Their market's growing at a comfortable five per cent a year, but how well equipped are flexo converters to realise their true potential – let alone contend with diminishing profitability and tighter delivery schedules? Investment in a digital press might be just what's needed, reports Des King
Improving quality standards competi-tively priced have been directly instrumental in giving flexo a significant 12 per cent stake of total print generated throughout Europe.
However, having fought the war to gain market share, the flexo converting industry faces the more testing challenge of how best to capitalize on its success in the face of relentless pressure on margins exerted at both ends of the supply chain. And, as a relative handful of printers are now demonstrating, a commercially viable way forward may be by not sticking rigidly to existing production expertise.
Digital has been knocking impatiently on the flexo converter’s door for quite some time. With run lengths now steadily decreasing – for example, over 40 per cent of all label orders across Europe now fall below 2,000m (linear) – switching over to digital outputting is at long last becoming a more compelling proposition.
Reflecting the growing acceptance of the digital press as a proven delivery vehicle, next year’s only niche trade event for packaging print converters – flexo 2005 at the NEC, UK, on March 15–17, 2005, (www.flexoexpo.co.uk) is to present digital outputting engines alongside the best of flexo engineering for the first time. It’s an astute acknowledgement of changing market trends on the part of new organizer IIR Exhibitions. “Just because flexo is a growth market it doesn’t follow that printers and converters should necessarily be restricting their investment thinking to a single technology,” says event manager Michelle Corbyn.
“Front end digital is already having a positive impact on flexo by reducing make-ready and downtime, with the net result of improving on the overall profitability of volume production. That’s very much an on-going process. The focus now is how to service an escalating demand within the fmcg sector for short run on-demand packaging, tighter batch control and the selling power of variable data marketing.
“The event’s core visitors now see digital as an integral part of their industry. It’s a technology that is rapidly evolving – and in doing so is creating new potential applications virtually on a daily basis. Flexo users are by definition highly receptive to new ideas. They’re prepared to adapt, and ready to adopt.”
Hitherto, the toner based systems from HP Indigo and Xeikon have had things largely their own way. Whilst labelling has represented the most accessible route into the flexo dominated market for both these suppliers – a new HP Indigo ws4000 press is installed on average every five days somewhere in Europe, the Middle East and Africa – HPI is now extending its reach to take in flexible packaging applications through the just launched ws4050 press, says EMEA sales manager Tim Carter. “It’s basically an extension from the ws4000; in addition to self adhesive label appli- cations, it will also support folding cartons and, going down to 12 micron materials, can handle shrink sleeves and many other flexible packaging applications.”
Established HPI Indigo user Eshuis is already a ws4050 beta site, and with 45 per cent of its annual €16M turnover in flexible packaging is certain to expand market share, says director Peter Overbeek. “We’ll be in full production by November, and we believe that our business will explode as a direct result of this capability. It gives us the opportunity of completely filling in the whole project: from initial launch via the digital press through to building the product up to several million using conventional technology.
“We can foresee new business growing at a rate of 50 per cent per annum as a direct result of this investment.”
Incorporating a web guidance and handling system to minimize the wrinkles on 12 micron material prior to rewind, and using a new version 4 ink with better adhesion and offering a slightly higher quality and a greater flexibility across a wider range of materials, existing ws4000 systems can be readily upgraded on-site.
Toner based systems aside, flexo converters have plenty more options from which to choose. Following the lead taken by Agfa’s recently acquired dotrix system, Scitex Vision, Kodak Versamark and Inca Digital are additional high profile digital inkjet equipment suppliers currently setting their sights on the flexo packaging print sector. Also increasingly coming into contention is KBA’s fully digitized Karat 74 press.
The dotrix single-pass inkjet engine is attracting considerable interest, not least because it uses a UV curable ink technology with which the flexo converter is already highly familiar. The system is being targeted at packaging applications using industrial inks on substrates that require high throughput and short runs at 24m/min. Quality is underpinned by resolution of up to 900dpi.
