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The rise and rise of flexography

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It may be a long-established process, but as one of the fastest growing printing technologies flexography is set to dominate the world of packaging printing. Arjun Ramachandran reports for Packaging magazine

One of the fiercest conflict zones today may well be the local supermarket.

Navigating a shopping trolley down an aisle has become the equivalent of running a gauntlet of strongly marketed products spruiking their wares at potential consumers.

Not only do popular brands continue to compete with each other, but the introduction by retailers of private labels has taken the fight for consumer attention to the next level of intensity.

For manufacturers engaged in this hardy battle, flexographic printing may well prove to be an indispensable weapon.

According to the Australian Flexographic Technical Association (AFTA) , flexographic printing is the fastest growing form of printing in both Australia and the world. Furthermore, flexographic printers dominate a large proportion of the packaging industry.

The evidence of flexographic printing’s popularity is best evident in the range of high visibility, high colour packs of food and beverage products on show at a supermarket.

“Flexography is a very old and established process and has become the most cost effective packaging medium for flexible packaging for a number of years and across the world,” Finewrap sales and marketing manager John Hetherton said.

According to Hetherton, the popularity of flexographic printing has much to do with its versatility.

“Flexography offers speed to market, excellent reproduction, various sizes in terms of widths and dimensions, and can run on most materials making it suitable for a lot of packaging mediums,” he said.

As packaging designers and marketers constantly adopt new shapes and designs, the ability to handle a variety of materials is a crucial differentiator for manufacturers deciding on a printing method. Printing technologies available for packaging applications include flexography, lithography, letterpress and gravure.

“Lithography is appropriate for cartons, however flexography can use a wider range of inks and can print on a wider variety of materials,” Hetherton said.

“Letter press is also appropriate for cartons, but is a very manual process and thus much slower and less competitive.

“There is a perception that gravure offers higher quality printing, but it’s only suitable for longer runs and is more expensive both in production and in origination.

“Offset printing has traditionally been a sheet-fed form suited more to publications. It’s now slowly moving into the flexible packaging arena, and may be a packaging printing medium of the future, but right now the equipment is expensive.”

“So demand for flexography is obviously very strong when it comes to packaging.”

Flexo innovation

Despite having the robustness that comes with being a long-standing printing method, flexographic printing nevertheless needs to continually innovate to remain relevant to manufacturers.

Recent initiatives to achieve better print quality for retail packaging include improved process inks, digital plates, thermal processed plates, high definition and laser-engraved aniloxes, plate cell patterning and dot sharpening. Innovation in the area of gearless and sleeve is also improving packaging graphics.

In addition to quality, meeting ever-changing quantity demands is also a necessary attribute for manufacturers in a fluctuating marketplace.

“There have been recent developments for narrower width and high speed printing presses that enable the industry to meet increasing demand,” Hetherton said.

“Quick changeover presses also mean changeovers involve sleeves rather than full robotics, enabling reduced cost and greater flexibility.”

As with most machinery, flexographic printing is also being affected by the digital revolution. However, while some in-roads have been made, Hetherton believes it is still early days.

“Digital has its place in the market but mainly for very short runs, and there tends to be a compromise on colour, which makes it more suitable for labels or small promotion work,” he said.

“It’s not really suited to packaging yet as it runs at about 20-25 metres per minute whereas most printing presses run at 300-500 metres per minute.

“At this stage the economies of scale for large scale work aren’t there.”

Facing the challenge

In addition to making better use of digital technology, Hetherton says flexography must continue to improve in a range of areas.

“The challenge is to introduce new materials that can be flexographically printed,” he said.

“We also need to find new materials that will fabricate into new formats to satisfy customer needs for better on-shelf presence, new packaging styles and formats.”

The push for new materials is also being driven from an environmental perspective.

“In light of the National Packaging Covenant, we need to find materials that better suit the environment in terms of landfill or incineration.”

In addition to operating with a wider range of substrates, Hetherton says the industry must also look towards achieving greater consistency and repeatability within and between runs.

As flexographic printing continues to develop in terms of print quality and machine efficiency, it is important that manufacturers understand its capabilities in order to achieve the highest quality packaging printing outcomes.

Hetherton believes a collaborative approach may be the key.

“Success tends to come to those companies that are innovators and have marketing departments willing to work with us on better images, illustrations, packaging design and backgrounds,” he said.

“They push the process all the way, and it’s a tribute to their ability to take a calculated and strategic move upwards and outwards in terms of specification and print reproduction.”

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