Priorities, advantages, impact—suppliers are pressing flexographic printers and converters to focus on this trio of overarching concerns in 2019. They claim doing so will help advance the industry, facilitate moving out on 10 commonly cited strategic directions, enhance flexography’s competitive posture and maintain its position as packaging’s print process of choice.
Included in that top 10 list of targeted areas to address: brand owner expectations, or “adjusting to changing market needs”; quality control; automation or “digitalization” of in-plant workflows; flexo’s transition from art to manufacturing via statistical process control; standards and specifications; operational efficiencies targeting waste control and productivity enhancements; color management; sustainability; training and education; and the leveraging of flexo’s inherent advantages—process differentiation and competitive positioning.
Promise and potential are widely seen as characteristic of flexography in 2019. Printers are “working smarter”; pledging to “install,” “maintain” and “upgrade” when forging their capital equipment expenditure plans; making “step changes” wherever and whenever needed; “managing unprecedented levels of uncertainty” and continuously improving performance. True progress is evident in the quality and consistent packaging produced and delivered on a daily basis.
FLEXO Magazine recently invited manufacturers, distributors and prepress service providers to assemble this perspective on the current state of the industry. Specific commentary on top priorities, utilization of technology as an advantage and the impact of standardization, process control and printing to the numbers were encouraged. The questions put out: “What’s happening and why?”
“The future is here. Seize it!” Anderson & Vreeland Inc advises. “We all know change in our industry is a constant. What makes change within label and packaging printing so challenging is finding the optimal balance of legacy and digital processes. For a 50,000-ft. run of labels, a time-honored approach is best. But if the 50,000-ft. is 10 runs of 5,000-ft. with SKUs that vary by store, a digital solution is the only practical answer.”
The proactive distributor continues, “For forward-looking label and packaging printers, this means investing in and implementing new technologies that are also going to be continually updated. Gone is the security of relying on a proven, stable technology for every job. That luxury won’t be back. This has given advantages to those who embrace new technologies while leaving skeptics behind.”
It also states, “The digital technology of computers is driving this shift and there is no going back, nor is there a profitable future in reliance on conventional printing processes. But there is a bright and profitable one in identifying and implementing the optimal mix of conventional and digital systems. This means using various technologies in ways that leverage their advantages, such as flexibility in run lengths, reducing how often a job is physically touched while in process, how accurately colors are managed, and how a digital workflow can provide advantages, regardless of what kind of press is used.”
“Today, flexographic printing is competitive with both offset and gravure—and even with digital, except for very short runs of less than 1,000 linear meters! Computers play an integral role in everything from sparking the first design ideas to getting the final product on the shelf,” according to Dr. David Galton, European sales director, Asahi Photoproducts.
“Photopolymer plate technology, based on ‘free radical’ polymer chemistry, which uses ultraviolet (UV) light to form 3D relief graphic images, continues to undergo development advances that have been critical to the ability of flexographic printing to not only be competitive with other printing technologies, but to become the leading label production printing technology,” he explains.
To that, David adds, “The reduction of plate cleaning stops creates a significant productivity improvement. It reduces ink filling, particularly important for mid-tone printing, and that means fewer press stops for plate cleaning as well as consistent printing quality over the entire production run. The result is a significant improvement in Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE).”
Paul Sharkey, president of FLXON Inc, paints this vivid picture: “Imagine a pressroom operating five big, 10-color, wide web presses, all less than five years old, all routinely running at 2,000 fpm, even on short runs. Job changes are no longer measured in time per deck as robots change decks simultaneously in a matter of minutes. Doctor blades are changed twice a month as a best practice after racking up more than 20,000,000-ft. of defect-free print.
“Not long ago, such a place would be considered imaginary and futuristic. Today, such pressrooms are a reality at an increasing number of locations across North America and Europe,” he reports. “In this environment, the highest levels of press optimization are achieved by employing the ultimate standardization of process technology: expanded gamut (EG). This pressroom has the capacity to replace 20 older presses with just five at a much lower unit cost-of-goods sold.”
