Acuprint’s New Laser Engraver

First indirect laser engraving system

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Acuprint, one of India’s leading players in the manufacture and supply of high quality electromechanically engraved rotogravure cylinders, are the first company in South Asia to install and commission a laser engraving system.  I visited them to see this new plant in operation.

Acuprint is a division of Positive Packaging Industries, a leading vertically integrated flexible packaging conglomerate who have multi-unit operations not only in India but in Nigeria and Dubai as well. They are acknowledged high quality suppliers of flexible packaging in the international market with a customer portfolio that includes many well-known consumer product companies in India as well as abroad. They have an impressive track record based not only on internal growth but also on strategic acquisitions like those of Sai Metaplast (vacuum metallisation), Vista Film and Packaging (cast polypropylene films) and United Flexible of Dubai (flexible laminates).

The Positive Packaging group is promoted by Mr. N. P. Kripalani and Mr. Ashok Lakhani, both technocrats of Indian origin. They originally started off manufacturing rigid metal packaging in Lagos, Nigeria and, after a very successful experience there, decided to set up shop in India. Right from the outset, they have firmly believed in using only state-of-the art technology and top-of-the line equipment to deliver the highest quality and this policy has paid off handsomely. Acuprint’s decision to be the pioneers in laser engraving of cylinders is truly representative of this approach.

The beginnings
Ironically, Acuprint may not even have come into being as an independent entity operating at an independent location had it not been for the industrial policy in relation to environmental norms. The original plan was to set up the unit as part of Positive Packaging’s integrated 25-acre complex at Khopoli. However, as cylinder-making is classified as a “polluting” industry because of it’s use of electro-plating, Positive did not receive the necessary environmental clearance at Khopoli and the location had to be changed to site it in an industrial area that permitted such activity. This is why Taloja (near Mumbai) was chosen as the location of the cylinder-making activity and it became an independent division called Acuprint. In hindsight, this actually proved to be a blessing in disguise since it became a focussed independent business and helped to allay the apprehensions of potential customers who were also competitors to Positive’s core business. What also helped was the fact that, at that time, there were no good quality suppliers of engraved cylinders in Mumbai and the emergence of an independent unit that used the latest electromechanical engraving technology (existing local suppliers predominantly used chemical etching technology) was actually welcomed by printers there. Today, Positive Packaging’s in-house requirements account for only 30 to 35 per cent of Acuprint’s output and the rest is supplied to other printers. They have since established a second facility at Bangalore to service the South Indian market. They are now producing about 3,000 cylinders per month at Taloja and about 500 cylinders per month at Bangalore generating an annual turnover of about INR 350 to 400 million. Their present equipment is a combination of electromechanical engravers and plating plants from technology leaders like Hell, Max Daetwyler, Ohio and Acigraf. They have also just ordered a new Gravostar HS 1315 engraver from Daetwyler which is the latest generation electromechanical engraver with very high levels of control and output. The jewel in the crown is, however, a DIGILAS (indirect laser) 2900 engraver from Daetwyler/Scheper, which has just been commissioned recently.

Acuprint have rapidly established a good image for quality, reliability and service and, today, many leading brand-owners like Hindustan Unilever, Britannia, Godrej, Parle and Cadbury specify that rotogravure cylinders be sourced from them to converters who do not have in-house engraving facilities. They also export a lot of cylinders.

Why laser engraving
With facilities and infrastructure that already match the best in the world in electromechanical engraving, they have been looking out for a technology upgrade for some time to overcome some of their perceived “shortcomings” in this technology and to open up new areas of business. After evaluating various technological options, their technical team homed in on indirect laser engraving as the one most suited to their product needs. Electromechanical engraving poses some limitations in that it can use only diamond-shaped cells and produces high resolution only at low cell depths. So, when very small type sizes need to be printed (as in pharmaceutical packaging) or high colour intensity or fine print is required (as needed on cigarette packs or for printing scan-able barcodes), it comes up short. Also, many languages like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and many Indian vernacular languages have complex shapes; when they need to be printed in fine text sizes, readability is a problem. There is also a limitation on ink release from diamond-shaped cells especially while printing on conductive substrates like paper, board or aluminium foil as electro static assist is not very effective. All these problems are overcome by using laser engraving that enables all kinds of cell configurations as well as high cell depth to size ratios. Laser engraving also increases resolution to 200 lines/cm. (as compared to the 50 – 60 lines/cm. that is used in electromechanical engraving) without sacrificing on depth.

