29 Apr 2015 American coaters/printers.

For many years I've held the opinion that in terms of coating/printing technology there has been a clear hierarchy of excellence. At the top are Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese coaters/printers. In the middle is Europe. And trailing far behind is the typical US coater/converter, though with awesome exceptions such as 3M (and in their day, Kodak and Polaroid). I have often said this in private but never in public. When I speak to colleagues who have experience of the industry around the world there is always agreement on this hierarchy so it is not just my opinion. And, like me, they always say this with regret. There are no good reasons why such a great nation should be so backward in this area, it just seems to be an unfortunate and pervasive attitude of mind.

Today an AIMCAL press announcement featuring a Nordmeccanica event expressed some strong criticism on one aspect of the US scene, putting their finger on some of the root causes of US backwardness. So if this high-tech Italian company can express their views while inaugurating their US facility, maybe I can dare to express mine. I quote the key section of their press announcement

"American converters are not very friendly to foil conversion. These professionals, especially flexible-packaging converters, have all the tools at their disposal; they just need to become more knowledgeable about the process. Some of the reluctance in web-converting foil can be explained by the low-quality foil materials that had been used in the past. Another reason may be the impact of self-styled experts, more interested in growing their own business than in overall market development. As a result, foil lamination is considered a very difficult territory that requires special machinery and an almost impossible to achieve know-how."

My own observations of the US scene is that there is an astonishing reluctance to acknowledge that coating/printing is a science, not an art. In areas where I have specific expertise, screen printing, flexo, roll coating and slot coating I consistently meet the view that their local expert (often Old Joe who's run the process for decades) or their favourite consultant had decided that various forms of magic were likely to fix problems. Attempts to point out that the laws of physics refuted most of their most treasured views were always met by "You're just blowing physics smoke - we're the guys who know how this stuff works."

A classic case was the use of very thick flexo plates. It is intuitively obvious that a thick, rubbery plate will be more accommodating to the imperfect substrate onto which they were printing. If there are print problems then a thicker plate must help. There happens to be a simple law of physics which shows this assumption to be completely wrong. A thin plate will do exactly the same job (and you get the necessary compliance via foam). In Europe the move to thin plates took place many years ahead of the eventual shift in the US. The fact that thinner plates are lower cost and faster to develop while giving the same or better performance could not over-ride the US attitude that "more must always be better and no physicist is going to tell me otherwise".

Similarly, in slot coating big, complicated adjustable dies were favoured over light, simple dies despite the strong evidence that the adjustability was the cause of more problems than it was supposed to solve. The large, physics driven corporations got the message very early. I once saw some Polaroid slot dies. They brought tears to the eyes as they were so exquisitely simple and in the hands of those trained to use the simplicity delivered astonishing quality first time, every time.

I have sat through lectures by US roll coating "experts" where just about everything they said could be refuted in a couple of minutes by running a phyics-based model such as the one in TopCoat. To them opinion and intuition were the key. To me facts and physics are what matter.

I once wrote an addition to TopWeb out of pure rage at a battle I had fought on a US coating line. They all believed (and as Dr David Roisum says on YouTube, this is a Vampire belief that refuses to die however many times it is killed off) that some helical tape wrapped around a roller will "spread" a wrinkled film. There are simple reasons why this can't be so and lots of evidence that it isn't so. Because the tape they used on their standard product happened to be causing other problems on the product I was running, I had to ask them to remove the tape. They resented this because they would have to put it on again in order to run their standard product. I begged them to start up their standard product without the tape, assuring them that I would apologise in public if running without the tape caused them any problems. Needless to say, the tape never went back on.

In screen printing I had running battles with US consultants who were spouting nonsense. Regretably I also had some battles with some players in the European industry. When I eventually got to know some of the Asian screen printers I was delighted to see that they were printing according to the laws of physics and getting great results, way ahead of anything the could be achieved in the US. What was interesting is that they happened not to know the relevant physics. They had found the optimum conditions not by pure thought and certainly not by opinion but by attention to the evididence. The long, slow grind of continuous quality improvement led them to exactly the same place that they could have obtained using physics. As a typical example, I knew a number of Japanese printers who were routinely printing 50μm Ag ink lines, while equivalent US printers were struggling to create 150μm lines, simply because they were using entirely the wrong science. For those who want to know more, the book I co-wrote when I was at MacDermid Autotype is free to download, How to be a Great Screen Printer

One more bit of frustration with the US before turning to the positive. Their refusal to adopt metric units is utterly exasperating. It happens to make my app-writing much more difficult (in those apps where I offer a choice of units), it leads to endless confusion (and crashed Mars satellites) and means that the US is linked with Liberia as the only users of, what Wikipedia mentions as: "Fred Flintstone Units, a pejorative term used to refer to U.S. customary units and Imperial system."

Switching to the positive, the reason I write coating/printing apps and the reason I co-wrote TopCoat and TopWeb with my colleagues from U. Leeds is because physics actually works and that anyone in the coating/printing world can take advantage of the work of decades of scientists and engineers who can tell us how to get these processes to work better. It really isn't rocket science. And that's the point. The US is undoubtedly the greatest nation on earth and in areas like getting rockets to the moon they don't rely on opinions and "experts", they rely on facts and physics. Why then is the coating/printing industry so determined to stick with ideas that have long since been shown to be wrong? Maybe if more companies are prepared to speak out like Nordmeccanica the US industry will wake up and realise just how far behind they are in so many ways. I for one will be delighted when they match all the great things about US industry with the great potential of science-based coating/printing.