EMD and the company Rudolf Reproflex have together developed the 3D Evolution process to printing three-dimensional effects on standard materials using conventional machines for industries like packaging.


They repeatedly stroke the foil bearing the distinctly raised Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany logo and other motifs made with the silver-shimmering pearl luster pigment Iriodin® 6123. Visually, the printing process clearly seems to have embossed the foil. Only the sensory cells of the hands reveal that the 340 millimeter wide foil strip has an absolutely smooth surface. The effect is made possible by the 3D Evolution technique, which was jointly developed by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and Rudolf Reproflex. 

Erwin Graf is responsible for the development and testing of business label printing at the Swiss printing press manufacturer Gallus. "It’s already looking pretty good," he says after he lays a test print pattern on the worktop. He then takes out a linen tester — a printer’s magnifying glass for taking especially close-up views. On this cool morning in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in July 2014, 3D Evolution is being tested for the first time on a rotary printing press. Even before it is time to take a coffee break, it is clear that 3D Evolution is a perfect match for the digitally controlled machine that can process printing substrates at a speed of up to 150 meters per minute.

Kiss printing for a deeper impression

With the 3D Evolution effect, your eyes see three-dimensional effects, but your fingers only feel a smooth surface.

Delicate stamp printing

According to Peter Clauter from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, the printing substrate must not go through a deflecting roller, which can crush the sensitive layer, but should instead be transported directly from the printing unit to the second facility where the UV varnish is applied. Here, a 3D Evolution roller waits to work on the still damp coating. The 3D pattern that will subsequently appear on paper or foil is depicted in reverse on the roller in reddish plastic, which feels a bit like an office stamp.    

During the printing process, the roller presses these structures into the layer composed of a UV varnish and Iriodin® effect pigments. As a result, the position and alignment of the pearl luster pigments is rearranged. The touch of the 3D Evolution roller is so delicate that experts refer to it as "kiss print." Despite its softness, this kiss creates an effective impression of depth. Whereas the actual UV coating quickly creates a smooth surface again, the innovative technique makes the pigments retain their position. After the layer is hardened under ultraviolet light, this process generates the astonishing 3D effect that the eye sees, but the fingertips cannot feel.    

Flexible printing for flexible packaging

There is a slight smell of printing ink — and a strong sense of innovative spirit — in the bright customer workshop of the printing press manufacturer in St. Gallen. This is because the new 3D printing technique could potentially revolutionize the packaging industry’s design possibilities, says Marc Weingart, account manager at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in Switzerland. "The technique opens up completely new possibilities — for example, it used to be impossible to create embossing effects for flexible packaging." However, it is precisely such applications that are becoming increasingly important — for example, as foil coverings for plastic bottles, which are made of colorless plastic so that they will be easier to recycle in the future.

Moreover, 3D Evolution is much more efficient than conventional relief printing, in which the mechanical force changes the entire printing substrate as well as all the layers of varnish. Another advantage of the new technique is that the UV coating is very glossy and abrasion resistant despite its 3D effect. Companies from a wide variety of sectors have expressed interest in the technique, including firms from the cosmetics, liquor, confectionery, and tobacco industries.    

Thanks to the new technology, 3D printing can be offered at a much lower price. Thanks to the new technology, 3D printing can be offered at a much lower price.

Thanks to the new technology, 3D printing can be offered at a much lower price.

Progress in printing

Printer Erwin Graf has meanwhile replaced the anilox roll, which applies the viscous mixture consisting of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany pigments and the UV varnish from the Swiss manufacturer Schmid Rhyner. The expert from Gallus then changes a few parameters on the huge screen, which is mounted on rails so that it can be pushed along the printing line. Right afterwards, the web-fed rotary printing press begins producing proofs that are as good as those of a sheet-fed system. 

The various printing units, finishing rollers, and other components of the facility spin faster and faster. The wide range of available printing presses also increases the selection of suitable printing substrates. Three-dimensional effects can be created just as well on 200 gram heavy cardboard as on extremely thin plastic or metal foils — things are definitely progressing. 

Rudolf Reproflex custom-manufactures the special 3D Evolution rollers for each order. To reach customers all over the world, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is using its established contacts in some markets and is offering not only special pigments, but also the services of its development partner. This close cooperation has shaped the entire development process. 

For example, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and Rudolf Reproflex have jointly applied for a patent for the special printing plate that is used for 3D Evolution. In addition, the Darmstadt-based manufacturer has applied for a patent for the mechanical/chemical process itself. Everyone benefits from the partnership, and the printing of labels, exterior packaging, and many other materials is extended into a new, third dimension.

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