For years, flexography was considered a relatively poor alternative to offset and gravure.
However, that perception has changed dramatically during recent years. Thanks to the efforts of suppliers across the board, including ink manufacturers, and promotion by flexography trade groups, flexo has now made gains in quality that many people say puts it on equal footing with offset and gravure. With that, flexo’s share of the overall printing market is also continuing to grow.
Bill Dowdell, president of the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), estimated that flexo has had an 8 to 10 percent growth rate annually through the decade. Of the packaging industry, which is estimated at $100 billion, Mr. Dowdell said flexo has about 65 percent of the market. In the publishing sector, flexo has a strong hold in a few segments, such as envelopes, and is used by 48 newspapers.
According to industry estimates, flexographic inks are now a more than $850 million a year business, and will continue to show above-average growth in the near future.
“In general, flexo printing appears to be growing as evidenced by converters having larger backlogs and investing in new and upgraded presses,” Flint Ink officials said. “Enhanced competitiveness due to faster speeds, and improved quality with more complex graphics, are the primary drivers.”
“The product is light years ahead of where it was a few years ago,” said Mike Rasmussen, general manager, fluid ink division, Handschy Industries. “We see customers who are moving jobs from sheetfed to flexo and gravure to flexo.”
Many people in the industry believe that the gains in quality that flexo has made have put it on a par with gravure and offset. “The improvements in flexo have been geometric during the past 10 years,” said John Bankson, president of Label Technology, an award-winning designer, printer and converter of pressure sensitive roll labels. “The progress has been unbelievable. It’s gone from rubber-based plates and solvent inks to highly sophisticated water-based and UV inks, along with improvements in the digital plate making process that allow us to very efficiently compete with offset.”
“Because of the improvement of the materials, such as the inks, backings, plates and aniloxes, the print quality is much better than it was 10 years ago. It’s pretty close to rotogravure now,” said Kent Shah, vice president and technical director of Color Converting Industries. ]
“From our own experience, we see a lot of renewed interest and growth in flexo,” said Rick Gloeckler, vice president of Environmental Inks & Coatings. “The quality issue has been answered, and the end user has seen the quality revolution.”
“Flexo is ahead of gravure,” said Dr. David Fishman, president of Fishman Incorporated. “More flexo ink is sold; it crossed over four years ago. The quality now is the same.”
“There are people who would argue that flexo has exceeded gravure, which continues to be the more expensive process,” said Sam Gilbert, technical marketing director for liquid inks for Sun Chemical.
One of the area flexo excels in is shorter runs, where customers want to target specific markets. Gravure is much less able to provide the changes that many advertisers want.
“We have a member who is an ice-cream manufacturer, whose average run length is 800 feet,” Mr. Dowdell said.
“With flexo, you can make changes in copy, and historically it doesn’t cost as much,” Mr. Gloeckler said. “It’s been more cost-effective in the short- and mid-range market.”
Quality gains made throughout the industry have spurred the advancements in flexo. Manufacturers across the board, from ink to anilox rolls, plates to presses, have made improvements that have changed the face of flexo.
One reason that these improvements have occurred is the cooperation and communication between the different supplier branches.
“I think this is one of the industries where the people are more open to sharing information and promoting what they are doing technically in order to succeed,” said Mr. Dowdell. “It’s kind of refreshing. They really look at it as a total process.
They recognize that communications flow is so important to the process.” “The quality improvements are leading to the growth,” said Mr. Gilbert. “I think one leads from the other. I think there are more quality improvements to come. You’ve really got improvements going on in all facets.”
“Every year it gets a little better,” Mr. Gloeckler said. “We’re able to do strong solids and fine vignettes off the same plate. We can make inks stronger, and the anilox makers have made cylinders with finer volumes. Increasingly fine anilox volumes in conjunction with stronger printing inks enable printers to do more things.
“Flexo has a lot of potential,” said Mr. Shah. “There is a lot of things flexo is doing in prepress and digitally that are helping people minimize time. Prepress is now more automated, so it cuts down on printing time and makes the print more accurate.
“There is more understanding of plate and backing material,” Mr. Shah continued. “Printers will put on a particular backing which will give you the ultimate printing quality. If you have the wrong plate and backing material, the print quality won’t be as good.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work being done in flexographic printing,” Mr. Shah added. “Ink suppliers are trying to get the press color match time reduced, so printers don’t have to run scrap material.”
“There’s more dialogue between anilox and plate people and the ink makers,” said George Sickinger, vice president and general manager, Borden Chemical. “Another big part is the prepress – there’s a lot more attention to doing color separations. The biggest improvement is in corrugated is the jobs are now being planned properly, and it shows in the finished products. They’ve done a lot of work in the shape of the cell to facilitate the release of ink and to not hold dried ink.
“Corrugated has been obvious, but it’s also steadily improving in flexible packaging,” Mr. Sickinger said. “Gravure hasn’t solved the problem of cost for cylinders. The quality gap has been closed by flexo significantly.”
“The plates and aniloxes are getting finer, and they are running much fewer screens, so you’re getting much finer prints,” said Mike Hines, director of liquid ink R&D for INX International. “Ink makers have had to adapt their inks to adjust to the drying plates required by such thin films, and you have to have much greater color strength.”
