Serbia’s Al Pack Group becomes electron beam flexo pioneers
After years of hard work, research and development, Al Pack Group, led by members of the Mikac family, is breaking new ground in the field of electron beam (EB) flexo printing. In 2017, the company decided as first customer to invest in a new Uteco EcoOne EB curing printing machine. A partial culmination of years of research, Al Pack’s co-owner hopes that others will follow the pioneering trail they have blazed.
by Michael Buchsbaum
Growing demand leads to cutting edge equipment
Al Pack, an independent Serbian company, was established in 1994. Family run and co-owned with his father and sister, Nemanja Mika´c is also focused on operating the firm in a sustainable, responsible and economical manner. Their decisions are made not just on maintaining and improving world class manufacturing, but by looking ahead to the future, and ensuring that the company maintains a leading role in environmental protection among packaging firms in Serbia and throughout Europe. Today, in total, Al Pack has four manufacturing sites, two in Serbia, one in Germany and one in Russia with about 280 employees.
The company’s focus on sustainability is one of the main drivers behind the company’s decision to rely on UV curing techniques while moving ahead to adopt cutting edge electron beam curing systems. After an market survey, the company has chosen Uteco as partner for his next press, equipped with EB technology: an Onyx XS EcoOne mod. 60. At the second half of 2017, Al Pack was scheduled to take delivery of the first production model of Uteco’s new EcoOne EB flexo press. The new line is equipped with ebeam Technologies’ EB curing systems, new EB inks and other features, that, in combination, could help prove out the flexo EB curing concept once and for all. The installation was presented at Uteco’s open house event in summer 2017.
As a manufacturer of food and pharma packaging, the Al Pack Group offers high quality solutions for labels and packaging, such as lids, containers, lacquered and laminated aluminium foil. With many years of experience in the production of deep-drawn containers and lids, they are also known in the market by the Alster brand that represents laminated foil products used in retortable applications. Their products are also widely used in the food industry (milk, meat, confectionery, pet food, coffee, jam, honey, compote, as well as water and soft drinks), pharmaceutical and cosmetics. The company prints for customers in 25 countries mostly, but not only, in central, eastern and western Europe.
The company has also increased their standards by acquiring more Esko high-definition UV-flexo technology. The new system uses 175 lpi resolution on the printing plates for all jobs (combined with a 4000 dpi laser). This is coupled with UV-inline flat-top-dot technology. According to the company, now every detail is sharper and more colourful, giving designs an even stronger aesthetic appearance.
Researching EB technology
Electron beam technology has been in use for over ten years, but has rarely if ever been used for the type of applications that Mika´c intends for it. The first major EB equipped machine for use in flexible packaging is and was the now highly modified Fischer & Krecke machine that an Al Pack predecessor had purchased in 2007. After acquiring this company, Al Pack worked to retool it’s processes and it has been working properly since 2013 in this application.
Though the theory always made sense, the actual output was a problem. Mika´c relates that it was difficult to maintain colour consistency, to mix the inks and keep them fresh all the time. It was also difficult to make the right image from the first try. But these experiences were mostly those of the original owner here. Through our research on our F&Ks, we have discovered that many of the aspects and ways the machines were initially used were not done in accordance with the related requirements,” said Mika´c. “The way we print today, we have developed a very strong printing quality without problems. But our technique is not as easy as the UV flexo methods that are today very common in Europe,” he continued.
Mika´c has a master of science in chemical engineering. As such, he has been fascinated with the EB process and he and his team have been studying it while better dialling in their existing UV capabilities. “Our research and development group has been investigating this for some time. Its safe to say that Al Pack now knows a bit more than a standard printer regarding ink properties, the physical conditions that need to be achieved, temperature, air flow, the required rheological and physical properties of the ink and other points.”
However, the new EcoOne machine coming in from Uteco was largely constructed and improved upon because of the lessons and challenges Al Pack has learned to overcome. The inks have all been changed, along with the rheological properties, the tracking and EB surface whites are now available as well. Combined, Al Pack is on the cusp of ushering in a new era in flexo printing using never before used EB curing techniques.
Sustainability and reducing food waste is the driving force
One of the reasons he is keen to begin working with EB flexo printing is because, compared to UV, it is a migration free technology. Since the legislation in Europe is becoming stricter each year regarding food safety, with EB one can avoid most of these issues completely.
“The number of photo initiators we are allowed to use are getting smaller each year. Conversely, EB is photo initiator free, as well as VOC free. Having this opportunity means that when you pack yogurt and other products, there is nothing to smell beyond the food itself. The process is water-based, and overall it’s a clean technology. The curing is instant,” said Mikac.
Switching to an EB unit will also reduce Al Pack’s overall energy usage and associated costs. Their UV equipped F&K’s have multiple lamp arrays. With Uteco’s EcoOne EB machine, its just one unit. Mika´c estimates that the energy usage of the new curing system will be reduced by half or more compared to the existing UV system, reducing the total energy consumption of a printing machine by more than 30%.
But Mika´c realizes that being a pioneer can be a bit lonely. Most other printers don’t want to take these risks. “Everyone wants to be the second one to act, or to watch the pioneers and see how they adapt.” But he believes that if it is successful, then in the next five years there will be a minimum of ten new EB presses running in Europe. “And that’s good! I don’t want to be alone. I am waiting for other manufacturers to join and make more research and investments in this technology,” he said.
One of the other great passions of Mikac is preventing food waste. EB flexo printing is just one small step into that direction. Using efficient packaging with aluminium can reduce the total amount of packaging needed for a typical food portion and therefore preventing the excessive usage of packaging. “Prevention is far better than recycling,” he adds. According to him, by using higher barrier materials like aluminium, shelf life of certain foods is extended and therefore less of it is wasted in the end.
Prevention instead of recycling
Electron beam flexo printing helps eliminate smells and all migrants into food. “Over a third or more of the food served in Europe goes to waste. This is amazing in a terrible way. And we would like to make a small contribution to the solution,” said Mikac. The company’s continued adoption and push towards more EB flexo printing are intended as major steps towards sustainability.