The dotrix SPICE printhead was developed by Xaar, whose marketing director, David Frew, confidently predicts increased adoption of digital inkjet as a complementary process to established production capability. “We’re not going to compete at 400ft/min; but look at the potential. I see digital inkjet sitting alongside conventional printing methods. As we get more into one-on-one marketing with the customer being enabled to engage more closely with the product, variable data, variable inform- ation packaging will become a key issue.”
The Scitex Vision CORjet is said to deliver high quality print in six colours at 600dpi resolution at 150m2/hour, and is being positioned as a perfect complement to flexo because it, too, uses water based inks that have received environmental certification and approval for use on food packaging in both the EU and USA.
Using conventional artwork files, the CORjet is simply integrated into most production environments and can handle a wide range of substrates, including paper, corrugated and plastics.
Latest addition to Kodak Versamark’s D-series press range, the DS4350 UV printing system provides printing capability on most paper substrates as well as plastics, flexible packaging and paperboard, at resolutions up to 300 x 600dpi. The new product is targeted at those markets the company feels have been underserved by water based inks, and could soon be making its presence felt in the flexo sector.
Likewise poised for market entry is Inca Digital’s FastJet concept press with a potential output rate of 3,000m2/hour, says marketing manager Heather Kendle. “We believe this will be the first inkjet system developed specifically for the sort of work that’s currently being done by flexo in the mainstream corrugated packaging market, but with the addition of variable information to make it more end-user friendly, and frankly a lot more exciting.” Current specification is now undergoing re-evaluation, and Inca plans to have the FastJet installed at a Swiss based beta site by early next year.
“‘We were never really known as a top quality four colour process printer before,” says Trevor Smith, md of Amberley Self-Adhesive Labels. “Installing the HPI ws4000 last year has moved us up to that level. We’re ahead of target on forecasts, and we’ve moved some flexo and letterpress work across for high quality short runs. Our initial estimation of a four-year payback is already looking very achievable.”
Digital press adopters don’t come much earlier than Simpson Labels: a Xeikon user since 1997. According to operations manager Richard Brown: “What is now our second largest customer developed out of an enquiry at a trade show because they knew we had digital printing. They have a generic label size printed in multi languages, with quantities ranging from 300 to 30,000 all distributed from their UK head office to different agro-chemicals sites throughout Europe.”
Europe’s second largest label printer Skanem is currently determining whether to install either an inkjet or toner based digital press at its Danish plant (Hobro), which produces over 13Mm2 of labelling per annum, of which around 35 per cent is flexo printed.
According to md Jorgen Larsen, the decision to adopt digital as a complementary production facility to support its conventional screen, UV and water-based flexo, and flexo/offset combination presses is directly due to market forces. “Label printers are customer driven,” he says, “and are not prepared to meet high start-up and materials costs for an increasingly short run demand level.
“Whichever system we adopt will depend largely on cost of consumables. Most digital presses seem to adhere to a close-system consumables policy. A real break through will be when consumables can be bought from more than one supplier. If I’m buying a flexo press I can find at least 25 ink suppliers; with digital inkjet I’m limited to maybe two or three. Instead of being dictated to by the suppliers, digital needs to be more responsive to customer demands.”
Consumable costs in the here and now are not the only contentious issue. For converters hesitating on the brink of investment, HP Indigo user Tamar Labels md Alan Jones has a word of caution in respect of how digital press adoption might reshape the industry. “The future is digital because of inevitability and progress. And the impact on the industry will be to invent things that couldn’t be done before.
“But once it’s adopted mainstream, there will be companies that start up as totally digital because they don’t need to know anything about the print industry. That could knock out a large section of the letterpress market and the small flexo people who take a hit by doing short runs conventionally.”
With that prospect of new and less qualified players entering the market, flexo converters would be well advised to get in first.
A trial run on Amberley’s HP Indigo ws4000 for Tesco has resulted in an on-going order of in excess of 300,000 digitally printed labels for the multiple’s own brand ‘I Can’ range of bath products aimed at younger children. An added bonus is that all new Tesco own brand ranges carry a ‘new’ flash for the first few weeks in store. Normally undertaken and charged as overlabelling by the packer/filler, Amberley was able to incorporate the flash on the initial print run and then remove it for subsequent runs at no additional cost
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