Flexographic printing holds on to its own space amidst digital dominance

29 December 2017

As print volumes decline, flexographic technology is providing a bulwark against the increasing dominance of digital. Converting Today speaks with Paul Hesketh, print development manager at FFP Packaging Solutions, and Daniel Kuah, sales and marketing manager for Capitol Gravure, about how the process is developing and what the future holds.

Total print volumes are forecast to decline from 48.8 trillion A4 sheets in 2017 to 48.1 trillion in 2022. Overall value is set to rise in that same period, however, eventually reaching $814.5 billion. While different criteria will affect the rate and change of profitability, flexographic printing (flexo) is growing, even in the face of growing pressure from digital.

Paul Hesketh, print development manager at FFP Packaging Solutions, describes how flexo is holding its own. “As a supplier of flexible packaging to several large brands and all the major retailers,” he says.“FFP is keeping a close eye on developments within digital and assessing if the process is becoming viable. Improvements in speeds and applications have been certainly been made in recent years, and FFP is in regular contact with HP about its new innovations.

“However, at FFP, which operates in the food sector, flexo is still the dominant process. Technical aspects of its ink systems are ahead of digital, and it is also still more viable for runs over 5,000mts, due to higher machine running speeds.

Ahead of the pack

Hesketh points to brand image, quality and consistency as crucial advantages with flexo. “New developments in colour management and plate technology, plus the latest printing press developments, have kept flexo ahead of the other processes in flexible packaging,” he says.

“In terms of consistency, as on-shelf colour is key, FFP is using the latest software developed by X-Rite ColorCert in conjunction with PantoneLIVE, as this allows brands to choose a colour from a dedicated colour library on the cloud that can be formulated and matched accurately. Colour can then be measured on press using spectrophotometers and the data can be uploaded for the brand-owner to view. This gives the customer visual confirmation in real time that every printed reel of film coming off the press is consistent.

“Flexo’s plate technology has improved massively in recent years. FFP is producing digitally imaged and water-processed plates at 4,000 and 150dpi, and is printing strong, vibrant solids with microcell technology. It can also print highlights as low as 5%, which is comparable to gravure, litho and digital.”

Flexo’s continued development will focus on quality and efficiency. “All of the suppliers to the flexo industry such as anilox, plates, inks, mounting tapes, and press manufacturers have been developing their products,” says Hesketh.

“These improvements have allowed flexo printers to use four process colours as a fixed palette in order to produce designs for retailers and brands. It is now possible to achieve a high percentage of the Pantone library from CMYK.

“Alongside this, flexo press manufacturers have developed high-tech machines that run much more efficiently; there are automatic wash-up systems, automated setting and register systems on FFP’s W&H Miraflex machines, and faster running speeds have significantly improved output.”

In Asia, technological advances have helped flexible packaging grow significantly. “Flexible packaging is becoming more popular each day, as it is able to take on a wider variety of graphic and packaging designs to impress consumers,” says Daniel Kuah, sales and marketing manager for Capitol Gravure.

New demands

Smaller print runs are increasingly required, due to market demands and fast turnover for product launches. Along with this comes a new set of challenges for packaging printers. Asian consumers want faster turnaround times and brands are diversifying printing methods to suit different packaging needs, such as the need to regionalise products to cater to specific local holidays or events.

“Improvements in flexo technology allows fantastic prints with vibrant print quality – as many flexo printers can attest to,” says Kuah. “Flexo can now print images and gradients as well, where previously it was used primarily for text.

“Recent innovations have made flexo much cheaper and perfectly suited to short runs. More flexographic printers are adopting the extended colour gamut (ECG) approach, which involves a fixed colour palette consisting of CMYK combined with green, orange and blue or violet. This eliminated the need for spot colours 90% of the time, and can deliver much better quality prints than CMYK on its own. This saves costs on print set-up and inks.

“Due to all these changing conditions and trends, demand for flexo printing will inevitably grow. Capitol Gravure has begun to invest heavily in the technology.”

According to Kuah, flexo not only fills a gap in the Asian market, but it also solves a major geographical challenge. “At the moment, flexo sleeves and ceramic anilox rollers are mostly purchased from Europe,” he notes. “This requires a long lead time of six to eight weeks due to the shipping time.

“Any damage to sleeves creates difficulties because the whole thing will need to be changed, and the orders are placed in Europe. Shipping new sleeves can take up to eight weeks, so in order to save time and to meet delivery deadlines, print runs are continued with damaged sleeves. Any unusable prints then have to be disposed of.

“With this particular issue in mind, Capitol Gravure decided to launch its flexo rubber sleeves and ceramic anilox rollers. Its mandrel production and coating facilities for the ceramic anilox rollers are also all based in a factory in Malaysia. This immediately eliminates ten to 14 waiting-days for customers in South East Asia,” he adds.

Capitol Gravure’s flexo rubber sleeves are designed for direct laser engraving (DLE). The content rubber sleeves and plates make it possible to engrave 3D images onto rubber surfaces. The company’s ceramic rollers are carefully engineered and have achieved a healthy surface hardness of about 1,300–1,400hv. Its latest high-speed laser engravers can produce high lines, and achieve various types of cell shapes and depths.

“Asia is dominated by gravure technology, so the images are almost designed to be seamless,” says Kuah. “DLE sleeves are seamless by nature. Aside from this, the register accuracy of DLE sleeves is provided by the laser, and not by the manual mounting of a plate. This leads to a high-quality print by register, even when there are finer details or multi-image jobs.

“Capitol Gravure invests continuously in R&D. For the flexo sleeves for DLE, it focused on the engraving properties, as well as ink transfer and lay-down. Both of these are as important for the customers running the laser as they are for the printer. The goal is to be able to provide speed in production, convenience in customer service and savings in shipping costs for customers.”

While method and potential print production problems vary according to regions, flexo offers plenty of value to printers in terms of volume and turnaround time, enabling deliveries to be on time, every time.

Flexo offers plenty of value to printers in terms of volume and turnaround time.

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