It’s a timely reminder that flexo is making a big impact with all types of European print companies, bearing in mind that the flexo culture has never been so deep rooted as in the US. In 1999 some 30 percent of European packaging was printed flexo, compared with 42 percent for offset and 19 percent for gravure, with letterpress and digital making up the rest. The UK-based Pira International organization expects flexo’s share to increase to 39 percent by 2004 and offset to decrease to 36 percent and gravure to 15 percent. Annual growth levels are 7-8 percent in packaging and around 25 percent in the labeling market. (The Flexographic Technical Association says flexo now controls 74 percent of the North American package printing market.)
Much of this is caused by major advances in digital pre-press systems, computer-to-plate technology, new types of plates and dedicated ink systems. Collectively, they have allowed flexo to compete with other processes in quality-driven markets, especially those now experiencing shorter runs and faster turnarounds. Buyers are not only seeking to reduce inventories, they also specify more demanding paper, film and foil substrates. Again, flexo scores with its unrivaled flexibility.
Current wide web trends include the widespread adoption of gearless CI or inline presses with a choice of sleeve/plate systems among printers serving the flexible packaging market. Plus points here are limitless variable print repeat lengths, while direct drives give precise web tension and print registration for thin films. However, the presence of gearless gravure presses with new types of laser-engraved sleeves shows that flexo does not have it all its own way.
On the narrow web front, it has become increasingly obvious that the multi-product concept has not taken off as many first thought. This technology, invariably with a strong UV flexo input, remains strongly ahead of market demand, at least in Europe. Despite falling margins in their traditional markets, only a few label converters appear to be involved in flexible packaging products, including wrap-arounds, pouches and shrink sleeves. Vendors point with hope toward future demands for integrated production “under one roof.” The other possibility is for narrow web converters to set up trade print services to handle the shorter runs that wide web flexo printers could not handle economically.
The situation with web-fed carton printing presses is even less clear. Here the target market is sheetfed litho printers. The message to them is that reel-fed methods produce cost savings of around 20 to 40 percent in the small folding carton market. The advantages of inline production are well rehearsed: Printing can be front and reverse, while diecutting, creasing and UV varnishing of carton blanks is in a single pass. That means less labor, less waste, shorter makeready times and lower materials costs.
Nevertheless, a straw poll of suppliers suggests that narrow web’s penetration of this market has been disappointing, despite the involvement of nearly all of the heavyweight manufacturers. Most of the dozen or European installations tend to be at plants within large integrated packaging groups. The major litho carton printers represent the real market, but educating such a deeply conservative sector about the merits of reel-fed production has proved a tough job.