American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Chemistry lesson

Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines


Craig Rosenthal, manufacturing manager at Smyth Companies’ label printing and converting plant in Austin, MN, had given himself a tough assignment. He sought to improve print quality and reduce downtime caused by compatibility problems between fountain solutions and substrates. Family-owned Smyth Companies has been in business since 1877 and today is among the United States’ top 60 printers, as well as being one of North America’s leading label printers.

Five Smyth plants in Minnesota and Virginia produce lithographic and pressure-sensitive labels, package-centered promotional vehicles and point-of-purchase materials. Smyth Austin prints a range of papers and substrates, including plastics, films and synthetics. “We run C1S label stock, paperboard, polypropylenes, just about anything,” says Rosenthal. “We’re always pushing the envelope.” The range of stocks places heavy demands on quality and color management programs, and particularly on press chemistry.

“High-quality printing comes from more than just good prepress, good people and the right equipment. Today, you have to find ways to work effectively with ever-changing combinations of plates, papers and substrates, inks and press chemistry,” Rosenthal says. “There’s not much margin for error in our business.”

Quick turnaround is crucial. Smyth is tied tightly to customers’ “just-in-time” (JIT) programs, so presses are scheduled tightly and there’s not a lot of time for reruns. According to Rosenthal, printing for JIT programs involves relatively small runs that are frequently repeated with a narrow window of acceptable variation between runs. Labels have to look the same, batch after batch. That makes an active color management program absolutely essential.

Too many variables
Like most sheetfed printers, the Austin plant hand-mixed press chemistry for its six-color Komori 40-inch and eight-color Heidelberg 29-inch presses. Rosenthal wasn’t satisfied with the precision of the hand-mixed formulations, or with his plant’s ability to precisely reproduce the formulations when it was time run the next batch of the same labels.

Employees frequently dumped tanks when changing stock or plates, to replace chemistry with what they hoped was the right fountain solution for the new job. Even when “identical” concentrates were used, proportions of water and concentrate often varied. “We needed something a lot more precise,” he says.

The kaleidoscopic combinations of plates, papers, plastics, inks and chemistries often caused problems that affected quality, and caused downtime and waste. Scumming, toning and calcium build-up on plates were common.

Additionally, Smyth Austin faced too-frequent plate changes and downtime due to image attack on digital plates. “They’re often more sensitive to attack from incompatible chemistry,” Rosenthal explains.

Rosenthal hoped to improve print quality and reduce chemistry variables in Smyth’s color management system. “Using different types of fountain solution to try to find compatible matches just multiplied the variables,” he explains. “We were looking for chemistry that would be compatible with the widest possible range of plates and media, especially plastics. We sought to minimize water in the ink/water balance to improve ink drying and adhesion on plastics. We needed a product that would give us precise formulations every single time.”

Rosenthal decided to work with RBP Chemical Technology (Milwaukee, WI) to seek solutions. Smyth Austin already was using some RBP press chemistry concentrates. The RBP fountain solutions worked well most of the time, but sometimes ran into compatibility problems with specific plates or papers. The number of variables was simply too great.

To find compatible chemistry for everything, Smyth found it necessary to use several fountain solution concentrates, but that caused headaches in storing, handling and mixing the fountain solution, not to mention higher chemistry costs.

“We were eager to take on this challenge,” says Sam Viverito, RBP senior marketing and sales manager. “Finding ways to reduce chemistry variables in color management has become an increasingly important part of our business. Austin had a lot of variables, and they’re cutting edge in printing plastics and synthetics. Those were tougher-than-average issues. We felt if we could do it there, we could do it anywhere.”

What a concept!
Viverito was confident RBP had the answers in the Concept 21 fountain solution system. Concept 21 is a color management tool designed to manage print characteristics on press by reducing variation in the ink/water balance. Concept 21 combines ultraconcentrated chemistry components with a precision blending system to produce formulations with virtually no variation from batch to batch.

It provides versatility and control across a range of plates, papers and substrates. When problems do surface, it is fast and easy to adjust the fountain solution blend to deal with them.

“I’d heard a little about Concept 21, and when they told me how it worked, I was eager to try,” Rosenthal says. “It sounded like it might be the answer to our compatibility problems, and might improve our quality, downtime and waste numbers. And if it could reduce the number of types of chemistry we used, it would save us money and reduce material handling and mixing issues. But it had to work in the shop, not in theory.”

Rosenthal set up a system of practical testing. First, Concept 21 was used on one press with a single stock. Additional papers and substrates were added until one ran outside the runnability window. That took a week. Then the formulation was adjusted and both old and new stocks were tested. Over a few weeks, every type of paper, stock and all plate was tested, and additional adjustments in formulation settings were made.

Smyth Austin discovered that two accurate and precisely repeatable Concept 21 fountain solution formulations covered everything. They decided on one for papers and board and another for plastics and films. The formulation changes are made quickly and easily by adjusting the balance of two components. According to Rosenthal, the Concept 21 system is much more precise and repeatable, and it gives Smyth a far greater ability to control variables. “We dial in the formulation, then lock it in,” he says. “Our formulations don’t vary, so we’re getting cleaner, brighter, more consistent color and better ink laydown.”

Smyth Austin also has minimized the water used with plastics and avoided mottling problems. Image attack on digital plates has virtually disappeared. Tanks are dumped less often because fountain solution isn’t constantly changing. And with a single product, one system and just two settings to handle, the company buys much less chemistry.