The Future of Flexo

By Steve Katz, Editor | April 7, 2017

Recruitment and proper training are paramount to the health and future of flexography.

The global printing industry is forecast to reach $980 billion by 2018, according to market research firm Smithers Pira, and it will be driven by growth in packaging and labels, rather than graphic applications, the firm says.

Digital press innovation and installations have been dominating the headlines, and with good cause. Currently, label and packaging converters worldwide invoice over $2 billion annually from the output of their digital presses. This is according to Harvey Levenson, Professor Emeritus and former Department Head of Graphic Communication at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, USA, who also notes that while about 95% percent of that value is for consumer goods labels, folding carton and flexible packaging applications are also growing rapidly by way of digital printing.

However, Smithers Pira research shows that it’s not only digital printing that’s growing. Due to the impressive growth numbers for the greater packaging industry – which labels are a huge part of – printing companies that have not been involved are wanting in. Recent M&As over the last couple years support this, with two examples being Heidelberg acquiring Gallus, and Bobst acquiring Gidue. I specify these two because they are examples of printing industry giants entering the label industry by adding companies that have been historically successful via advancment of their flexographic label printing technology.

For decades, flexography has been the dominant force in advancing the pressure sensitive label market. And while all of the prominent forecasters are predicting massive growth for digital in the coming years, analog printing for packaging will also continue to grow – by about 28% – according to Smithers Pira. And this growth is expected to continue through 2018. Meanwhile, all digitally produced packaging is expected to increase by 375% by 2018. This anticipated growth rate explains why many OEMs are developing digital printing equipment for labels and packaging.

The Cause for concern
Yes, the ever-increasing digital presence is a factor, but the challenge in keeping flexo relevant and the label industry’s premier printing method lies in finding qualified operators to run the presses. Label press OEMs, such as Mark Andy, Gallus, Nilpeter, Omet and MPS, continue to do their part, as today’s new flexo presses are faster and more efficient than ever before. Great strides have been made in automating the process – from prepress all the way through to finishing.

Cliff Crosfield of Print Future Consultancy has extensive experience in flexo printing, having worked for major print and packaging  groups throughout the world. He says, “Flexo has made significant strides in recent years in terms of quality, consistency and cost-effective, high-quality print, especially for labels and packaging. While digital is progressively challenging the short run end of the market and increasingly competing in terms of both quality and progressively increased press speeds, it still leaves many opportunities for flexo, and given the focus on efficiency (on press) and quality, allied to cost competitiveness, it has much to offer print buyers.”

Flexo, like other print sectors, has seen dramatic changes over recent decades, both in terms of presses, ink metering, aniloxes, plate technologies, prepress and graphics, Crosfield says. “This has in recent years led to vastly improved print capabilities both in terms of image and print quality and press speed. However, recruitment of young people and training has not necessarily kept pace with these developments,” he adds.

Most areas of flexography today are seeing an aging skills and knowledge base, which, as time goes on, may be lost to the industry. Once seen as skilled craftsmen, flexo press operators in recent years have been learning the trade via on-the-job training, which while addressing the skills issue, has lost some of the “understanding of the process,” Crosfield notes.

Proper training is of paramount importance when it comes to flexo press operation. “Flexo as a print process is very versatile and prints on a vast array of materials using different ink and drying technologies,” Crosfield explains. “This creates a wider set of challenges for printers, and each segment of the flexo industry requires a different set of skills and experience. This has made it difficult to recruit ‘transferable skilled employees,’ with the tendency for such people to stay broadly in their sector of the flexo market – albeit they may move within a segment.”

‘Next to Impossible’
Shawn Oetjen is an instructor at Flexo Tech, a flexo press operator training program in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region of Minnesota. He’s also the waste reduction coordinator at Minneapoli-based AWT Labels & Packaging. As such, he is very familiar with the challenge of finding qualified press operators in this area.

“Finding qualified flexo press operators today is next to impossible,” Oetjen states. “It’s hard enough to find entry-level people to work in the pressroom let alone a well-trained operator. Entry-level positions require no experience and average about $12-15 an hour, depending on location and shift. Most printers that I speak with are leveraging temp services to get people in the door. Once the person proves they have a good work ethic they’re brought on full time. Then, the process of OJT (on-the-job training) begins, and this itself can be a challenge and time-consuming,” he says.

According to Oetjen, the fact is, many people don’t realize that a job in printing can be a good career. He says, “They are under the false impression that print is dying – whether it’s because of the digital world we live in and/or the notion that working in a print shop is a dirty, grimy, unsafe, and poor paying career choice – without much job security. This line of thinking, coupled with the feeling that in America everyone needs to go to a 4-year university to be successful – it removes the thought of industrial jobs from the career radar of many young people and the worfkorce of the future.

“The fact is flexography prints packaging,” Oetjen stresses. “From the packaging in your fridge to the Amazon box that was shipped to your door – the flexographic industry is expanding to include more diverse applications, including those in the medical and even printed electronics fields. The quality of print that flexo is capable of achieving has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years. We are no longer the rubber stampers of the past. Simply walk into any grocery store and some of the packaging on-shelf is downright sexy – screaming at consumers, ‘buy me!’ But proper training is the key to successfully improving print quality, increasing a printer’s margins and growing into the future.”

This was the impetus for the foundation of Flexo Tech. Its mission is to provide hands-on training in a compressed timeframe to produce qualified, productive flexographic press operators for a future in the flexographic printing industry. Oetjen says, “All too often people are trained improperly and it’s for a wide variety of reasons. More often than not, the operator was self-taught. They were thrown on the press and told: here is the ‘on’ the button, now go run a good product.

