Although this has been a economically challenging time for the ink market, the flexographic segment has achieved modest growth. Many ink manufacturers are optimistic that as a result of improved quality and efficiency and the increased use of flexible packaging, the flexo market will experience substantial growth during the next few years.
“Looking at history, one would expect that flexo inks would grow in 2002, although we saw a down market in 2001 of 5 percent to 8 percent,” said Deanna Whelan, marketing manager, Akzo Nobel Inks. “It is unrealistic to expect any dramatic upswing in the industry for early 2002. With improvement coming in the second quarter, we expect the market for flexo inks to be flat in 2002, and then return to historical growth rated in 2003 and beyond.”
“The outlook for flexographic printing is very positive on several fronts, as the growth prospects are good,” said Chris Morrissey, vice president sales and marketing, Sun Chemical. “Annual growth estimates by industry sources range from 3 percent to 5 percent overall.”
“During 2001, the flexographic printing ink sales experienced downward pressure from previous years because of the economic recession,” said Stephen L. Lazure, vice president of operations, Zeller+Gmelin Corp. “Compared to various other segments of the graphic arts industry, flexographic printing remained remarkably strong. Printing ink manufacturing companies that had not been involved in the flexographic printing markets are re-evaluating the possibility of developing products and entering this market.”
Some ink producers have observed that flexographic printing is gaining a foothold in markets previously dominated by gravure and offset printing. “The flexo market is steadily growing in the U.S.,” said Kent Shah, vice president, technology, Color Converting Industries. “Additionally, (in) other global markets where gravure had dominance, flexo is getting more and more attention. These converters have started making commitments to make investments and explore.”
As a result of recent technological improvements resulting in higher quality and lower costs, flexo is starting to challenge the more traditional print methods.
“As new flexographic printing and ink technology evolve, flexographic printing becomes an extremely cost efficient printing source,” said Mr. Lazure. “We are seeing higher definition printing not possible during recent years.”
“Overall the outlook is very positive, especially with UV flexo becoming a strong opponent to gravure and offset printing; now, even more so, with the introduction of low odor free radical UV flexo,” said Ms. Whelan. “There is a tremendous push for high quality printing. Flexo technology is challenging alternative print methods such as litho and gravure. We see that certain regions of the world have adopted the flexo technology more so than others. For example, in the U. S., flexo is dominating and accepted whereas in other regions, flexo has to battle to prove its merit over other techniques–offset and gravure.”
“Our outlook for the flexo market is very positive,” said Jim Freid, product manager, fluid inks and coatings, Wikoff Color Corporation. “The market is growing faster than the printing industry as a whole, and certainly faster than other traditional printing methods such as offset litho and gravure.”
As the quality improves and flexography becomes more environmentally- friendly, many ink makers predict that they will become more widely used.
“The quality is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Don Matthiesen, marketing manager for Environmental Inks and Coatings. “Flexographic printing can be extremely environmentally-friendly. The ability to combine flexographic printing with other processes multiplies the efficiency of package manufacturing. Of course, lowering the VOCs is the future of flexography.”
Many ink manufacturers attribute an increase in flexible packaging and folding carton to flexo’s growth.
“We see that the flexible packaging industry has very good growth forecast, for which flexo is the printing process of choice among the U.S. converters,” said Mr. Shah. “Additionally, the trend is to replace some of the rigid packaging, such as glass and metal cans, with flexible packaging.”
“The flexo market continues to grow in general with a great deal of growth in the flexible packaging area,” said Mike Hines, VP technical, liquid division, INX International Ink Co. “Both water-based and solvent inks are in high demand. In the last year requests for boil-in-bag and retortable inks have increased tremendously.”
“The UV flexo market has been soft since 9/11, both in folding carton and in label,” noted Dwight Davis, president of Deco-Chem. “However, over the last three months, we have seen some activity in folding carton that should result in more ink sales in the third and fourth quarter of 2002. Items printed by the flatbed screen process also seem to be strong.”
“There has been more growth in UV flexo in the narrow web sector, and with the imminent introduction of free radical low odor UV flexo, this is a viable option for secondary packaging today,” said Ms. Whelan.