Jakob Landberg, director sales and marketing at Nilpeter, acknowledges, “Converters are focused on replacing obsolete technology with highly efficient solutions, both conventional and digital. More and more turn their attention to niche areas, such as short-run flexible packaging and expanded content labels (ECL), avoiding the downside to commodity printing, creating a huge market for modern technology with multi-substrate and application capabilities.”
He believes that, “The borders between different product decoration techniques will disappear. Narrow web converters will continue to increase their abilities and offerings in a large number of applications, such as self-adhesive labels, in-mold, tube laminates and shrink sleeves. Inkjet hybrid solutions, personalization, and event-specific labeling and decoration will gain an even stronger position and additional market share.”
Bill Warner, VP of Allison Systems Corp, holds, “The advancements in technology for flexo printing that have been seen over the last decade have rapidly improved overall print quality. New technology can be found in all aspects of the flexo printing process from prepress, plate technology, inks and coatings, anilox rolls, inking systems and doctor blades to the entire press workflow. With all of these advancements in the process, flexo printing can now compete favorably with other methods of printing that historically are well known for high quality. Even more amazing is the fact that flexo printing is generally less costly than other forms of printing, particularly when short runs are considered.”
What to expect in 2019 and beyond? Bill answers, “Improvements in efficiency are always needed to help keep costs low. Minimizing press downtime for changeovers or unexpected maintenance takes precedence, so that all of the technology in the process can be fully utilized.”
Paul Teachout, VP at Nilpeter, looks to trends and demographics. “We continue to see the proliferation of digital printing technologies that provide clean-hand operation and engage with a younger workforce. By the year 2022, it is predicted that 75 percent of narrow web presses sold will be some level of hybrid platform and the younger workforce will shift toward it. Digital technology will never replace flexo, but there will come a time when it is commonplace that they co-exist, providing a complete printing and converting workflow to meet any brand owner needs, all inline and in one pass.”
He emphasizes this point: “It is critical for us to apply the science of flexography to the automated flexographic platforms that are now available. These new conventional offerings managed by a “work by the numbers” methodology provide a clean-hand approach to operation and appeal to a younger workforce with automated and autonomous operation.”
Jack Fulton, VP of Printron, insists that, “Remaining a competitive flexographic printer requires balancing tomorrow’s promise with today’s potential. The industry is at a crossroads as both conventional and digital capabilities continue to improve. Progressive flexography is very real and is bringing with it significant benefits to printers and brand owners.”
“As leading brands move to more durable and exotic packages in reproducible formats, enterprising printers are meeting the demand with flexo, not digital,” he continues. “Pretty boxes or not, there is simply nothing more cost effective.”
In conversation and blog posts, Jack decrees, “Printers are finding it necessary to make some tough strategic decisions to stay on top of this quickly advancing industry and remain competitive. To increase productivity and profits while focusing on customer satisfaction, they must rethink disruption.
“Flexography’s next decade will remain both promising and profitable for at least five reasons:
- The largest printers in the industry are investing heavily in high-end ($10 million plus) flexographic presses right now to exploit the economies of scale they continue to offer. Quantum improvements in press automation have reduced operator intervention and are neutralizing digital advances, while enhancing flexography’s economic advantages
- Converters investing in flexo are doing so to meet the insatiable demand for “doorstep” packaging driven by direct-to-consumer online retailers
- Advancements in prepress, software, plate technology, and inks and coatings have all seen significant innovation, lessening the likelihood digital printing will overtake the cost effectiveness of flexo for medium to long runs
- Flexography affords key advantages for clients using spot colors and finishing processes such as cold foiling, embossing, perforating and laminating. Sustained advancements will likely continue to reduce the costs of these value-added processes and make them more mainstream
- Hybridization with digital technologies may in fact bring with it a “best of both worlds” scenario and encourage further advancement of flexo