The Flexo Ink Market

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 03.10.08

For flexo ink manufacturers, 2007 was a good year, as packaging continues to show growth and the interest in the environment draws attention to water-based and UV flexo inks.

Flexo ink manufacturers reported that 2007 was a good year, as the industry enjoyed continued growth

Marque Kleenex Tissue Display Box, printed by Wellpappe Auerswalde GmbH, received 2007 FTA Best of Show honors in Combined Corrugated.
in packaging.
“The flexo market did well in 2007,” said Michael Impastato, vice president business development, Packaging Division, North America for Flint Group. “Flexo grew at a rate similar to the market, not significantly gaining, or losing, share to the other printing applications. Flexo is a very strong competitor in the North American marketplace. While gravure may dominate some forms of packaging in other parts of the world, flexo is the main form of printing for most packaging in North America. We don’t see this as changing any time soon.”
George Sickinger, chairman, president and CEO of Color Resolutions International (CRI), said that CRI enjoyed growth in 2007, as did the vast majority of its customers. “However, the main concern has been and continues to be rising costs,” Mr. Sickinger added.
Kenneth Keathley, Environmental Inks & Coatings’ director of marketing, said the flexo market was challenging, but there were some bright spots, particularly in UV.
“We made some headway in the UV flexo market,” Mr. Keathley said. “We’ve noticed that the niche markets such as security and metallics are growing much faster than the conventional segments. We anticipate that 2008 will be a good year to launch new products.”

“The flexo market continues to grow on pace with industry standards,” said Bob Davison, director of sales Flexible Packaging NAFTA for Siegwerk. "The biggest growth opportunity for flexo in the coming years is extended gamut printing. All aspects of the flexo industry are aligned to deliver exceptional quality. Pre-press, plate, ink, anilox and press technologies have advanced to the point that flexo can clearly compete rotogravure and offset quality levels.”    
David Callif, president of BCM Inks U.S.A., has seen good opportunities emerge in Latin America.
“We feel very good about the Latin American market,” said Mr. Callif. “We’ve seen growth there, but the U.S. market is stagnant at best. We’re seeing growth in Central and South America, where there is investment in new plants and equipment.”


Flexo Inks and
The Environment

There is little doubt that interest in sustainability and the environment are becoming very important drivers in the market, and packaging is among the areas drawing scrutiny.    
Mr. Sickinger believes that the sustainability movement will be the impetus for change.
“Sustainability is good for the environment and can result in lowering energy costs and conserving a lot of natural resources,” Mr. Sickinger said. “It is the patriotic thing to do given our current energy crisis and has little downside. Sustainability is one of our core values; we have a Sustainability Action Plan and we will be keeping an annual score card of our progress.
“Solvent-based flexo inks have had the best growth rate for years,” Mr. Sickinger said. “I believe this will begin to change in favor of water-based and UV inks. Both offer sustainability advantages, and I believe we will see the growth of mid to narrow web presses because of their quick change capability and the shortening of press runs, and water-based and UV formulations will be the chemistries of choice.
“Water-based inks in time will have much higher plant-based resin content and will become the new water-base formulation standard,” Mr. Sickinger added. “I’m not referring to soy oil. The technology will go far beyond this and offer superior performance as well. UV inks require less energy to dry and ink waste is minimal, especially if process colors are mainly used. Also, print quality is enhanced as well. However, formulation will need to be made safer for food packaging.”

“CRI has made great progress in formulating both UV and water-based systems that will have a much great sustainability component while offering the printer superior press performance,” Mr. Sickinger noted.  
As its name indicates, Environmental Inks and Coatings emphasizes water- and UV-based technologies, and they are well positioned to provide environmentally-friendly solutions to customers.
“We are seeing more of an interest in shifting toward water-based technologies,” Mr. Keathley said. “Customers are more aware of the ‘green’ push, and they want more information.”
Mr. Impastato noted that environmental issues have impacted inks in the past, and noted that water-based inks also have petrochemical-based ingredients.
“We saw a significant move from solvent-based inks to water-based inks when the Clean Air Act first went into effect years ago,” Mr. Impastato said. “Since then, most applications which could utilize water inks have moved to water ink technology. Further moves to water technology are limited due to performance issues with water technology, therefore, I don’t see any significant additional movement in that direction.
“It’s true that water inks may appear to be more ‘green,’ but the truth of the matter is, other than the water, all the other ingredients in water inks are petrochemical-based,” Mr. Impastato added. “Once this is understood, most people will not see enough of a green advantage to water inks to expend resources and risk performance problems by making a move to water technology.
“This doesn’t mean water inks are deficient in performance in general,” Mr. Impastato noted. “There are many applications where water inks work well and can provide a high level of performance and improved sustainability. We just need to understand the fit and make sure we are using the most appropriate technology. We may see that as solvent and energy continue to increase in cost, there will be some printers who may look at water inks due to cost reasons. Radiation-cured inks will continue to grow share, taking some volume from both water and solvent inks.”

