Who Are You Calling Conventional?
There may have been a time when conventional thinking applied to conventional printing for packaging and labels, but those days are over.
Offset lithography and flexography have reinvented themselves to a point where they’ve almost ceased to resemble the lumbering, messy processes they used to be. Now, they’re precise, nimble, versatile and fully capable of meeting whatever new requirements that fast-changing packaging and label markets send their way. They don’t need to fear replacement by digital alternatives — if anything, it’s the digital solutions that are having to defer to the conventional or analog methods that got there first.
The fact that offset and flexo have been in use for as long as they have turns out to be one of their main advantages.
“Analog systems are established and very cost effective for medium to long runs,” says Sean Smyth, a print analyst for Smithers Pira. “They are brilliant at delivering low unit costs of production.”
A ‘Ton’ of Respect
As Richard Black, VP of business development for All Printing Resources, notes, conventional printing’s economies of scale never go out of style. Most brands, he says, are still eager to sell “a ton of stuff,” and offset and flexo remain the most cost effective ways of printing packaging and labels in those volumes.
Until digital can break out of the fixed-cost-per-piece production model that defines it, Black adds, it will remain a solution mostly for short runs.
Offset and flexo, meanwhile, are making their presences felt at the other end of the run length range, where they’re increasingly capturing small-quantity work at competitive prices. This is why Kevin Karstedt, CEO of industry consultancy and research firm Karstedt Partners, thinks that variable data printing may be digital’s only indisputable edge over offset and flexo.
He also wonders whether a certain amount of “digital fatigue” has set in as many in the industry, still not convinced that digital has reached full development, hold off investing in it. In the meantime, he says, these “semi-solid tire kickers” are opting for conventional systems to get the production relief they need.
Jennifer Dochstader, co-founder of market research and technical PR firm LPC, Inc., on the other hand, believes that “whatever can be digital will be digital” and sees increasing opportunities for digital equipment in flexible packaging, labels, folding cartons and corrugated containers.
She points out, however, that when it comes to “highly functional applications” — such as heavily decorated prime labels, those with specialty components including thermochromic ink and multi-panel extended content labels — only conventional presses are up to the task.
Automation Above All
Of all the technical improvements that have given the conventional processes new relevance, none has done more to advance them than press automation. Smyth says that with its help, “print systems become autonomous, allowing the press to run closer to maximum operational efficiency, which significantly improves the cost position of analog machines.”
An example, he says, is Heidelberg’s “Push to Stop” technology, designed to make job changeovers so hands-off and seamless that offset press operators have little else to do besides feed plates and monitor the supply of paper.
Karstedt, likewise, sees automation’s ability to get “the next job hanging and ready to go” as transformative for offset. The effects of the transformation are being felt in prepress, where platemaking systems have to be able to image plates at the same rate the presses can mount, run and replace them.
Karstedt says he is familiar with a package printer who turns over so many short- and medium-run jobs per shift on the company’s highly automated 56˝ and 63˝ equipment that the “bottleneck” has moved from press to prepress as the CTP units hustle to keep up.
Raising — and Clearing — the Bar
Flexography has undergone productivity-boosting transformations of its own. Dochstader says that inroads by digital presses into the label space have prompted flexo press manufacturers to raise the bar in terms of the mechanical efficiency of their equipment.
Better tension and registration controls in roll transport systems, for example, have gone a long way toward improving output quality. Advances like this, Dochstader says, enable flexo presses to handle smaller runs and offer superior functional performance.
Smyth cites the adoption of HD (high definition) prepress as an important step forward for prepress, along with automation techniques that reduce setup time, minimize waste and maintain consistency in both initial runs and reprints. Karstedt says that servo motor drives and onboard quality inspection systems are also contributing to flexo’s “fantastic” advance into the short-run space as an analog process.
In Black’s view, the most significant recent development in flexo printing for packaging and labels is LED-UV curing. Instantly reactive LED-UV inks eliminate press washups between jobs and get UV printing closer to the goal of being safe for food packaging.
Other pluses for flexo, says Black, are its broad substrate compatibility and its ease of integration with finishing processes such as cold foiling, embossing, perforating and laminating.
Centrality of Software
Not to be overlooked in conventional production’s renaissance are improvements in software for labeling and packaging workflows.
Companies like Esko, Smyth notes, “have developed sophisticated design and prepress controls for all aspects of packaging, with links to ERP and MIS control systems. This makes a seamless design experience for primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, with the ability to visualize products in store or in use.”
The technology is so advanced, according to Black, that some applications can simulate what a flexible package will look like after it has been filled with rice — surface wrinkles and all. Software also optimizes files on press for color and registration and sets up finishing equipment, boosting the efficiency of the process as a whole.
Still another way for the conventional processes to evolve is through hybridization with digital technologies, primarily inkjet. It’s a best-of-both-worlds innovation, says Smyth, that combines the flexibility of digital with the low unit cost of analog inks for heavy solid coverage in color.
According to Dochstader, many converters believe that one-pass, digitally enhanced printing and finishing represents the future of their industry. In 2018, she advises, keep an eye on systems that may consist of four- or seven-color digital engines in-line with three or more conventional printing units plus finishing stations.
Black says that All Printing Resources is promoting the concept in flexo by offering a digital inkjet unit from Colordyne as a retrofit onto existing narrow-web label presses. This lets converters run variable digital, flexo, or a combination of both, color matched to the flexo press and integrated with its in-line finishing assets.
Karstedt notes that hybridization is becoming well established in flexo label and packaging markets, with hybrid flexo/inkjet solutions available from Gallus, Mark Andy, Nilpeter and Domino. Offset presses have long been hybridized with inkjet heads for variable printing, although with relatively few packaging applications.
What Does It All Add Up to?
The conventional processes have come a long way, and they probably have not run out of room for further technical improvement. Nevertheless, SKU proliferation, faster time-to-market requirements, and shorter run lengths for specialty applications all would seem to favor the rise of digital package and label printing at their expense.
Not necessarily, say the experts. Smyth concedes that as market conditions change, the demand for shorter runs and faster lead times put the conventional methods under increasing pressure. He notes, though, that shifting some of the demand to digital equipment frees up time on the conventional presses and adds capacity that benefits the operation as a whole.
In this sense, digital and conventional are anything but “antagonistic,” according to Smyth. Instead, converters will choose the most appropriate process to offer their customers a better level of service at the best price.
Last year, says Dochstader, digital began to emerge as a replacement technology as label presses got faster, more substrate-friendly, and better at producing medium run lengths economically. But, there’s work for both processes to do in environments where runs can be of any length, and there’s still no substitute for conventional printing in complex applications such as extended-content labels.
Karstedt thinks that aside from “ultra short runs” and jobs with variable data — which represent only a small share of label and packaging output — conventional will keep the competitive edge that automation has given it. The hard part, he says, is deciding which method to use as progress accelerates on both the digital and non-digital fronts.
For printers and converters, that’s not a bad problem to have. As Black observes, the more technology that flexo absorbs, the better it becomes. The same can be said of offset. As long as this continues to be true, the conventional processes will keep moving in a direction where the label and packaging markets will be happy to follow them.