In the DIGILAS system, a conventional copper plated cylinder base is first coated with a 4 to 5 micron coating of black masking lacquer by a spraying process. The coating is then exposed to a fibre optic laser that ablates the lacquer and differentially exposes the copper surface in the print areas based on the print design. The cylinder is then etched chemically using a very closely controlled 360 degrees spray of ferric chloride while it is rotated. The etching is controlled by the time and speed of rotation. After etching, the masking lacquer is washed off and the cylinder is chrome-faced, as usual.

Apart from the improvement in print quality, choice of dot shapes, better ink release and independent control of cell depth, the laser engraving process opens up a whole new range of applications that Acuprint can now service. These include flexo plates and sleeves, embossing cylinders, ceramic anilox rollers, special purpose adhesive coating rollers, use of FM screens and cylinders for use with water-based inks. It is also possible to incorporate very fine serifs or design elements in print designs that will be very difficult to copy or duplicate thus providing a high level of brand security and anti-counterfeit protection.

Mr. Ashok Kamble, Head of Operations at Acuprint walked me around the plant and showed me the DIGILAS operation in detail. He also showed me samples of flexo plates that they had processed on the system. The quality of both laser engraved cylinders and flexo plates was very good and the system is working well. At the moment, their engraving costs per unit area on the DIGILAS system are about 50 per cent higher than those on the electromechanical engravers but they are charging about 25 to 30 per cent more to encourage customers to go in for this process. They are confident that once customers savour the improvement in quality, they will be hooked on it. They are also confident that once they get more familiar with the system and go down the learning curve, they will be able to reduce costs. The Indian market is extremely price sensitive and is not willing to pay much more than the existing cost that is based on electromechanical engraving.

According to Mr. Anil Kale, Director, “At Acuprint, we have always been in the forefront in acquisition of new technology and in offering innovative products. We have been the first in acquiring many new machines and technical up-grades and in providing new applications in Electronic Engraving to our customers. Our facilities and infrastructure match the best in the world. To add to what we have been able to achieve with Electronic Engraving, we have been looking out for new technology for quite some time. After evaluating various available technologies, our technical team found Indirect Laser technology the most suitable for our product-line. Though this type of technology was eagerly awaited, high initial capital investment, shortage of skilled /trained manpower and price sensitivity of the Indian market were the real barriers so far. However, we expect a qualitative change in the attitude of the Indian market for such products in the coming years and we were able to convince our Board to approve the investment.”

High quality plant
Overall, they have a very impressive operation and the plant has been laid out well and planned to accommodate future expansions. They are very quality conscious and have both ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 certification. They have installed a lot of special software and systems like Xtreme Engraving, multi-tune engraving systems to provide a wide range of engraving depths (up to 90 microns), barcode verification systems, EFI colour profile management, finger-printing of gravure presses using the X-Rite system and an ESA (electro static assist) equipped Heaford proofing machine to simulate ESA printing on substrates.

I was particularly impressed with their environment consciousness. They have planted a green belt around the entire periphery of their plant (incidentally, this also helps them in maintaining a dust-free environment) and have excellent effluent treatment systems in place. All their effluents are treated to remove all residual nickel and copper compounds and the pH is brought down to 6.5 – 7.5 before they are released. According to Mr. Kamble, they have been told by the ministry of environment that they are the only company in their industry that follows all the steps laid down and fulfills all statutory requirements.

Given the price sensitivity of the Indian market, Acuprint has to be complimented for taking the brave step of heavy investment in superior but expensive technology. As Mr. Kamble puts it, “We are proud to be the first Indian company having such an innovative technology. Having said that, for absorption of any new technology, development of trained manpower and infrastructure, we need to invest a lot of time and effort. As in the past, we are committed to exploiting its full potential for the benefit of our customers.” They are already on their way and have even executed some export orders for laser engraved cylinders successfully.

If you are on the verge of making a decision to buy aweb enabled collaboration system, please remember that these are all ‘Projects’ and not ‘Products’. Many of them will cost as much as a four colour press but do not expect these solutions to be as knowable and predictable as a printing machine. There is a lot of ‘site-preparation’ required in the minds of the eventual users. But if you do have a growing business that is customer focussed and you want to remain that way, collaboration is the way to go.
David Jeyaraj is the COO of Printcare PLC.