“In general, there are growth opportunities for all three types of ink chemistry: UV flexo, solvent, and water,” said Lothar Schaeffeler, director of technology Flexible Packaging NAFTA for Siegwerk. “Solvent has the widest appeal. Most solvent printers are already using reclaim or incineration of the solvents removed after drying. The print quality, press speed, easy clean up, and color strength of solvent based make it a very appealing chemistry option.  Solvent-based ink offers printers a wider choice of substrates as well.  Press speed, color strength, and economy seem to be the greatest strengths of solvent-based ink chemistry.

Willow Brook Buffalo Style Wings, printed by Sealed Air Cryovac, above, received the Flexographic Technical Association’s 2007 Excellence in Flexography Awards Best of Show in the Mid Web category.
“Water-based chemistries are attractive due to their lower VOC content,” Mr. Schaeffeler  added. “Water-based inks also offer a degree of economy based on the resins used in their manufacture versus similar solvent-based inks.  However, water usually requires a higher, applied solids to achieve similar color strength versus solvent based. Water-based inks also slightly restrict the types of substrates that can be printed. Water-based inks are not as universal for printing on non-porous substrates as their solvent-based brethren. Additionally, water-based inks run at slightly lower press speeds than solven-based inks. It just takes a longer drier exposure to drive off water than the typical flexo printing solvent blends. Water also employs surfactants to wet low treatment level films, and amines to dissolve the resin chemistries. These materials increase the volatile component of water-based inks. 

“UV flexo is gaining a lot of recognition for its environmental advantages,” Mr. Schaeffeler continued. “There are not volatile solvents driven off in the drying of the inks. The UV inks have similar strength to water-based inks, but are usually lower in color development than solvent-based inks. They print on similar substrates as solvent-based inks, however their press speeds are slightly lower than solvent-based inks. The biggest disadvantage to this chemistry still is the capital expenditure to get equipment capable of running UV curable chemistries. They require a UV curing station between each printing location. The cost of the inks themselves has slowed their growth to some extent.  UV inks are generally lower in color strength and gloss versus their solvent and water counterparts, even though they are applied at higher solids.

“We see all three chemistries growing in the future,” Mr. Schaeffeler concluded. “They each have appeal to specific printers. Depending on substrate selection, press capability and reclaim or incineration capability, printers will use the chemistry that best fits their needs. The opportunities for all chemistry types are there, it is a matter of exploiting the strengths of each type of chemistry. Siegwerk strives to find the best fit for its customers based on capabilities, end-use, properties and economics.”

New Press Technologies

One of the key drivers for flexo’s growth is the improvement in productivity.        
“The most significant development in flexo is speed,” Mr. Impastato noted. “The new presses being installed can run at much higher speeds than flexo presses installed just a few years ago. We see presses which will run at well over 2000 fpm. It was only a few years ago when printers said they were printing at high speed, they meant 1300 fpm. The new presses allow productivity gains that make older presses obsolete and could put them at a competitive disadvantage.”
Mr. Keathley noted that press improvements are helping to drive growth in flexo. “We have seen press technology improve, to the point where press operators are running inks that aren’t as press specific as they used to be,” Mr. Keathley noted.
Mr. Sickinger said that flexographic print quality can now rival the other processes and enjoys some

Kung Pao Chicken, produced by Belmark Inc., earned Best of Show honors in Folding Carton during the Flexographic Technical Association’s 2007 Excellence in Flexography Awards.
cost advantages, so it seems only natural that flexo should outpace the others. “Quick change features and the flexibility to run different chemistries (water and UV), and, perhaps, include digital and rotary screen, allows the flexo press platform to offer the packaging printer and his customers almost limitless options to produce packaging that will command the consumer’s attention,” Mr. Sickinger said. “Ink companies will need to focus much more technical expertise at the customer interface to deal with the great complexity.”

To meet the needs of their customers, ink manufacturers have developed new products.   

“We have developed a NC based lamination system with a very wide application window,” Mr. Schaeffeler noted. “It delivers excellent lamination bonds under extrusion lamination conditions and a great variety of solvent-, water- borne or solvent-less adhesives. The product it currently introduced to the market.”

“Flint Group has had two key new developments,” Mr. Impastato said. “First, we have developed high strength inks in both water-based and solvent-based systems. These high strength inks allow our customers to print with finer aniloxes and still maintain strong vibrant colors. These stronger inks also support cost reduction programs, and sustainability programs. The second development has been Sterling, our new generation of solvent-based laminating inks. Sterling is a high performance ink which works well over a number of different substrates. Because of its board application capability, Sterling can potentially replace multiple other inks systems. This take complexity out of our customers’ operations, which reduces costs and improves productivity.”

All in all, Mr. Impastato sees excellent opportunities for flexo in the coming years as consistency continues to improve.
“As flexo standardizes its process and makes high quality graphics a more predictable outcome, it will take share from gravure and potentially from litho,” Mr. Impastato said. “There is great upside for flexo print, but only if we can improve predictability and consistency. Flexo must eliminate some of the variability we see during the run to compete effectively with gravure. We need to change the mentality from ‘this is a great flexo print’ to a mentality of ‘this is a great print.’ To make the next jump in share, flexo printers need to compete with the other print applications, not each other.”

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