Flexing Your Printing
Flexography might be described simply as a printing process that utilizes a flexible relief plate, but flexographic print providers know it’s an evolving high-speed rotary functionality that can be used for printing on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane, and paper.
Trends in the flexographic printing and flexible packaging market range from higher print quality standards with special effects to sustainable packaging solutions to a higher demand for domestic sourcing.
After all, better print quality has been a common theme and demand for brand owners since printing's inception. Eye popping packaging with special effects are how brand owners look to differentiate themselves on store shelves, and printed packaging gives a brand a landscape to tell its story. It is how consumers connect with their favorite products.
Besides, flexography can be less expensive than other package and label printing methods. Furthermore, the technology has been showing significant innovations in the prepress and press parts of the process for the past few years.
That’s led to a rising demand for products utilizing state-of-the-art flexographic printing. Flexographic printing has proven that it can be both an affordable and capable technology for today's print service providers.
“With today’s advancements in printing presses and prepress, including art separations, aniloxes, and inks, to name a few, we are capable of printing high definition 225 LPI process images,” says Joe Genova, owner of Poly Print, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. “By comparison, just a short time ago, printing 133 LPI was considered common.”
In addition to printing high line screens that deliver photo-like images, special effects such as registered matte and soft touch can offer a distinctive look and feel to a printed package, which is why many brands have turned to flexographic printing for their products.
“Brand owners and their marketing arms love this option to highlight areas of the package they want consumers to see,” Genova explains. “The soft-touch coatings create a feel and experience for the consumer that can make a product feel timeless.”
In addition to creating vivid and memorable packaging effects, brand owners are seeking ways to keep their products fresher, longer. And because flexographic printing is quick-drying and utilizes non-toxic inks, it’s accessible in the printing of food packaging.
“The savory bite of a salty snack or the fresh look and taste of a produce product is extremely important for consumer and brand loyalty,” Genova says. “Packaging can play a very important role to shelf life of just about any food product. This can be achieved through a substrate combination that offers high barriers and excellent machineability at the same time. Laser micro-perforation, particularly in produce applications, can extend the shelf life of certain products up to 21 days.”
Technology and advancement in equipment and pre-press have come a long way. The capital investments in new converting equipment is substantial but at the very minimum aniloxes, printing plates, inks, and other consumables should be reviewed for optimal printing results.
A flexographic print might still be made by creating a positive mirrored master of the required image as a 3D relief in a rubber or polymer material, but today’s equipment can do so much more than what the industry was seeing as little as five years ago.
Dan Collins, VP of technology and sustainability for York, Pennsylvania-based C-P Flexible Packaging, notes there are several trends that lead to more precise flexographic printing, including high-definition file resolution, ink film reduction, prepress advancements, as well as significant press improvements.
“As the printing innovation is implemented, a new color gamut can be established,” he says. “This gamut is an expansion of the previous printing capability due to ink densities as well as expanded tonal range. This type of profiling or fingerprinting can determine how the new technology can be implemented.”
C-P Flexible Packaging has initiated a new capability for ink transfer as well as enhanced tonal range, about which its customers have been very pleased.
“This will allow to fade to zero and accomplish other printing characteristics that have been challenging in flexographic printing,” Collins says.
Collins has noticed a vast evolution of flexographic technology that is changing the industry for the better.
“Prepress has experienced dramatic improvements,” he says. “The printing plates are made with a higher degree of precision, which provides greater precision and quality in printing. Also, the traditional trapping and separation techniques used for flexographic printing have become much more refined to equal those of other more expensive printing processes.”
Poly Print has addressed the flexographic trends over the past five-plus years starting with an investment in brand new equipment or substantial upgrades in every department within the company. This includes two new 10-color printing presses and significant upgrades to an existing 10-color press.
“We’ve added three new high-speed slitters capable of speeds up to 2,500 fpm, along with a laser perforator for micro-perforation and laser scoring,” Genova says. “Expansions of the warehouse, material handling equipment, and racking, allows us to store double the amount of raw materials.”
Not everything about flexographic printing is better, however, and companies are still trying to perfect the process and innovate with the adoption and proliferation of automated functions within the mounting and printing areas.
“One of the bigger challenges we see is the graying effects of foil when it is used in the final lamination,” shares Ken Brunnbauer, marketing manager for Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Glenroy. “We continually work with our ink suppliers to improve our white ink coverage and opacity to help with this issue.”
The challenges printers face as wide web flexo printers are not unique or focused only to them.
“Printers and converters of all formats deal with the same issues and pressures that challenge us daily, including lack of skilled or interested talent, consumer perception of plastics in packaging, supply chain disruptions, overseas competitive pressures, and buyers who have options and constantly demand better quality at a lower price,” Genova says. “Printing and converting is an extremely capital-intensive industry with seemingly the smallest upgrades costing a significant amount of money.”
Another challenge printing companies face is overcoming the inherent variables in plate production and mounting that are magnified during small, detailed print runs on wider webs.
“Glenroy regularly works with our suppliers to get minimal variation in our sleeve, tape, and plate package,” Brunnbauer says. “We are also dedicated to improving our internal mounting and press registering procedures to limit the variations in the print process.”
Collins adds that challenges include the implementation of the new technology while running older technology and the alignment with customers for the value proposition of standardization.
A Sustainable Mindset
In today’s world, one cannot talk about packaging without the word sustainability popping up, as consumers demand better-for-the-earth products, and manufacturers have made strong commitments to lowering their carbon footprints.
“The truth is, flexible packaging is the sustainable solution and was the answer to paper, metal cans, rigid plastic, and other less sustainable, heavier forms of packaging,” Genova says. “Even so, there is a push for even flexible packaging to become more sustainable, which we are seeing in the ways of recyclable options, compostable options, PCR (post-consumer recycled), and others. The path can be complex, but options are available and becoming on the radar of nearly all suppliers in one form or another.”
Flexographic printing allows the use of more sustainable packaging because it can put images on more recyclable content, such as polyethylene, which is recyclable and requires less plastic to produce.
“The road to more sustainable packaging is ongoing and choosing the right substrate(s) combination for each end-user application is just part of the equation,” Genova says.
He explains how flexographic printers help sustainability initiatives due to using water- and solvent-saving printing and cleaning processes, by use of eco-friendly inks and use less energy than older presses.
The flexographic printing market was valued at 107.42 billion in 2020 and is projected to increase to 124.61 billion by 2026, according to Mortar Intelligence.
Collins believes the future will see more of a hybrid printing model, with the incorporation of a combination of flexographic and digital printing.
“This is a whole new world to explore,” he says.
With all the different formats of printing today including digital, litho, offset, gravure, narrow web, as well as others, wide web flexo printing remains the dominant method of printing by volume, Genova shares.
“This method has been a preferred method in printing, specifically for packaging, for many decades due to fast job changes, low minimum print runs, high quality printing, print speeds, ease of use for operators, and the ability to print on a variety of substrates,” he says. “It is arguably the most versatile printing format because it is used in just about all applications requiring flexible packaging, not just for food products.”
Finally, it is the most economical choice for brand owners and buyers, which ultimately makes it the most economical for consumers.
Flexographic printing and flexible packaging have a bright future and there’s much to look forward to in the industry in the years ahead.
“It is the go-to choice for brand owners, as it is convenient for consumers, offers an array of benefits such as extended shelf life of products, has reclosable options, and an open canvas to attract new consumers and educate them about where their favorite products come from,” Genova says. “Expect to see more.”