The Flexo Report

By Kerry Pianoforte, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.12.05

Valued as an economical process, flexo continues to dominate the packaging industry, while making inroads into new applications.

Finished flexo labels leave the press. (Photo courtesy of Mark Andy)
Once again, despite a challenging year for printers, the flexo market continues to dominated the packaging industry, as well as making inroads into new markets. Many ink companies reported modest growth for flexo in 2003.

“Most of flexography’s recent growth has come in the packaging market, where it is already the predominant printing process in many types of packaging,” said Chris Parrilli, vice president, packaging, Sun Chemical North American Inks. “Packaging grew slightly in 2003. We believe the use of flexo increased also, as converters looked to reduce their costs while improving print quality due to recent technological advancements in flexography.”

“The doldrums that we went through in late 2001 and most of 2002 seems to be behind us,” said Jim Freid, product manager, fluid inks and coatings for Wikoff Color. “Approximately 80 percent of our existing customers have seen an increase in their respective print sales, and if they were able to survive the economic downturn following 9/11, they have seen sales increase to beyond pre-9/11 levels.”

“The flexo market has not been immune to the downturn that has affected the entire ink market during the last couple of years,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, market development, Flint Ink North American packaging division. “But, in general, flexo is better equipped to deal with the inevitable consequences of a slow and uncertain market. Flexo is a very economic process that does well with the short runs that we have seen during the last couple years. The quick turnaround and ease of graphic changes makes flexo a very good process when packagers are making graphic changes to boost the package appeal to the consumer.”

Color Converting Inc. (CCI) estimates that industry sales for packaging inks were down between 5 to 10 percent. However, they reported that CCI sales grew by approximately 7 percent in 2003.

“Most of the year it was average and at the end sales increased,” added Brent Davis, vice president, Deco-Chem.

Packaging continues to be a prime market for flexo printing growth, according to Mr. Impastato. “Flexo is already the dominant printing process for packaging, so the growth as a percent is not likely to be high, but from a volume standpoint, packaging will represent the largest expansion of flexo printing volume,” he added.

“Flexo use should continue to grow, especially in flexible packaging and labels,” Mr. Parrilli said. “Flexible packaging segments such as retort and stand-up pouches also should continue to grow.”

Within the packaging arena, CCI expects growth in several areas. Of particular note are lamination inks, specialty inks, expanded gamut processing and energy cure products.

“The lamination ink market continues to be promising in 2004 due to the ongoing shift from rigid to flexible containers and retort applications,” said Kent Shah, vice president, technology, CCI. “Along with the growth, CCI is seeing increasing demand for product robustness and universality as well as tighter and more stringent specifications. CCI’s recent acquisition by Siegwerk positions our organization better than ever to respond to both opportunities.”

Examples of interesting specialty applications include security, metallic and RFID solutions as well as other technologies that enhance shelf appeal, including fluorescents, glow-in-the-dark and pearlescents.

According to Mr. Shah, several CCI customers have made substantial investments in Opaltone and Hexachrome or other expanded gamut printing methodologies.

Ink manufacturers are optimistic that there will be more growth.

“We do hope that all markets and regions will have a lift for 2004; this will help all players, including customers, as we fear that a continued downward trend might cause many companies problems,” said Niklas Olsson, global brand manager, Akzo Nobel Inks’ Narrow Web BU.
Gallus Inc.’s RCS 330 press.

UV Flexo Makes Gains
Many ink companies contend that UV flexo is continuing to make gains in the market. According to Akzo Nobel Inks, it is the fastest growing print technology.

According to Rick Clendenning, INX International Ink Co.’s president and CEO, the UV/EB flexo area is growing. “The advances in technology have helped this product line gain acceptability,” he noted.

“Certain segments of UV flexo are growing at rates that exceed the overall growth rate of the packaging market,” Mr. Parrilli said. “The narrow web label market is a prime example, with estimates of its growth pegged at about 4 percent each year. In addition, Sun Chemical expects there will be continued development of UV flexographic inks that improve flow and strength characteristics.”

Mr. Parrilli noted that many converters are also looking at inks, coatings, and adhesives cured by electron beam, especially since the costs and size of EB units have dropped dramatically in recent years. Sun Chemical’s recently introduced WetFlex process allows printing with wet-trapping inks without the use of interstation drying, which could be a driver for increased EB usage.

CCI reported that there are a number of major applications which have been targeted for potential use of UV/EB inks/coatings on wide web packaging applications including lamination replacement products, adhesive replacement technologies and overprint varnishes for confectionery packaging.

“While the growth in these areas could be tremendous, actual commercialization of such applications has been rather slow and has been hampered by both patent and FDA issues,” said Mr. Shah.