“The operator had to teach himself how to do things whatever they could to get the product out the door, without an understanding of flexo’s best practices. This obviously has led to bad habits, resulting in longer setup times, less productivity, inability to solve some issues,  and poor quality and repeatability, and a lot of frustrattion,” Oetjen says, adding, “This could be because they were never formally trained in the first place and  simply had to do what worked for them. Most of the time, a trainee is paired with an operator for an allotted amount of time, but there’s no formal skill evaluation to assure that the one being trained actually comprehends what he or she is being taught. Not to mention that there is not a checklist of items assuring the trainee was correctly trained on all of the tasks needed to know in order to effectively run a press.”

Flexo Tech and a Minnesota Case Study
The US Census Bureau indicates that more than 21% of the current workforce in the Minneapolis area is above the age of 55. Assuming an average retirement age of 62, in seven years, approximately 21% of the area’s workforce will be permanently exiting their jobs for retirement.

“Just 11% of the current workforce is under the age of 25,” Oetjen says. “This indicates a major influx of employees needed to fill the job openings of those that are retiring. That, coupled with a US packaging market forecast of  3.9% annual growth for flexographic printed goods, illustrates the increased need for trained press operators.”

In 2015, there were 202 new flexographic press installations in the US and Canada and 506 worldwide, further demonstrating the growth of the industry and the need for training. The Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) recently compiled survey results of the state of the industry, and 40% of US flexo printers surveyed indicated they had difficulty filling job postings. In addition, 56% of these employers reported that the talent shortage had a medium-to-high impact on their ability to meet client needs.

“Flexographic press operators are needed across the US, and the Twin Cities is just one of many locations nationwide with a strong need for trained flexo press operators,” Oetjen says. “However, in Minnesota, traditional college programs have closed, leaving no source for newly trained workers, up until recently.”

Flexo Tech is a non-profit co-op started by Minneapolis-area label companies AWT Labels & Packaging and Computype. “Our focus is to train operators for the industry, as we want sustained growth for flexography. Even though Flexo Tech was founded by AWT and Computype, we are happy to train operators for those companies’ competitors.”

The Flexo Tech program is a 12-week course and its students graduate with the basics. Upon completion of the program, graduates understand tension, ink maintenance and chemistry, proper impression, the effect of mounting tape on press and the fundamentals of flexography. “After graduation, there is still a learning curve that is correlated to the complexity of the work equipment and the aptitude of the student,” Oetjen explains. “Some students catch on extremely quickly and hit the ground running. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and  I still learn new things every day. An individual’s ability to evaluate problems and troubleshoot is critical to their performance. Nine times out of 10, understanding the flexo basics will solve the majority of issues that come up on press.”

Flexo Tech started as a necessity due to the need for trained operators in the Minnesota area when the local technical school, Dunwoody College of Technology, which taught flexography,  shut down their flexo print program in 2013. This ended the feeder system that many of the local flexo printers relied on. Without a source for trained operators, AWT and Computype began to experience a gap in their workforce. Experiencing the same challenge, the two companies teamed up to start Flexo Tech – another example of camaraderie, cooperaration and collaboration often seen in the label industry.

“The purpose of Flexo Tech was to train operators for any of the local printers – even the founders’ competition. We are looking at the big picture. We all need operators. Initially, there was  some concern that students might be pilfered by another company, but there have not been any issues like that and we make it known that that will not be tolerated by participating companies. We all sign access and confidentiality agreements and have agreed not to poach each other’s people. Employee poaching is just not a good business practice and goes against what we’re trying to do at Flexo Tech, which is working together to support the industry, thus allowing it to grow by proper training.

“Most of our students are from the local area, however a company in Pennsylvania recently put up three students in hotels for the 12-week class. The need for trained operators is a serious problem and will only become more so when our industry veterans retire,” Oetjen says.

Current Flexo Tech students are employed by a company and paid while they attend the training. Some have been operating for a few years, others have been press helpers for just a few months.
Oetjen stresses that Flexo Tech would not be possible without the support of its donors, who have generously donated equipment and financial support to make sure the program continues to train future flexographers. Donors and supporters include Green Bay Packaging, Mark Andy, Eaglewood Technologies, Flint Group, UPM Raflatac, Avery Dennison, Ritrama, Techkon, All Printing Resources, Harper Corporation and Graymills.

Flexo Tech offers a variety of classes, from the three day Flexo 101, to the 12-week Press Operator class. Oetjen notes that the Flexo 101 class has been extremely popular for people new to the industry and is a combination of hands-on learning and high energy lectures. He explains, “It provides a basic understating of flexography and all of its components. Meanwhile, the 12-week press operator program is extremely intense and has a maximum class size of just four students to maximize hands-on learning. We train on a Mark Andy 2200 13" 8-color press running UV and water-based inks. The class is five days a week from 9 AM to 3 PM. The students do not run live work as it would be a conflict of interest – and we’re focusing on education, not production.”

The Press Operator class is constructed around core competencies identified by 10 flexo printers as keys to successful press operation. Not only do we cover press operation and components,  we cover print math, color theory, platemaking, Delta E, quality testing, as well as the costs associated with all workflow products.

With programs like Flexo Tech existing and others like it coming on board at local levels, there is no reason to think that flexo can’t start taking back from digital some of the label industry’s buzz.