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Module 5 Part 3 Printing for Corrugated Packaging

In this part you will become familiar with the technology of the most common type of printing used in corrugated packaging. Other growing technologies will be briefly discussed as well as some of the most significant technical issues when printing on corrugated.

Two facts have converged in recent years to result in huge changes to the way in which corrugated boxes are printed. First, corrugated board presents a difficult printing challenge. The process of transferring ink requires intimate contact between the printing plate and the material to be printed (the substrate). This intimate contact is achieved through the application of pressure between the printing plate and the substrate. Yet the fluted structure of corrugated can easily be damaged by excessive pressure. For this reason, printing on corrugated was limited to relatively simple graphics for most of the 100 years of the existence of corrugated packaging. Secondly, changes in the way products are marketed in more recent times have put pressure on corrugated box manufacturers to expand their print capabilities to enable the printing of more sophisticated images. Point of purchase retailing has resulted in the need for corrugated packaging to expand its role from that of just being a shipping container to also act as a selling tool at the retail store. These two issues have resulted in the development of two distinct categories of corrugated printing technology; post print and preprint. Post-print has been and remains the dominant technology for printing corrugated containers. The term refers to the fact that the printing step occurs after the linerboard and medium has been combined to form corrugated board. Great care must be taken in post-print not to crush the flute structure during printing. Preprint involves printing the double face liner before it is combined into corrugated board. In this process a roll of double face linerboard is unwound and printed on a printing press and then is rewound into a roll to be made available to the corrugator. This roll-to-roll printing process occurs in one pass through the printing press. The advantage of preprint is that printing pressure is not an issue. The linerboard is passed around steel rolls, which act as a solid backup to the linerboard during printing. This system takes the worry of too much pressure out of the printing equation and allows very sophisticated photographic quality printing to be achieved on corrugated.

Two other processes, which have allowed more sophisticated printing on corrugated, are the label process and the litho-lamination process. The label process involves printing a sheet of publication grade paper on a printing press and then gluing the printed label to a finished corrugated box. The litho-lamination process uses the lithographic printing process and is a specialized form of preprint. Litho-lamination generally produces the most sophisticated form of printing for relatively small packages for the consumer market.

Letterpress Printing Up through the 1950s, all printing on corrugated was accomplished with the letterpress printing process.

Figure 1 The letterpress used a heavy paste type of oil-based ink. This type of ink provided good quality ink coverage over the relatively rough surface of corrugated board. The printed areas also had a relatively glossy appearance. Oil base inks were very slow to dry and the ink would smear if the printed sheets were handled too quickly. Corrugated sheets had to be stacked and held still to allow the ink to dry. Then they could be fed into other equipment such as folder gluers to create the finished knocked down box. Flexographic printing

The flexographic printing process was introduced to the corrugated industry in the 1950s and became the dominant printing system for corrugated by the 1980s. Today, flexography accounts for about 95% of all printing on corrugated.

Figure 2 The flexographic (flexo) process has several advantages. Flexo inks are water based, so the water absorbs quickly into the linerboard surface and the ink dries quickly. This quick drying had two results. First the printing process could become much faster and secondly, it allowed the development of the flexo-folder gluer. This allowed board to be printed, slotted, scored, folded, glued and stacked as knocked down boxes all in one pass through one piece of equipment. This development greatly improved the productivity of the corrugated industry. The water washable inks are much easier to clean up after a printing job than were the oil based inks. This reduces set-up time on printing machines when changing colors between orders. The water washable inks are also more environmentally friendly than oil based inks. Fexographic printing ink solids can be removed from the wash up water and the water can be reused. In the flexo printing process, ink flows into a nip between an engraved anilox roll and a wiper roll. The cells in the anilox roll fill with ink and the excess ink is wiped away by the wiper roll. Note: many flexo systems use a wiper blade rather than a wiper roll. The ink is transferred from the cells onto a printing plate, which transfers the ink to the corrugated board surface. The corrugated board is backed up by an impression cylinder, which holds the board solidly in place while ink is transferred. The pressure between the printing plate, corrugated board and impression cylinder is held to a minimum to avoid crushing of the flutes. Printing Plates In both letterpress and flexographic printing, the image to be printed is engraved into a flexible rubber plate. The portion of the plate that will become the printed image is engraved so it is raised above the non-image portion. Ink is placed on the high area of the plate and then is transferred to the substrate as the plate contacts

