up facility complemented by a world-class platemaking service.
Traditionally, it can take weeks to produce a true-to-life product sample. Colour precision is vital and often what’s conceived in a design studio can’t necessarily be replicated on the chosen substrate using the preferred printing technology.
Callie and her team take the guesswork out of this laborious and tricky process. Using specialised software and wide-format digital printing, they create real-life samples using specific substrates and featuring the precise colour match for the selected printing process, including varnish or two-ply lamination when required.
‘Brand owners want life-like samples of final printed products,’ Callie remarks. ‘Look, feel and structure are vital aspects when assessing on-shelf presence. By understanding the reproduction and printing processes, we offer a perfect printed prototype and drastically reduce production time.’
Not only has this business gained an excellent reputation across South Africa – with best-of-breed customers such as Tiger Brands, Unilever, Woolworths, National Brands, Brandhouse and Starke Ayres – it’s now making its mark internationally. As just one example among many, Callie is proud to show samples of pouches produced for the UK’s and Ireland’s Kerry Foods for its Kerrymaid ice cream mix.
But not only flexible packaging mock-ups are offered by this dynamic team. ‘We can produce samples on variety of label films or boards and we’re gaining a strong following for digitally die-cut self-adhesive labels,’ Callie explains.
‘Our prototypes are perfect for brand testing and photography but, above all, we provide a personal service. We’re involved in the design phase and make it our business to provide exactly what the brand owner wants by specifying the best substrate and printing process for the job. On top of this, we supply exceptional quality printing plates that do the job perfectly, whether it’s printing a bag, a box, a self-adhesive label, a wraparound label or a shrink sleeve.’
Valuable link between brand owner, converter
Moving downstairs from the buzzing short-run digital printing and mock-up operation located on a mezzanine floor, the ground floor is another hive of activity. This is where the repro house activities are situated.
Here Craig Oliver and Jamie O’Neill have assembled an impressive line-up of top-name equipment and top-class staff.
For imaging, there’s a Screen Platerite FX 1524. ‘With its 4 800dpi capabilities, the Platerite exceeds the benchmark 4 000dpi needed for producing genuine HD (High Definition) photopolymer printing plates,’ points out Craig. Washout takes place in a Nyloflex FV unit, and a DuPont Fast system takes care of any speciality or rushed jobs. Using heat rather than solvents for plate processing, this system offers fast turnaround times for Repro Flex’s customers.
The proofing department features UV and solvent printers and an Epson digital printer for high-resolution Cromalins. On-line colour spectrometers ensure that pre- and post-press colour management is of the highest order.
‘We’re a repro house for the future,’ Jamie insists. ‘We have complementary skills and we operate on a personal level with our customers. With our strong industry experience and solid relationships, we’re a valuable link between brand owners and converters.’
Dynamic flexographic repro
Gill Loubser visits Durban’s Stallion Repro to find a flourishing operation dedicated to customers and passionate about flexo.
Fourteen years ago, Jeff Cutler was retrenched from his position as Afripack’s production manager, an event that culminated in the establishment of Stallion Repro.
‘I had just turned 40 and it was a shock but also an amazing opportunity, as I had always wanted to run my own business. I felt if I was ever going to do it, it had to be then,’ Jeff reflects. ‘Initially, I traded in all types of packaging, but was increasingly asked for advice about graphics. As I had studied art at school, I soon found myself designing packaging, and it wasn’t long before I was running a fully-fledged repro plant!’
Today, he and his wife Sally own a flourishing business, enjoying strong relationships within many in the flexo industry.
Jeff Cutler and his team are dedicated to their customers and passionate about the repro industry. ‘We offer a personal service and are at the very centre of Durban’s repro market. We also have an office in Johannesburg, and customers countrywide and abroad. We’re able to service the market fully – from design through to final printing plates – and can do anything our larger competitors can do,’ he claims with a smile.
‘We have achieved Esko’s HD Flexo certification and produce top-quality printing plates to the highest standards; we’ve also gained a strong reputation for supplying consistent, high-quality products at competitive prices.’
According to Jeff, Stallion’s success in the flexographic platemaking sector is based on specialisation and strict process control. All employees are trained in quality control and all manufacturing is carried out to SABS ISO 9002 quality standards.
‘Today we manufacture conventional and digital plates for printing flexible packaging and labels, and we also supply mounted plates to the corrugated sector,’ Jeff explains.
Asked to articulate Stallion’s mission, Jeff replies: ‘It’s to be a leading provider of flexographic printing plates and to gain an ever-larger share of a shrinking pie.
‘We are professionals,’ he continues. ‘Our emphasis is on providing a complete, specialist service based on detailed market knowledge, and a superbly-equipped platemaking department.’
Some five years ago, Jeff invested in his first Esko CDI unit to image digital plates. In 2012, this was joined by a second CDI – this time the smaller Esko Spark 4835, specifically to handle narrow-web work for the labelling sector. Platemaking is carried out on a DuPont Cyrel unit.
