By Cassandra Balentine
Digital print technologies are disrupting the label and packaging industry with the ability to produce shorter, variable production runs. However, even with continued digital print technology dedicated to digital label production, digitally printed impressions still represent a very small amount of the overall volume.
Flexographic (flexo) printing is currently the method of choice for label printing. According to recent industry research from Smithers, The Future of Flexo Printing Markets to 2023, the flexo printing market was valued at $164 billion in 2017. This is forecast to grow 2.3 percent annually, rising to a value of $187 billion by 2023.
Flexo printing is utilized for a wide range of label and packaging related applications including self-adhesive labels, glue-applied labels, sleeving, in-mold labels, folding cartons, pouches, bags, and overwraps. There are several types of flexo presses, including central impression, inline, and stack. Central impression presses feature printing units arranged around one large drum. In an stacked flexo press, the printing units are stacked traditionally, one on top of the other. Finally, inline flexo presses feature print units spaced out horizontally.
Above: Visitors to the Gallus booth at the recent Labelexpo Europe event were particularly interested in the new Digital Printbar, the quick change punch and the process change shown live on the Labelmaster. Copyright Gallus Ferd. Rüesch AG.
The print industry is in transition, and labels are no exception. There are several benefits inherent to flexo presses, including speed, media compatibility, and minimal set up times. However, the lack of available skilled operators, and the lure of digital threaten its growth. That does not mean flexo isn’t adapting to the latest demands. “Especially for narrow-web printing and converting, the use of flexo printing is still growing because of its quite remarkable advantages for label printers and converters,” shares Matthias Marx, head of marketing, Gallus.
Flexo has undergone a transformation in the last decade, automation being the key advancement. “Flexo presses are becoming more automated, which is helping to reduce setup time and waste,” notes Mike Barry, business development manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division. He says at the same time, plates and inks have made technological improvements, which allow for higher quality applications to be printed with flexo where they were previously printed gravure or offset.
With a growing trend for shorter, but more regular runs, the focus is on keeping setup times as minimal as possible. Machines should also run quickly and efficiently with less waste. “We constantly review our technology with our customers to save valuable time,” says James Barnes, sales and marketing, Focus Label Machinery. Focus Label Machinery achieves this with easy-to-load cylinders, pre-register, auto-register, plus the whole press can be operated and monitored from the main human machine interface.
The packaging industry, like much of the world, is making strides to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. The flexo printing market is not exempt from these trends, says Rodney Pennings, director of sales, Paper Converting Machine Company (PCMC). He points out that artificial intelligence technology, such as camera-based automatic impression and register systems take operator error and guesswork out of the equation as presses adjust to address print inaccuracies without human intervention. “Similarly, recent anti-bounce innovations utilize algorithms to monitor, adjust, and address bounce in real time, helping to reduce both run times and unnecessary waste.”
SKU proliferation is another trend affecting the flexo space. “There are several ways printers can adapt to the increasing challenges related to SKU proliferation. For greater flexibility, many printers are investing in both central impression and inline press designs, allowing them to better diversify their product mix. Print products using board, label stock, shrink, and other specialty films are now being pursued as compliments to the typical film production of the past,” says Pennings.
He adds that printers need to meet the challenges of shorter runs and at the same time be able to run at high speeds to handle longer runs profitably. “Technologies that are imperative to solving these challenges are zero speed initial impression and registration settings, ink color and viscosity management, automatic ink/deck washup, central impression drum cleaning, energy efficient and responsive drying, and closed-loop camera-based impression and registrations. By combining higher printing speeds with the ability to maintain control of the print process, it is possible to meet the demands of the changing needs of the packaging supply chain.”
As previously stated, there are many benefits to flexo printing, and the technology continues to advance despite competition from digital engines.
Flexo is known for a quick production process. “The moderate time it takes to set up the machine is well compensated by the fast production speeds. Furthermore, the latest servo-based machines are reducing set-up times to the extent that it allows even shorter job runs to be economic,” shares Barnes.
Marx adds that many investors experience a quick return on investment for flexo due to the price/performance ratio.
“Flexo continues to improve its quality, efficiency, and waste reduction as brand owners look to improve time to market, increase SKUs, and control inventories,” says Andre Blais, label sales account manager, Heidelberg.
Flexo also accommodates a variety of ink types, from water-based to solvent and UV-curable inks, which makes it a versatile process for almost any application. “There are varieties of ink depending on the material to print on, be it porous or non-porous, so there is no limit to the substrate you can use from paper board through to unsupported films,” explains Barnes.
“Flexo is a known, high-quality printing process capable of printing on a variety materials that give end users options when it comes to packaging their products,” says Blais.
Finishing capabilities are often included inline, which provides a seamless operation. Once the machine is set up, the process is fast as it is automated through to the finishing stage, which includes laminating, over varnishing, sheeting, and die cutting. “Most other types of printing do this separately, which prevents continuous production. This makes flexo printing a strong choice for volume production and fast turnaround requirements,” shares Barnes.
Further, flexo presses are able to run with low operational costs, according to Barnes. “Ink and material costs are relatively low, with no special coatings required. Despite the cost of the plates, the long-term price per unit printed is consistently low compared to other mainstream printing methods and only moderately higher on low volumes compared to digital offerings,” he says, noting that conventional ink costs are relatively minimal compared to digital inks.
