Improved print quality, technological advancements and global growth opportunities have led flexography to be looked at as a premier printing process, on par with gravure and offset.
Strides made by flexography in recent years have put it in on par with other printing processes such as gravure and offset. The most predominant gains have been made in terms of print quality, leading to greater opportunities and possibilities for flexo printers. “Flexography has already come of age,” said Stanley Field, Flint Ink’s technical service manager for national accounts.
According to the Freedonia Group, the demand for flexographic inks in the U.S. will increase at a rate of 5.8 percent per year through 2002. Although the Cleveland, OH-based marketing firm reports that lithographic inks are the leading type of printing ink, it estimates the U.S. flexographic ink market will be valued at $1.1 billion in 2002.
“Flexo is growing at the expense of other printing processes because print fidelity with flexo is much improved and can rival offset and gravure,” said Gerald McLain, marketing manager, packaging inks, Sun Chemical. “Flexo has an economic advantage in terms of shorter runs, which benefit special promotions and the demands for smaller quantities.”
“Flexo has made a lot of gains across the board,” said Mike Impastato, executive vice president and general manager of Progressive Ink’s eastern division. “It is widely accepted in flexible packaging. We have seen greater levels of gains in folding carton, which until recently had been dominated by offset and gravure.”
Flexo has become the dominant print method in the packaging industry, according to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA). “Flexography is very focused on packaging: flexible film, corrugated, label and tag, folding carton and envelopes,” said Bill Dowdell, president of the FTA.
One reason for flexo’s dominance in packaging is shorter runs. “Consumer product companies are so focused on the market that packaging has been elevated to a key point in the advertising strategy, particularly as a means to address demographic segments,” said Mr. Dowdell. “Consumer product companies are asking for smaller orders, which favors flexo’s ability to produce shorter runs. In the past, a company would lock into one image campaign and use that throughout the company. Now the idea is that a consumer product company will change the image they use depending on the demographics of the area they are targeting. In Florida, for example, there is a high percentage of senior citizens, so a company would use a different image in Florida than in Las Vegas.”
Flexible film is another strong area for flexography, where Mr. McLain said it is trailed distantly by gravure. “Compared to offset and gravure, flexo offers the possibility of printing on pressure sensitive substrates,” said Mr. McLain.
Label printing is another market where flexography has seen demand rise. “It is also considered the dominant printing method in label,” said Mr. Field.
Although folding carton is one market that flexo does not dominate, it has been a fast-growing application for flexography. “Folding carton is a small area for flexo, but one that is growing rapidly,” said Mr. Dowdell.
In addition to label printing and packaging, Mr. McLain said flexography has seen gains in other areas as well–household paper products, gift wrap and wall coverings.
Another area that flexo has made small but steady gains is in the newspaper industry. According to the FTA, 48 publication companies print newspapers using flexo presses. “In the newspaper industry, flexography has taken a small but highly visible market share,” explained Mr. Dowdell. “Between two and three newspapers per year convert to flexography from letterpress, usually because of outdated equipment and environmental issues. Newspapers tend to have a difficult time jumping from one printing method to another. Newspapers are less prone to take technology risks due to the nature of their business.”
In addition to shorter runs, other benefits of flexography include lower costs and quicker set-up times. “The improvement in print quality and the ability to provide a finished product in one pass through the press is what has allowed flexo to gain market shares,” said Dan Otton, product portfolio manager, Akzo Nobel Inks Corp. “When competing against conventional litho, flexo has the advantage of being able to provide a finished product at the end of the press. There is no need to wait 24 hours for the inks to dry. The flexographic printer is able to print, coat, die-cut, foil stamp, etc. all in one pass through the machine. This provides the printer with a huge economical advantage versus some of the other processes.”
“The advent of mid-web printing presses in particular has given printers the ability to address market demands for higher quality and shorter lead-times,” said Bob Davison, regional manager, Color Converting Inc. “Mid-web presses provide printers with the ability to reduce their cost and create economic incentives to gain market share over gravure and offset. In the mid-web environment, the cost of going to press with any design is significantly less, giving print buyers the opportunity to run smaller quantities and run more promotional labels.”
Comparing flexography to other printing processes, cost is a major factor. “Flexo offers lower costs and quicker turnaround times versus gravure and offset,” said Mr. Field. “Versus offset, it is more cost than anything else. Products that come off a flexo press are immediately ready to be converted, while you have to wait 24 hours when using an offset press. Offset cannot print on flexible film/flexible packaging.
“But there will always be cases, though, where flexo is not the best choice,” Mr. Field continued. “Gravure is used when a printer wants continuous tone, which you cannot get with flexo.”
“Flexo has cost advantages in terms of less spoilage, in-line die cutting and blanking versus sheetfed offset,” said Mr. McLain. “But gravure sill has the edge in make-ready costs with more durable gravure cylinders that can be used for repeat jobs.”
UV inks are becoming more and more popular throughout the ink industry. Although not widely accepted throughout flexography, UV inks have made solid gains in the narrow web and label markets. “The use of UV inks in flexographic printing continues to be a hotbed of growth,” said Mr. Otton. “The increase in achievable quality, combined with the savings in downtime and waste, have made UV flexo one of the fastest growing areas in the industry.”
“UV flexo is most active in narrow web,” said Mr. McLain. “Water-based conventional inks dominate the narrow web industry, with UV flexo inks used as an alternative chemistry.”