“I think the anilox rolls have led the way, and in the pressrooms, there’s been the recognition that there has to be discipline,” said Mr. Rasmussen. “You’ve also got some bigger presses and suppliers providing better goods.”
Improvements in anilox rolls have been a critical aspect of flexo’s growth. “Up until 1990, the standards were 330 and 440 linescreen,” said Steve Tucker, technical service manager of Harper, a leading manufacturer of anilox rolls. “Today, the industry standard is 800 linescreen, but we’re going as far as 1,000 and 1,6000 linescreen.
“It helps provide more detail, but what really has happened is that we’ve reduced cell volume, which reduces the thickness of printing ink on film or substrate,” Mr. Tucker said.
“The growth of flexo has really been spearheaded by a number of things,” said James Austin, product marketing manager, DuPont Cyrel. “All of the suppliers have worked to improve their products. We feel the quality of our digital plates is equal to that of offset plates; quality is no longer an issue. The whole process is becoming faster and higher quality. Our process can put an aqueous water-wash plate in place in an hour.”
“Prepress through computerized technology has really been improved,” said Roy Webb, national sales manager of Mark Andy, a leading manufacturer of narrow web flexo printing presses.
“We now have laser-engraved ceramic anilox rolls, which are like ink keys. It allows us to lighten and darken the inks, control your ink film, and reverse angle doctor blades shear the surface of the roll so that the amount of ink is uniform,” Mr. Webb said. “The inks themselves are greatly improved. All of this combined has allowed flexo to become very competitive with offset.
“What has made these presses really attractive is that the capital outlay is substantially less than a sheetfed offset press,” Mr. Webb said. “These are roll-fed presses, printing then die cutting. It can be put on the press and conveyed off to the customer in a relatively short time, with labor for one pass.”
Ink has been a major area of improvement for flexo. “Ink developments are critical to these improvements,” Flint Ink officials observed. “Faster drying, but resoluable, inks enable the speed to increase, and stronger inks, compatible with the finer anilox rolls, enable the quality to improve. UV inks, for example, print cleaner since they do not dry on the rolls or plate, and hold sharper dots.”
Areas of Growth
Flexo is very strong in many areas, particularly within packaging and narrow web. There are also major opportunities where flexo can expand.
Flint Ink officials said that UV flexo printing is one specific growth segment, and that in news flexo, slow growth in the number of accounts printing flexo continues, but current users are expanding into insert printing.
“UV’s role is increasing, driven by the quality improvements mentioned above, and the fact that it is an alternative to water-based inks, in resolving environmental issues with solvent-based inks,” Flint Ink officials noted. “One limitation is the need to train printers on the use and handling of UV inks.”
“In terms of UV, narrow web is definitely converting,” said Mr. Shah. “Wide web is slow to convert, mainly due to economics.”
“The use of UV inks in the narrow web segment is gaining share in the marketplace,” Mr. Dowdell said. “Narrow web people are more familiar with UV inks, and are transferring technology right away. Many customers can’t tell the difference between offset and UV flexo inks.”
Mr. Webb sees tangible evidence of UV’s growth in press manufacturing. “Out of every 10 presses, eight have at least one UV station,” Mr. Webb said.
UV is also making gains in the flexo folding carton market, according to Liz Zinnbauer, marketing communications for Akzo Nobel Inks.
“There are a number of advantages to UV flexo: improved physical properties; it cures instantly; color consistency; faster production speeds; less cleanup; and practically zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds),” said Ms. Zinnbauer.
Wide web remains solvent-based, with only a few converters trying UV. “There’s been some spectacular packaging done with UV in wide web, but it’s such a turnabout on how they’ve done business,” Mr. Dowdell noted.
Industry members all agree that one key to the growth of flexo is the active efforts of the FTA and the Foundation of the FTA (FFTA), the educational arm of the organization.
Overall, the FTA and FFTA provide members with the education, training and support needed to continue to improve flexo’s quality.
“Training is still our number one thrust, and will be so for many years to come. If flexo has a weakness, it is that it has grown as a craft, and the idea of formal training has not been completely understood, with rare exceptions,” said Mr. Dowdell.
“Right now, the FFTA is focusing on two areas: The National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications, which will establish criteria for expert pressmen; and offering training tools so people can earn their certification, including interactive CD programs, such as a pressroom simulator,” Mr. Dowdell said. “We need to embrace this whole conceptual course of training.” To that end, the FFTA will offer regional and in-plant seminars.
For the present, flexo looks to continue to grow as it steadily makes gains in quality.
“It’ll be double-digit growth,” said Mr. Bankson. “It’s certainly a growth industry, and the inks, systems and processes are getting better all the time. Improvements in the formulations of different UV and water-based inks have been a major factor.”
“People are doing some really nice work. You have people who have developed a paradigm of continuous improvement, willing to look at new ideas, which is the key to pushing that envelope,” Mr. Rasmussen concluded.
Photos courtesty of Mark Andy and Novaflex, Inc.