Elastomer: The truth will set your sleeve

By Ryan Dufour, Senior Account Manager for West Essex Graphics

In the flexographic printing industry, there exists a necessary but often misunderstood technology: continuous print sleeves. Though often a requirement for full coverage, many printers, and prepress providers have devised inventive methods to avoid using them, such as adding another color to press runs to hide gaps in print, performing elaborate cuts to nest images together and altering customer art from its original intent.

There are two main reasons for these workarounds. The first is cost, as most continuous print sleeves cost, on average, three times more than traditional flat mounted plates. Depending on the size of the print run, this investment can be challenging to recoup. The other is a misconception, typically comprised of the misunderstanding of the technology or, logistically, lack of knowledge on how to procure suitable print sleeves, since the number of companies producing them has dwindled significantly.

For almost 20 years, my career involved providing the flexo industry with photopolymer printing sleeves. My niche was born of a need for continuous print in the retail and decorative markets and grew into a business of backgrounds, tight register jobs, and difficult bounce items. Sleeve technology lends itself to each of these scenarios due to its continuous background images, its ability to integrate materials conducive to complex or difficult press conditions and, of course, the fact that it eliminates the need for mounting plates.

Throughout my tenure in this business, I was proud to offer “the good kind” of print sleeves. Photopolymer continuous print sleeves were – and in many ways still, are – known as preferable to their primary competitor, elastomer sleeves. While the photopolymer sleeves enjoy a respectable reputation, their elastomer counterparts – frequently (and often erroneously) referred to as “rubber” – were seen as less effective, lower quality substitutes that provided inferior print quality.

I now find myself in a different role, providing prepress services and plates to the market. With this change, I have had to adapt and educate myself on the elastomer side of sleeves. For many years, I shared the belief that the materials and quality of elastomer sleeves were lower quality than their photopolymer counterparts. I have come to find that this was a misguided perception.

It’s myth-busting time: The widely-held belief that elastomer sleeves are composed of a natural rubber – which in turn is typically associated with poor durability and low print quality – is, quite simply, false. They are actually made up of… well… a whole bunch of materials. And herein lies their genius. Elastomer print sleeves are made up of any combination of high-tech materials that, in fact, are highly customizable to fit specific printing needs. Whether a printer is prioritizing ink laydown, long plate life or quality halftones, print sleeves composed of elastomer materials can meet a broad range of press needs. And with such a wide variety of material combinations available, each elastomer sleeve can be produced to fit tailored needs.

Misconceptions in any industry are common. But complete misunderstandings are a rarity. And the truth is that the reputation of elastomer print sleeves as cheap, mass-produced items couldn’t be further from the facts. While there are, of course, sleeves made with rubber, the vast majority are composed of high-tech polymers and binders that yield long plate life, smooth ink transfer and the benefits of a continuous background.

Additionally, advancements in compounds and imaging technology have made various materials used in elastomer sleeves competitive to polymer in both price and performance. Elastomer materials also have become increasingly versatile, resistant to damage from various inks, and available in wider and larger press sizes. Also, owing to their more customizable nature, elastomers print sleeves can be specially designed to achieve different repeats that are harder and costlier to execute using polymer sleeves.

Many of my former customers have now switched to elastomer-based sleeves. Of these, exceedingly few have reported any decrease in quality or printability and, on the contrary, many have experienced longer plate life thanks to the high-quality components and a manufacturing process inherent to elastomer sleeves. While the sleeves may look slightly different from each other, they function nearly identically to polymer sleeves and, in some cases, even outperform them.

During my 25 years in the printing industry, I have seen continuous print sleeve technology change on a number of levels. From base materials, ease of use or the elastomers themselves, sleeves has become a mainstay in flexo press rooms. Now is the time to take another look at how elastomer printing sleeves could improve both the quality and bottom line of printing operations.