The diverse agenda ranged from logistics and press operation to the latest inks and prepress software. According to the FTA, the event provided over 2,100 guests with the ability to learn how to drive their businesses forward into the future.
“We had a great crowd in town representing a cross-section of the marketplace, and we had a vibrant event over the course of a few days,” said Mark Cisternino, FTA president.
Paul Teachout, vice president of sales and marketing for Nilpeter USA, and Bob Coomes, graphics, prepress, and print quality leader at Plastic Packaging Technologies, served as the Forum chairs. They kicked off the Annual Forum on Sunday afternoon and emphasized the need for everyone in the industry to collaborate in its growth.
“When I go to Forum, I always look for new technologies and new ideas,” said Coomes. “When we put together Forum this year, we were looking for practical ideas for printers, suppliers and consumers. We’re looking for everything that will benefit everyone here. I think there’s some great key takeaways that everyone will leave here with. We’re not going to move forward without more people getting involved,” added Coomes.
While there has been a lot of growth in digital printing, flexo still dominates the marketplace. According to Forum presenter Dan Muenzer, vice president of marketing at Constantia Flexibles, conventional printing technology still represents 90% of the market. By 2020, conventional printing is still expected to make up 86% of the market.
“Speed is really what’s driving the marketplace moving forward,” said Muenzer. “Again, optimize efficiencies and minimize waste. In my opinion, the key here is expanding our capabilities. It’s about how fast can you move and how fast can you change. Flexo is uniquely positioned to do that moving forward.”
In keeping with its theme, Forum detailed emerging trends and technologies. Printed electronics and smart labels were highlighted in a presentation entitled “Disruptive Technologies: Embrace the Possibilities.” Dr. Malcolm Keif, professor at Cal Poly, explained that sensors, conductive traces, electrodes, antennae and optical codes can all be printed with flexo. He said smart technology has the ability to provide a value function or benefit such as security/anti-counterfeiting properties and data. A trend analysis can help predict consumer behavior and interaction.
“We use the feedback from the previous year’s event to build our program,” said Teachout. “We go out and find volunteers who are experts in the topics that attendees want to hear about. This year, we’ve put together an all-star cast.”
In addition, FTA’s INFO*FLEX exhibition, now in its 35th year, ran concurrently with the Forum during the afternoons of May 1-2. Here, more than 300 of the industry’s top suppliers showcased their latest products and technologies. The Solutions Theater also returned to INFO*FLEX for further education from exhibitors.
As part of the event’s networking opportunities, the FTA held a President’s Reception and Annual Banquet and Awards program on the evening of April 30. In addition, guests were invited to view the Excellence in Flexography Awards display starting on the second day of the show.
The Awards ceremony featured 121 awards, including 39 gold and 42 silver. Smyth Companies was recognized with a “Best in Show” award for its Cozy Sunday Morning Body Cream Label in the narrow web, process, metallized category. The FTA also presented Artcraft Label with a Sustainability Excellence Award. Jean Engelke of RR Donnelly and Luis Novaro, president of Distribuidor Gráfica Novaro, received the President’s Award during the ceremony, as well.
Meanwhile, the FTA handed out three prestigious Technical Innovation Awards at the Banquet, recognizing Esko for its XPS Crystal 5080, Flint Group for its EkoCure Ancora Ink, and Mark Andy for its Digital Series Hybrid Press. (See page 33 for more information.)
During the Awards ceremony, the FTA also inducted Steve Smiley into its Flexo Hall of Fame. He is the 55th inductee into the society. Smiley currently serves as FTA’s representative on the Committee for Graphic Arts Technology Standards’ (CGATS) Color Reproduction and Process Control for Packaging Subcommittee. He has also held various roles with the Flexo Quality Consortium (FQC) where he now serves on the executive committee.
Now Who’s Going to Run My Press?
