High-quality flexographic printing has never been as easy as it is today. Traditionally, packaging printers have held gravure printing as the standard to which they compare everything else. Nowadays, flexography and gravure printing quality are considered to be at the same level, which means there is no reason to compare which is better. The choice between flexo and gravure needs to be made on other grounds.
The development in all areas of packaging printing has been swift, which offers new possibilities to printers. However, making a change in the daily production also means taking new actions and implementing new ways of working. When aiming for new goals, remember the saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
During the last decade, we have seen many products moved from gravure to flexo. Despite all the good experiences and examples, there are still many brand owners hesitating to convert. That is not surprising, as even some flexo printers are still underestimating their capability to print high-quality flexo. To change this, we need to keep discussing high-quality printing and showcase first-class examples of it. That is what this article is about.
Why Does Gravure Printing Still Exist?
We all have been told that, traditionally, gravure printing has been suitable for high-quality runs and long runs. Similarly, we have been taught that flexo is suitable for lower-quality runs and shorter runs, but that it can be used on a wide range of substrates. While this was indeed true 20 years ago, we should not keep repeating these same myths today. The growth trend for these two printing methods is clear: the popularity of flexo is constantly growing while gravure printing is decreasing.
There is no need for gravure printing anymore—You can do it all with flexo.
Flexography and Gravure Share of
The world of flexible packaging printing reflects traditions, but the growth of flexo printing is a continuous trend.
Flexible Packaging Printing, by Region
Data courtesy of 71. DFTA-Fachtagung 2015, Martin Dreher
When we look at the world map of packaging printing, we see Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe have traditionally been strong areas for gravure, while other parts of Europe and North America have been strong flexo markets. The reasons for the regional differences are traditions and conservativeness—When people are used to doing things one way, the methods remain unchanged for a long time.
However, during the last 10 or 15 years, we have seen a rapid change in regional flexo markets. Look at what has happened in South America and what currently is happening in Asia—It is a tremendous change! These markets have jumped directly to high-quality flexo printing by adopting the newest machines and tools. In South America, this means machinery and plate technologies fully support high-quality printing, since modern flexo presses use thin plate technology and prepress is made with high-resolution imaging.
Currently, the Asian market is jumping onto this development, and we are also seeing several European-manufactured printing machines installed in Asia. There are two major causes for this development: First, tighter legislation bans the use of toluene in India and elsewhere in Asia, meaning gravure printers must change the traditional way of printing to use toluene-free inks (or move to flexo). Secondly, it seems the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand owners require their suppliers to move to flexo to reduce their environmental load.
These two drivers are excellent, although being forced to do something is still a poor reason to start a better process, considering that flexo can deliver better-quality prints than gravure. The third reason for the number of European machines increasing on the Asian market is obviously that when one company has successfully implemented an efficient solution, other companies start following the trend and implement those same solutions in an effort to reach that new benchmark.
How Is Flexo Different Today?
The renaissance of flexo—the technological development of inks, aniloxes, plates, prepress techniques and printing machines—has now reached the level where anybody, anywhere in the world, can start printing high-quality flexo and compete with gravure printing.
The problems we faced 10 years ago, such as dot bridging and the halo effect, do not exist anymore in high-quality flexo printing. The problems we faced five years ago, such as poor color strength, poor fading to zero, solid ink porosity and even bounce, disappear when the newest technologies are used.
Based on today’s technological level, we can argue that if any of these problems still appear in modern flexo printing, the issues are related to the print jobs being done conventionally (the same way as a decade ago) instead of updating and adopting new technologies. However, you should keep in mind that there are still special product areas where there are certain challenges due to the special requirements of the material or ink, such as special color resistance, lamination or a sterilization process.
The advancements of the last decade have been impressive:
- Aniloxes: The anilox linescreenings are finer and the cell structure is no longer in the traditional hexagonal form
- Inks: The inks dry remarkably slower. Also, the pigmentation and the ink transfer have been improved significantly. In high-quality process printing, you hardly ever get dot bridging due to ink drying issues
- Repro: There are several new repro tools for improving highlights and shadows, and EG has finally broken through
- Plate exposure: There are plenty of new solutions, and LED technology introduces new improvement opportunities
- Plates: The plate exposure and enhanced ink transfer, together with the surface structures and dot solutions for highlights, have enabled significant improvements. The flat top dot has had an enormous effect on improving quality
- Tapes: This sector has not yet seen as many improvements and changes as other areas, but the solution of replacing cushion foam tape is perhaps the most interesting development for central impression (CI) drum machines
- Machines: Digitalization, speed and press stability (the hardest challenge) have improved significantly, which has influenced quality and productivity