How Flexo has Stayed on Top in a Digital World
It is a conventional printing process that still reigns supreme in a world that is continually digitizing. With advancements in each part of the printing process, flexography has maintained its leadership position in the label and packaging industry, offering a revitalized technology benefiting printers and brand owners with exceptional results.
Modern-day flexo, which boasts faster changeovers, stunning image quality, and 21st century automation, has package printers and converters turning to flexography as an essential business tool. But, as Ken Pavett explains, the happy customers benefiting from these exceptional results are the driving force behind the advancements in every aspect of flexography.
“It feels like there have been exponential improvements in the quality of the process, and the driver is to satisfy the brand — it always is,” says Pavett, CEO of prepress solutions provider Flexografix. “That’s where the money comes from. But if you take every component … it seems like everyone is focused on doing their part to improve the overall quality of the process.”
Whether it’s prepress equipment, plates, anilox rolls, or the presses themselves, Pavett says that the numerous solutions providers across the industry are pushing themselves — and indirectly pushing each other — to improve the quality of flexographic printing, while also reducing costs for label and package printers, making the technology competitive with the latest in offset, rotogravure, and digital.
“What’s really driving this?” Pavett says. “The brand owners’ dollars are driving this, but competition is [as well]. There are more competitors today in almost every area coming out with better this and better that.”
With 25 years of experience in flexography under his belt, Garrett Taylor says he has marveled at how much the technology has advanced — even in just the last five years. Taylor, director of North American sales for SOMA, a flexographic press manufacturer headquartered in the Czech Republic, says that automation, and the speeds at which flexo presses can run wider webs, have been game changing for the industry.
For SOMA, Taylor explains that reduction of the bounce or chatter in the print deck has been among the company’s key innovations. By developing an exceptionally rigid print deck, he explains that printers can run at faster speeds, leading to the quick turnaround results that brands are demanding.
“It goes back to staying ahead of the curve with the speeds and the width that you can run,” Taylor says. “If you can run faster, it means you can get the job done faster. But it’s not just about the mechanics, it’s about the entire workflow.”
Like many manufacturing processes, automation in flexography has been an essential component of keeping the technology at the forefront of the industry. Holding tight registration throughout the print run is imperative to a high-quality final result, and automatic registration setting is a common feature in modern flexographic presses. Taylor explains that SOMA has taken automation a step further, implementing an automatic plate mounter into its equipment.
He explains that an improperly mounted plate will have a negative impact on registration, so taking the potential for human error out of the equation helps ensure strong results. The combination of automated mounting featuring Allstein GmbH’s ARUN technology, along with SOMA’s automatic press registration and impression setting features, removes much of the operator intervention from the entire process, improving the workflow, Taylor says.
“The operator doesn’t have to touch the plate,” Taylor says. “He or she just lays the plate onto the table, it automatically positions and applies the plate to the print sleeve, and then it will scan the print sleeve, the topography of it, load that information to the RFID chip on the sleeve and then it goes to the press. That information is translated to the press to set impression and register on the [SOMA] Optima2 or Optima printing presses. All of this contributes to faster makereadies.”
In addition to getting more out of flexographic equipment, automation can help free up employees to take on more complex tasks, rather than getting bogged down in repetitive, time-consuming processes that no longer need to be done manually.
For example, Pavett says that by installing automation technology such as Esko’s Automation Engine, employees were permitted more time to focus on solution-oriented tasks driven by experience — making their color separations more printer-friendly.
“When we installed Esko’s Automation Engine, we reduced our labor investment in file preparation by 38%,” he says. “It freed up our employees’ minds to do the more heavy lifting, brain-activated task of high-value color separations, and less of the mundane tasks of setting up the printers’ marks and changing the color names and the print order on the file.”
While advancements in efficiency and automation have made flexography an in-demand process in today’s world of fast-turnarounds, flexo’s print quality advancements have quickly transitioned its reputation as a solely economical print process, to one that can compete visually with any technology on the market.
At Flexografix, Pavett says products such as Hamillroad's Bellissima Digitally Modulated Screening, DuPont’s Cyrel EASY Brite Screens, and Esko's Crystal Screening, are all available options to gain quality improvements in flexographic reproduction. But, Pavett adds there are also cost savings that can come from these advancements. For example, he says that Bellissima screening technology can lead to ink savings due to the way in which the screens build color. Unlike conventionally screened plates that utilize dots to create color via rosette patterns, Bellissima is based on digitally modulated pixels that build high-quality images with less ink laydown on the substrate.
