Less Than Flexo

19 July 2018

It is all too easy to say flexo is dead. But, with its stress-free, affordable long runs and totally reliable print quality, flexo still has its devotees. Emma-Jane Batey speaks to flexo experts to learn more.

Flexographic printing, usually shortened to flexo, is a type of printing that uses a flexible relief plate to print on almost any type of substrate. Quick to operate and delivering an excellent quality of print, flexo has been popular for decades, particularly for long print runs. However, with its digital little brother is growing up and casting a hefty shadow – is there room for them both?

Flint Group, global supplier to the printing and packaging industry, believes the two technologies balance each other, offering solutions to suit its customers in both flexo and digital. With its unmatched product portfolio, spanning printing inks, digital printing-presses, flexographic plates and sleeves, consumables and colourants, Flint is very active in the sector – with a ball in each court. Ozan Oeztuerk, global marketing communications manager, tells Converting Today: "We offer an unmatched product line for the packaging industry. This ranges from nyloflex and nyloprint printing plates and equipment, rotec sleeves and adapters to products for the offset market.

"From a market perspective, all products and services are key elements of transferring an image onto a substrate and enable us to create a portfolio of high-performance materials to be used in pre-press and printing operations, providing consistent quality and technology to help our customers create value in their markets."

Evolving technologies

Oeztuerk explains how Flint Group is dedicated to staying one step ahead of the changing trends in the world of flexo. He says, "Key trends we are noticing include the change to inherently flat top dot technology versus the process of converting round top dot plates to flat top dot plates by means of a special process or particular piece of equipment. We're also seeing that flat top dot plates can now be provided directly from plate manufacturers. We believe that inherent flat top dot plates will project the most future growth and will represent over half of the overall flexographic plate uses by 2020 across market segments."

Oeztuerk explains why he predicts this specific growth area: "Inherent flat top dot plates provide the benefits of flat top dot geometry without adding steps to the workflow, as well as providing a significant reduction in complexity and increased efficiency in the prepress and platemaking process – all while offering the highest print quality. Flint is well prepared to meet these market demands in flexo through continuous improvement of our product portfolio and our platemaking technologies."

Extrapack OOD, Bulgarian manufacturer of retail bags and packaging supplies, first invested in flexo in 1995 and it remains the company’s core technology. Across its three state-of-the-art factories that manufacturers bags for customers across Europe, Extrapack employs over 700 people working on its seven printing machines, including a SOMA Imperia 10 and a Kodak Flexcel NX for the photopolymer plates.

Flexo their muscles

Milen Georgiev, Extrapack co-owner, states its commitment to flexo is commercially sound. He says, “Flexo is our core technology. We are focused on high-quality paper, textile and plastic bags, mainly used for shopping and advertising, with over 70% of our production exported to customers across Western Europe. Of our seven flexo machines, four are gearless, 8–10 colours from SOMA Engineering. We also have an ink mixing station with Pantone formulation. We print on plastic films, paper, non-woven textiles and lamination films.”

Georgiev notes how Extrapack is able to deliver the advantages of flexo with the famous short run benefit of digital printing. He adds, “We have recently invested in a new flexo machines that can effectively print on small repeat, starting from 260mm. We're also about to integrate a new flexo machine with widths of 1400mm and repeat of up to 1200mm. Across the flexo sector, we are seeing the trend of shorter orders, sometimes for just 1000m. We are also seeing more demand for high-quality, photo-realistic printing, even on recycled film and papers. Our equipment has been carefully chosen to address these changing demands – they're designed with short orders in mind so they're very flexible.

"On our 10 colour machines, we can prepare the next order during manufacture and we also have a special cartridge for small ink quantity. We are also considering investing in hybrid machines to ensure we can deliver exactly what our customers want. Our aim has always been to continuously improve our service whilst keeping prices very competitive, with short lead times for customers across Europe.”

For Hull-based Datamark, its flexo capabilities are slowly being taken over by its digital demands, even though director Neal Hebblewhite is clear that flexo still has its advantages. Specialising in manufacturing and supplying a broad range of labelling solutions across industry sectors, Datamark offers plain labels, printed labels and various print solutions.

The future is digital

Hebblewhite says, “Flexo has been around for donkey's years and is slowly being taken over by digital. I think within five years to a decade digital will take over completely. But for now, flexo is reliable, cheap and good for long runs and for orders of hundreds and thousands of labels. It is quick to erect the machines and the quality of print is terrific. But eventually, even for long runs, flexo will go as there are now digital machines available that address the issues between the technologies. Our niche market is actually plain labels, we're a small company with a £1.5 million turnover and our customers mainly buy plain labels with their logo that they can overprint with their information. It is up to us to be ahead of customer demands.”

At family-run packaging printers Teakcroft in Saxmundham, Suffolk, managing director Paul Oldman is seeing flexographic printing demands increase across its clientele, predominantly active in London and Kent. Oldman says, “We cater for small runs of 50 boxes right up to bulk orders of 50,000 boxes. Flexo printing is becoming more common among our range of clients as the world is changing and marketing is key to getting details to the consumer.

"Over our 35 years of manufacturing we have produced many types of print, it can vary from a company name and address to logos and wallpaper prints. Customers are using more couriers to send out their goods, so sometimes clients like to have 'this way up' arrows or 'fragile' printed on the box, both for the courier and the end consumer to know to treat the item with care. Our flexo inks are water based and we have a vast Pantone colour range.”

While changes in the printing industry highlight how small runs are increasingly demanded by start-up companies and brands of all sizes offering limited editions or exclusive products, it is clear there is room for both flexo and digital as long as the technology and the price is right.

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