Afflatus establishes first Think Lab robotic cylinder-making plant in India

Innovation 4.0 in the gravure cylinder making industry

Arun Pandey, vice president of Afflatus. Photo PSA

Afflatus Gravures is the largest gravure cylinder maker in India, a country in which gravure overwhelmingly dominates flexible packaging. The company currently has three cylinder making plants in Noida, Chennai and Vapi with the fourth in Kolkata to be commissioned on 1 June 2016. The innovative company is an early adopter – the first in the country to set up and run an entirely automated robotic cylinder preparation, laser engraving and finishing plant which has been running since October 2015.

Afflatus has installed the Think Laboratory FX2 laser system in its main plant in Sector 68 in Noida in the Delhi NCR. The modern building is well maintained and immaculately clean and the special area where the robotic FX system is installed is a clean room similar to what could perhaps be found in a space meant for electronic assembly or microelectronic components. The FX2 has two main areas or zones A and B, each with its own atmospheric and dust free conditions and each with its own robot in the centre that dominates the multiple cylinder making processes in each zone and also hands off the cylinders from one zone to the other. There is a third space from which a single technician operates and controls the FX laser system and also where there is a bench for examining the engraved cell quality with a special microscope.

The entire Think Labs FX2 laser system or gravure cylinder engraving factory consisting of the two zones is a totally dust free airtight clean room 10 metres wide by 16 metres in length – a total glass panelled and transparent space of 160 square metres. In addition, there is an adjacent area perhaps equal in size for services such as electronic panels, air-conditioning and dust proofing systems as well the chemical input and removal systems for all the processes that are required – from cylinder preparation, laser engraving to finishing, coating and polishing.

The two robots sequentially and relentlessly do the work that has been supplied to them by the experienced prepress Afflatus team based on the designs of leading brand owners and the gravure printers and converters around the country. Needless to say, the two robots and multiple process machines and chemical systems are a completely automated factory – a synchronized manufacturing team with a great deal of domain knowledge and knowhow that are built into the heavily patented and unique system – it has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.

Factory 4.0 in Noida – a breakthrough in quality
Being first, being an early adopter of this level of automation is at the heart of Afflatus Gravures’ attitude and thought process. Vice president of Afflatus Arun Pandey says, “We understand the limitations of electronic and mechanical engraving and also the direction that the gravure process has to take in order to maintain its leadership in quality and to be even more economical and environmentally friendly.”

Gravure print quality gets a boost using cylinders that are engraved on the FX2 laser system with resolutions as high as 600 lpi being possible. The legibility of fine text and the contrast in halftone color images is improved because the files are processed at very high resolutions and there is practically zero variation in tone around the cylinder and across its width. With the better dot transfer of ink on foil substrates the halftones are smoother and pinhole free while the text and linework do not show any pixelation.

The new FX system as a whole with its unique and patented cylinder preparation and laser engraving system, can produce much higher quality flexible packaging results because it can create much finer cells with flat bottoms. Arun Pandey explains that, “Cell depths can be reduced from 48 microns to as little as 5 to 7 microns and already in our first six months of operation, we have achieved excellent and consistent results with a cell depth of 12 microns.”

The control console for the Think Labs FX2 robotic gravure cylinder system at Afflatus, Noida. Photo PSA

Environmental benefits
There are huge environmental benefits in the Think Labs FX laser and robotic system itself and additional benefits for gravure printers using cylinders with flat bottomed square cells with less depth. The implication is that the same density of print can be achieved with much less ink which can be released and transferred more completely on the modern gravure presses that run at 300 to 450 metres a minute speeds.

Cylinders manufactured by Afflatus on the new system have helped printers to reduce the ink layer by 20% and more is possible; the use of solvents and volatile organic compounds have been reduced in the print process and since less ink is being used, the drying process uses less heat and results in an improved carbon footprint for the entire process. The company is extremely conscious of all its waste and efficient effluent treatment has already brought two of its plants including Noida to zero discharge levels.

Afflatus is on the verge of opening its fourth plant in Kolkata. At the same time it is planning to put in its second Think Laboratory FX system at the plant near Vapi in Western India. The plans for the coming year include a 25% increase in overall cylinder production across its plants to a target of 15,000 cylinders monthly. Almost all of its cylinders are used for flexible packaging although the 5% that it exports are mainly for special applications.

As the largest cylinder maker in the country, the Afflatus team’s passion for quality is evident in its aspiration to take the industry forward in terms of both quality and economy by its judicious use of the newest technologies. The new completely automated robotic plant from Think Labs has led to smoother cylinders which has improved their runability and mileage on press over electro-mechanically engraved cylinders.

Both technology and automation have helped in standardizing the process printing with no ink changes for the CYMK cylinders for multiple variants of the same product packaging. At the same the company is deeply looking at several amazing innovations including the use of Esko’s Equinox technology for extended gamut printing that could save its gravure print customers considerable makeready time and waste – all part of its effort to implement new ideas with an eye to their practicality. Watch this space for further developments as they are implemented and ready to be made public.

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Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher since 1979 and Packaging South Asia since 2007. Trained as an offset printer and IBM 360 computer programmer. Active in the movement to implement Indian scripts for computer-aided typesetting. Worked as a consultant and trainer to the Indian print and newspaper industry. Visiting faculty of IDC at IIT Powai in the 1990s. Also founder of IPP Services, Training and Research and has worked as its principal industry researcher since 1999. Author of book: Miracle of Indian Democracy.