Over the years, Kodak has probed nearly every segment of the graphic arts through its deep commitment to R&D—but none with more concentration than flexography for labels and packaging. Although Kodak is a relative newcomer to the process, it has tried to make up for the late entry with what it says are the advantages of Flexcel NX, a platemaking system backed by some of the company’s most significant patented innovations in flexo prepress and plate output.

Promoting new enhancements to Flexcel NX will be one of Kodak’s main reasons for taking part in the 2015 Forum of the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) in Nashville (May 3-6). Emma Schlotthauer, an evangelist of packaging flexo for Kodak since the company entered the market eight years ago, says that the updates can make flexo more than a match for the strict quality requirements that surround the production of branded packaging on flexible films and other substrates.

Flexcel NX, an integrated collection of plates, platesetters, software, and related components, is installed in about 400 flexo production sites around the world. At these locations, says Schlotthauer, the system serves two purposes.

The first is to close the quality gap between flexo and other processes so that packaging designers have more freedom to create printable artwork. The other objective is to eliminate complexity for printers by making flexo platemaking simpler and flexo print runs more efficient.

Those who adopt Flexcel NX take on a full suite of flexo platemaking products from Kodak, which becomes their sole supplier of devices and consumables for use with the system. The tight integration of processes within Flexcel NX is what produces the high degree of quality control the system has been designed for, Schlotthauer says.

At the core of Flexcel NX are patented techniques for precision halftone dot formation, high-resolution imaging, and efficient ink transfer through plate surface patterning. These features are applied by means of Kodak’s SQUAREspot imaging technology, a thermal exposure system built into Flexcel NX plate imagers.

The “flat top” structure of the dots on Flexcel NHX and NXC plates is said to reduce wear for more consistent and repeatable printing. The dots are formed by laminating a thermal imaging layer onto the surface of the plate in a pre-exposure step that eliminates oxygen between the two, creating the conditions necessary for the formation of the square shape.

Kodak supplies the laminators as well as the plate imagers. Depending on the model, plate sizes on Flexcel NX imagers can be up to 24" x 30", 31.5" x 42", 42" x 60", and 50" x 80." The turnkey package also includes front-end software, a densitometer, and media handling accessories.

The imaging enhancements to Flexcel NX that Kodak will present at the FTA Forum currently are in beta test. Schlotthauer says, however, that some beta users already have entered commercial production with them and that when the enhancements are generally available, all Flexcel NX users will be able to install them as affordable upgrades to their existing systems.

When they do, she says, they will have a platemaking solution for printing on flexible films with better white opacity, improved overprinting on white, cleaner spot colors, and sharper images. The promised net effect is to bring flexo up to gravure in terms of the richness of the color it can impart and the fineness of detail it can hold—perennial challenges for flexo in high-end packaging applications.

Schlotthauer says that the overall improvement will be most apparent in “smooth fades to zero” in vignettes, contrast in drop shadows, and other details requiring the ability to reproduce very small dots. According to Schlotthauer, some Flexcel NX users already are printing with 1% and 2% dots that gain to only 5% or 6% from plate to film substrate—well below the threshold of what can safely be attempted with other flexo plate imaging systems.

With the enhancements, says Schlotthauer, users will get a significantly increased level of control over label and packaging jobs that print with opaque white ink. Improvements to Flexcel NX’s ink transfer capability will make it possible to lay down a smooth, even layer of white in a single hit without pinholing or other impairments to opacity.

Not just white but all colors can be printed with this efficiency, yielding a better-looking result with less ink consumed. Schlotthauer says that although the anticipated savings is hard to quantify, “there is definitely ink to be saved” through the enhanced plate performance that Flexcel NX is expected to deliver.

The new emphasis on flexible packaging for Flexcel NX comes as the result of two years of R&D and six months of ongoing beta testing. Reports from the field about print quality and process efficiency have been extremely positive, says Schlotthauer.

The ultimate goal is to demonstrate that flexography should not have to take a back seat to any other process when it comes to delivering shelf impact for packaged consumer goods. It’s a case that Kodak hopes to make convincingly on behalf of Flexcel NX before the flexible packaging specialists at the FTA Forum.