The sheer variety of flexographic printing techniques has been an undeniable boon to the field of packaging and labeling. It has also been something of a double-edged sword in resisting the establishment of standard criteria and practical process controls associated with color-managed systems. To remedy this state of affairs, the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) 12 years ago sought to impose order on potential chaos by developing a set of Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances—better known as FIRST.
From the beginning, developers have been careful to describe FIRST as a set of print production tools—guidelines, tutorials, targets, and tolerances—rather than as a standard. Correctly implemented, the FIRST methodology is designed to enable users to achieve accurate, consistent, repeatable color from process to process and from job to job, no matter what combination of variables—inks, substrates, plates, presses, and printing conditions—is involved.
What’s it supposed to do?
The aims of FIRST are fivefold:
• Identify key basic flexographic procedures and guidelines to be used from the beginning to the end of the process, involving all members of the flexographic supply chain;
• Improve the quality and consistency of results by implementing improved communication and measurement procedures;
• Reduce cycle time and minimize rework;
• Control manufacturing costs; and
• Help flexo become a preferred lower-cost solution, compared with offset and gravure.
The FIRST specification has been greatly expanded in size and scope over the years. The most recent edition, FIRST 4.0, was released in 2009. Properly implemented, the growth of FIRST within an organization can be positive and organic, enabling flexographers to meet customer expectations by producing high-quality, consistent, predictable results press run after press run.
Measure, monitor, and control
Smyth Companies, Inc., a package label printer based in St. Paul, Minn., began working with FIRST seven years ago, and has achieved success. According to Kim Madigan, director of corporate color management, the company had been thinking about getting into expanded-gamut printing when “we began to ask how in the world we were going to control seven colors when we couldn’t adequately control four.” At that point, the company was ready to establish a documented process for setting up a color-managed workflow, complete with training and accountability in every area and at every level.