“All areas of flexographic printing will grow as the economy builds a head of steam,” said Mr. Matthiesen. “Flexible packaging, film label, shrink label and folding cartons will show the fastest growth this year. Radiation curable inks, UV and EB, will gain market share as the application costs come down.”
“It’s very active at the moment–one of the few areas of printing that is seeing growth–about 3 percent to 4 percent a year,” according to Larry Shanks, director of marketing development for flexible packaging, Flint Ink. “A lot of growth is occurring as rigid packaging is being replaced with flexible structures such as stand-up pouches. Another area is in produce, where traditional plastic wraps are being replaced with branded packaging as commodity foods like lettuce are turned into ready-to-eat salads.”
“We see continued growth, especially in the areas of UV flexo technology and folding carton and label markets,” said Mr. Freid. “Wikoff is developing a presence in Mexico, Central and South America. We became competitive once we had a chance to prove our quality and product consistency. Our customers were quick to realize the overall value of Wikoff’s products.”
“Since UV flexo inks have truly become a commodity, we feel that growth areas for Deco-Chem will be in specialty inks and clears (glow-in-the-dark, temperature sensitive, low odor and UV inks, etc.),” said Mr. Davis. “While ink sales volumes should increase across the board this year, profit will be much harder to realize with the higher volume commodity type UV flexo inks. Greater demand for inks in a stronger economy may take some of that pressure off, but I don’t think that will happen this year.”
New Flexo Products
Environmental Inks and Coatings Corporation’s core business is environmentally-friendly, water-based flexographic inks. “2002 is an exciting time for EIC. Aqua HS inks for reverse printing PVC shrink labels delivers intense high-resolution graphics heretofore only seen with rotogravure printing,” said Mr. Matthiesen. “Aqua HS withstands the punishment presented by the tube formation and application processes. Ultra Flex II UV flexo Arpeco inks are now available as a blending system and the flexo are dispensible. EIC supplies UV flexo inks that can be used in combination with EIC screen inks. The flexo inks can be printed over the screen inks or print over the screen inks. The EIC Aqualope ink system has been the industry standard for ease of use with an exclusive package of additives to maximize envelope machine throughput. Aqualope is now even easier to use and more stable than ever before. This is the water-based ink for maximum envelope productivity.”
“EIC looks forward to several more major breakthroughs this year that will significantly benefit both water-based and radiation curable flexographic printing,” Mr. Matthiesen added.
Akzo Nobel Inks has had great success in the development of various flexo inks. “We have pioneered high quality in water-based flexo, and were the first to offer UV flexo inks, some 14 years ago. Seventy-five percent of the inks manufactured by Akzo Nobel Inks are consumed by flexo print shops,” said Ms. Whelan.
Akzo Nobel Inks has released three new products for the flexo industry. Flexocure HD-UV flexo ink with very high color-strength for high definition printing; PackCure-low odor UV flexo ink for secondary packaging and unsupported label materials; and Foilbond TC-UV ThruCure adhesive, which used the flexo process along with cold foiling applications.
Deco-Chem is a primary manufacturer of UV flexo, UV letterpress, UV rotary screen and flatbed screen. They have developed and marketed UV flexo inks that are low in viscosity and high in pigment concentration that are capable of producing print quality similar to that of offset printing.
“One of the most important products that we have developed recently is an extremely low odor UV flexo ink, as well as a clear,” said Deco-Chem’s Mr. Davis. “We feel that the demand for low odor inks will increase dramatically over the next few years. The customer will demand the same high performance but without the odor. We are also researching EB curable inks and coatings for flexo, rotary screen and flatbed screen. We do have marketable products available for that process. We have a number of specialty inks and coatings.”
Sun Chemical recently announced the development of Flexomax, a new lamination ink designed for multiple substrates commonly used in the fast-evolving flexible packaging market. It is a high performance, nitro-blendable lamination ink formulated to provide superior color strength in both line work and process printing, according to Sun Chemical. “Flexomax also demonstrates excellent solvent release properties important in food applications where low odor is required,” said Mr. Morrissey. “Flexomax offers outstanding bond strength with both adhesive and extrusion laminations. In addition, these inks perform extremely well with the new generation of no-solvent adhesives. This versatility makes Flexomax ideal for printers who want to consolidate inventories and use a single ink system on several types of film.”
