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smartGPS soon to become the flexo industry standard

The smartGPS Beta version amazed the flexo world at Drupa 2008, and in the months following the exhibition, it was tested both at customer sites under production conditions and at the FISCHER & KRECKE facilities with customer’s printing forms, adapters, and sleeves. In January 2009 it was released for production: FISCHER & KRECKE’s smartGPS (Graphic Positioning System) now represents a new milestone in flexo printing technology.

smartGPS sets a fundamentally new standard when it comes to registration and impression setting to the point that it is even hard to find an appropriate technical term to describe the technology. What is commonly understood by impression setting does not accurately describe this new breakthrough, because smartGPS does not perform the set-up in the press. Both a traditional manual adjustment or an automatic optical based system perform the set-up process in the press. smartGPS does the job ‘offline’ at the plate mounting stage with almost no additional time required.

The technology
An industry standard mounter from JM Heaford Ltd. provides the basis for smartGPS. A specially developed measuring system is integrated into this mounter which enables the topography of the print-ready cylinders to be scanned to an extremely high precision level. Sensors ensure the positioning of the whole package of carbon fibre cylinder, sleeve, tape and printing plates. An RFID antenna transmits the specially calculated data to a chip embedded in the sleeve. The complex software developed by FISCHER & KRECKE includes all relevant parameters – starting from the specific properties of each module of the package (adapter, sleeve, adhesive tape etc.) to the material type used in the machine – in the automatic calculation of the optimum impression values. This whole process takes only a matter of seconds during the mounting stage.

At first glance, you would hardly be able to tell the difference between a smartGPS print deck and a standard one. It is only the RFID antenna and the positioning sensors which identify it as a smartGPS system. The reading of the data to the machine control system as well as the forward racking of the print units, is fully automated and synchronised for all print units involved in the job. Once the print units have moved to the off-impression position, no more than a mouse click and pressing the start button is required to produce saleable product from the first impression.

User benefit: cost saving
The most obvious and important benefit from using this new technology is reducing costs. The logic is simple: if you do not need to print at all for setting up impression and register, you do not waste any substrate, ink, solvent, energy, machine time, labour costs, etc.

At the same time, the job structure of a print shop and the potential for reducing costs are closely linked. In other words - the shorter the print runs and an increasing number of change-overs, the greater the cost savings. And/or the more expensive the substrate, the greater the cost saving achieved by reduction of waste.

With a wide range of job structures and continuously increasing material costs, this list can be extended with many other examples. In addition, for flexo in general and for individual print shops in particular, this new technology will open new doors for flexo business. Print jobs which before had to be refused because they could not be produced efficiently in flexo, may now well be more of interest. With smartGPS technology, the production / set-up ratio is shifted dramatically in favour of production.

From whatever perspective you look at the new smartGPS technology you will easily recognise that it is the perfect answer to today’s challenges of reducing costs - just like the latest hybrid automobile engines which reduce petrol consumption to the lowest possible levels currently achievable.
User benefit: process consistency
One of the deficiencies flexo is always blamed for is the lack of standardisation. Impression setting is one of the most important missing links of the process standardisation chain. With manual procedures, the quality of impression setting is dependent on the perception of the eye and the expertise of the printer. With automatic optical systems, the human eye is replaced by a video camera. However, the process basically remains the same: it is a matter of viewing the print and then making corrections, viewing again and further correction. This has to be repeated until after a lot of time and effort, the print is finally set. The procedure you use is like trying to park your car just touching a wall, but rather than setting the distance correctly first (using modern technology such as reversing sensors), you first smash it into the wall and then drive slowly forward, hoping no damage was done to the fender.

One major problem facing all producers of flexible packaging that use solvent based inks is that of correct drying. Modern fast drying inks do not start to dry correctly until a reasonable production speed is achieved. Only then is the dwell time of the ink on the plate short enough to prevent the ink from drying prematurely.

At the lower machine speeds used for impression setting, the dwell time between the application of the ink to the plate and its transfer onto the substrate is far too long. This leads to premature evaporation of the solvent and the retention of the ink to the plate, rather than the substrate, an unsatisfactory, problematic ink transfer.

Even the most experienced printers often fail to recognize that the cause of the poor print results is often premature drying of inks rather than insufficient impression. As a matter of fact, with increased impression, the quality of the graphics appears to improve. While the problem appears to be eliminated, the measures taken actually were the wrong ones. In most cases, actions based on the initial false assumption, that the problem was insufficient impression, lead to overly high impression settings throughout the print run.

Conventional optical systems do not help overcome this dilemma. While adjusting the settings at higher speeds eliminates the problem of premature drying, it also considerably increases waste production.

With smartGPS technology, the print adjustments are known before the job enters the press. That means that the machine can be accelerated to production speed immediately after the first kiss contact. The result is waste reduced to zero and the drying issue is completely avoided. One more advantage over conventional systems is that smartGPS also works on coatings or lacquers, that have no contrast with the background substrate, without any restrictions.

Before smartGPS, reproducibility was virtually impossible. Additional obstacles to reproducibility are variables such as day / night shift, the time of the year, the ink variations and the interval between first and repeat orders. And last but not least, with both manual and automatic set-ups based on optical systems, there is the danger of continual plate damage which comes from initial over impression – just take one look at the fender from the car above!

All these potential problems are completely eliminated from the start when set-up is performed automatically with smartGPS. As is the case with nearly all groundbreaking new technologies, smartGPS cannot replace the operator’s expertise, but it facilitates everyday routines and makes him available for other jobs that require his know-how.

User benefit: quality control
Premium print quality requires ultimate mechanical and geometrical precision of all components involved in the printing process. If print results are unsatisfactory, in many cases it is hard to trace the problem – on the one hand, because there is so much potential for problems and on the other, because suitable measuring instruments are not available. The smartGPS mounting and measuring machine offers new possibilities for troubleshooting and hardware quality control. The sophisticated measuring technology can not only be used for scanning and recording the topography of print cylinders, adapters, sleeves and printing forms (conventional plates and all types of round sleeves) - but it can also be used for measuring the exterior geometry of the anilox rolls.

How has the market responded?
The smartGPS system has been through an extensive period of testing, during which users have been continuously involved to ensure that all parameters of pressroom relevance were included in the development of the hardware and software.

“smartGPS has passed the toughest tests with flying colours. Even with the most demanding print jobs which printers had given us, the system provided convincing evidence for its extraordinary capacity,” explained Ralph Schuck, Managing Director of FISCHER & KRECKE and Head of the Bobst Group Product Line Flexo.

More than a dozen machines of the whole FP series equipped with smartGPS are now ready to be delivered. In order to satisfy the huge demand for the new technology, FISCHER & KRECKE will soon be offering retrofit kits for existing equipment.

“The immense demand for smartGPS leaves us in no doubt that this new technology will become the flexo industry standard in the near future,” Ralph Schuck concluded.