Although the switch to UV inks usually stems from environmental concerns, improvements in the print quality of UV inks have made the switch to UV a more attractive option to printers. “Most people equate the advantages of UV flexo to environmental issues,” said Mr. Dowdell. “Narrow web printers were looking to improve quality in order to compete with offset and litho as their prime objective. UV inks have added to the quality advantages of flexo. Folding carton is the most recent segment to utilize UV ink technology in flexographic printing. Label printers have been instrumental with the conversion from offset.”
“There have been a lot of improvements made to UV flexo inks: better looking, more functional properties, uses in decorative applications,” said Mr. Field. “I think that eventually the technology will advance to where UV flexo inks will be an option for wide web printers.”
Advances continue to be made in terms of UV flexo inks for wide web applications. Although not up to speed compared to where UV flexo inks and narrow web are, manufacturers feel opportunities for UV flexo in wide web applications are a possibility in the future. “In wide web, UV flexo is economically efficient, environmentally safe and very user friendly,” said Brig Nigam, Sun Chemical’s market manager for energy cured flexo inks. “For wide web printers, UV flexo’s growth is related to printers making the conversion with a willingness to make the capital investment.”
“Wide web printers converting packaging products that require extraordinary resistance such as fertilizer/outdoor bags are using UV flexo inks,” said Mr. McLain. “UV flexo inks offer required fade resistance and excellent non-blocking and chemical resistance. UV inks are best suited for applications that require extra product resistance.”
Prepress is another aspect within flexographic technology that is being developed. “Flexo is doing a lot better work in process printing,” said Mr. Field. “Digital plate technology is more advanced, and the quality/fineness of anilox rollers is being improved.”
“Developments in prepress have helped all printing processes,” said Mr. Davison. “On the flexo side, the digital workflow gives flexo printers the ability to get to press in greatly reduced time frames. Offset has had direct to plate technology for several years, but offset is not a dominant player in the flexible packaging market. Flexo printers can get to press in significantly less time than gravure printers based on additional constraint of cylinder engraving.”
Ink manufacturers also report that they are seeing more combination presses, coupling flexography with other printing technologies. “We are also beginning to see combination presses–experimental presses that can print more than one type of processes, such as gravure and flexo,” said Mr. McLain. “It is used as a lab tool to evaluate new substrates and investigate new technology. It is used for customers who want to try something new.”
One drawback to flexo has been the lack of discipline associated with the process. Unlike other printing processes, universal procedures have not been developed for flexography, something the FTA has tried to address in recent years. “An issue with the flexo process is that its high growth rate and success resulted in the lack of a disciplined approach to the printing process,” said Mr. Dowdell. “There has been a difficult time developing procedures, which has led to a perception of inconsistency by the consumer product companies. This is attributed to a void in adequate training practices and lack of a consistent set of specifications or standards.”
The FTA has established the FIRST (Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances) program, which will look at establishing “specifications and communications that can be adhered to from one press to another, from one job to another,” said Mr. Dowdell.
The Manufacturer’s Role
Ink manufacturers might supply one of the key elements of flexographic printing, but it is only part of the process. “Ink is the one piece of the flexo process that has historically adapted to the changes taking place in all the other areas of flexo,” said Mr. Impastato.
“The ink industry has played a vital role in the development of flexography from the beginning,” continued Mr. Impastato. “Flexo is a process that is made up of a number of inter-related processes, innovations and incremental improvements. There are linked together from prepress to the finished project. One part is guided, or driven by the others. As the industry changed from line to process printing and from two-roll to anilox systems, ink manufacturers had to develop corresponding ink.”
As flexography becomes a premier printing process, advances continue to be made in all aspects of the process. Interaction between manufacturers, suppliers and printers is a necessity in order for flexography to maintain its hold on its market shares in the printing industry, and the possibility to gain more. “As printing equipment and technology continue to get more sophisticated, ink manufacturers need to continue to work closely with the printers/converters and raw material vendors to develop an ink that will perform properly on the latest printing equipment as well as the printer’s/converter’s existing printing equipment,” said Scott Reese, sales manager, Premier Ink Systems. “The printing processes are faster and the anilox rollers continue to get finer. Also, the finished printed product continues to require more resistant properties than ever.”
One of the biggest challenges facing ink manufacturers is drying times. “With new anilox rollers, the ink films are thinner so the inks have to be stronger and stay open longer for process printing so they do not dry on the plates,” said Mr. McLain
As advancements in flexography are made to put it on par with other printing processes, ink manufacturers predict flexography will become more popular in ink markets throughout the world. “Ten years ago, Europe was noted as a leader in flexo printing,” said Mr. Dowdell. “They had the advantage of a more disciplined approach and better training programs. North American printers then began to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and materials, and to stress quality printing. Although the flexo market is projected to grow at a healthy 7 to 8 percent in North America, greater opportunities for expansion are in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”
“Gravure is still the preferred printing process in Europe and in the Far East because equipment is in place,” said Mr. McLain. “Flexo is beginning to grow in Europe and the Pacific Rim, but it won’t be as prevalent there as it will in the U.S. for some time. Printers are used to gravure and they have the equipment. Gravure printers are beginning to supplement with flexo for such applications as folding carton.”Global growth potential will be related to advancements made in flexo’s performance. “Most of the packaging markets outside the U.S. have been dominated by gravure,” said Mr. Impastato. “As flexo improved its capabilities in terms of print quality, it was noticed in Europe. Increases in the level of quality and decreases in cost will continue to open up opportunities for flexo worldwide."