Generally speaking, digital printing finds its stronghold in shorter run, quick turnaround work, as well as sampling, variable data jobs or where versioning is required. Flexo’s advantages are found in longer runs with high productivity and quality, standardization, specialty ink printing and high coverage colors, and also the ability to print on a wider range of substrates than digital.
Everybody likes a good, healthy debate. So for argument’s sake, let’s pit the two against each other in a couple hypothetical situations.
Situation #1: The Startup
Let’s say someone was looking to start a label company. Should they invest in flexo or digital? How would you steer a potential first-time press buyer one way or another? What factors must be considered? We asked these questions to a few industry experts, and here’s what they had to say:
Massimo Bellingardi, marketing coordinator for Omet, says, “There are too many factors to consider, but obviously if a newcomer is looking for ease of use, immediate results and low need for technical expertise, the right solution is digital, since it works just like a home printer. But if someone has a technical background, he would prefer a flexo solution as it guarantees high reliability in terms of productivity. But having said that, their choice should depend on what slice of the market they’d like to enter, because requirements and competition aren’t the same in the digital and flexo world.”
Ray Dickinson, VP marketing and business development – Digital Solutions, for Mark Andy, agrees that the prospective customer base of the new company is of paramount importance when making the decision. “The type of label to be produced and the book of business secured to support the revenue stream are critical considerations. Most decisions are based on economics of the run, asset capacity, or potential form factors that make it more desirable to run on a specific technology,” he says.
Dickinson stresses that the inherent advantages of digital, such as its value in short run, quick turn work, can be seen as quantitative drivers, as the value derived from time and production cost savings can be easily qualified. But, he says, “Newer flexo machine technologies can print and convert inline, at higher speeds, allowing longer runs to be completed with less labor, and allowing fixed costs to be amortized over longer runs. The in-line converting capacity of flexo also saves time in the post-press finishing process.
For Amber Miller, product manager at Primera, it’s quantity that needs to be looked at first and foremost. “It really depends on the quantities this new company expects to run. If they know they will be printing large quantities right off the bat, then they could go with flexo and add digital as they get more requests for smaller jobs. However, if they are unsure how large of orders and the quantity of orders they will receive, digital is low-risk as it’s a much cheaper up-front cost than a decent flexo press – and it allows for maximum flexibility of quantities and shapes of labels,” she says.
Victor Gomez, sales manager, Industrial Solutions, Epson America, emphasizes that a company’s market is defined first, and the technology follows. He explains, “The opportunity to outsource either digital or conventional to a friendly converter is always there, but the more likely scenario is that the new converter will design production as one would a kitchen. We will not do without a microwave oven these days, but we also would not want to cook the Thanksgiving turkey in one. One factor that must be considered in a startup is the availability of qualified press people. They are much harder to find in flexo than in digital. Someone can be trained to run a digital press fairly quickly, whereas becoming a good flexo press operator takes years of training and practice.”
Mitch Ackmann, president of Afinia Label, stresses that the decision, in large part, will be dictated by the projected customer base. He says, “Flexo will be better suited for larger runs of over 15,000 pieces, and will offer more options when it comes to finishing the label. It will require more space and a more skilled operator. There are other costs to consider. Plates and dies will need to be ordered. A library of tooling will need to be purchased. In contrast, a digital solution can be purchased for as little as $40,000. This would give an owner the capability of producing 1,000 3x4 full color labels for $40-$50 per 1,000. That same job can be sold for $350 to $500,” Ackmann says.
Then there are those that believe, plain and simple, that digital is the future, and it’s a relatively easy decision. “If I were a startup label company I would have 100% digital assets to support my business,” says Kent Wolford, account manager at Domino. “Obviously it depends on the applications you are targeting, but digital will be the easy entry and not require a ‘craftsman’ to print.
“If flexo is an art, digital is a science,” Wolford adds. “Plus, let’s face it, the label printing industry has an aging workforce. Flexo press operators, many of which are boomers, will be retiring soon. Today it is extremely difficult to find millennials who know flexo, so the job market will be tight. Millennials have grown up in the age of computers, iPhones, Netflix and Apple TV. They are used to everything being digital in their normal daily lives. To attract these new workers, label printers need to provide an environment and product that is sexy – digital is sexy.”
Wolford also notes what he sees as a misperception in the marketplace that digital is for short run work only. “It’s not true,” he says. “We have found that the crossover point on when to run digital vs. flexo is now based on much longer runs due to faster digital press speeds and quicker set-up. When your digital UV inkjet label press prints at a minimum speed of 165 fpm coupled with the ability to run and easily change jobs on the fly that require multiple SKUs, versions, colors, etc. the cost and time savings with digital is a no brainer.”
Situation #2: The Established Converter
Now let’s say an established label company – one who already has both digital and flexo capabilities – is looking to add a press. How can it determine which direction to go in? Here’s what the experts have to say:
Afinia’s Ackmann advises looking at the types of jobs being sold. “The main issue is being able to service all of a particular customer’s needs. Many label manufacturers have clients requiring a mix of large run SKUs and individual short run pieces. If the current mix of equipment doesn’t allow them to manufacture all of this order in house, and leads to outsourcing and selling at low or no margin in order to keep all the business, adding digital can make a lot of sense.”