“A good flexo machine is robust and the parts last a long time before the need to replace them arises. Consumables are relatively low cost and do not significantly add to the production cost price per label,” says Barnes. “Flexo machines can shorten the production time with a finished product produced in a single pass. A flexo press can be anything from six to ten colors with four-color process images of photo quality and Pantone colors easily produced on a commercial scale,” he adds.
Along with the notable benefits of flexo printing, there are challenges to consider.
For example, flexo printing equipment is quite complex in nature with a number of integral systems built into the process. “The number of systems and mechanical components also make it essential to plan a regular schedule of routine maintenance to avoid expensive downtime and repairs,” explains Barnes.
Flexo presses also take time to set up, the more colors the longer the set up time. “The viability of flexo will then become a balance of volume or the order against set up time and cost of printing plates,” he continues.
While new techniques coming up offer bolder colors and more highly defined images and complicated designs, flexo printing may seem a step back in providing a relatively simple printing process. “With knowledge, flexo printing offers the same opportunities, flexibility, variety, and speed,” notes Barnes.
In certain markets, run lengths have been reduced to the point where digital can be more economical. “That’s where hybrid configurations start to make more sense from a cost to produce standpoint, shares Blais.
When multiple technologies are available it is always best to consider the application composition as well as the cost of production. “If digital, hybrid, or flexo all have the ability to produce the same label, what is the total cost of production for each method?” asks Barry. Beyond that, the opportunity cost should also be considered. “It might be slightly more cost effective to run a job on flexo, but if there is a more profitable job that can be printed on flexo it may be worth considering moving the first job to digital to free up press time,” he adds.
Consider the Options
Print providers as well as label converters benefit from the wealth of options available to them. While digital presses continue to advance, there is still a place for flexo. Therefore, it is important to consider the options. While smaller runs can prove challenging or expensive with flexo, Marx believes beginning from a run length of approximately 2,500 running meters, it is still the main printing process.
Flexo has the advantage when it comes to runs with higher productivity, standardization, specialty ink printing, and high coverage colors, shares Barnes. He adds that flexo is able to print on a wider range of substrates compared to digital.
“Often, run length and quality requirements are considerations when it’s flexo versus digital. When digital versus hybrid is considered, there needs to be a true understanding of the cost benefit the hybrid configuration provides. Eliminating steps in the manufacturing process reduces time, waste, and labor,” explains Blais.
Flexo provides an enhanced print durability with a longer shelf life, superior water resistance, and is better for outdoor use. It also has a lower cost per impression, says Pennings. Quick press changeover features are lowering the run length threshold for jobs that still make cost sense to run on flexo—faster drying inks allow higher speeds and finishing at those speeds. He adds that flexo is more forgiving when it comes to substrates and one press can produce a wider variety of products. Flexo produces superior color precision, which allows enhanced image refinement and color match capability.
Digital printing finds its advantage in shorter runs, quick turnaround work, and variable data jobs.
Hybrid options are also available, incorporating elements of both digital and flexo—including inline finishing and print embellishment tools.
Hybrid printing aims to merge the capabilities of analog and digital print technologies by integrating the reliability and efficiency of flexo printing with the creative possibilities of digital printing. “From this synthesis, businesses get the high print quality and low cost of flexo printing with the flexibility and fast turnaround time of digital,” says Barnes.
He adds that due to the flexibility and ongoing ability to interchange print technologies, you can produce labels in either flexo or digital print, or a combination of both technologies. “This is the significant long-term advantage of a hybrid press,” says Barnes. He notes that some may point out that the investment cost of a hybrid press is higher, but this may not be the case. “Furthermore, a hybrid printing system provides the option to switch from one technology to another to improve your return on investment.”
“There is no doubt that inkjet technology is constantly improving and we expect that inkjet will be more popular than toner,” says Barnes. “We also anticipate the growth of hybrid technology over the next 12 months as we believe inkjet systems will continue to get faster while increasing quality.”
Marx sees a great demand for hybrid label presses to produce a range of newer narrow web applications that were nearly impossible to achieve just a few years ago. However, they are best known for applications like self-adhesive labels, which are printed and converted on hybrid printing presses.
A hybrid press that incorporates flexo/screen and inkjet opens up many possibilities for narrow web applications—a label press with digital for short runs and print quality and multiple SKUs; and flexo for metallic inks and cold foil plus rotary screen for opaque white and other colors. “All of these possibilities on one press make single-pass printing and converting possible for a very good total cost per label,” says Marx.
He believes the label and package printing industries will likely see even more investment in hybrid presses in the upcoming years, especially in inkjet. “A main driver is brand owners looking for creative labels with added value. On one side, they are asking for the advantages of digital printing, like short-run flexibility or variable data printing. On the other side, there is a demand for special effects like metallic gold, silver, or colored inks as well as spot colors or tactile effects, which are advantages of flexo or screen printing.
Blais points out that the reduction in run length, requests for variable data, and the need for highly decorated labels make hybrid technology of interest to all label converters. “The efficiency of producing a finishing label in a single machine provides manufacturing cost benefits that cannot be ignored.”
The technology in hybrid machines is moving quickly. In addition to inkjet printing of the image, more digital embellishments will continue to expand. Digital varnish, cold foil, and screen are already being done, shares Blais. The development of low migration inks for the food packaging market, and continued speed and productivity enhancements are also important to the future of hybrid label presses.
Tried and True
Flexo printing remains popular for label production. While digital print technologies are penetrating the space, with new advancements and product debuts continuously released, flexo is still the technology of choice for many. Both technologies continue to advance, giving the industry options for label production.
Nov2019, DPS Magazine