Change for the better

7 July 2020

For the flexo industry, change is inevitable. LeadEdge Flexo managing director Michael Owen speaks to Emma-Jane Batey about how he and his team have confidently grabbed opportunities available to such a changing category by staying close to the market and investing strategically.

As Arnold Bennett once said, “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by discomforts.” As someone who is not only wise, but also had an egg recipe named after him, he’s clearly worth listening to.

Change needs to be valued as a currency, while also accepting that change is not easy; not easy can be seen as a sign that you’re doing something right. For the flexo industry, digital printing and the dramatic change in the demand for speed and personalisation has meant that staying the same is not an option. Warrington-based LeadEdge Flexo is the perfect example of how change can be positive – as long as one is prepared for discomfort. LeadEdge Flexo managing director Michael Owen, a straight-talking, highly experienced flexo professional, shares some valuable industry insight into the matter.

Owen explains that both technical and environmental changes continue to impact the flexo industry. “As a material supplier that is specialises in corrugated printing, we are a niche part of the flexo industry,” he says. “We’ve been continually growing and investing to become one of the leading players in the flexographic and corrugated printing supplies market globally; we keep a high level of stock and have both in-house laminating and tape conversion facilities, which supports our total service promise.” According to ‘The Future of Flexographic Printing Markets to 2023’ report, the flexographic printing market was valued at $164bn in 2017. This is forecast to grow by 2.3% annually, rising to a value of $187bn by 2023.

LeadEdge believes that its more than three decades of combined experience in the corrugated printing and flexographic printing supplies industry gives them the ‘leading edge’ in understanding how changing trends in its active sectors are driving development. “We feel very lucky that our customers talk to us honestly; it has allowed us to see industry changes as they happen and to respond accordingly,” says Owen. “Sustainability is clearly a crucial trend that impacts every industry in some way and the packaging industry is right in the headlights. E-commerce is also a huge driver in our industry; the rise of Amazon has changed the world.

Key drivers

Both sustainability and increased e-commerce is pushing the flexo industry to deliver appealing solutions that bring customers the products they’ve ordered, in packaging that helps support brand values.

“We make sure we impart our knowledge of materials so that customers get the best solution in terms of performance and responsibility,” Owen continues. “We operate worldwide; the UK is certainly high profile in the flexo industry. Our attitude, volumes, ability to act and deliver quickly all come together to make a competitive solution.”

Sustainability awareness has brought with it an appreciation for the most easily recyclable substrates, with corrugated carton-board a popular choice for brands. Connect that to the seemingly unstoppable demand for e-commerce solutions, with all the personalisation and branding opportunities that entails, and there is the perfectly positive storm for quickly and attractively printed corrugated packaging.

With LeadEdge specialising in flexographic printing on corrugated substrates, the company’s material understanding allows it to offer the speed and quality that both these trends demand. “Flexo printed corrugated materials are ideal for meeting both the sustainability and e-commerce trends as they can both be the primary and secondary packaging, are totally recyclable in standard collections, can be made from recycled material and, crucially, look fantastic, ”Owen explains. “The quality of the print, coupled with the speed of flexo, means that branding can be eye- catching, varied and totally reliable.” That marriage of reliability and quality of coloured print from flexo is what brings customers back to it time and time again. With the e-commerce trend flip side, meaning that poor packaging can quickly be ‘eco-shamed’ online – if it’s far too big for the product within, or arrives looking unimpressive rather than the walking sales tool that it is – brands know that social media can work for or against them. Brands appreciate that the primary packaging they choose is what creates the initial relationship with their customer, so the whole experience needs to be taken into consideration.

The quality of the print, the resulting impact and brand recognition is crucial in establishing a positive perception of the brand – not to mention the fact that it’s incredible how often a beautiful product turns up at the door yet the primary packaging has no recognisable branding for the item within.

Wasted opportunities for brand development means a customer touchpoint is lost and it’s those quirky extra elements that help to differentiate brands and make them more social media-friendly. “There’s no point just having the branding of the box manufacturer on the outside. It’s great publicity for them of course, but think of all those eyes that you’ve not had on your brand,” adds Owen. “By thinking about the very first impression the consumer has when they receive your product, you can add in a very valuable experience for hardly any extra investment. If the outside looks great, and is beautifully printed in a way that doesn’t make the logistics chain more difficult, then it’s a win-win.”

Material advantage

With many brand owners at what Michael Owen describes as “in the early stages of material understanding”, LeadEdge’s down-to-earth explanation of how the right material and technology can deliver on all their key drivers is certainly valued. “We get really interesting feedback from print managers and companies saying that they’ve bought presses that have issues, and they can’t get the colours to register. As experts in corrugated, we can explain how understanding materials can help; they could be throwing away 30% when their jobs are up to 2m wide and they’re only getting 70% to print,” says Owen. “Sustainability has to include not wasting materials in the first place, as well as choosing the right material. There are so many variables in corrugated and we’re now quantifying that, with intelligent use of flexographic equipment at its core.”

Global printing consumables and printing equipment company Flint Group is at the forefront of developing, manufacturing and marketing inks, and platemaking equipment for offset, flexographic and gravure applications as part of its varied portfolio. Focused on providing ‘exceptional value, consistent quality and continuous innovation to customers around the world’, the company is one of the top suppliers in every major market segment it serves.

Flint Group’s global marketing communications manager, Ozan Oeztuerk, shares his thoughts on how these key trends are impacting on the company and its offering. “The increase in paper and board packaging solutions is due to two reasons,” says Oeztuerk. “First, printing on low-cost liners does not equal a low-quality packaging. The flexographic industry has innovated and our customers are now able to achieve high-quality prints thanks to that. An example is our nyloflex FTC Digital plate, which allows our customers to print on low-quality liners, without sacrificing on quality. “Second, the global climate crisis requires brand owners to develop more sustainable packaging solutions, because the end consumers are demanding it,” Oeztuerk continues. “These two factors, the climate awareness of end consumers and the possibilities to produce high-end quality packaging made out of paper and board, is the reason we experience an increase in paper and board packaging.”

Change is good

LeadEdge agrees that affordability has also increased considerably, partly thanks to the steady investment in state-of-the-art equipment that companies like it have made. “There’s so much going on in the world right now in terms of political and environmental changes; customers are not always prepared or holding large volumes of stock,” Owen adds. “By investing in new presses and ensuring we’re able to quickly respond to requests, we can offer flexo-printed corrugated materials that are recyclable, consumer-friendly, and perform brilliantly. In the past few years we’ve invested over £100,000, including new plates with image recognition and a bespoke cutter. “From talking to print managers, we know that their frustrations can be solved with the right knowledge, equipment and support. Obviously, we know there are plenty of flexo solutions out there but we think ours is the best. By balancing material knowledge with equipment knowledge, we can deliver customised solutions.”

While some change may bring about discomfort, the e-commerce and sustainability trends are certainly not a flash in the pan. There’s no way of going back to non-environmentally responsible packaging solutions, and nor should there be. E-commerce is clearly more appealing and convenient for consumers across demographics than heading to the high street. With sustainable and e-commerce-friendly solutions available across the flexo value chain, it is evident that this is the preferred option for companies that need efficient and effective branded primary packaging. The quality of coloured print on corrugated substrates – thanks to flexographic plates and companies that understand how materials perform – makes flexo the long-term choice from an ecological and a commercial perspective, suitable for both heritage brands and start- ups looking for an affordable way to differentiate.

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