the substrate. The plates are inch or less thick, and are made of natural rubber, synthetic rubber or photopolymer material. The engraving is done by a molding process in the case of rubber or via chemical means for photopolymer. Photopolymer plates are plastic-like plates that are manufactured by exposing a light-sensitive polymer material through a photographic negative. This allows the plate to become an exact duplicate of the original copy. The photopolymer process produces a printing plate that is truer to the original artwork than the rubber plates. Because the photopolymer material is manufactured to exacting specifications, there is little, if any, thickness variation throughout the plate. The resulting plate is also more dimensionally stable than a rubber printing plate. Photopolymer plates have excellent ability to pickup, carry and transfer ink. Photopolymer material releases the ink to the paper more easily than rubber and so requires less print pressure. These plates do an excellent job on small print, screens and halftones. The rubber and photopolymer printing plates are mounted on backing material and the backing material is mounted on the print cylinder in the press. Anilox Roll The anilox roll, which delivers the ink to the printing plate, is engraved with a cell structure. The number of cells per inch determines the sophistication level of the printing that can be accomplished. Cell counts in anilox rolls range from about 150 per inch to 500 per inch. As the cell count increases, the amount of ink delivered by each cell decreases. This allows the delivery of much smaller portions of ink to be delivered to much smaller areas of the substrate. This is important, as some printing for corrugated has become more photograph-like in quality. Artwork The artwork for flexo printing generally falls into two categories; line art and process art. In line art, each item to be printed is specifically engraved into the printing plate and each item is printed in a distinct color. If text is to be printed on the box, the text is engraved in the plate and that portion of text can only be printed in one color. If a circle or a square is to be printed, each item to be printed is printed as solid colors. The process is much like a rubber stamp that might be used to imprint a message on an envelope; that message can only be in one color at a time. Process printing consists of printing small dots. If the dots are printed close enough together they may look like a solid, but the image is really created by a series of dots. The advantage of process printing is the ability to intersperse dots of different colors with one another to create many other the colors. As an example, mixing the primary colors of blue and yellow together can create an image that looks green. Organizing the dots into appropriate spacing patterns can create images that are shaded and the image can become more realistic in appearance than when line art is used. The use of smaller and smaller dots and more colors can produce images, which have photographic quality.

In recent years, post print has gone from being nearly 100% line art having one or two colors to a significant percentage of boxes having a combination of line art and process art with multiple colors. As anilox roll cell sizes have decreased, and ink capabilities have improved, post print has become much more sophisticated in its capability.

This process prints a full roll of double face liner prior to corrugating. The preprinted roll is combined into corrugated board. The corrugator electronically controls the cutting process so that each individual sheet of corrugated board has the appropriate printed image. These sheets are then passed through a die cutter or a flexo-folder gluer (but not using the printing sections) to create a KD RSC. Preprint can be used to provide photographic type images on corrugated and is commonly used on boxes that are used at point-of-purchase retail. Preprint presses also use the flexographic printing process. A preprint press generally has eight printing stations and a varnish coating station. This press can print up to eight colors at a time, but generally is used to print a one four-color job while another print job is being set up. The varnish station adds a clear coating to yield a glossy appearance to the print or to provide other functional properties. The preprint process generally uses thinner photopolymer printing plates than those used in post print. These thin photopolymer plates result in very consistent printed dot size, which is important in photographic quality printing. Preprint anilox rolls tend to have a high number of cells per inch, which enables the precise printing of the small dots. Preprint has allowed corrugated boxes to compete with the print quality of the folding carton industry and so is the most rapidly growing segment of the corrugated industry. Preprint now accounts for 5 to 10% of the corrugated boxes produced in the United States.


Lightweight publication grade paper can be printed with the either lithography or gravure printing processes. These publication papers are generally bleached fiber sheets, which are coated and have excellent ink hold out and gloss. Lithography and gravure printing processes result in higher quality printing than even the best flexo process. This process results in brighter, sharper printing for high impact at point of purchase. Labels are printed and shipped to the box plant where they are applied to corrugated board or boxes. Labels can cover the entire corrugated surface or may only be placed on one or more of the side panels of the box. Sometimes box top and bottoms and what may become the back panels in a box are printed flexo and the label is placed on the panels that become the front display area.

Figure 3

In this process full white or white top containerboard is printed via the lithographic printing process and delivered to the corrugator in either roll form or sheet form. The printed-paper is combined with single face web immediately after production on a corrugator. The resulting combined board is stacked as sheets and processed into finished boxes. This process generally involves the smaller flutes such as E, F and sometimes B flute. This process results in very high quality printing and is generally used for very high-end retail packaging. Litho-Lamination is another process that allows corrugated to directly compete in the retail market with folding carton products.