“For inks, UV is still primarily in the narrow web market,” said Mr. Impastato. “But we have seen some use of UV flexo inks in the wide web area. The bulk of UV use in wide web flexo is in the area of lacquers. This will likely be the case for the next several years. The next large expansion of UV inks into the flexo market is likely to be in the folding carton area, as additional volume moves from litho printed cartons.”

Although there has been growth in this market, for some it has not come as rapidly as first anticipated. Cost may be one of the reasons for this. “UV does have some extra costs associated with the equipment and inks,” said Mr. Freid. “The UV market continues to grow as fast as the overall flexo market, but we don’t see it outpacing non-UV technologies.”

Equilibrium Reached
In the past there was much speculation that flexo’s gains in the market would be at the expense of gravure and offset. These concerns have proved to be unfounded.

“The gains flexo has made recently has not been as great as we saw a few years ago,” said Mr. Impastato. “Flexo is still making gains, but at a lower rate. The market has reached more of an equilibrium in the last couple years, where all the printing processes compete strongly in specific parts of the market.”

CCI contends that the industry trend of switching from rotogravure to flexography has reached an equilibrium. CCI expects any further changes to be slow and minimal.

“We are continuing to see inroads being made in markets that were previously dominated by offset litho,” said Mr. Freid. “And the advances in quality of the overall flexo process have enabled printers to compete in certain markets against gravure. However, the gravure technology has also made a lot of advances in recent years that makes that technology a lot more competitive than it was even five years ago.”

New Products
Akzo Nobel Inks has launched several new UV flexo products globally, with more launches planned for the future. “We have also introduced new water-based flexo inks, both for wide and narrow web film applications,” said Mr. Olsson.

Flint Ink’s latest product is its X-Treme dispersions. “These high strength water dispersions have allowed the formulation of much higher strength inks, without an effect on viscosity,” said Mr. Impastato. “This will allow our customers to take advantage of the finer aniloxes on the market. By delivering high strength color in a thinner ink film, the printer will see several advantages in the process. Higher speeds, better trapping, less tendency for tracking or blocking will all positively impact printer’s cost and productivity.”

Sun Chemical recently introduced Advantage, a water-based flexographic ink formulated for pH stability during long press runs of mid to mid-high level corrugated and paper bag products. This ink creates consistent on-press performance, while reducing the need to constantly adjust pH in order to control viscosity and print characteristics.

Kohl & Madden also has begun offering KMB pH neutral tag and label ink series. This can be used for paper printing or for specialty printing when coating with either UV or aqueous silicone coatings.

“A lot of Wikoff products go through evolutionary phases rather than being created,” noted Mr. Freid. “Two new product water-based lines introduced in late 2003 were our line OmniTuff water-based inks for polyboard that have a degree of caustic resistance; and a second series of label inks which meet FDA guidelines of indirect food contact under most conditions of use. A new Photo-Flex (UV) series has been developed with excellent adhesion to low energy plastic and film surfaces. These were introduced at our sales meeting in October and have been very well received in the marketplace.”

INX International Ink’s latest offerings are INXFlex 2000 UV flexo and INXScreen UV rotary screen.

CCI continues to make advancements in universal lamination technologies such as CCI’s Sealtech F-11 laminating inks allow printers to print on an increasingly wider spectrum of substrates including polyesters and nylons (both chemically and corona-treated) as well as lower quality and offshore offerings. “Additionally, we are going to bring some interesting technology from Siegwerk in Germany to introduce into the U.S. market in 2004,” said Mr. Shah.

“CCI’s Progloss and Sealtech F-11 inks are both examples of newer systems which were designed with process printing in mind. This is an area of on-going research,” Mr. Shah said.

“CCI’s recent acquisition by Siegwerk will further build CCI’s packaging ink and coating portfolio with technologies such as retort inks, tobacco coatings, aluminum foil solutions, 2-component surface-print systems, UV primers, RFID inks and many other specialty ink and coating solutions,” said Mr. Shah.

Deco-Chem has recently developed a low odor and non-thixotropic ink.

This Coors Light carton received Best in Show in the Wide Web category from the Flexographic Technical Association.

A Customer-Centered Focus
Providing new innovative products and meeting the demands of customers is key to success in the flexo market.

Printers continue to demand higher performance inks, according to Mr. Parrilli, while at the same time there has been erosion in ink prices. He explained that this situation makes it difficult for ink makers to build more value into their product when they cannot expect to gain a reasonable return on the investment of manpower and money into the development process. Validating the savings provided by these high performance inks can be difficult because it requires full engagement by both the printer and the ink maker to track the various factors in the printing process.

Still, Mr. Parrilli said, “Equipment and material suppliers continue to make incremental improvements to their products. This adds up to a significant effort from all sides to increase productivity, quality and user friendliness of the products and processes in the pressroom. With each new improvement, flexography becomes more appealing to converters.”

