For ink manufacturers, flexo has been one of the great success stories in recent years. Flexo ink sales have nearly doubled since 1990, reaching $1 billion in the U.S. in 2003, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM). Worldwide, Ink World estimates the flexo ink market to be $2.5 billion.
In the U.S., the flexo printing industry itself has become a major growth area, particularly for flexible packaging, which has become a $21 billion industry. For ink manufacturers, creating the right products for films and foil has meant developing new solvent-based inks, which have seen rapid growth in sales. In addition, UV flexo inks are doing well.
New technologies continue to drive the growth of flexo, and every indication shows that flexo is likely to continue to expand its share of the market in the coming years.
This Supercook Cake Covering package, produced by Alcan Packaging, received 2004 Best of Show in the Mid Web category from the Flexographic Technical Association.
The Flexo Ink Market in 2004
Industry statistics show that printing continued its recovery in 2004 and flexo printing also grew, according to Chris Morrissey, Sun Chemical corporate vice president of marketing.
“In North American packaging, flexo continues to find favor as print quality and cost effectiveness improves, especially in shorter run situations,” Mr. Morrissey said.
Other leading ink manufacturers saw similar growth in 2004.
“We have seen continued strength in the flexo/packaging markets throughout all 2004,” said Dan McDowell, president of Color Converting Inc. (CCI).
“Overall, the flexo market has been very strong, with noticeable growth in many areas,” said Ed Dedman, business manager, narrow web and energy curable group at SICPA North America.
“The flexo market continues to grow,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, market development, packaging, Flint Ink North America. “Flexo is still the dominant printing process in packaging and will continue to be into the future. Flexo lends itself readily to short run lengths and fast job change over. These will continue to be highly valued characteristics.”
Mr. Impastato said that printers are currently installing new flexo presses, which clearly shows that the process is growing.
“We have seen a number of new press installations over the last year, and new press installations are a sure sign of a healthy industry,” Mr. Impastato said. “Recent focus in the wide web area has been on high speed flexo presses. Growth in flexo may have slowed during the recent recession, but it is still a growing segment and appeared to be picking up momentum during 2004.”
While the overall flexo ink market is expanding, there are segments within it that are seeing greater growth. One area is solvent-based flexo. According to NAPIM, solvent-based flexo ink volumes increased 10.2 percent in 2002 and grew slightly in 2003, and its share of the overall U.S. packaging market grew to 27 percent.
Because of the decline in the corrugated market in the U.S., sales of water-based flexo ink have been decreasing. For many ink companies, this has been largely offset by the rise of flexible packaging, which has grown to become a more than $20 billion industry in the U.S., which utilizes solvent-based inks to print on film.
“There has been good growth in solvent-based inks, mostly due to changing trends in packaging, moving more toward pouches and bags and away from more rigid containers,” Mr. Dedman said.
“Solvent-based flexo printing has seen growth,” Mr. Impastato said. “Solvent-based inks tend to have a wider operation window and can be used for a wider number of applications, particularly in printing film structures. With added-on solvent capture and destruction equipment, solvent inks can be used and still meet government regulatory compliance standards. With the high focus on speed and efficiency, solvent flexo is a popular choice.”
“There has been better growth on the solvent-based fluid ink side for packaging over water-based inks,” Mr. McDowell said. “This represents market shifts from porous substrate printing to film printing within the corrugated, folding carton and multi-walled bag market. This shift would naturally benefit solvent-based inks and we would anticipate this shift will continue.”
“Solvent has grown due to the fact that solvent inks perform much better in film and foil applications than does water,” said Mark Hill, vice president, assistant director of R&D, TDVP liquid ink division at INX International Ink. “Solvent dries faster, which also improves productivity. Customers are investing in equipment to be able to handle solvent emissions.”
Growth of water-based flexo seems to have stalled, said Tony Renzi, technical director, Sun Chemical North American packaging inks.
“Converters believe they can achieve better print quality and higher productivity using solvent-based flexo inks on films and foils,” Mr. Renzi said. “Environmental concerns spurred some of the interest in water-based inks, but they haven’t been able to achieve consistently equivalent results on non-porous substrates.”
Innovations in anilox rolls are helping to drive flexo’s growth. (Photo courtesy of Harper Corporation)
Making Gains In the Market
Years ago, flexo had a difficult time competing against gravure and offset in terms of quality, and relied on cost and short-run capabilities as its primary advantage.