Look at the bottom line, urges Domino’s Wolford. “One of the best things that a label printer can do is a Total Cost of Ownership financial analysis comparing flexo to digital and determine the profit margins, capacity, and return on investment,” he says.
“It comes down to the volume of the business,” says Mark Hill, INX International Ink Co.’s vice president of R&D. “The higher the volume, the more flexo offers an advantage in terms of speed. On the flip side, the cost of flexo printing plates could be too much after volume goes down below a certain point.”
Often label printers and converters base their choice on the breakeven point of their daily production, says Omet’s Bellingardi. “But we think that in this case they should also wonder, ‘How many opportunities will this press generate?’ or “Will I obtain the means to satisfy all potential requirement of the market?’”
Epson’s Gomez discusses the specifics to consider if the answer is digital. “Not all digital presses are built alike,” he says. “No press can cover all possible markets, media types, throughput and quality requirements. Toner-based, UV inkjet and water-based inkjet all have their strengths, they are offered at varied price points, and have different business models (e.g. click charges vs. pay as you go ink). A question to ask would be: ‘What capabilities are missing from the current line-up?’ Rank those in importance. Is it more flexibility in media choices? More press throughput? Closer color matching? The need to reproduce small text? Uptime/reliability? The ability to print white ink? Do they need to go to wider media widths? The answers to these questions will help narrow down the options.”
Established label companies need to carefully consider their current job mix, as well as future plans when evaluating new capital investments, says Dickinson. “The most common reasons we have seen for investing in capital equipment are acquisition of new accounts, increasing competition, productivity and process improvements or delivering additional value. A hybrid solution combining digital and flexo technologies may be the right solution as it offers the benefits of each technology, as well as offering the flexibility of switching between the two technologies based on job requirements,” he says.
“It is important to partner with a trusted equipment supplier to help evaluate the current and future job mix, as well as discuss the latest technologies available to support the future business model,” he says.
While print speeds, setup waste, labor and operating costs are important considerations when comparing flexo and digital, it’s also crucial to take into account consumables. Are there issues regarding inks, substrates, or any other consumable that can present specific challenges or added costs within one of the printing processes? Are there differences in quality or converting efficiencies with regard to consumables?
“The success of each print technology is dependent upon the consumables which make up the process,” states Mark Andy’s Dickinson. “Flexo has made great strides over the years in optimizing substrates, coatings, inks and more to be competitive with offset and letterpress technologies. Digital has made similar strides, especially with inkjet printing, within the last decade. Generally speaking, on a cost per print area basis, digital inks are more expensive than flexo inks. But incremental costs of the inks are more than offset by the elimination of platemaking, ink mixing, tooling costs, setup waste, etc. of flexo.”
Omet’s Bellingardi agrees that digital inks are more expensive than flexo inks, stressing that it’s better to use digital for details rather than large areas of flat color. He says, “For instance, white application before or after CMYK digital is undoubtedly better if printed in flexo, in terms of costs and opacity. Flexo technology gives the opportunity to print on a wider range of substrates. But it is possible to widen the digital technology range of substrates through the application of a primer in flexo before digital printing. This demonstrates the value that can be found in a hybrid solution.
Primera’s Amber Miller says substrates are quite different. “Flexo can print onto just about anything. Digital requires substrates that are compatible with each type of toner or inkjet ink. And flexo requires dies for each size and shape of the label.”
Regarding print output in general, Ackmann of Afinia says, “Often, digital printing will be higher resolution with smoother gradations and halftones when compared to flexo. Digital is much better at printing bright, vivid color, photograph quality images, and subtle drop shadows. These types of graphics are challenging on flexo. Flexo can offer a wider range of print protection and effects, such as lamination, UV coating, spot lamination, foil embossing and more.”
Color matching between the flexo and digital processes, as well as within competing digital technologies presents a challenge. “The ‘look’ of UV curable inks is different than that of flexo inks,” says Epson’s Gomez. “There is a surface structure to all UV inks that is not there in flexo. Although the difference can be overcome with liquid lamination or other finishing, in many cases the difference is enough to prevent a close match between output from the two technologies. If, say, an end user asks for 500 more of an original long run order that was run on flexo, it will be difficult to match the short run to it if the converter uses the digital press with UV curable inks. If that press only has process colors and no extended gamut, the colors will also not match. The Epson SurePress L-4033 uses durable water-based resin inks which match the look of flexo much more closely. And with the extended gamut available, the color match is also less of an issue.”
The Hybrid Solution
While this topic merits an entire article of its own, it’s now possible to add both technologies in a single press purchase. Times have changed. While it’s still very new and there are only a few instances of confirmed installations, the industry’s leading flexo press makers have all launched machines that combine the two technologies. Mark Andy, Omet, Gallus, Nilpeter, MPS and Fujifilm currently market hybrid systems that incorporate inline flexo and digital technology.
And there is the digital retrofit, the option of creating a hybrid by adding a digital printing unit onto an existing flexo press. Another topic worthy of an article all its own.
Dickinson concludes, “The best option is to have flexibility to choose which process will fit best for your job, which is where digital and flexo hybrid technology comes into play. By far the most capable and future-ready operations we see have the freedom to optimize the workflow for each job ticket to maximize both customer satisfaction and their own bottom line. The ability to print nearly identical work from both digital and flexo technology is the key to competing and winning now and into the foreseeable future.”