Matching Technology to Need: What to Watch Out for When Choosing Plate Solutions for Label Printing

Achieving the highest levels of image reproduction quality—full tonal range, smooth transitions and small dot holding—is key when selecting a plate.
All photos courtesy of Kodak

The label printing market is dynamic and fast changing, full of technical innovation. Label printers face continuous challenges with new materials, methods and customer expectations.

But keeping up with plate and sleeve technologies can be somewhat overwhelming. This article will examine some of the trends in the label space and some of the things to watch out for when choosing a technology.

With fierce competition in the label space, differentiation is increasingly important for survival and growth. Trends include:

  • Greater use of process printing
  • The need to match offset and digital reproduction quality
  • On-demand/short-run print services
  • Challenging substrates
  • Added-value techniques that enhance the final product

These are all driven by the needs of brands that face increasing competition in the retail environment and are pressured to reduce time to market, make frequent design changes and ensure their products stand out on the shelf. Increasingly “print-process agnostic,” many label buyers are focused on meeting the need, quickly and at a reasonable cost, rather than concerning themselves with the specifics of whether the label is digital, offset or even flexo printed—and rightly so.

Bearing all this in mind, at a really practical level, here are some helpful hints when it comes to matching flexo plate technology with business need.

Besting Flexography’s Competition

Obviously, achieving the highest levels of image reproduction quality here—full tonal range, smooth transitions and small dot holding—is key. The ability to work as seamlessly as possible with “offset separations” is also a big help in transitioning offset label work to flexo.

Look for a plate that has the widest specifications for tonal range and minimum dot holding. You can find these listed on most suppliers’ spec sheets. Offset typically offers 1 percent to 99 percent at 300 lpi (depending on plate and imager selection), so selecting a flexo plate system that can deliver those specs will be a great start. Make sure your system can deliver these specs at the lowest imaging resolution possible. This helps to keep file sizes and imaging times down. Offset systems typically image at 2,400 dpi or 2,540 dpi.

A microscopic view of plate surface patterning

Technology Spotlight: Q&A

Q. These days, we’re all familiar with digital flat top dot technology for flexo plates. What specific benefits do they provide to label printers?
A. Flat top dots help maintain color consistency over a run. They tend to swell less, are less prone to wear, typically help come up to color faster and reduce job changeover time. Why? They provide for greater impression latitude.

Q. Do plate surface patterns provide benefits for narrow web applications or are they just for wide web solvent- and water-based ink environments?
A. Plate surface patterns improve ink transfer efficiency—especially in higher-volume ink applications. So, while they are not as applicable for process work with UV inks, they can provide significant benefits for whites and coatings, enabling smoother laydowns and lower ink weights.

An example of flat top dots

Label Versatility & Value

When talking about added value on a label, I’m referring to coatings, special effects, creative uses of white and metallic inks, etc. Typically, these are higher-volume applications of relatively high-priced components. Key here is achieving the best and smoothest laydown with the lowest ink weight.

Looking for a plate with a textured surface can help. The textured surface transfers ink more efficiently, minimizes pinholes and increases coverage with lower volumes. If you can choose a plate that uses digital methods for creating texturization, this will allow you to use the same plate type for process and spot color work, and for these higher-volume applications.

Maintaining Color

Here, predictability and consistency—the ability to match color and keep it consistent both within a given job and from one job to another—are the most important factors. From a plate perspective, the key is being able to make a plate that is the same every time and one that is most resistant to changes in printing.

Look for flat top dots. A flat top dot structure has been proven to be more resistant to changes in print conditions. This includes plate swell, plate wear and changes in impression settings.

Complement or Competitor?

Two key components come into play when examining flexo against the digital print process: print quality and short-run capabilities. On the quality front, the key factors are similar to competing with offset, so I’ll focus on the short-run aspects. Critical here are quick job changeovers and minimal time to come to color. Greater use of process printing can be a really important factor. Minimizing spot color inks with a fixed color palette (expanded gamut or EG) printing approach can make a step change in efficiency. It is a significant project to implement, as it requires way more than simply plate technology, but the rewards over time from a standardized approach are very attractive.

From a plate perspective, look for predictability, small dot holding and maximum ink densities (to maximize color gamut)—These are key for a fixed color palette approach. It’s not surprising that the technology requirements are a combination of everything I’ve mentioned so far. Wide tonal range and small dot holding specs, flat top dots and plate surface patterning should all be on the checklist.

Streamlining Approvals

Assuming there will always be tweaks required or demanded during an on-site approval for a new design, a key consideration is being able to make a replacement plate as quickly as possible. The objective: get the job back on press and get a happy client on their way.

To do this, look for aqueous- and thermal-processed plates, as they have significant advantages over solvent options. Be careful not to trade plate making speed for on-press performance. There are often trade-offs to be made. The good news is that there have been significant technology breakthroughs very recently that now enable printers to take advantage of an aqueous-processed plate that gives all the high-performance characteristics of a solvent plate. Some printers say they are changing the landscape.