In recent years, flexo has witnessed tremendous quality gains, and there are no longer discernible differences between packages produced on flexo presses compared to other processes. As a result, flexo has captured major portions of the printing market.
This can be seen in the percentage of the ink market. According to NAPIM, flexo ink sales make up two-thirds of the packaging ink market.
Recent industry studies have indicated that the growth in the use of flexo is slowing. The primary reason for that, Mr. Morrissey said, is that flexo has become so dominant in North America in many packaging applications that it has effectively saturated the market in many segments, with shares of more than 80 percent of usage in such areas as paper packaging.
In the commercial printing market, however, flexo printing accounts for less than 10 percent of print, and an even smaller 3 percent of market for newspapers, according to a recent GapTrac survey done by Jakko Poyry, a consulting firm to the paper industry.
While flexo’s growth is not as explosive as it once was, it still remains a growing process.
“Flexo continues to grow, but the gains we see in flexo today are not as significant as those we saw five or 10 years ago,” Mr. Impastato said. “The other printing processes have fought back, and have carved out areas of the market where they are uniquely capable. I believe the future growth of flexo will be closer to the rate we have seen recently, compared to the high rate of conversion we saw a number of years ago.”
“We see a slow but steady shift into flexo as certain end users make the conscious decision to decrease run length and increase flexibility, as well as market technology changes that promote moves from rigid to flexible packaging which would benefit flexo also,” Mr. McDowell said.
“I think flexo has slowed somewhat, but continues to make gains,” Mr. Hill said.
The key to improving flexo has been the R&D efforts of equipment and ink companies.
“Flexo gains are supported by the growing use of digital plates and increased level of process printed products,” Mr. Impastato added. “In addition, plate and anilox advances have helped improve the quality of flexo, making flexo a strong alternative to other forms of printing.”
This, of course, does not mean that gravure and offset will ever be completely eliminated.
“Continued improvements in flexo quality ultimately adjusts the cost vs. benefit curve for the end users in favor of flexo over time,” Mr. McDowell said. “Keep in mind that this does not spell the end for gravure printing as this industry is continually improving to move that same curve in their favor as well as selling their ‘value’ component.”
“Flexo quality continues to approach gravure,” Mr. Hill said. “Flexo is still the choice for ‘short run,’ but gravure equipment suppliers are countering with technologies like ink applicators, quick change and wash up equipment to make short run gravure a viable option.”
“Overall, the industry is moving toward higher line screen anilox rolls and higher screen values that are less visible to the average consumer’s eyes,” said David Brewer, director of Harper GraphicsSolutions. “The advances are a combination of suppliers working together to have the end product produce a cleaner end product with POP on the shelves. Some of the advancements include digital plate imaging, finer particle sizes of pigment in the ink systems and finer anilox engravings with lower volumes of ink delivered to the substrate. The revolution is driven by the advancements in the flexographic print process competitive pricing model, overall quality, shorter lead times and flexibility. We have seen over the past few years a printing operation that has normally occupied a primary offset or gravure print mentality now have incorporated flexographic printing equipment in their manufacturing process.”
The key drivers for these technology gains for flexo are numerous. Mr. Hill cited digital plates, higher line screen anilox rolls, improved press speed capability, improved sleeve technology, fast change over or ability to “set up” unused stations during a run.
“There has been continued investment by the flexo industry to attack their weaknesses vs. gravure printing,” Mr. McDowell said. “These investments have created various innovations from the graphics departments within the flexo market such as new dot, plate cell patterning, opaltone and expanded gamut printing. Improved anilox design and manufacture, digital plates and press mechanics have also pushed flexo’s capabilities further.”
Gains being made in anilox technology are a key to flexo’s growth.
“Anilox engravings are evolving as new laser generator and optical technologies emerge,” said Art Ehrenberg, vice president of manufacturing operations at Harper Corporation. “Volumes and screen counts are going higher and higher and the release characteristics of the anilox surface are continuously being improved by enhancements to ceramic materials and cell profiles. This new generation of engravings is making it ever more possible to use a much lesser inventory of screen counts and volumes to produce a much broader range of printing results. In more and more cases, a single engraving is being used for process, tint and type.”
Inks are also playing a major role. Jim Felsberg, manager of Sun Chemical’s packaging applications lab in Charlotte, N.C., said that many flexo users have tried using finer aniloxes and higher strength inks to achieve better printing, especially in process printing. Increasingly, he said, converters are investigating use of six- or seven-color process color to print a wide gamut of colors without the use of special inks.
