Tightly integrated prepress and print production
As a leading packaging specialist, Huhtamaki of Finland develops a wide variety of flexible packaging concepts, with the focus on the food and drinks sector. It has some 18,600 employees, who generated a turnover of around 3.4 billion euros in 2019. Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany in Ronsberg in the Allgäu is the largest of the group’s 80 production facilities in 35 countries.
However, what very few know is that Huhtamaki is also one of the world’s largest gravure printers of packaging and across the group runs over 50 gravure presses. These are primarily used to print flexible packaging for the global branded goods industry in sectors such as foods, animal feed, laminated tubes and pharmaceuticals. 12 of the plants have their own repro and gravure cylinder production facilities and these produce over 160,000 gravure cylinders every year, making Huhtamaki one of the world’s largest cylinder producers.
Gravure’s strengths are in demand
The Ronsberg production facility, which is entirely focused on the production of flexible packaging, occupies a special position within the Huhtamaki group. “We cover the entire flexible packaging production chain from prepress using fully automatic cylinder production through extrusion, printing, laminating and finally finishing”, explains Siegfried Kronschnabl, Category & Global Prepress Manager at Huhtamaki. “Nevertheless, we are well aware of the advantages of the other packaging printing processes and so our group also has flexo, offset and digital printing at its disposal. That puts us in the comfortable position of being provide our repro and cylinder customers neutral and process-independent advice.”
The substantial share of the work taken by gravure printing is down to its classic strengths such as premium product quality, and extreme stability and uniformity over the production run and with repeat jobs. These strengths have really come to the fore during the current Corona pandemic, when long runs of urgently needed packaging for major brand owners and foodstuff producers have had to be printed. This high demand for long run jobs has resulted in a sort of renaissance for gravure printing, although it never really lost its key position in packaging printing.
Huhtamaki Prepress regards itself as a technically expert source of ideas, advice and guidance that acts as an interface between marketing department, design agency, packaging development, production and processing. By acting in this way, it ensures high added value and reliability for the customer’s printed products. Modern, automated reproduction processes support the prepress department in its work and lay the foundations for the best possible production results.
“In Ronsberg, we are specialists in repro and cylinder production and can look back over 70 years of international experience dealing with brand owners. What’s more, this year Huhtamaki is celebrating its hundredth anniversary”, continues Siegfried Kronschnabl. “60 employees in Ronsberg alone work in prepress, and every year they produce over 18,000 gravure cylinders as well as handling all the corresponding digital prepress.
On top of this, constant investment in the latest technologies, processes and in employee trainee ensures the highest process and quality standards. The close and daily interchange between prepress and the press hall guarantees high quality and fit for purpose repro and smooth cylinder production. Years of colour management experience of the interplay between repro, cylinder production and printing is a further major advantage. There’s a reason why Huhtamaki Prepress is one of Europe’s top five.
“Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany doesn’t just produce repro and cylinders for its own six gravure presses but also for Huhtamaki Flexibles Italia in Tortona, Piedmont. In addition, an increasing number of external customers—primarily packaging printers—are making use of our prepress services. These now account for around 20% of the workload and the proportion is rising. Our decades of experience of standardization and colour management as well as the tight integration of prepress and print production stand us in good stead here”, explains Siegfried Kronschnabl.
Thinking globally, acting locally
In order to ensure its customers receive care they can rely on, Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany operates on the principle of “just one project handover, just one process manager”. One manager handles the job in close technical and personal contact with the customer, from consultancy through prepress and cylinder making to passing for press and finishing. The information management system ensures everybody involved has an overview of the entire process and is aware of the current production status of the job in question at any given time. Data management at Huhtamaki is also completely media neutral.
Siegfried Kronschnabl adds: “It is important here to be able to provide worldwide service for globally active brand owners and packaging printers. We have over 12 facilities with their own prepress and cylinder production located in Europe, Africa, India and South East Asia. That means we are in a position to offer and to guarantee our customers a service that is not just international but comprehensive for the production of flexible packaging. We can guarantee the same, consistent quality for printed and finished flexible packaging anywhere in the world.”
Even more efficient, quicker response and fully automatic
In 2019 the Autocon line, which had been producing gravure cylinders fully automatically at Huhtamaki in Ronsberg since 2003, was extensively updated, after alterations to the buildings had first been made in order to allow this project to be undertaken.
On the one hand, the growing number of outside customers and the installation of a new Windmöller & Hölscher gravure press the previous year meant that the capacity of the line needed to be increased. On the other hand, the time required to produce gravure cylinders needed to be cut in order to be able to keep to the ever-tighter deadlines for supplying brand owners with flexible packaging whilst maintaining a very high level of quality.
- Modern galvanizing systems
Huhtamaki in Ronsberg therefore boosted the automated line by investing in the latest system technology for gravure cylinder production from Kaspar Walter and Daetwyler Graphics and integrated additional galvanizing baths for electrolytic copper and chrome plating, a chrome stripping system and a line for finishing copper and chrome surfaces.
- Smart inline cylinder rack
The new space-saving short-term inline cylinder rack from Bauer Logistik makes genuine non-stop operation of the production line possible. Semi-finished gravure cylinders can be buffered in this rack whilst awaiting further, fully automatic finishing. The rack consists of two steel side walls with round cut outs into which special plastic pads are fitted, with a section of the cylinder face of stored cylinders resting on these pads. Fully automatic withdrawal entails the rack retrieval device lifting the cylinder by its face, withdrawing it sideways out of its storage position and then transferring it to a newly installed automatic crane. The crane then transports the cylinder in question to the appropriate processing station for finishing.