Mr. Clendenning said that a strong R&D group is essential to meeting its customers’ demands and expectations. “They must be working closely with our customers on a regular basis so they can stay in touch with the constant changes and improvements that are being made in equipment and other related supplies,” he said.

“Ever-increasing cost pressure from customers has led to rigorous pressure on reducing pressroom costs even further,” said Mr. Shah. “This has forced us and other packaging ink manufacturers to develop even better solutions to taking costs out of customer pressrooms while helping to make their processes more efficient.”

Alongside cost-effective formulation and supply chain efficiency, CCI’s point-of-use service offering, the IMS, is specially designed to increase customer throughput, decrease customer operating expenses and decrease customer investments and is continually being evaluated and expanded to take on more and more scope within customer operations, continued Mr. Shah. “Since point-of-use service has traditionally served as a major CCI differentiator and has been instrumental in CCI’s 10-plus year history of double-digit growth, we expect to continue to emphasize and invest in our ability to impact customer operations at the point of use.”

“The key for us has always been to thoroughly understand what the customer requirements and expectations are going to be in our partnership,” said Mr. Freid. “In order to accomplish this, we need to be able to have totally open and a good two-way dialogue with the customers. Surprises might be nice at Christmas, but most surprises are not a good thing in the printing business.”

“There must be a healthy balance between the demands and needs of the customer, and the fee we get back,” said Mr. Olsson. “So far, we are able to discuss these issues sensibly with our customers, creating the win-win.”

“Flint Ink has a customer-centered focus,” said Mr. Impastato. “We believe that by closely communicating with our customers we can position ourselves to deliver on both what our customers need today, as well as anticipate what they will need in the future. Our industry is often focused entirely on today and now. It is sometimes difficult to shift customer discussion to the future and lay out our joint plans for tomorrow. Flint Ink has a specific process identified that is used to facilitate those strategic discussions. We have a knowledgeable and well-staffed technical service group that focuses on today's support needs. But it is imperative that we invest our development resources in solutions for our customers’ future needs. By having structured, strategic discussions with customers, we can be assured we are working on the right projects for the future.”

Deco-Chem has reported that it has hired more salespeople and more customer service people to meet the demands of its customers.

Global Growth
While the flexo market appears to be mature in North America and Western Europe, growth is expected in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America.

Since packaging ink sales growth often mirrors national GDP rates, CCI expects many developing markets to yield strong packaging growth (sometimes double-digit). “This trend may show itself in markets such as China, India, certain South American countries (e.g. Brazil) and certain Middle Eastern markets,” said Mr. Shah.

“Printing growth in North America and Western Europe is going to be comparable to GDP growth,” said Mr. Impastato. “These areas are mature and the likelihood of high growth is very low. But in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America, there is a significant opportunity to see high growth in printing. I would expect to see near double-digit growth in some of these areas over the next several years. High growth in these areas is dependent on many economic and social factors, but growth in printing in these areas will outpace the growth that will be seen in North America. That being said, North America and Western Europe will continue to lead the world in the volume of printing produced for the foreseeable future.”

“Gravure is still the preferred printing process in Europe and Japan because of the large installed equipment base,” Mr Parrilli said. “Flexo has captured the attention of some printers and converters in these regions, but every indication is that its use will not grow as quickly there as it has in North America.”

“Although we currently do not have manufacturing facilities outside of North America, we are finding that the demand for quality flexo products, particularly in Latin America and Asia is increasing at a much greater rate in the U.S.,” said Mr. Fried, “Some of the interest depends on the relative strength of the local currency to the U.S. dollar. As recently as five years ago, the import tariffs and duties to some Asian countries was more than 60 percent. Recently we noticed that these tariffs and duties have dropped to about 30 percent, still high but a 50 percent reduction towards a level playing field. And there are 1.5 billion reasons to have a presence in China.”

There have been a number of developments in the flexo process that has given flexo a boost.

According to Mr. Impastato, the last significant development in flexo was computer to plate (CTP). "This provides better fidelity to flexo printing. Although more widespread today, this is still emerging and will continue to improve flexo's competitiveness," he said.

"The ability of the anilox manufacturers to be more consistent in making 1000 line and foreseeably higher line screen rolls, along with the photopolymer plate manufacturers to make smaller and smaller dots, has been the key in allowing flexography to displace lithography and gravure in certain markets," said Mr. Freid. "Plus the economies of flexo remain the single biggest economical advantage for printers when considering adding print capacity in their plants."

"As flexo continues to evolve, printers better understand its capabilities-plus, there is the element of end users feeling comfortable with end flexo results, judging it by its merits and not by historic perception," said Mr. Olsson of Akzo Nobel Inks.

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