With further advances being made, printers and designers are utilizing even more complex graphics, showing that the future does look bright for flexography.
“In my opinion, the biggest advances are occurring in graphics quality and complexity,” Mr. Dedman said. “Technologies that increase color intensity and dot/screen structure are hot items today.”
“Further improvements in prepress, high-speed printing and in-line converting will all support further growth for flexo,” Mr. Impastato said.
UV Flexo Inks Continue to Make Gains
UV flexo is the other segment where rapid growth is being seen.
“UV flexo has been cited as the fastest-growing graphic arts application,” said Gale Waller, UV/EB market specialist for INX International Ink. “UV flexo inks have grown from nil to 4.8 thousand metric tons, with a 15.7 percent annual increase.”
“UV flexo is continuing to grow,” Mr. Impastato said. “The growth has been primarily in the narrow web area. Recently we have also seen UV flexo moving into applications that require a higher level of resistance in the mid-web and wide-web segments of the market. UV flexo’s unique properties can be fully appreciated in areas such as beverage and outdoor storage bags.”
In the area of folding cartons, many printers continue to transfer to UV flexo from sheetfed offset, especially for short-run work, said Glenn Webster, Sun Chemical marketing manager, energy curable liquid inks. He added that sales of UV flexo presses for folding carton work appears to be increasing. Many of the new presses have eight to 10 units for use of more spot colors and in-line coating.
“The increased use of spot colors and metallic inks can generate a more effective look on the retail shelf,” Mr. Webster said.
The key concern with UV flexo is cost, which has had an impact on even faster growth.
“Cost continues to be a significant constraint for UV flexo,” Mr. Impastato said. “Economically, it is difficult to justify when alternative technologies meet market specifications.”
“UV flexo is still gaining share, although at a much slower pace than anyone thought would be the case,” Mr. Dedman said.
New Products and Services
With solid growth occurring in flexo, it is natural that ink manufacturers are developing new products for the market place.
“Flint Ink has generated two significant areas of product improvement to support continuing flexo growth,” Mr. Impastato said. “First are our new, more robust laminating inks that provide wider application ranges. The second is our new, higher strength inks that allow the printer to utilize finer aniloxes, apply thinner ink films, generate higher strength colors and improve press speeds. Both of these advances help improve efficiency and lower overall cost.”
“We have several new flexo technologies for both solvent and UV applications, for narrow-, mid-, and wide-web applications,” Mr. Dedman said.”Specifically, solvent-based inks for retort packaging and low odor UV flexo inks for odor-sensitive packaging are our biggest advances.”
INX International has launched its INXFlex UV inks, which are formulated to provide exceptional flow, color consistency and transfer properties on a wide range of substrates.These advanced-generation inks help users make the most of high-speed UV production on narrow web tag and label, folding carton, single serve and specialty applications, and they are also ideal for combination printing, according to INX.
“More runtime and less downtime is a key issue,” said Ms. Waller. “The longer a press keeps running, the better the margins. With INXFlex 2000, we see presses run all day long — and all press users do is add ink.”
Sun Chemical recently began offering FlexoPure as a general-purpose lamination ink system, which can be used on a wide latitude of flexible packaging films. Because FlexoPure has excellent solvent release and very low GCs, it makes an excellent ink choice for food packaging. It can be used for line and screen printing on a wide range of aniloxes, and laminates well using 100% solids, solvent or water-based adhesives.
For non-lamination surface printing, Sun Chemical is introducing SunSharp 1190, which can be used to print applications such as bags for bread or frozen foods, news mailers and some bottle wraps. SunSharp 1190 includes high-strength process and spot colors. These inks have good ice-water crinkle resistance and provide high gloss.
Sun Chemical’s Advantage inks for printing on corrugated continue to gain popularity in the paper packaging market after their introduction early in 2004. Advantage is a water-based flexographic ink formulated for pH stability during long press runs of mid- to high-level corrugated and paper bag products. This creates consistent on-press performance, while reducing the need to constantly adjust pH in order to control viscosity and print characteristics
In the UV area, Sun Chemical now offers SunCure FR MaxD, high-strength UV flexo inks for process printing of folding cartons. This ink series also includes very high density blacks and high opacity whites for printing to rival gravure quality.