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29-07-20
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Xeikon: Automation in Flexo Plate Making

The corona crisis has left shock waves in global economy, the effects of which will be felt for quite some time. One can speculate on the extent and details, but some (mega) trends can already be seen.

Telework

This means much more than working in a home office, which will certainly be used increasingly in the future. Telework also includes a new way of internal communication, as well as external communication with customers and partners. Internally, compliance with distance rules and the avoidance of larger gatherings will favour new forms of communication. Up to now, business trips have been considered from a cost / benefit perspective, which was mainly related to time expenditure, travel costs and potential business success. Now in-addition health risks have to be considered. A Corona infection will not only affect the travelers, but also the wider workforce, because if an infection is introduced, a further Covid-19 outbreak can only be kept under control by company shutdowns, personal quarantine, thus, considerable effects on employees as well as business development.

Automation

Of course, this trend is not new, especially the automation of business processes through improved software is a continued trend. But particularly at the level of physical work steps, automation will experience a new boost from the Corona pandemic. While in the past times of general economic growth, automation was mainly considered while looking into capacity expansion and making the best use of new investments. It is now also a question of minimizing risk and increasing competitiveness. This affects not only pure cost optimization, but also the possibility of maintaining business operations with reduced personnel. In addition, it is easier to ensure social distancing during remote monitoring activities than for manual activities that requires co-operation with others close-by.

Digitalisation

This trend is also experiencing a new impetus, and in conjunction with the topic "Automation in flexo plate making", the term means the convergence of two trends mentioned above: when online conferences and telework become the new normal, online control of flexo plate production should also be part of this, as well as online access to production data and online support for maintenance. This means that the automation of individual plate production steps is not enough. The automation must also be monitored by sensors, remotely controllable and accessible at any time.

Will these trends also show up in flexo plate production, and what would they look like in practice?

Xeikon has been working on new, visionary solutions for flexo pre-press operations for some time. Starting with the highly productive ThermoFlexX flexo plate imagers and the new Woodpecker NANO surface structuring technology, Xeikon Prepress has presented new devices for flexo plate processing in recent months. A new product line was launched under the name Catena, which includes the following modules for flexo plate processing:

  • Catena-E: UV LED exposure module
  • Catena-W: solvent-based plate processor
  • Catena-DL: dryer/light finisher module
  • Catena-DLS: dryer/light finisher/stacker module, for combination with Catena-W

Each of these modules has unique features to ensure optimal processing of flexo plates. A smart design and a carefully considered software architecture also enable easy connection of the modules in different combinations with very limited effort. Plate imaging and exposure steps can be partially automated by the combination of ThermoFlexX imager and Catena-E UV LED exposure, the washing, drying and post-treatment steps by the combination of Catena-WDLS.

Such semi-automated processing devices from various suppliers have been known in the market for a long time. However, they do not mean a breakthrough in fully automated flexo plate production, or even providing an answer to the challenges described previously.

With the ThermoFlexX Catena+ system, Xeikon is the first to present a zero touch fully automated solution, guarantying integrated flexo plate processing with the highest standards in quality, reliability and safety.

Productivity

All process steps are aligned to each other. The completely redesigned Catena-E UV LED exposure has generally speaking the same productivity as the ThermoFlexX imager and the Catena-W processor, so that there is hardly any production bottleneck when standard resolutions and relief depths are used. The ability to process all plate thicknesses is unique on the market. Therefore, almost no restriction exists for the selection and use of digitally imaged flexographic printing plates.

Variability

As mentioned above, almost every digitally imaged flexo plate available on the market can be processed with the Catena system. In addition, various “side-feed” possibilities are provided where special plate types can be introduced into the processing line. A first option is inserting plates after the imager, so that they can be processed fully automatically starting with the Catena-E exposure. After exposure, there is a second possibility of side-feeding plates into the system, thus, at least benefiting from automation after plate washing. However, the lateral introduction of plates has a disadvantage: the steps processed outside are naturally not recorded, and missing data will either have to be entered manually or simply are not available. But more on that later.

Quality

All Catena devices have a robust design, thanks to the enormous experience of Flint Group Flexographic's equipment service team. Only high-quality components are used, which have a low susceptibility to wear and also enable remote control and monitoring. Further, design principles are easy access for maintenance, as well as easy replacement of consumables such as filters, UV LEDs, brushes, etc. Many new solutions in details are implemented, such as the separation of the transport mechanism and the plate washing zone in the Catena-W in order to avoid contamination with solvents including dissolved polymers, and consequently to prolong maintenance cycles.