INX International Ink Co. has developed three new lamination systems, two water-based and one solvent system. “The water-based systems are for specialized adhesive and extrusion lamination applications while the solvent system. Flexlam, is a new ink strictly for adhesive lamination applications,” said Mr. Hines. “Lamiall is still our main solvent lamination ink, is it still the most popular ink with the customers in that market.”
“We have also developed a new UV flexo ink system, INXFlex UV,” added Mr. Hines. “It is the lowest viscosity system on the market and its sales are growing steadily. It adheres to OPP, PET, Saran, and may also be used on paper labels and board applications. This is a one-ink UV flexo system.”
Zeller+Gmelin has introduced a number of innovative flexo ink products. “Zeller+Gmelin is continuously developing new UV ink products for most segments of the flexographic printing market,” said Mr. Lazure. “We have recently introduced our new high-density four color process flexographic inks, a new low odor line for package printing and various non-silicone screen whites for the label industry. Also, we are currently evaluating a new non-drip version screen white.”
Color Converting has focused its efforts on developing two new ink technologies for the flexo market. “Presently, our focus is in development of two major flexo printing ink technologies,” said Mr. Shah. “One is universal laminating inks that will meet the need of a variety of new substrates and packaging requirements. The second is water-based and solvent-based process printing inks. Today, the demand for process printing quality is of utmost importance for flexo’s growth. This has been achieved through a variety of innovations in graphic separation, anilox rollers, plate and backing materials, operator training, sophisticated press equipment and inks that will print high quality using finer anilox rollers.”
“We’re continually developing products to meet the changing needs of our customers,” said Mr. Shanks. “Whatever the changes, there will always be a need for strong inks with excellent performance that are easy to use.”
“New product development is a journey, not a destination,” said Mr. Freid. “We are not satisfied with the status quo. Our tech center in Fort Mill, SC is constantly looking for ways to improve the value of our products and services with our existing customer base as well as new customers. Our Photoflex (UV flexo) products that we introduced in 2001 have been well received in the marketplace.”
The Future of Flexo
The future certainly looks bright for flexo inks, as it is used in everything from newspapers to food containers.
“In the future look to flexography to make inroads in food container manufacturing, as well as digital combination printing formats. From a wide web perspective, water-based inks are predominant for corrugated board, and envelope printing in now becoming established. There is also growing interest in film and foil printing using water-based inks. There is a clear move towards water-based technology in wide web film printing. The ink technology is available for a limited range of substrates, mainly polyethylene and laminated films.”
Increased quality has resulted in flexo’s increased use in the corrugated and newspaper printing segments.
“The quality of water-based flexo has improved sufficiently that I think we will see more in newspaper and even more in corrugated and other markets,” said Mr. Davis. “As for narrow web, I believe UV flexo will continue to take a larger share from water- and solvent-based products.”
“Flexo is the predominant and established print technique for corrugated printing and probably will remain so,” said Mr. Morrissey. “Increased print quality due to ink development, finer-line aniloxes and new plate technologies has helped build momentum for the use of flexography in package printing, The Flexographic Technical Association recently estimated that flexography was used in 70 percent of all packaging products printed in North America. However, flexo is still a small player in the overall newspaper printing market.”
“Flexographic printing will continue to push for higher quality while maintaining the capabilities that have brought it this far,” said Mr. Matthiesen. “Flexible packaging will corner a bigger share of the total packaging market. Flexo is a natural for folding cartons. Film label and shrink labels will allow food packagers to reduce the number of preprinted bottle and cans in their inventories while allowing smaller production runs of gourmet items to be attractively packaged. UV and water-based inks will continue to capture a bigger portion of the flexographic market.”
“As new technology in flexographic printing evolves, ink manufacturers are required to develop products that will deliver the higher quality printing available,” said Mr. Lazure. “Ink manufacturers continuously strive to produce flexographic ink products with the highest density and lowest film weight possible while exhibiting excellent adhesion and scratch resistant properties.”
“Flexo is well established in most markets,” said Mr. Freid. “We see a trend of folding carton printers considering flexo when they add print capacity and considering their product mix. The flexo process reduces the unit print cost when compared to sheetfed lithography. The growth in both water-based and UV flexo has seemingly been unaffected by the economic downturn that has affected most of the printing industry since last September.”
