Flex ON, spol. s r.o. (Flexon) has been in the market since 1994. They provide their customers full service in manufacturing self-adhesive labels and flexible packaging. Flexon mainly uses Gallus machines from Switzerland. But that’s not all. They’re trailblazers for this brand in their local market. Both their Gallus ECS 340 and their Gallus RCS 330, were the very first installed in the Czech Republic. Another investment Flexon made after many years of working with Gallus, or Heidelberg, is the digital Gallus Labelfire 340. It’s no surprise that installation of the machine this year was another Czech first. We talked with printing company owner Martin Chaluš about the market, Gallus machines and the new Labelfire.
Why did you choose the Gallus Labelfire? And while we’re on the subject, could you give us a brief run-down of the technology in Flexon’s print shop?
: We have machines for both flexographic and offset printing and can include other printing and finishing techniques, and we have a basic digital machine. All we were missing was an industrial digital machine with output comparable to conventional machines. That’s why we got a Gallus Labelfire.
From the practical viewpoint, in the first place, I wanted a machine with a big corporation behind it. Another reason was our good relationship with the Gallus and Heidelberg suppliers, who provide us with first-class support and service. Moreover, our mutual relationship long ago grew from mere business to a friendship. And thirdly, I really liked the design of the Labelfire, the integrity of the whole solution. It’s actually a hybrid machine combined with other technologies. Before and after the printing unit, it’s possible to incorporate other operations, such as varnishing, lamination, cold stamping, die cutting and so on. It’s great that just one printer can run the whole unit, and at the end comes a finished product, including refinements. It’s a big advantage that you no longer have to feed the prints into a further machine.
What, exactly, do your machine’s configurations allow?
:In addition to an inkjet printing unit, our Labelfire has another five positions. Before printing, the flexographic unit allows things like varnishing the material before printing, or applying foil by cold stamping, which can then be printed. The printing unit is then followed by flexographic units for varnishing, lamination, cold stamping, etc., a screen printing unit for special effects, or even application of Braille, and finally a semi-rotational cutter to finalize the shape of the product.
What printing applications do you plan to use Labelfire for? Will you reserve it for special items or use it as a jack of all trades?
To start with, we said we’d run orders of up to two kilometres on it. And considering its equipment, we also do orders that call for a lot of special processing. But this doesn’t just involve applying varnish, foil, lamination, etc., but also directly applying inks. The colour range of the inkjet unit covers about 95% of the Pantone scale.
As you mentioned, you’ve got various types of printing technology under your roof, including digital. Can you compare the new digital machines to conventional ones?
One huge plus is very short preparation times. On conventional machines, preparation often takes much longer than printing itself. Preparing complex orders on the Labelfire takes about 10 minutes, and then you’re producing. But you get a really important advantage for orders with variable content but the same parameters (cut-out shape, width and material type, etc. – ed.). This might involve labels in more than one language or labels where only the graphic varies. For Labelfire, these variations are one order with one preparation process. Then the time savings are enormous. Not to mention savings on printing forms and start-up material.
In buying the Labelfire, Flexon’s only vision wasn’t the ambition to enter markets that were totally new to us, but we mainly wanted to optimize some processes in the print shop. Especially to save on photo-polymers and preparation times. Both parameters are key and generally cost print shops a pile of money over the long term.
And how would you compare the quality of conventional technologies versus digital?
We’ve resolved and tuned the colours a lot, for example, and I have to say the results are really pretty decent. As far as the quality difference is concerned between conventional printing and digital, a typical customer will never notice. Obviously, an expert would see it. But he’d actually need to look through a loupe. The only complicated orders are the ones you tune to something someone’s already produced. But that’s a general problem with all technologies — regardless of whether they’re digital or standard flex.
Was the choice clear from the beginning, or did you consider competing alternatives? And how did the installation go?
At the beginning, the choice wasn’t clear at all! There’s another machine on the market that’s very similar and has the same printing heads. But it doesn’t have the support or a tradition of Czech representation. I don’t want to be completely specific, but I just wasn’t sure I’d have the strength and range of support I get from Gallus and Heidelberg.
It was a little unfortunate that the machine arrived right before Christmas, in November, so we purposely shifted installation to January 2021. Then everything ran very smoothly. The installation took us about two months. At the same time, I’d have to emphasize that there was no pressure. Installation was not tied to any specific order. So it wasn’t essential that everything go as fast as possible. It was important that we correctly tune and test everything, and the machine work perfectly in full operation. We succeeded to my complete satisfaction.
What came before installation and putting the Labelfire to serious work? Did you have any doubts or legitimate concerns? If so, what kind?
I’ll admit that I was a little scared at the beginning. On principle, I’m not too inclined toward modern digital technology. Especially because these modern digital machines are still problematic, complicated and can often act up. Luckily, it didn’t live down to my expectations. I assumed that if, God forbid, something happened with the machine, Heidelberg or Gallus wouldn’t leave me hanging. That’s exactly the difference between a reliable partner and other competing companies that don’t have such a tradition or approach in the Czech Republic. On the other hand, I have to admit that I waited a while for the right time to come. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have bought this kind of machine, because at that time the quality wasn’t there yet. Nonetheless, I went on, and now Gallus has their digital machines to where the quality meets the needs and demands of the market.
Are you planning any other upgrade in the foreseeable future?
When it comes to further investments, and what a turbulent time we’re in now, I think we’re well equipped at the moment. We’ve invested plenty in recent years — three years ago new offset presses and now Labelfire. I think for at least the next three years, things will be quiet when it come to technology. However, we’re going to equip the printer for finishing — definitely a cutter, at least. The Labelfire will produce a lot of smaller, shorter orders that will need to be cut to specific dimensions for the customer. We’re thinking of a cutter with automatic blade placement. Those can monitor cutting accuracy without losing efficiency in overall production.
Now that we’ve run into the popular question of today’s huge automation trend — what do you think about it personally?
Automation helps a lot in printing, even though it depends on a lot of factors, particularly the technology itself and the type of order. Even if you have the best machine with the highest level of automation, for now you still need a person behind it doing a lot of things manually. On a standard conventional machine, you have to take a cylinder and physically push it onto the printing axis. Then you have to take the ink fountain, mix the colours, etc. Here there’s not much room for further automation. Naturally, digital presses are something different. With them you can essentially forget about the actual printing itself and deal with these other operations — embossing, varnish, screens, cutting, etc.
The current global situation has greatly shaken the whole market and all its segments. It has essentially reached every industry. How did you deal with it at Flexon?
I dare say that it hardly affected us, or really only peripherally. Paradoxically, last year we had even more orders than normal. This was mainly due to the hysteria during the first wave of coronavirus, when everyone was afraid there wouldn’t be any food. Then problems started with material deliveries. There just weren’t any. When they closed the borders, we waited for materials easily four weeks, which in our industry is absolutely unthinkable. If COVID affected us, it was mainly from the point of view of human resources, for example, when a lot of people just stopped going to work from day to day. They were afraid. This year we’ve more or less returned to the same numbers as in 2019. But the competition has been stiff for a long time. There have been and will be crises. It got to all of us in one way or another, but we’ve always made it through.
Thank you very much for this interview!