As part of the Flexographic Technical Association’s Annual Forum, Shawn Oetjen, Flexo Tech, and P.J. Fronczkiewicz, Flint Group, served as chairs for an in-depth look at a critical aspect of modern flexography: press operation. Even though flexo printing is the dominant process for printing labels, the availability of qualified operators is dwindling.
Oetjen, along with presenters Brendan Kinzie and James Stone of GoGetter and VinEquities, as well as Elsie Genova, explored this topic in a presentation entitled, “The ‘Press Crew’ Crisis: Now Who’s Going to Run My Press?”
“It seems like there are less people out there who are available,” said Oetjen. “We want to discuss the serious nature of this problem, but we also want to create a path to recruit, train and retain your skilled employees.”
According to Kinzie, there are a number of factors coming into play. By 2022, more than 25% of US workers will be 55 years or older, up 14% from 2002. Additionally, 10% of the workforce is beginning to retire annually, while 40% of businesses will lose 20% of their workforces in the next five years. He also said that the tipping point will not come until 2020.
“What’s keeping CEO’s up at night? In a survey of 1,409 chief executives around the world, the top business concern among respondents is the availability of skilled labor,” explained Kinzie.
Another key problem for business owners is the lack of training. Since 2003, formal apprenticeships are down 40%. In fact, less than 1% of the US manufacturing workforce partakes in apprenticeships. All the panelists agreed that training is often seen as an expense as opposed to a long-term investment.
Print also has an image problem, Kinzie said, adding, “When people think of printing, they think of a dying industry.”
Thankfully, there are ways to remedy these issues. Kinzie and Stone said that the industry needs better marketing, allowing people to understand the jobs that are out there and the reality of the industry. The flexo industry is healthy and growing, meaning there is a need for press operators to play a role in bringing the labels and packaging to life.
In addition, hiring and training are critical. The speakers stressed the need to develop better ways of reaching youth and establishing the opportunities that exist. Businesses also need to be willing to make that long-term investment in training their employees while presenting livable wages and long-term job security.
Kinzie and Stone developed the GoGetter app to provide a resource for skilled labor to find jobs. The industry can take other steps too. Businesses can support local schools and trade schools, even getting involved in career day events. Partnering with an apprenticeship program is also a valuable resource, they said.
Elsie Genova developed and implemented a training program that she thinks can help printers. “We thought it was time for us to develop a training program,” explained Genova. “We started with a base of skilled employees. We wanted to reach out into the market and find our next generation of press operators that we could train, and we wanted to hire locally.”
Not only is FIRST a key resource, Genova developed training videos, asking for support from vendors and equipment manufacturers to help with the learning tools. These detailed learning opportunities are engaging and lay out a clear career path. It’s important to provide a standardization in training, and get management to realize the benefits of the process.
“Even though packaging is all around us, very few people realize where it comes from,” said Genova. “We wanted to develop a career path for this market. It’s a continual process because you’re bringing in new people and offering them a career.”
The Graphic Communications program at Clemson University has spent the last 10 years training individuals to become experts in the flexographic field. In September, Nilpeter donated a state-of-the-art flexographic press to Clemson’s Communications program – valued at nearly $1 million. The gift was designed to foster the next generation of flexo printers.
The Phoenix Challenge celebrated its 20th anniversary for high schools and 10th anniversary for colleges this year. The Phoenix Challenge Foundation is designed to promote the growth of flexo printing throughout North America.
During the FTA’s Annual Awards event, the association recognized The Phoenix Challenge Foundation’s chair Bettylyn Krafft for her work with the program and helping to promote flexography to the next generation of flexographic printers.
As part of Forum, an expert lineup touched on a wide range of topics, including the state of the flexo industry and where it stacks up versus digital. According to Muenzer, in North America there were 129 digital presses sold in 2016 compared to 93 conventional. By 2020, it is estimated that 202 digital presses will be sold while 76 will be conventional.