“We see a continued growth in flexo technology, demanding better and better products and new applications, which will make people want to convert to flexo,” said Ms. Whelan. “Flexo will be dominated by water-based and UV curable flexo inks. In certain segments solvent-based flexo is dead. UV flexo and water-based flexo is the growing segment. The challenge lies in that future growth will be in unsupported films, and to convert this water-based flexo, replacing solvent-based flexo. Everyone is looking for better water-based film inks.
“The segment with strongest growth potential is to replace solvent-based gravure inks on shrink sleeves, in mould labels and synthetic wrap-around labels. Secondary packaging using flexible materials and folding cartons converted in narrow web presses using UV flexo ink is another segment for us.
“Printers are looking for faster press changeovers, reduction in press downtime, inks to support a JIT environment, shorter runs, faster press speeds and better quality. We are constantly investigating creative options for meeting these demands. Automation is playing an increasingly important role in the ink manufacturing process; a role that should assist in meeting our customers’ demands.”
As the market continues to become increasingly competitive, flexo must continue to provide quality, performance and low cost to its customers.
“In these tough times, companies that can deliver increasing value for their customers will continue to grow, because times are tough. Flexo is in a position to deliver the value. Only the printers who are capable of controlling the variables that can erode consistently high quality or productivity will keep the business and profit from this opportunity,” said Mr. Matthiesen.
Flexographic Printing Makes Gains in Newsrooms
Decades ago, the world of newspaper printing was dominated by letterpress inks. By and large, offset printing has taken the place of letterpress, and is now the primary method of choice for newspaper printers.
However, a number of smaller newspaper chains and independent newspaper publishers have gone against the grain and opted for flexography as their printing process. They point to numerous advantages from the flexo process.
“Switching to flexo has probably been one of the best things we’ve done,” said Frank Anthony, vice president and director of operations at the Chattanooga Times/Free Press. “The colors are brighter and more vivid, and there’s better detail and less dot gain. Unlike offset, the ink is guaranteed to be rub-free.
“The true benefit to flexo is that it is direct printing,” Mr. Anthony said. “You’ve eliminated the offset cylinder, and by doing so, you’ve eliminated a generation from the process. It is the only truly keyless single fluid printing that is out there. That buys you several things. There are no ink settings, which makes operating a press easier. In offset, if you want to increase the density of your black ink, you have to communicate that with each press operator, who then sets the ink to that new standard. You may or may not get what you want in all locations.
“In flexo, one person changes the viscosity of the ink, which affects all location on the press with the same density,” Mr. Anthony said. “Having no ink setting for the press operator to adjust allows quality control of the photo to return to the photographer and the toner. In flexo, there’s also no background toning, so it’s cleaner.”
The Wichita Eagle has been printing flexo full-time since 1997. Prior to 1997, the Wichita Eagle printed its lead pages flexo as a slip-in.
“Flexo offers numerous quality advantages,” said Kevin Desmond, vice president of floor operations for the Wichita Eagle. “The color is more vibrant, and our advertisers really like the consistency of the colors. There are environmental benefits from using water-based inks, and the training and startup costs for making the transition from letterpress to offset would have been tremendous. Our waste is also a lot lower.”
“We use a water-based ink that dries almost immediately, so there’s no rub-off,” said Betty Forehand, production director at Fort Wayne Newspapers, which has used flexo for its fronts and backs for 10 years. “Flexo offers very vibrant colors, and from a production standpoint, there’s considerably less waste at startup than with offset. From an operator’s standpoint, it’s very easy to control the ink flow.”
However, no matter how satisfied publishers and advertisers alike are with flexo, flexo newspaper printing is not growing quickly.
According to the Flexo Vendor Alliance, an organization that is dedicated to promoting publication flexography, there are 37 publication printers presently using flexo. These include some major publications such as the Boston Herald, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Providence Journal, Fresno Bee, Wichita Eagle and others.
However, larger newspaper chains have yet to consider flexo, primarily as having two printing processes to contend with would complicate operations.
“The reason it’s not growing is the globalization of newspapers,” Mr. Anthony said. “If you’re a large company, the last thing you want is two different printing processes.”