Occupational safety

All Catena devices are equipped with dual safety circuits to ensure redundancy and immediate shutdown, and to avoid environmental contamination should any unforeseen events or accidents occur. The requirements of the CE label for tested safety are by far exceeded, and reach a level that basically enables a TUV certification. The compliance with the highest safety standards is particularly important for a fully automated process in order to be able to monitor activity remotely without being physically present in the plate room.

Automation

A digital flexo plate is processed by putting it first onto the ThermoFlexX imager Flextray. As soon as the job data is available, the plate is automatically loaded and the imaging process starts. At this time, the next plate can be prepared on the Flextray. After imaging, the plate is automatically transferred to the UV LED exposure via the Catena-B bridge. Further, progress of the plate in the Catena modules is tracked by means of a sensor system, and all processing parameters are automatically stored in a database. In addition to pre-set parameters, such as exposure time and washout speed, also actual processing parameters, such as UV intensity, temperature, solid content of the solvent etc., are linked to the respective job and design, stored in an external database, and can be reviewed at any time. This explains why a side-feed of flexo plates is possible, but less convenient.
With the help of Catena-R, a robot arm, the exposed plate is transferred to the new Catena-W solvent washer with automated punching. Sensors ensure that the auto punching takes place parallel to the plate edge, so that the flexo plate is pulled through the washer without distortion. The pin bar for transportation is detached from the plate inside the washer. The pin bar remains and circulates solely in the washer, thus, solvent residue on the transport bar does not dry and remain, making complex cleaning unnecessary. The flexo plate is then transferred into one of ten existing dryer drawers, and finished in the light finishing section after drying. If necessary, the plate can be cooled down before finishing in the stacker with individual rest times as required. Thanks to an extremely compact design, the total length of the ThermoFlexX Catena+ system is only 13 meters (40 ft).

Network and data exchange

Pre-press data in TIFF or LEN format can be transferred on the ThermoFlexX imager with the the highest quality and productivity to digital LAMS flexographic printing plates. Thanks to the Woodpecker software solution, surface microstructures can be created that achieve comparable results for all levels of quality known in printing on flexible packaging materials.
Integration of software modules from external providers, such as Tectonics from Hybrid Software, in Multiplate (ThermoFlexX GUI) ensures that flexo plates are used efficiently by smart grouping of job data on a plate. Furthermore, integrated cutting tables data also helps to reduce waste on high levels. Catena Cockpit, developed in co-operation with Hybrid Software, ensures overarching planning of workflows, including options for integration into external ERP and MIS systems by means of standardized API’s.

Great emphasis is put onto high availability of the entire plate processing line. For this purpose, the functions of all modules are externally accessible in order to be able to carry out an immediate error analysis and correction by remotely connected service technicians. All serviceable components are also easily accessible and easily exchangeable by the user. Very latest technology, provided by our partner Schneider Electric, is the possibility of using VR glasses with a virtual section through the modules to visually show any errors. Supported by videos or the direct connection to service technicians, it is also possible for in-house staff to carry out complex maintenance directly and immediately with only minimal training.
By feeding data into a database, Xeikon Prepress is in a position to perform an AI-based analysis of machine data from all installations worldwide. In this way, minimal deviations from the norm can be detected and analyzed in real time, and appropriate predictive service activities can be initiated on site.

At the best of times no-one appreciates unscheduled down-time or the expense of a service visit. Of course, this data can also be used for increasing efficiency in plate room operations or installation of a comprehensive plate room management system.

All these new service provisions and possibilities are summarized under the Catena ProServX brand. The strategic partnerships with Hybrid Software and Schneider Electric ensure that users of Catena processing devices will have continued access to the latest web-based network and database technologies.

Xeikon Prepress is the first company to offer a fully automated zero touch flexo plate processing line from a single source. After several years of development, we are proud to present our ThermoFlexX Catena system solution to a broader audience. However, the time of publication also creates ambiguous feelings: On one hand, we are aware of the difficulties caused by the Corona pandemic, which, in addition to uncertain business perspectives, has also caused hardship due to Covid-19 infections, and the economic consequences of the pandemic. We would have also liked to have the first public presentation live at Drupa in front of a specialist audience. On the other hand, we are certain that the ThermoFlexX Catena product line, in combination with the expanded service options and the well-known high quality of Flint Group flexo plates, will provide an answer to the future challenges mentioned, whether it is planning for a new start after the Corona crisis under modified conditions, planning for efficiency increases, or also the development of new business models by using the comprehensive software integration capabilities. Flint Group is once again proving that it is not only a leading provider in packaging printing, but also, thanks to the close cooperation between the Xeikon and Flexographic divisions, the innovation driver in flexo pre-press operations.

Photo caption: ThermoFlex Catena+ with Catena-Cockpit and Catena-ProServX software for process integration