The Soma Story – a visit to Lanskroun

Czech Republic. Photo PSA

In the past decade we have witnessed the inroads of wide-web flexo presses to narrow-web territory, as well as the inverse. It has also been a period in which the ‘mid-web’ format has made its breakthrough in a big way. Initially, some manufacturers of narrow-web presses started to interpret their wider print capabilities as ‘mid-web’ allowing label printers to move into packaging. But the term really picked up with the production of smaller wide-web presses with widths between 600 and 900 mm, providing flexo (and gravure) printers more flexible and cost-effective ways to produce shorter runs and product variations.

Driven by market developments in wrap-around labels, shrink-sleeves, standup pouches, heat- or cold-resistant laminates, brand protection and related issues, the blurring of lines between the different technologies have made it easier to combine the production of flexible packaging, bags, and labels within one production site. In addition to digital and hybrid printing presses, the latest developments in mid-web flexo technology make it easier for offset printers and others to get involved in flexible packaging as well.

Labelexpo still is the major trade fair for narrow-web presses, but in 2015, Soma Engineering, based in Lanskroun, Czech Republic, was the first to ever bring a running wide-web flexo press with central impression drum to this show. It had introduced its compact CI press Optima two years earlier at K in Düsseldorf, and used Labelexpo Europe to acquaint the label industry with this ‘mid-web’ category press, available, at the time, in print widths of 620 and 820 mm. Soma had already challenged the narrow-web domination at Labelexpo 2011 with demonstrations on its wider-web die cutters and slitter-rewinders, and the company has been present with flexo presses at Drupa since 2004.

Soma is a family enterprise established in 1992, after the divestment and breakup of Czech state owned electronics giant Tesla led to the privatisation of some of its engineering divisions. For more than three decades, one of these had already built slitting and rewinding equipment, and the Tesla brand has a long track record of civil and military innovations, extending to multiple collaborations with multinationals such as Philips and Siemens. Its large production sites at Lanskroun, in the heart of the Czech Republic, harboured a core of the country’s best electronic and mechanical engineers. Based on their expertise, Soma started to construct special purpose machines and soon focused on the production of flexo presses, slitter-rewinders and laminators.

Soma 2Optima 2 assembly hall at the Soma Technology Center, Lanskroun, Czech Republic. Photo PSA

More than a hundred installations worldwide
In 1995, the company introduced its first press with a central impression drum, followed in 2002 by a compact UV flexo press and, hardly two years later, by a new range of solventless laminators, die cutters and plate mounting devices. Its Flex series of presses secured the company a solid place in the market, with more than 100 installations worldwide, from Europe and the Americas to places like Turkey and Japan. Its largest platform has been the Flex Imperia, a 10-colour press for web widths of 1700 mm and speeds of up to 600 meters a minute. Soma’s Flex Premia, launched at Drupa 2012, is an 8-colour press for short and medium print runs at web widths of up to 1500 mm and speeds of up to 500 meters a minute.

In collaboration with GEW, Soma has been at the forefront of including UV curing in CI flexo presses. In contrast with a majority of narrow-web presses currently equipped with UV technology, the development of UV curing on CI presses has been much more of a challenge due to the high amount of heat created by the UV lamps over the larger and more concentrated space for ink film application on these presses. First developments in this area resulted in customised UV configurations of the Flex Mini and Flex Midi presses, which immediately sold like hot cakes.

Currently Soma’s most succesful presses, however, seem to be the Optima introduced in 2013 and the Optima2 launched at Drupa three years later. The Optima is a compact 8-colour press geared at shorter runs, available for web widths of 650, 910 or 1100 mm and speeds of up to 350 meters a minute. Its footprint is less than 4 x 11 meters, and in 2014 it won Germany’s prestigious iF Design Award for industrial design. The Optima2 for 8- or 10-colours exists in web widths of 1100 and 1320 mm, with a footprint of less than 6 x 13 meters.

Some of the advantages are easy floor level access to the print units, fast web changing between surface and reverse printing, intelligent impression adjustment minimising startup waste, low energy consumption and VOC emission levels, and customisable inline processing options. Both the Optima and Optima2 are available for water-based, solvent-based and UV curable inks, and have been positioned as flexible platforms covering 90% of the most usual flexo jobs. It is company policy to continuously improve their essential components.

Soma presses are equipped with QuadTech’s web inspection, colour measurement and waste removal system, using X-Rite’s PantoneLive workflow for ink formulation and colour management. The system includes SpectralCam viewing with 31-channel spectral sensors and PDF verification technology, which uses the initial customer-approved digital file as a fixed point of reference to detect plate and setup errors, and a waste management system highlighting reject zones within the printed roll which are automatically picked up by the slitter-rewinder to pause for accurate material removal and splicing, without the need for manual waste-tagging or offline error detection.

At a recent visit to Soma headquarters, we had the opportunity to get a comprehensive view of the company’s production facilities and learn about the perspectives and principles guiding Soma’s management team. The company is owned and led by its founder and GM Ladislav Verner, his daughter Pavla Kusa, commercial director, and her brother Jan Verner, senior designer. As a company, Soma is keen on keeping its own identity and has set high standards for its internal organisation (including recruitment of employees and technicians) and choice of partners.

Right across the street from its main manufacturing facilities, Soma’s head office harbours an impressive showroom, training centre and R&D lab, in the Soma Globe — a building designed to be a statement in itself. In the words of Pavla Kusa, it was “built with the vision of shaping the future of flexo printing which is our clear mission.” Driven by customer requirements in terms of more productive, flexible and cost-effective machine configurations, Soma’s presses are filling what has been perceived as the ‘mid-web’ gap in a highly complex market determined by shorter runs, multiple product variations, tight pricing and the move to such products as shrink-sleeves and pouches.

Soma 3Optima assembly hall at the Soma Technology Center, Lanskroun, Czech Republic. Photo PSA

Soma’s manufacturing site has been upgraded lately in an effort to shorten lead times and increase production, while maintaining the flexibility to continuously improve existing technologies, the capacity to customize equipment configurations, and the company’s overall drive for innovation and new technologies. Soma’s presses are manufactured and assembled entirely in-house, as one of the company’s quality management precepts is to keep all production processes under its control.

In addition to the exhaustive product range developed during its 25 years of existence, Soma considers customisation as one of its main strengths. GM Ladislav Verner believes that “globalisation will be replaced by customisation and the companies that will survive are the ones that can provide their customers with bespoke solutions to suit their exact requirements. We have had to look for original solutions in all areas of our business to get where we are today.”

Soma in India
The CI flexo market in India currently exceeds 50 wide web CI flexo presses. Windmöller and Hölscher is perhaps the market leader closely followed by Bobst F&K, KYMC, Comexi, Uteco, Soma and Feva. Newcomers interested in this market include KBA-Flexotecnica and the recent tie-up between Uflex and Comiflex to manufacture a CI flexo press in India. Manugraph has also tied up with C&C to manufacture a CI flexo press.

Soma only recently entered the Indian market, since distribution was taken over from Heidelberg in 2012 by Insight Communications, who also represent Komori, HP, Screen, Kodak and Mimaki. Its first Soma installation in India was a Lamiflex E solventless laminator to Pack Mates Packaging based in Hyderabad, followed by CI flexo presses at Bloomflex in Hyderabad and another in Sivakasi.

Ron Augustin is the European Editor of Packaging South Asia. He is based in Brussels.