‘Thanks to these CDI units, we produce plates to the highest standards with a minimum dot of 1%, providing our customers with consistent, long runs,’ Jeff adds.
Stallion works closely with packaging designers, brand owners and packaging converters with the prime aim of helping to ensure ‘flexo-friendly’ designs.
‘It’s important to consider the specific requirements of flexographic printing right from the beginning of the design process,’ Jeff points out. ‘Our skilled staff are fully aware of the needs of the flexographic industry and can take a design from conception through to final printing so that brand owners and converters can rest assured that designs will work on specific presses.’
Designers at Stallion Repro – both traditional artists and graphic designers – use the latest design software, along with digital photography, hand-drawn pictures and airbrushed photographs to provide customers with a comprehensive design service.
According to Jeff, having Stallion involved in the design stage saves time and money in the long run. ‘Using our facility is a cost-effective, time-saving way to ensure a design will be right first time and will meet precise parameters,’ he remarks.
Summing up, he says: ‘We don’t take our partnerships with our customers for granted. We’re constantly working to expand these partnerships and our knowledge. We will continue to invest in the latest technology to continue providing customers with quality products at competitive prices and superb service; and I invite potential customers to give us a call and put us to the test.’
So was it a ‘good thing’ that he was retrenched from Afripack 14 years ago?
‘It certainly was,’ replies a grinning Jeff. ‘I love what I do. It’s a passion and I have amazing team working with me and wonderful customers, many of whom I’m happy to call friends. I’m not one to look back. You can’t see the future if you’re always looking at the past; and once you’ve run your own business and had a taste of independence, you never want to go back!’
Platemaking automation: new benchmark
Vianord, a French start-up venture, is making rapid progress towards its aim of providing ‘automation with modularity’ for the flexo industry. Nick Coombes reports from the Côte d’Azur.
Recently established in high-tech headquarters near Nice in France, Vianord’s specialists are developing a range of prepress technology that, says company spokesman, Matteo Pecar, ‘will revolutionise the way flexo plates are made, and will set a new global benchmark for consistent performance’.
The project, named ‘Easy to Plate’, encompasses new designs for exposure units, plate processors, dryers, and light finishers for photopolymer flexo and letterpress plates. Small size units feature an ‘all-in-one’ concept, while larger units are based on a modular system that allows each to be added as required, to create a fully-automated line.
The machines are labelled ‘Evo’ (short for Evolution) with a number attached according to the size of plates manufactured.
Matteo explains that Vianord plans to introduce the full line capability in four stages.
Step 1 consists of a processor and inline automatic eight-drawer dryer. This is already available and has been tested and ordered by Vianord’s customers. The processor can be delivered as stand-alone unit, but is designed to allow the automatic dryer to be added at a later date. Step 2, which adds the light finishing section and a stacker, was available at the end of 2013. Step 3, which includes an inline LED exposure unit, will follow in mid-2014, and Step 4, which adds a laser imaging unit and a punch and auto-feed facility, is expected shortly thereafter.
The aim is to streamline the whole process, with as little handling of the plate as possible, to avoid damage. In the event of fault in the equipment occurring, Vianord has created a unique component ID for each part, which, combined with online monitoring, provides the user with predicted life-cycle data and allows preventative maintenance to be carried out during quieter production periods.
The Evo series includes an automatic integrated plate punch – this is a first for the industry, and typifies the creative thinking that underpins the design of the new series – it’s simple and it works! There are two types of processor, batch and incremental. Both can be attached to an automatic dryer, either at the time of installation or as a retrofit. This is the benefit of the modular system.
The processor unit has a separate prewash for digital plates with black (LAMS) layer running like a flow line. This is an industry first on the compact Evo 2, and is available on all sizes. The units have a new type of cooled bed that significantly improves efficiency over other technologies available on the market. It uses circulating water that maintains a constant temperature, without any time limit. Analogue plates have a vacuum system for exposure. The unit has a temperature probe, air-cooled high-powered UV lamps, a light integrator, and fibre optic lamp control.
The wash out section has a new feature. Its step motor (servo drive) allows a soft start with progressive adjustment of the oscillating and rotating brushes that is governed by the speed of the plate. This provides a degree of consistency previously unattainable across a variety of plates and thicknesses.
To monitor the internal workings, a visual system known as ‘Live Process Control’ is fitted. This consists of a large screen with four separate images that correspond to micro cameras installed inside the machine.
‘Plate transfer is a crucial part of the inline process,’ Matteo explains. ‘Although it may appear simple, the timing and mechanics have to be perfect. The cameras allow the operator to see this on the monitor, which also records the live image. This is important in the event of an error, because it provides traceability. The customer can see the plate and the mechanism without the need to open the cover panels, and pictures can be fed direct to Vianord for analysis.
‘We’ve already attracted a great deal of interest, and a number of flexo printers have visited our facility and placed orders,’ Matteo adds. ‘They’ve all said that what we are offering will revolutionise flexo. That’s an amazing compliment!’