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Label convertor values tradition and technology

Weber Packaging Solutions, a company that has helped shape the industrial label industry for more than 80 years, continues to evolve.
XP-5000 label press
Listening to the history of Weber Packaging SolutionsInc., Arlington Heights, IL, is a lot like tracing the history of the label industry itself. The label converter was founded in 1932 by Joe Weber Sr. on the notion that anybody who made a product most likely needed to ship and identify it as well.

At the time, labeling was little more than a manual operation, executed with an ink pad and a stencil. “People would either write on the stencil or put it in a typewriter to cut the stencil,” Tom Michalsen, marketing director, told Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER on a recent visit. “Ink would flow through the stencil and mark the boxes.”

Weber used this method of direct marking for about 25 years, until a mechanical label printing machine was devised. This device produced visual results similar to those achieved by the manual printer, but the stencil was placed on a cylinder to image the label. Using this method, dubbed “indirect marking,” the label would then be applied to the carton.

The next big change for the industry and for Weber came in the mid-1970s. “Corporations began looking for more identity, and advertising became a bigger deal at this point,” says Michalsen. “People wanted to put color on their labels and preprint them. So we started making that type of label for the mechanical label machines. By the late 70s, computers made their appearance, and Weber had the foresight to essentially be the first people with label software.” Since this was the pre-personal computer era, Weber would put “hard-coded” label formats on chips and sell a computing device with these formats stored inside. The customer could add variable information to the label, then print the label on a shuttle line matrix printer with a graphics controller.

The Desktop Revolution

The next decade saw the advent of the personal computer and the beginning of the desktop revolution. Dual floppy drive systems and more flexible menu-driven software allowed users to create their own label templates as well as put variable information in them. The preprinted side saw drastic improvements as well.

The preprinted label side of things really took off at that point, with customers wanting to differentiate themselves with logos, graphics, etc. With direct and thermal transfer printers, Weber finally had the ability to provide easy label creation. Resolution went from a 15-mil dot to a 5-mil dot, allowing people to achieve very attractive variable imaging.

It was at this point that Weber’s product offering took off, thanks in large part to customers’ labeling applications moving from the MIS/EDP (management information systems/electronic data processing) room, where dot matrix printers were traditionally located, to the production floor.

“When labeling moved out onto the floor, you had people who were really involved in label functionality calling the shots,” explains Michalsen. “They knew what they wanted, and that created a whole new venue for labeling materials. You had engineers involved, you had production people involved – designing and specifying unique label solutions for specific applications. Instead of just making EDP labels and maybe using one or two films, the industry exploded into all kinds of applications. It was really an exciting time.”

Materials Must Meet Standards

Prior to this evolution, Weber was able to offer about a dozen different facestock/adhesive combinations for impact printers and, as Michalsen mentioned, a few papers and films. Today, due to the success of nonimpact variable printing, that number has grown to 150 different facestock/adhesive combinations, and Weber prints on a wide variety of papers, tagstocks, films, foils, and vinyls, supplying labels to the food and beverage, petrochemical, and medical industries. About 25% of its business is film, with the balance devoted to paper, reports Michalsen. Weber purchases the bulk of its paper and film from Fasson and FLEXcon and most of its adhesives from National Starch.

From the receiving bay, materials move into the staging area, where they are sent through varying levels of inspection. New suppliers are subjected to a full inspection, during which a 20% sampling is taken and put through a number of rigorous tests – everything from testing for tensile strength, brightness, tear, and release levels. Weber uses industry standards established by the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council and the Technical Assn. for the Pulp and Paper Industry along with its own specifications.

Materials from suppliers with a longer track record are sent on for a skip lot inspection, while the Certified Supplier status is reserved for the company’s most trusted and largest vendors.

“At the most, it takes about 24 hours for us to move product through the inspection process,” Michalsen explains. “And maintaining strong quality controls at the front end has a large impact on the amount of waste we see through the production process. If you’ve got a spec that says you’re only going to have one splice per 12,500 feet, you know that you’re not going to have to stop the press, cut that splice out, and lose a couple hundred feet.”

A Well-Oiled Machine

In addition to the wide variety of substrate offerings, the Weber facility – all 320,000 sq. ft. of it – has an impressive array of label converting equipment. From the QA (quality assurance) lab, uncoated material is sent on to either a Kroenert 31-in. hot melt or a custom-engineered 38-in. solvent-based coater. The Kroenert equipment is the primary coater and usually runs at about 800 fpm; the solvent-based coater is used for specific or unusual applications.

“We use [the solvent-based] coater strictly as a niche coater. We look at it for things that we can’t just buy off the shelf. If we want to put together a very unique film with a very unique adhesive for a specialized application, we can do so without incurring prohibitive minimums or having to spend a lot of money having it done for us,” says Michalsen.

From the coating operation, substrates are sent to either a 60-in. Dusenbery slitter, which runs at about 1,500 fpm, or a 54-in. Stanford slitter, which operates at 1,000 fpm.

Slit films and paper are sent on to be printed on one of the facility’s 39 Mark Andy flexographic rotary presses. Weber reports that it owns the largest number of that company’s flexographic rotary presses worldwide – a total of 75, located at Weber locations around the world, including facilities in the US, U.K., Germany, Canada, and Thailand.

Weber started out with four 7-in., three-color Mark Andy 810s, then moved on to 10- and 16-in. presses. In the last two and a half years, the company has purchased five 7- and 10-in., eight-color Mark Andy 2200s to address its multicolor process and line art needs. The presses are outfitted with a variety of die-cutting, splicing, rewinding, and finishing equipment for various applications. One of the presses uses a corona treater from Corotec to adjust the dyne level on certain films.

In addition, Weber also operates a pair of Hewlett Packard digital label presses, the latest technology for short- to medium-run label printing.

Weber also boasts its own in-house graphics, prepress, and platemaking operation, which gives the company the flexibility it needs to remain competitive.

“Our state-of-the-art Macintosh graphics systems, image setters, and proofing equipment lend themselves to the fast, efficient turnaround of customer artwork,” says Michalsen. “This setup allows us to be self-reliant. If there’s a problem with a job on press, we can always go back and have a plate remade and get it back through the system in about an hour and a half. This allows us to justify keeping that press open during that period of time rather than having to do a huge teardown of a big setup.”

Thinking Inside the Box

Building on its more than 80 years of experience in industrial label printing, Weber’s most recent achievement was its expansion into the realm of prime labels.

“Weber has concentrated on industrial labels for virtually its entire existence,” says Michalsen. “But, we had a lot of customers asking for prime labels. It seemed to be a natural transition to work toward the prime retail end of things. We had been outside the box for a long time, and we wanted to be able to get in the box.”

So far the transition has gone smoothly. Michalsen reports that Weber plans to expand its full-color label customer base while continuing to serve the industrial label market.

All of this work adds up to an annual output of about 30 billion sq. in. of labels per year, an amazing figure when you consider the company’s and the industry’s rather humble beginnings.

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