Charting Where Flexography Is Going and the Technologies Taking It There at Forum 2019

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What does flexographic printing look like in five years? Or 10, or 20 or more? Looking to the process’ future and spotlighting some of the technologies that show how flexo can be applied in new and exciting ways, were the focuses of Forum 2019‘s “Flexo Boldly Goes Where No Process Has Gone Before,” co-chaired by Catherine Haynes of All Printing Resources Inc (APR) and Doug Weiss of Kodak. Several of the presentations included print samples given to every attendee to examine first-hand the technologies being discussed on stage.

Connected Flexographic Packaging

Leading off the session were Derek Awalt, senior global alliances manager at Digimarc and Kristyn Falkenstern, R&D research manager at Digimarc. The pair opened with a look at three retail challenges and areas where technology is increasing the value of connected flexible packaging:

  • Bottom of basket, which Awalt said results in a $1 billion annual loss. The top packages that fall into the bottom of basket category of losses are cases of water/beverages, large pet food bags, bath tissue and paper towels, diapers and laundry detergent
  • Planogram mapping, which aims to monitor shelf inventory more efficiently and at a cheaper cost than with human workers. Awalt listed several stores that include Walmart and Stop & Shop among those deploying robots to handle the task
  • Scanning at checkout, which can be made more efficient with the addition of more one-dimensional bar codes and scanning equipment with increased capabilities

The pair offered Digimarc Barcode as a solution to the challenges. By incorporating product and manufacturing codes, and with its ability to be hidden in a package’s imagery, the Barcode can be printed in repeats on all sides of the container. Specific to flexography, Falkenstern outlined considerations depending on the item’s shape, pack size, substrate, multi-pack bundling and distortion.

Enhanced Flexo Capabilities

Jerry Toepfer, founder and president of Imageworx and his son Jeff Toepfer, CTO at Imageworx followed with a means to bridge what they described as a gap between flexo and other print processes.

Jerry recounted past problems and technological solutions from the early 2000s as a lead-in to modern-day solutions. “In the past, flexo suffered from an inability to offer the range of contrast other print processes could achieve,” he admitted.

Their solution, Sero HDM (Smooth-Zero High Definition Modular) screening, extends the flexo tonal range to 1.5 percent to 95 percent in a final print. It also makes 3-color CMY dot minimums optional (depending on quality of printer and equipment) and, they said, nearly eliminates bad edges on small dots or highlight dots. “We’ve achieved results that were unheard of even three years ago,” Jeff said. Plates, he continued, are capable of holding down to a 0.2 percent dot at 175 linescreen. Multiple screening sets are available for narrow, mid and wide web.

Pointing to a print sample that made use of Sero HDM, Jeff called attention to specific areas that, invisible to a normal eye, contained 2/5-pt. micro text and 1/4-pt. micro embellishments. He also highlighted a solution for brand authentication and the security printing market called a 3D optical array label. Similar to lenticular printing, it is capable of producing labels roughly half as thick as lenticular printing—a 6-mil thickness.

Printing Holographic Effects on a Flexo Press

Thomas Baran, CEO of Lumii and Matthew Hirsch, CTO at Lumii demonstrated the ability to, with existing inks and substrates, create holographic effects that include three-dimensionality, color shifting and other embellishments.

Bringing their technology to an application, Tom demonstrated a use case with Portico Brewing Co. The brewer’s beer, packaged in a shrink sleeved can, was made to stand out on a shelf with an embellishment that reflected light. Attendees were given print samples of two can sleeve variants, each containing the effect and printed on 50-μm. film they said was optimized for the lighting typical of a beverage fridge.

Hirsch dove into the details of Lumii’s effects, explaining the holograms printed can be adjusted so they are visible only in a narrow field of view or wide field of view, and can have their sizes adjusted accordingly. “It’s a cost-sensitive market,” he said, “and we are replacing physical goods with software.”

Hirsch also echoed an earlier presentation when he spoke to the security printing market and noted many applications, including security inks, holographic films and foils, fluorescence, cast and cure, and hot-stamped foils, all require specialized materials and processes. “Use the bits you have, more smartly,” he concluded.

Mass Production of Wireless Lighting for Packaging

Wrapping up the future-focused session were William J. Ray, founder of Nth Degree and Alexandra Hartman, process engineer Printed Energy, who discussed printed LEDs.

Ray said the printed LEDs are the size of a white blood cell; 16 billion LEDs can fit into the volume of a golf ball. They are printed with 30-μm. LEDs used as ink particles, combined with layers of color, light, a battery and an NF antenna. The final audience sample, a light strip which lit up when touched, was printed at a speed of 25 fpm with 100 percent inline opto-electrical testing. Notably, the coils inside can be bent and run through a press.

Offering use cases, Ray pointed to lighted packaging that illuminates through the bottom of the pack or container. Continuing a theme of the session, he demonstrated a Super Bowl ticket and concert that, when interacted with, lit up to prove their authenticity. And by integrating the LEDs into a credit card, a logo or other portion can be made to light up when placed over an authentication device.

Hartman went into the details of printed batteries. Batteries can be printed in any shape or size, she explained; they do not need to be a square or circle, and can be tailor-made to a customer’s specifications. She closed with several examples in unique shapes.