With an onslaught from digital, 3D, AR and even VR, can flexo continue to remain relevant for today’s converters? Dave Howell reports.
For the converting industry, flexo has been a mainstay for decades. The versatile technology has, however, been under pressure, notably from new digital technologies aimed specifically at the packaging sector. Indeed, Sandler Research indicates that the print marketing for packaging will grow by 6% by 2020. Flexo will continue to play a role in that growth, but converters in general are looking to use more digital technologies to meet expanding and diversifying customer needs.
Within the label sector, for instance, CLC (UK) has installed a Focus e-Flex 330 full servo flexo press that will enable the company to expand its speciality of NFC smart labels for an expanding range of clients. Paul Simmons comments: “We like the open architecture design of the print stations on the e-Flex press. This enables easy loading of ink cartridges and print cylinders so that interchangeable print cartridges can be partially or fully unloaded or exchanged, in order to minimise downtime. The print cartridge assemblies can be cleaned off-press, allowing our operator to maintain uninterrupted production.”
The continued expansion of European markets has driven the converting industry to look for new solutions to meet growing and increasingly diverse customer needs. The demand for more microsegmentation has focused attention on digital print, as it offers the flexibility that this output demands. However, converters understand that digital isn’t a panacea. They need to look closely at their client needs and the trends they are servicing to ensure the right mix of print technologies is available for the packaging output that is required.
A move to more hybrid service provision across the converting industry is conspicuous. However, what is more interesting is how suppliers are reacting to this shift in the packaging and label production environment. A new machine from Mark Andy, showcased at the recent Labelexpo Americas, offers inline printing and a converting machine that uses toner technology for CMYK process work.
Based on 13in (330mm) web width and a running speed of 63ft/min (19m/min), the Digital One is a low-cost introduction to prime-label printing of short-run jobs, based on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ pricing concept. With a substrate range that includes pressure-sensitive stocks as well as film and unsupported paper, the servo-driven flexo unit can add spot colour, varnish or lamination and cold foil, with die cutting, stripping and slitting all inline.
This kind of innovation is enabling the converting industry to embrace new technologies yet maintain their foundation with traditional output. Brands will continue to demand from their converting partners more diverse ranges of packaging yield with a wide range of print finishes that, at the moment, no one machine can match. It seems flexo remains a core technology no converter is yet ready to relinquish.
Holding its own?
Suppliers clearly understand that flexo isn’t a legacy technology. Some across the industry are taking the hybrid approach. Fujifilm is a good example, having recently shown their Graphium, the company’s UV digital hybrid inkjet press. The ability to choose digital inkjet or flexo in a single pass is a great bonus for all converters.
Says Jeff Kerlin, president and CEO of Tailored Label Products and an owner of this press: “The Graphium allows us tremendous flexibility, combining the advantages of both traditional flexographic and advanced digital print technologies. We can run four-colour process and white digitally, plus add specialty ink like a metallic or specific PMS solid colour using flexo print decks, and run it all inline. Having that flexibility gives us a distinct advantage and allows us to stand out within the industry.”
Flexo is by no means stalling as a technology. A good example at this year’s drupa came from BOBST. Their CI flexo presses include the new MW press that has recently been installed at Publi Grafic Internacional, based in Mexico City.
Commenting on the installation, Fernando Mena, managing director at Publi Grafic Internacional, explains: “We are aware of the continuous evolution of the packaging market and the need for new packaging with improved performance. This is why we decided to acquire the BOBST printing press, which will enable us to widen our reach in the market for heat-shrinkable sleeves. We are confident that with the leading-edge technology provided by BOBST, we will continue on our path of growth as planned, making our mark in the Mexican market thanks to the way we satisfy the needs of our existing and future customers.”
The packaging industry as a whole has to react to client demands. This is certainly shifting to even more short-print runs, but flexo continues to offer the most cost effective route for larger jobs that are still the mainstay of the converting industry.
Flexo has been able to survive in the face of the digital offensive as it continues to offer unique features. Skymark director Paul Neath comments: “In the context of the increasingly competitive retail landscape, brands are seeking ever higher levels of quality and consistency at lower costs. The broad development of colour-management tools, combined with the use of fixed-palette printing, now enables protection of brand value through delivery of effective colour management across multiple substrates, superior to many other print technologies. Along with improvements in anilox measurement and new ink developments, the flexographic process is delivering tighter specification and higher quality performance as standard.”
Daragh Whelan, operations director at Americk Packaging, adds: “The whole flexo industry has improved dramatically over the past five years. I feel that this is down to the success of digital, which has driven the flexo industry to innovate and change its offering. It’s up to the converters to embrace and work with their suppliers to maximise these innovations.”
Flexo, then, is still an essential component of a converters armoury. The technology continues to be robust, and with continuous innovation, flexo will remain a strong choice for converters and their brand partners. Pulse Media’s Keith Mollan states: “Flexo is far from a dying art; flexo is getting stronger and stronger in terms of quality output, which is exceeding our client’s expectations. There has been more innovation in flexo than in any other conventional print medium over the past five years. Yes, digital has a place, but at the moment, in packaging, that place is still reasonably short run lengths, or bespoke or customised promotional items.”
Converters that need to offer a range of print options will still look closely at digital as it continues to advance, pushing the boundaries of the print sectors that flexo has traditionally dominated. For now, an approach that uses hybrid presses seems to be the favoured option, as converters look to cover all the demands of their customers.
The ability of traditional print technologies to embrace the needs of today’s brands is amply demonstrated by the new innovation from TCL Packaging. The specialist packaging films converter has created a new ovenable pouch for a range of cook-in-the-bag meals from ASDA. The printed Doypack can withstand temperatures up to 200oC, with the pouch substrate also able to tolerate freezing. The new pouch was made possible by the latest ovenable inks, which allow the new range to be printed with striking graphics.
Says Markus Jarvstrom, technical director at TCL Packaging: “This is a technically complex and innovative product that we expect to transform how certain foods are packed. The performance of both pack and print at temperatures for cooking from scratch and reheating has been extensively tested throughout development. This new product offers a real alternative for products such as sauces, ready meals and soups currently sold in rigid plastic and glass packs. It reduces packaging and waste and is recyclable at appropriate facilities.”
Launching a new brand into the marketplace was the ambition of Calbee UK with its Yushoi Snapea rice sticks. The use of bold graphics and a striking colour scheme meant the brand needed a print service supplier that had experience and the equipment to deliver the print capabilities needed. Pulse Flexible Packaging was chosen as it had a broad range of print capabilities, from standard flexo and gravure through to HD flexo. The result is a pack that reflects the high quality of the brand.
Printpack has also found success with its photochromic printing process, winning a silver award for technical innovation at the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA) Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards. Photochromic ink can be hidden within standard graphics and remain invisible until exposed to sunlight.
Clearly, the need for flexo remains for converters delivering innovative print solutions to their demanding brand owners. And innovation continues: ACTEGA North America recently announced MotionCoat to its specialty coatings portfolio. MotionCoat is a patent-pending UV coating system that, when used in conjunction with vector-based artwork, creates an amazing motion-like image. This technology is capable of being used in both flexographic and lithographic applications, and is commercially available as of April 2016.