FTA unveils major update to FIRST flexo guidelines

By Jack Kenny | July 7, 2009

Twelve years ago, the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) unveiled a remarkable document, a large set of print production tools for flexographers that seemed to represent the sum of all knowledge in the industry. It was called FIRST – Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances – and it was a first for the industry.

As with technology today, changes in flexo required an update not long thereafter, followed by another. Now, after about five years since the last version, the FTA has published FIRST 4.0, a dramatic upgrade to this useful compendium of specifications.

In its short life, FIRST has become the most comprehensive and most frequently referred to technical resource for the flexographic industry. Its aim is to provide all participants in the flexographic reproduction process – customers, designers, prepress providers, raw material and equipment suppliers, and printers – with a common set of guidelines, tutorials, targets, and tolerances that can be used as communication and production tools. When adhered to, FTA says, these specifications improve quality, reduce cycle times, minimize rework and waste, and facilitate producing a predictable, consistent result, print run after print run.

Bill Pope, FTA's technical director, says that the key message with the launch of FIRST in 1997 was that the consumer products companies (CPCs) were actively involved in its creation, because they had become keenly conscious of the need for the specs and tolerances they felt were absent from the flexographic toolkit.

"For many years, printers printed on an island," Pope says. "They all did it their own way. What frustrated their customers – companies such as Procter & Gamble, Kimberly Clark and General Mills, was that printers would come up with different graphics and different colors for the same products. So, since the printing and converting industry didn't take the bull by the horns and come up with the specifications, the CPCs did it."

FTA, he says, came up with a methodology, and then a straight book of specifications. "There are specification documents for other print processes, but they are quality processes. That is a step in the right direction, but it didn't address how to do things. FIRST describes not only what it is you should shoot for, but also how to do it."

FIRST 4.0 is visually arresting, from its flexo-printed cover right through every chapter. For one thing, the use of process color has been liberally expanded in this version. Charts, tables, targets, photographs, and diagrams appear on just about every page, and this book is more than 300 pages long.

The document is the result of countless hours and days of work by hundreds of industry professionals from printing and packaging companies, suppliers, and CPCs.

As for content, the updates are significant. "There are minor expansions on existing topics," says Pope, "but the biggest change in 4.0 is the inclusion of a defined methodology for printers: methods for optimizing fingerprinting, characterizing process control and improvement."

FIRST is divided into sections covering design, prepress and print. The glossary has been expanded, and for the first time an index is included.

"We are being strongly encouraged by the CPCs to develop a flexographic certification process," Pope adds, "to make printers prove to them that they follow FIRST principles. By itself, FIRST is not a set of standards, and we don't try to represent it as a set of standards."

FIRST is not for every printer. "There might be some hesitation on the part of a printer, people who think that this is busy work. 'Why do I need to measure color on press?' they ask. They don't get that consistency is where they need to be. If you implement FIRST it actually lowers your manufacturing costs. If everyone uses the same techniques, the process runs more smoothly, throughout the shifts, with shorter makereadies, reduced downtime, less waste, fewer reruns and rejects. In these tight economic times, the only way to make money is to reduce operating costs."

FIRST 4.0 can be purchased for $99 for FTA members and $198 for non-members. Orders can be placed online at www.ftastore.com or by calling FTA at 631-737-6020. Additional questions can be directed to Bill Pope at bpope@flexography.org.