CI Flexo catches on while faster and more automated gravure gets efficient

The shifts in flexible packaging production in South Asia

The new Heliostar was shown running at 500 meters a minute to the more than 150 participants and delegates of the Image to Print show, at the open house at Balaji Multiflex, Rajkot on 20 September 2018. Photo PSA
The new Heliostar was shown running at 500 meters a minute to the more than 150 participants and delegates of the Image to Print show, at the open house at Balaji Multiflex, Rajkot on 20 September 2018. Photo PSA

The leading gravure printers in the subcontinent such as Huhtamaki PPL, Uflex, Shrinath Rotopack, Amcor, Constantia India and UMAX have all recently purchased CI flexo presses. They are actively seeking to move gravure reverse printed work with large solid areas and high quality graphics to flexography on not only PE and BOPP substrates but polyester structures also.

The increase of high quality digital flexo platemaking with the leading flexo trade shops means that digital flexo plate resolutions are now approaching 150 and 175 lpi screens. Improved high definition screening means that flexography is being pushed higher and coming closer to the quality produced by gravure cylinder engraved at much higher resolutions that could be described as beginning at 200 lpi. At the same time flat top dots with engineered surfaces are providing better ink transfer in solid areas on flexo presses.

For flexible packaging short runs, there is some saving in flexo plate costs in comparison to the cost of cylinders – perhaps as much as 15%. Another benefit is that flexo plates can be produced and delivered in a matter of hours in comparison to gravure cylinders, which still require time for both engraving and logistics. Of course the skill levels for handling flexo plates and running CI flexo presses is much higher. In India, the wages of a good pressman for a CI flexo press can be double that of a gravure pressman.

With the added perception that CI flexo with its alcohol-based inks is preferable to gravure with its toluene-based inks, it is a technology that the leading flexible packaging converters are increasingly invested in. New press orders are coming to all the CI flexo press manufacturers that are present in the subcontinent – Bobst-F&K, Comexi, KYMC, Uteco and W&H. In addition, there is the new crop of Indian manufacturers with Italian technical collaborations.

There are three Indian manufacturers of CI flexo presses in the fray – Echaar, Manugraph and Uflex Engineering. Amongst these, Uflex Engineering and Manugraph have delivered presses but Uflex seems to be a bit ahead of Manugraph in its time frames. While Manugraph’s first CKD press is installed, Uflex has one press running in its own plant in Haridwar and is in the process of commissioning its second machine in the same location. A further two machines are being manufactured by Uflex Engineering for Indian customers while there are queries from Europe for a press as well.

Ambitiously aimed at markets requiring a high level of automation, the Uflex Engineering CI flexo has aroused interest from a Russian buyer who recently saw the press in day to day production at the Uflex Haridwar plant. Ajay Tandon, president of Uflex Engineering, says he is keen to assure some of the larger flexible packaging converters that the Engineering Division is a committed machinery supplier to its dozens of customers across the country, “They really need to give this high quality CI flexo press a fair look and take advantage of the competitive performance and automation it offers.”

The robust Pelican co-extrusion laminator at Pelican’s factory in Rajkot. There are as many as ten Indian manufacturers developing co-extrusion lamination machines.
The robust Pelican co-extrusion laminator at Pelican’s factory in Rajkot. There are as many as ten Indian manufacturers developing co-extrusion lamination machines.

Faster and more automated gravure

While there is a shift in flexible packaging for some of the shorter runs from gravure to CI flexo, it must be borne in mind that for longer runs in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, converters are looking at faster and more automated gravure presses such as the W&H Heliostar shown at the open house event at the new Balaji packaging plant in Rajkot. Several high-speed Bobst Rotomec gravure presses made in Italy have also been installed in the subcontinent, at leading converters including Huhtamaki and Constantia while several more are on their way.

Converters are keen on faster and more automated gravure presses in order to realize overall production efficiencies and cost savings. Power consumption and energy consumption in the curing process are concerns. In the automated gravure presses designed to run at 450 meters a minute, substrate and ink savings can also be considerable. With the more consistent throughput of the automated presses, converters are looking at savings of 1% to 2% in substrate materials and perhaps another 1% in inks, which can, in a well run operation, be added to the bottom line. It must be kept in mind that while faster gravure presses have been running in the subcontinent for some time, the inks and solvents also need to be geared up to match the faster speeds.

Co-extrusion laminators

Apart from the food and hygiene markets, a key segment that is currently driving the flexible packaging market is the high growth of the snack food segment. In this segment the laminate structure consists of the printed film on the outside and a metallized film on the inside which are held together with a co-extruded polymer layer. In the main, converters use Chinese and Taiwanese co-extrusion laminators while some of the leading converters have co-extrusion laminators from Davis Standard.

Seeing the explosive growth of the snack food segment, several Indian manufacturers (as many as ten by some accounts) are now getting into the manufacture of co-extrusion laminators. Amongst these are Uflex, which showed its co-extrusion laminator at the last PlastIndia exhibition in Gandhinagar, and Pelican, which is building a very robust co-extrusion laminator at its Rajkot factory.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital 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.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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