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The Future of Flexo

By Steve Katz, Editor | April 8, 2014

Industry experts from all facets of the label printing supply chain weigh in on flexo's future.

While the label printing industry has been abuzz with improvements in digital technology, flexography has quietly hummed along, continuing to be the reliable backbone of the label industry that it’s been for decades. According to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), 72% of flexo printers and converters report annual sales increases, with 86% experiencing five straight years of better bottom lines. In the label sector, the FTA's forecasted annual growth rate of 5.2% points to a technology that is quite healthy, as it heads into a future faced with increased pressure from competing print technologies.

L&NW recently caught up with a few flexo industry suppliers – from throughout the supply chain – to get their thoughts on what the future holds for the flexographic printing process.

Deanna Whelan, Global Marketing Manager, Packaging and Narrow Web, Flint Group:
The new curing methods of UV LED, which minimize downtime, increase productivity and reduce energy costs, and add a superior value as a print method for improved sustainability, is a landmark development that will drive flexo in years to come. We will also combine low migration UV technology with UV LED curing, and will see a significant change from “conventional” hot air, energy-rich, technologies over to these new technologies with better sustainability aspects.

Recent developments in prepress technology utilizing up to 7-color printing is a landmark development that will be a next step in optimizing the print process, allowing for even shorter make-ready times and reducing waste, while pushing flexo to rival the costs of digital printing (for ultra short runs). The development of prepress along with continuous developments in plate technology, anilox, and UV ink are fundamental parts in making flexo printing the quality print that can rival offset and gravure that has been used in most packaging applications.

The future is definitely bright for flexographic printing within the label sector. Companies such as Flint Group will continue to push the boundaries in what can be done. Associations that promote the growth of flexo will need to continue their education to the entire printing industry – showing how innovations from the ink, press, plate and anilox suppliers are truly improving this process. 

In addition, the current and next generation of flexo printers, brand owners and consumers are and will continue to be concerned with our environment. Sustainability issues will rise to the forefront of every process and every label and package. Suppliers to the industry need to face this head-on and develop products with environmentally friendly materials that increase productivity, address worker safety, and reduce carbon footprints. 

Mary Sullivan, director, global marketing, Mark Andy:
As the industry evolves, new and existing challenges continue to give machine manufacturers plenty of drivers to build upon and improve technology. From our perspective as a printing press designer and manufacturer, the industry has been experiencing a significant evolution over the past few years. New technology that reduces the total cost of production has become the priority for leading label and package printers. Press builders who deliver new and innovative printing platforms with automation as well as on-board quantitative and qualitative technology tools are what converters are investing in. To remain competitive, all suppliers must provide more than a machine, ink or consumable. We must deliver technology solutions that drive process control, consistency and standardization, all packaged together with adaptable workflows and Lean solutions.

In North America, cost reduction and consistent quality are the key competitive marketing aspects on which a converter must concentrate. Consolidation is, and will continue to be, a big driver for label and package printers and converters in North America.  Machine builders need to be responsive to these merging, integrating and highly Lean production-driven, multi-divisional businesses. These businesses are laser focused on streamlining every aspect of their operations. Equipment that offers repeatable, standardized workflows, production processes, as well as measurable cost reductions will succeed in these demanding environments. The converter who can convey these ideas, offering the fastest turnaround and highest quality at a competitive price will carry them forward.

Lee Zerfass, Digital Business Manager, Anderson & Vreeland:
Flexography is evolving and benefiting from all these outside influences. Better workmanship, engineering of better equipment, better materials, higher-skilled labor, education and readily available resources make for a very exciting time in the flexo label and packaging space. We will continue to see advances in areas such as extended gamut printing and digital offerings, impacting proofing, platemaking, and digital presses themselves. Having the ability to understand, define, and promote the integration of all these advances will be our next challenge for innovation.

Emma Schlotthauer, global packaging marketing manager, Kodak - See more at:
Emma Schlotthauer, Global Packaging Marketing Manager, Kodak
In short, the future must start with greater use of four-color process printing. Today's Advancements are really in their infancy in terms of industry adoption, but as we move forward, flexo printers are being challenged to deliver shorter runs, with faster turnaround times, and to stay profitable doing so. These are the drivers that have seen a growth in digitally printed labels in a small sector of the market and that are forcing flexo printers to respond.

The graphic components of a label must be efficient to produce, so that flexo label printers can focus on delivering added benefits that digital printing simply cannot provide – in-line foils, stamping, varnishes etc. Other exciting opportunities will evolve down the road, such as color-changing inks, security features and even printed circuitry in the future. These all start with a highly tuned, stable, efficient flexo printing process and our focus at Kodak is to deliver the technology that helps label printers get there.

Jim Krstulic, National Account Manager at INX International Ink Co.
Inks, more than ever, play a major role in the success of producing truly outstanding labels. With higher line aniloxes and new plate technologies, flexo inks needed to evolve. Tomorrow’s inks will need to be stronger, have more solubility for cleaner printing, have better stability on press and will need to have better acceptance and release to the anilox roll, printing plate and substrates used.

The quality of flexo printing has already caught up with gravure. With ever-evolving technologies in all facets that encompass this printing process, flexo printing is inching closer to litho. We may get there before you know it.

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