One of the important quality aspects of printing is assuring that the color of the print matches the color desired by the customer. The appeal of color can be a very subjective issue and much time can be spent in making adjustments to ink and printing settings to adjust color. Color match is generally determined through one of three means: Visually matching to a standard color swatch Densitometer Colorimeter The vast majority of color matching for post printing of corrugated is accomplished by visually comparing the printed color to the target color.

Figure 4 Most inks used in post print are designed to match the Glass Container Manufacturers Institute (GCMI) developed colors. Since the color of the substrate affects the color of the printed ink, the GCMI color standard books come printed on both a white linerboard version and a brown linerboard version. Occasionally a customer will want a non-GCMI color and will provide printed samples showing the target color and a range of acceptable light and dark color on either side of the target. Color can be measured using instrumentation. Two types of instrumentation are available. Both types of instruments use an internal light source to illuminate the sample and measure the light reflected back from the sample. Densitometers measure color but not in the same way that the human eye does. The primary value of the densitometer is to measure the density or quantity of ink on the surface of the substrate. Densitometers are routinely used as quality control instruments to assure that ink is applied uniformly over large surfaces or is applied uniformly from box to box while running an order.

The colorimeter measures color more like the human eye. The industry standard for measuring color is the L*A*B* System. The L* scale measures varying degrees of grayness on a scale from white to dark. The A* scale measures along a green to red axis, and the B* scale measures along a blue to yellow axis. These three measurements result in a set of numbers that represent a specific color on a specific substrate. Densitometers or colorimeters are used for quality control for some post-print work and for most preprint work.

The Universal Product Code (UPC) was adopted in 1973 by the retail grocery industry, and its primary purpose was to automate supermarket checkout transactions. Today that information is also used to make adjustments to inventory which can be used to automatically order new product. The bar code has played a large role in enabling retailers to minimize inventory as one way of holding down cost. The UPC is printed on labels that go on the product or on the primary package that contains the product. The UPC symbol tends to be small and is generally printed in a very high quality printing process. Early attempts to print the UPC symbol on the difficult to print corrugated surface were unsuccessful. The read rate by the scanners was low because of the inadequate print resolution on the rough corrugated surface, and because of the low color contrast between the ink and the brown box substrate. The Shipping Container Symbol (SCS) was introduced in 1987.

Figure 5 The control and distribution of the SCS symbol is handled by the Uniform Code Council, Inc. organization. The SCS is an interleaved 2 of 5 with 14 characters type of symbol, otherwise known as an ITF14 symbol.

The SCS symbol is a simpler bar code than the UPC and is better suited for printing on brown linerboard. The scanners used for the SCS are more tolerant of printing imperfections. The Uniform Code Council defines specific locations for printing the bar code on a wide range of packaging products including corrugated. A bar code is composed of a series of bars and spaces. A scanner contains a light source and a light detector. Light is absorbed by the bars and reflected by the spaces. The light detector responds to the light reflected by the spaces and interprets the code pattern via software, which decodes the symbol. The most important features that must be controlled during printing of a bar code are the widths of the bars and spaces and the contrast between the color of the bars and the spaces. If the widths of the bars and spaces vary too much from the specified dimensions, the scanner will not recognize them and will not decode the symbol properly. If the contrast ratio between the bars and spaces is not large enough, the scanner also will not decode properly. One of the key issues with printing the SCS symbol on brown corrugated is that there must be sufficient contrast between the brown substrate and the ink color in order to get a scan reading. Some colors should never be used to print bar codes because they do not provide enough contrast to the substrate brown. Reds and yellows as an example do not result in enough contrast to yield a readable symbol. The Uniform Code Council has identified 22 standard GCMI colors that are suitable for printing on brown linerboard. These consist of black as well as several blues, greens and dark browns. Today, the UPC-A symbol is printed on post-print machines with some success. If the symbol is printed in a 200% size, with black ink and good control of the printing process, it can be successfully scanned at the retail checkout counter.

Digital printing is a still small but rapidly growing technology. In this technology, computer generated electronic information is fed to a non-contact ink jet printer, similar in nature to a standard computer printer. This technology has become fairly common for printing a packing date onto a box after it has been filled and as it moves down a conveyor line to be unitized. It is now starting to be used as a way to print a unique identification code on each box packed. Work is also in progress to use the technology for full box printing, but is currently limited to smaller containers.