Flexographic print specialist Comexi Group Industries SA introduced a series of technologies supported by the ongoing digitialization of the plastics industry at K 2019 in October.
At the top of the bill are new smart glasses. These are designed to support more rapid machine repairs and reduce related downtime.
According to Gemma Bessa, marketing manager at Comexi, the glasses allow specialists to see exactly what the on-site technician is looking at.
Real-time assistance includes the sharing of technical diagrams, which are superimposed on the lens of the glasses. This information can help the technician to identify the issue and rectify the problem.
"There is an 'instant chat' feature as well," Bessa said, "which has a built-in translator, so if our team is speaking in Spanish, we can still work with a Russian operator."
Another element of this support is the online ordering platform, COOL, which allows operators to seamlessly identify and order replacement parts.
In another digitalization initiative, the Spanish printing machine manufacturer has launched Comexi Cloud, an Industry 4.0 solution that collects and stores machine data for analysis.
"It's a plug-and-play system with our machines," said Esteve Grassot, database architect for innovation and technology. "It takes about 15 minutes to install the software and set up the system."
For the most part, the data is taken from the machine's own control software via OPC UD protocol.
Older machines using a OPC DA protocol can still support similar functionality, but there will likely be fewer available data points.
"It depends on the machine controller, but with a little retrofitting we can get older machines operating efficiently," Grassot said.
Bessa noted that the Comexi Cloud system can link in with the smart glasses, allowing the operator and service technician to see performance history of the machine.
While analysis of the data can help improve overall machine efficiency, the latest machines also offer data to support preventative maintenance. This helps to identify possible issues before a machine has a catastrophic issue that takes it offline.
"We can use this data to help improve machine efficiency, reduce energy consumption, but also machine intelligence. That will make the machines easier to operate and control," Grassot said.
Where the operator was key to efficient machine operation, an intelligent machine will know what settings are required based on the print job.
Moving away from digitalization and back to the company's core product ranges, Eduard Boja, brand manager for lamination and slitting, says that customers have been taking advantage of new technologies that support the switch from PET-based films to polyethylene products.
In addition to this, Comexi has now introduced a series of film coatings that offer the same barrier performance as laminated layers, which help with recyclability and overall sustainability.
"We are trying to avoid lamination by using water-based coatings," Boja said. "We have developed a system for applying these products; they offer similar barrier properties. A lot of big players are looking at this technology."
Asked if the new coatings need any new equipment or settings, he said that operators can use the same machinery, with some minor adaptations and adjustments.
"You need bigger drying tunnels, but it's essentially the base machine," he noted.
The coatings are not unique to Comexi, but Boja stated that the system the company has developed for application of the products is proprietary to them.
The PE-based films also offer further benefits. Where PET products needed to be reverse printed in order to protect the ink layer, which made the plastic difficult to recycle, a lot of customers are now moving to surface printing.
"They print on the surface of the PE layer and then laminate it with another PE layer," Boja said. "It's clean and easy to recycle."
The only apparent downside to the process is the material itself. While the PE features an MDO-based structure, the film is still stretchable, meaning that the machine must be set up to maintain film dimensions.
The new PE films build on the overall functionality of the company's flexo printing machines, which can use either solvent- or water-based inks.
"The customer can decide which product is more suitable for the application," Bessa explained. "These hybrid machines help to future-proof the customer investment."
She added that based on this functionality, the company is expecting that flexo printing will become more widespread, largely at the expense of gravure-type machines.