However, Muenzer said the “lion’s share” of printing is still conventional, despite the interest in digital printing technology. He also added that hybrid printing is a technology worth watching. “Digital is a popular trend, but’s important to remember that flexo printing continues to grow,” explained Muenzer. “Digital is not winning, it’s just a technology that’s pushing flexo to do something different.”
Labels will ultimately rely on quality, speed, cost and control, regardless of the printing method. Muenzer cited a recent initiative from Indio, where it received 15,000 label submission designs from the public and decided to print it’s favorite 130. However, the labels were printed with gravure as opposed to digital.
“At the end of the day, customization is a driving force for the label industry,” concluded Muenzer. “The company didn’t care about how it was printed; they cared about the final product.”
Additional Forum speakers agreed that there were several trends helping to drive flexo into the future, including substrate improvements, solutions for migration issues, new equipment, and an emphasis on zero errors and traceability.
Market share is expected to increase as the quality of flexo improves, and the industry will continue to target the gravure business while keeping an eye on digital printing trends.
All about inks and coatings
A host of industry experts took the stage at the FTA Annual Forum to discuss the latest flexo ink trends and products. Paul Lancelle, Kodak, chaired the presentation, which explored the entire (color) gamut, ranging from new inks to UV LED curing to techniques designed to enhance shelf appeal.
Specialty coatings provide not only sensory enhancements, but they have the ability to convey a personalized or specific message. According to Sun Chemical’s Helen Rallis, the average time spent in a store is 22 minutes, and 75% of purchases are not planned. Only 10% of shelved brands attract consumers’ attention, leaving products 3-7 seconds to make an impact.
That moment of truth provides an opportunity for the label to pop with specialty graphics and coatings. Rallis said that the most commonly requested coatings are matte, soft touch and paper feel.
“By applying matte coatings, you cut the glare of the lights and allow shoppers to better see your product,” explained Rallis.
Aroma coatings are also trending, as 35% of smell is remembered versus just 5% of what shoppers see. Aroma coatings will rely on water-based and UV coatings, as solvents can’t be used. There are also hundreds of different smells available to consumers.
For Sun Chemical, popular coatings include glitter, metallic, color shift, emboss, thermochromics and phosphorescent, among others.
“A general rule of thumb when applying coatings is more is better,” said Rallis. “But you want to make sure it works in the application. You have to be ready to invest in new anilox rolls and test thoroughly in advance, as well as dry and cure new thicknesses.”
Laser marking coatings also provide an opportunity for late stage differentiation. This technology can provide personalization, a quicker response to customers through track and trace, variable data, QR codes, and social media opportunities.
Mike Buystedt of ink supplier Flint Group Narrow Web explained the numerous benefits associated with LED curing. In North America, there are 300 plus LED lamps installed for narrow web applications. In addition, there are more than 70 100% LED presses spread across all major press suppliers.
UV curing systems require inks formulated specifically for this process, which means a system approach with inks, machines and lamps. According to Buystedt, LED lamps have a five-year running time before a bulb will need to be changed.
“It provides great depth of cure and you really improve adhesion,” explained Buystedt. “It penetrates deeply through the coating, and it’s really maintenance free.”
When dealing with inks, LED enables printers to lay down heavier or denser blacks while offering opaque whites. Better ink cure and performance is also possible, as are sharper edges. Specialty inks and coatings can also run in thicker layers.
“It’s a totally different paradigm,” said Buystedt. “Our industry has come to accept the downtime related to mercury curing lamps as that’s been the only option. With LED curing, we don’t have to accept the unnecessary downtime associated with mercury lamp failures, and inefficiencies and hazards.”
LED technology has improved as it has become prevalent in the label and package printing industry. Costs have significantly declined, and there is an increase in productivity due to instant on and off capabilities and press improvements. Energy savings are reported between 50-80%, along with faster speeds. Buystedt added that there are 20-30% faster speeds on average and less press downtime.
For more coverage of the 2017 FTA Forum and INFO*FLEX, visit www.labelandnarrowweb.com.