“Our Bellissima-screened plates can save you ink, possibly increase your production speeds, and also reduce running waste due to misregistration, because we don’t need a rosette pattern to build color,” Pavett says. “So the registration of the press can float a little bit more than it can with circular dots and still hold really good image detail.”
The Coexistence of Flexo and Digital
Because flexographic printing is utilized across every packaging segment, the ways in which its usage has been impacted by the rise of digital printing technology varies. Regardless of the segment however, the two technologies have emerged as complementary, with each platform providing specific strengths.
In the corrugated segment, where high-graphic, high-volume digital technologies have taken off in recent years, those who have implemented the technology into workflows that also include flexo, have sought to maximize the advantages of each. Georgia-Pacific, one of the largest corrugated packaging producers nationwide, has implemented a robust digital preprint operation via its Hummingbird division, supplementing the company’s conventional flexo and litho offerings.
Robert Seay, Georgia-Pacific’s VP of digital solutions, explains that the high-graphic capabilities of the company’s digital preprint equipment — in the form of an HP PageWide T400, T1100, and a soon-to-be installed T1190 — have proven to be more of a replacement for litho-laminated corrugated than flexography. He says that much of the flexographic printing found in the corrugated space stems from the one to three color, high-volume realm, which digital is not as well-suited for.
“If you’re doing basic flexo replacement, which is one to three colors, [digital] has generally not taken off as much because it’s often pressured by cost and longer runs,” Seay says.
But like other packaging segments, corrugated customers who are in need of design flexibility, minimized inventory, and versioning, can benefit from digital technology, using it to supplement conventional with these in-demand attributes.
“If you look at a lot of what was traditional preprint, some stuff will stay long run forever,” Seay says. “But with some, [customers] want to make changes last minute. They want to do many versions. They don’t want to carry all the inventory. They want to just buy what they need when they need it. In those cases, digital can be more efficient in general.”
While digital and flexographic printing each have their distinct advantages, Seay adds that in the corrugated segment, some printers are finding that there are opportunities to implement both technologies onto the same box.
For example, with e-commerce continuing its rapid rise — spurred both by increased ease of use and the lingering pandemic keeping consumers home — brands are turning to their corrugated shipping boxes as key aspects of their product marketing. Seay explains that printing on both the exterior and interior of a corrugated box is becoming increasingly prevalent, and in some instances, with multiple print technologies.
“You might do digital preprint on one side and flexo on the other,” he says. “You’re seeing some of those kinds of things for e-commerce. The other thing that digital can provide is some pretty stunning stuff on uncoated substrate that can go into e-commerce.”
Yet another way in which flexography and digital printing have become intertwined is through hybrid press platforms that implement both technologies in one. Taylor explains that with a desire for variable data on the rise, the proliferation of hybrid presses will continue, and shares that SOMA has discussed adding hybrid to its own repertoire of press offerings.
While hybrid flexographic and inkjet offerings have mostly been found in the in-line, narrow- to mid-web label printing segment, Taylor says that there is significant opportunity for hybrid to make a mark in the flexible packaging realm. For example, he says that in Europe, certain countries already have directives for variable data to be implemented onto packaging. And for print runs where most of the text and graphics are static, but only certain areas need to be altered, a hybrid digital and flexographic format will be advantageous.
“I feel like [hybrid] will be accepted faster in the marketplace than full-blown digital in flexible packaging,” Taylor says. “Full-blown digital will come at some point in time. But will it ever replace flexo? It hasn’t really replaced flexo in narrow-web at this point.”
Pavett says that Flexografix has worked with press manufacturer OMET, which has launched its own in-line hybrid press, the XJet, featuring an inkjet engine from Durst. While these hybrid presses can be a substantial capital investment, Pavett says they offer additional flexibility for printers and converters who want to maximize the advantages of both technologies. But he adds that the XJet, like many of its competitors in the hybrid market, also features in-line converting and embellishment capabilities that can give printers and brand owners several options to take advantage of in a single piece of equipment.
“The printer can run conventional flexo; they can run conventional flexo with the advantages of digital if they wanted to do variable data; they could run a flexo white, embellishments in flexo, or the whole job digital,” he says. “It really gives them a lot of flexibility.”
But as digital printing continues to gain adoption throughout the label and packaging industries, the various pieces of the flexographic process are maintaining their upward trajectory, ensuring that this conventional print technology remains the dominant platform in the industry. Flexo is the sum of multiple components, Taylor says, and with simultaneous advancements across the board, package printers and their customers can continue to expect excellent results.
“It’s not just the press,” he says. “Everything that goes into the press has gotten better, from doctor blades, to doctor blade chambers, to temperature control in print decks. There are so many things that have gotten better within the whole press, and I think that’s what leads to print quality.”