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.
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.”
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.
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.”