Esko welcomed panelists from different segments of the industry, including Dieter Niederstadt, technical marketing manager at Asahi Photoproducts, Catherine Haynes, technical training and resource specialist at APR, Cori Devlin, technical applications consultant at DuPont Advanced Printing, Julian Fernandez, team lead flexo and color at Esko, and Brian Cook, application development manager at MacDermid Graphics Solutions.
Even though flexo might not receive some of the same headlines as in past years, the technology still accounts for roughly 90% of printed labels. As the panel conceded, digital printing has undoubtedly had an impact on flexo–which doesn’t have to be a negative.
“Ten years ago, almost no one one had a digital press, and now everyone has one to complement flexo,” explained Cook. “It’s the idea of get busy living or get busy dying, and we need to be prepared for this evolving market.”
“I see digital being incorporated into almost every aspect of the print business, but I see flexo finding ways to stay relevant,” added Haynes. “We should embrace the portfolio of solutions available to us.”
According to DuPont’s Devlin, the rise of digital has forced flexographers to explore color matching and ways to improve their quality. “If not for digital printing, we might not have explored the opportunities with expanded color gamut,” she noted. “We need to look for ways to improve output with existing equipment. There’s really good potential to get even more competitive, and we shouldn’t be fearful.”
Meanwhile, Esko’s Fernandez believes there’s a bright future in hybrid printing, and that digital versus flexo does not need to be an either/or proposition. “The future probably going to be a combination of technologies, and most manufacturers are offering hybrid solutions,” he said. “The key is for digital not to fight against flexo, but to work alongside it.”
Screening is one technology that has enhanced the quality of flexo printing. In the future, the panel envisioned a focus on increased resolution without losing tonal range.
“Screening has improved the print quality a lot in the last two decades,” said Fernandez. “We have better highlights, better solids, and HD flexo is a technology we’re still very successful with today. We’re continuing to try to clean up mid tones.”
Of course, even the best technologies could go by the wayside if the industry does not procure the next generation of workers. The panel delved into the workforce crisis, examining ways in which the print industry can attract more employees. The panel advocated for development programs like the Phoenix Challenge, as well as local schools like Clemson’s Sonoco Institute.
“We need to get involved in the community, go to schools and talk about jobs,” said Haynes. “I went to an elementary school recently, and it’s all about introducing people to print at a younger age. On a corporate level, all of us need to show a presence in other ways in our community. This industry can be fun, interesting and dynamic.”
Devlin believes improving print’s perception can make a difference. Many youngsters imagine print as magazines and newspapers, even though there is a whole world available in packaging. Plus, there are a wealth of engineering jobs available in labels and packaging, beyond art and design jobs. “We need to explore apprenticeship programs and internships, and really market a career path for the next generation,” she said.
The technological jobs needs today are not nearly the same as in the past, either. “The industry is changing,” said Fernandez. “What we learned 30 years ago doesn’t apply anymore. Automation, with fewer touch points, is going to help. We need to support the industry and the universities in teaching people.”
Parents are key, too, concluded Devlin. “We’re telling our kids you have to be a doctor or a lawyer, and printing is thought as a trade of getting ink on my hands. We need to entice people, give them the right titles and job descriptions, as well as proper salaries for engineering jobs,” she said.
The next generation, of course, will need to handle other industry concerns, including sustainability. Deviln emphasized the need for the flexo printing industry to continue improving its environmental footprint. Eliminating single-use plastics, as well as downgauging and moving to flexible packaging, will be key.
“We have to think about how we’re packaging our products,” Devlin said. “We’re better than we were 20 years ago, but we have to think about how we’re recycling our plastic. In the flexo industry, we need to create packaging that’s sustainable.”
Fernandez concluded that the industry should not invest in technologies for the future if they’re not sustainable.