- Latest generation engraving system
Huhtamaki has also invested in a K500 Twain, the latest generation of fully automatic electromechanical engraving system for gravure cylinders from Hell Gravure Systems. This means that the Huhtamaki Autocon line now numbers five K500s in different versions. The Twain system features two 12 kHz engraving heads that move independently of each other and that offer fast but also very accurate positioning through the use of a linear drive. When engraving a cylinder, the system automatically splits a packaging design as evenly as possible between its two engraving channels in order to maximize efficiency and to roughly half the engraving time.
- New high-level warehouse
“The plans for the building of a new high-level cylinder warehouse are complete and will be implemented in the foreseeable future”, reports Florian Ullinger, Manager Reproduction and Cylinders at Huhtamaki in Ronsberg. “At present, the gravure cylinders are stored externally by a nearby logistics partner. However, the resulting daily lorry movements not only entail logistical and time costs but also come with an increased risk of the gravure cylinders being damaged.“
An in-demand partner
It is the tight integration of repro, cylinder production and print production as well as its global orientation that has been the major factor in making Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany a partner of choice for the supply industry when it comes to testing the practical suitability of their latest product ideas. “Over the decades we have taken leading roles in projects to develop numerous innovations that have gone on to become firmly established and widely used in the packaging industry”, comments Siegfried Kronschnabl. “In many cases, our active participation in these projects enabled us to contribute our ideas and flag up our wishes. This helped us to refine our production practices and gave us a major competitive advantage because not only were we the first user of the solution in question but also the first to be able to configure and exploit its possibilities in all its forms and aspects to our advantage.”
For example, Huhtamaki played a major role in the development of Kaspar Walter’s CuMax technology, which set new standards in the copper plating of gravure cylinders in terms of the homogeneity and the quality of the copper surface for subsequent engraving. The prototype of the CuMax bath system was installed in Ronsberg and tested there until ready for market. As a participant in the project and as its first user, Huhtamaki benefited from the advances this innovation delivered.
En route to an industrial standard
In 2015, the proven and trusted partnership with Kaspar Walter saw the installation of a newly developed system for the chrome plating of gravure cylinders at Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany in Ronsberg.
The objective of this development was to achieve environmentally friendly plating by using chrome (III) technology that matched the mechanical properties and quality standards offered by chrome (VI) plating. Various electrolyte formulations and system modifications were tested and refined, and Kaspar Walter has subsequently been awarded several patents for this new chrome plating process, which is known as HelioChrome NEO.
“With a Vickers hardness of around 1200 HV, it is possible to achieve cylinder surfaces with HelioChrome NEO that match classic chrome plating using chrome (VI). What’s more, there are no fundamental changes in the workflow for the user, although it is not possible to use current chrome (VI) plating systems for the HelioChrome NEO process”, explains Florian Ullinger. “However, in principle, the same grinding and polishing systems can be used. That being said, the surface of the new chrome layer does need to be worked in a different way from chrome (VI).”
“We have already overcome the major hurdles in the development”, reports Michael Fürholzer, Vice President Customer Service at Kaspar Walter. “Currently, we are working on making the chrome (III) process more stable and are undertaking extensive stress tests with the electrolyte under industrial production conditions.” To that end, a HelioChrome NEO system has been integrated into the fully automatic gravure cylinder production line, whilst a second, off-line, system is used for further optimization and fine tuning of the chrome (III) technology. What remains to be done is to establish the reliability of the electrolyte feed under production conditions and quality assurance of the industrial process for the customer.
The first fit for market flexible packaging has already been successfully printed on its gravure presses by Huhtamaki in Ronsberg using HelioChrome NEO-coated cylinders. To date, the longest individual job to have been printed ran to 65,000 metres. In addition to the chrome (III) layer, the mechanical resistance (wear) and the suitability of the doctor blade were tested under real printing conditions. What these tests have shown are that consistent print quality over run lengths of 100,000 metres and more are no problem for chrome (III) gravure cylinders.
HelioChrome NEO is more environmentally friendly
At around 20 A/dm² at 40°C, the energy demand of HelioChrome NEO is relatively low and the bath temperature is 20 degrees lower than for classic chrome plating. As a result, the environment benefits from lower emissions and power costs are also lower. Currently, it is possible to deposit chrome (III) layers up to 25 µm thick and it takes around 20 minutes, or roughly the same time as with chrome (VI) plating, to lay down the 6 to 8 µm thick layers that are usual in gravure printing. Chrome (III) salts have also been shown to be less harmful to the environment and health than chrome (VI) salts. Their toxicity is less than that of the copper bath, so no REACH authorization should be required.
“We are working on the assumption that HelioChrome NEO will be ready for sale as a commercial product before the approval of chrome (VI) expires in the EU and it will then be available for the gravure printing market”, concludes Michael Fürholzer.
Keeping it tight
A one stop shop from consultancy and ideas, through repro and cylinder making to print production and finishing – Huhtamaki in Ronsberg covers the entire flexible packaging added value chain. Not only does this shorten internal and customer communication pathways but it also makes them fundamentally smarter. The constant investment in the latest and most efficient production technologies, as well as the workforce, and the pursuit and implementation of promising product ideas makes Huhtamaki Flexible Packaging Germany a much sought-after partner for brand owners, the supply industry and packaging printers.
More information on gravure printing