Japan’s response to gravure profitability in an era of short-runs

Recently, the Japanese Society of Printing Science and Technology held a meeting to discuss new technologies aimed at helping the gravure printing industry succeed in an era dominated by short-runs. Although most long-runs in Japan would already be considered short-runs in many other countries, the increasing adoption of digital and flexo printing — more suited to short-runs — is hinting at a threat to the dominance of gravure printing in Japan’s flexible packaging market. Some of the technologies discussed at the meeting included proofing equipment designed to minimize printing machine downtime during onsite printing inspections, in-line spectrophotometer color matching, and efficient spot color formulation, among others. Many of the ideas offered by the presenters from both the gravure and inkjet printing industries were world firsts.

Making short-runs profitable with gravure printing

One gravure printing machine manufacturer that is taking on the problem of short-runs head on is Fuji Kikai Kogyo, Japan’s largest gravure printing machine manufacturer. Hiroshi Yamamoto of Fuji Kikai Kogyo presented the concept of a gravure printing machine designed specifically for short-runs, first revealed at Convertech Japan in January 2015.

According to a research by the company, 65% of flexible packaging jobs in Japan are 2,000 to 8,000 metres in length, with half of all jobs being between 2,000 and 6,000 metres. In fact, 4,000 metre jobs accounted for the majority of work. Such short-run jobs, however, decrease the productivity of the printing machines and increase film and ink waste as job change frequency is high. As such, the printing machine that the company designed for such short-runs increases productivity by 150%, decreases ink volumes by 40%, and halves the number of defective products in the case of 4,000 metre runs.

One way they achieved these numbers was by eliminating the ink pan. Instead, the prototype machine supplies the ink via a dam located between the printing cylinder and furnishing roller to which the ink is continuously fed from the ink drum using a pump. The ink level in the dam is detected with a sensor. The ink wiped from the printing cylinders by the doctor blade is returned to the ink drum after being collected in a receiving pan and passed through a filter and magnet to remove contaminants. The receiving pan is also covered with a film to prevent ink splatter and to improve the efficiency of the local volatile organic compound (VOC) exhaust system. The film is supplied using a roll-to-roll system, which allows the dirtied film to be rewound as a clean section of film is unwound.

Although Japanese printers have typically avoided cart type machines given the larger installation footprint, Fuji Kikai Kogyo adopted such a design for the new machine. The carts for each printing unit, however, are compact. Moreover, each cart has a cylinder washing system and lift to ease printing cylinder change-out. Fuji Kikai Kogyo has already installed a 3-color prototype at its Hachihonmatsu plant in Hiroshima, Japan, to handle test printings for its customers.

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