Flexographic printing is continuing to notch up fast growth rates in the European packaging sector. But as it continues to gain a larger share of the market, mainly at the expense of litho offset, it is facing tougher challenges which could slow down its fast expansion.
Makers of flexo inks are themselves being put under pressure to come up with innovations which enable flexo printers to take greater advantage of their stronger position in the packaging market.
Some printing consultants believe that flexo printing is growing so fast at the moment in Europe that the current market shares of litho and flexo could be reversed within a few years. At present, litho has 40 to 45 percent share, while flexo has around 30 percent. There are even predictions that flexo could account for more than half of packaging printing sales within five years.
A major impetus behind the increase in flexo has been its versatility, at a time when food and consumer product companies and other packaging end-users are seeking a broader range of substrates
In addition to its suitability for printing on packaging foil, self-adhesive labels and corrugated board, it can be used in a wide variety of niche sectors like tissues, envelopes, paper bags, gift wrapping and wallpaper.
It can also be combined in-line with other processes like offset and screen printing.
Flexo has also been able to exploit the advantages it has over litho and gravure with computer-to-press (CTP) technologies. Photopolymer plates in flexo printing are highly suitable for the application of computerized pre-press methods.
Above all, the expansion in flexo has been driven by its lower capital and running costs. Some flexo presses can cost a fifth of that of an equivalent litho machine in terms of color capability, while they are cheaper to operate because of lower maintenance and energy costs and less waste.
European printers are switching in large numbers to flexo at a time when margins in the packaging sector are being squeezed despite rises in volume sales. The European packaging industry now has an average return on sales of only 4 percent, according to one recent estimate.
The need for economies of scale are leading to increased consolidation within the European packaging sector.
Although the European flexible packaging market still remains highly fragmented with around 3,000 producers, five groups now make up 36 percent of sales as a result of a period of acquisitions and mergers.
The consolidation is likely to continue because pan-European companies account for half of purchases of flexible packaging. They are seeking a single source for their packaging rather than a range of local or regional suppliers.
At the same time, food and other consumer-orientated companies are adopting short-term, variable marketing tactics.
“They are keeping to packaging designs for shorter and shorter periods,” complained an executive at one U.K. flexo printing company. “We are now getting requests for packaging which will be on the supermarket shelves for only two to three weeks. Even cartonboard customers are wanting constant changes to their packaging.”
Flexo printers are, as a result, feeling the full impact of the switch to niche-type marketing, prompted by computerization and rise of the electronic media. Packaging designs are increasingly being targeted at specific social and demographic groups.
Consumer goods companies are also seeking higher quality printing to ensure that the packaging of their products has sufficient visual impact to differentiate them from those of competitors. These requirements are in turn being passed on by the printer to the ink maker.
“More and more, the flexo printer demands shorter lead times, many more colors, faster changeovers and absolutely perfect quality, leaving no time for delays, errors or waste,” said Jaap van der Beek, marketing manager for liquid inks at Van Son, Netherlands.
However shorter runs, quicker turnarounds and faster deliveries raise costs, intensifying moves to economize at every stage of the printing process.
“We are finding that the main concern of flexo printers at the moment is the need to save money,” explained Hans Kock, head of BASF’s technical department for flexo inks. “They want to increase quality but save money at the same time.”
For ink makers the relatively wide acceptance of water-based inks by European flexo printers, particularly by those using paper substrates, has been one way to help reduce printing costs in packaging.
Use of water-based inks has been boosted by the comparatively fast growth of corrugated and carton board in packaging. During the 1990s the increase of output of flexo printing has been as much as twice as high with corrugated board than with plastic films and other flexible substrates, according to the U.K.-based consultancy Pira International.
The environmental compatibility of water-based inks enables flexo printers to comply with new European Union legislation on the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) without the necessity of investing in incineration or abatement systems.
A recent rise in demand for water-based inks for plastic substrates in some EU countries has stemmed from the need to reduce the cost of compliance with VOC regulations.
Water-based inks are also enabling flexo printers to benefit from standardized ink systems which help quicken changeovers between printing jobs and speed up preparation processes.
Akzo Nobel Inks has just introduced a universal water-based flexo ink for narrow web presses. It can not only be used on coated or uncoated paper but metallic films and foils, as well as a wide range of plastic materials, including polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and polyester.
“We saw the need for a universal ink that could handle the many new filmic substrates being introduced to the market,” said Niklas Olsson, Akzo Nobel Inks’ product portfolio manager.
Ink producers believe that they have solved the problems of lower quality with water-based flexo inks. “We have carried out tests showing there is no difference between the quality of water-based flexo inks and those used on offset machines,” said Mr. Kock. “Quality is no longer dependent on the ink but on the printing machine and how it is operated.”
Some ink makers have also found ways of driving down the cost of water-based flexo inks. Van Son has developed a method for diluting water-based inks for printing of pastel and light colors on envelopes while minimizing deformation of the paper. One of its new aqueous flexo inks is dilutable with water up to almost 1000 percent for pastel tints.
It claims that its dilution techniques can reduce the unit costs of water-based flexo inks from around $4 to $7 per kilogram to as low as 85 cents per kilo.
UV inks sales have also been boosted, particularly in the narrow-web sector, by the growing popularity of flexo printing, which in turn has led to further standardization of inks in the sector.
The rising use of UV inks in flexo packaging has also helped to bolster printing quality in the sector. With UV ink and varnish systems, in which the inks will not dry during the printing process, high quality is obtained both in areas of fine and solid print.
UV flexo printing is already spreading into wider web sectors with the development of UV inks for cartonboard with low enough viscosity to achieve free flow of the ink and high gloss, while preventing mottling as a result of penetration of the substrate.
Akzo Nobel Inks, which introduced a UV ink for cartonboard printing last year, estimates that this new sector for UV flexo printing will grow at 15 to 20 percent annually.
UV flexo inks also minimize environmental costs because of their lack of VOCs, while they reduce ink wastage and the length of wash-up times.
But these lower costs are partly counterbalanced by relatively high investment costs for new or revamped printing presses and curing equipment.
The need for greater standardization of inks and improved costs in flexo printing has led to the development of systems for supplying basic ink concentrates to be mixed with additives and colors at the printing plant.
“These systems for the supply of ink concentrates enables the ink maker to respond to orders from printers much more quickly, usually with same-day or 24-hour deliveries,” said the commercial manager of one flexo ink producers. “We are even seeing schemes now where the concentrate consists primarily of pigment so that the flexo printer adds the binders as well.”
Computerization in flexo printing now extends from the computer-to-plate pre-press stage through to the printing process itself and turnarounds with automatic cleaning of ink supply equipment and robotic roller changing systems.
Advances are being made in the control of ink volumes on flexo rollers, particularly with anilox rolls, while printing is taking place. But printers still complain about too much wastage of ink in the flexo process.
“The difficulty is that far more ink than is necessary for the actual printing is needed to maintain the flow of ink on the roller,” said Mr. Kock. “This excess ink can often be re-used with repeat jobs but with the trend towards shorter runs, this is not possible, so it has to be recycled or wasted. This is the next big problem which ink suppliers have to help flexo printers solve.”