Mark Mazur, consultant; chair of the FIRST committee, Flexographic Technical Association, a self-described flexo evangelist who spent more than 30 years helping DuPont to refine its flexo products, views progress in flexible packaging mostly from the perspective of advances in his favorite printing process.
He points out that flexography — predominantly used for flexible packaging in the U.S., but competing with gravure for market share elsewhere in the world — is still “the least-cost way of producing flexible materials.” It’s also the fastest of the conventional methods. Mazur says a flexographic workflow can proceed from concept and design to plating and printing “in days,” a fraction of the time it would take to engrave a gravure cylinder.
Running on flexo equipment are thin, lighter-weight films with barrier properties and other attributes that multiply the uses to which they can be put. Mazur points to retort pouches instead of cans for tuna and standup pouches instead of cardboard boxes for cereal as examples of the “exploding” use of film as a packaging alternative. Pouches, he adds, have the shelf pop that retailers like and weight- and space-saving qualities that save money throughout the supply chain.
Increasingly being used to print packages like these are expanded-gamut flexo presses that combine process, spot and white inks to define a chromatic space in which almost any color can be matched. Mazur reckons that about 25% of flexible packaging printing now takes place on expanded-gamut presses, up from about 15% just five years ago.
He gives improvements in white flexo ink a large share of the credit for making flexible packages as visually appealing as they have become.
White on the film base “is where all the color comes from” when light reflects strongly away from it through the overprint colors, creating the subtractive color impressions the eye sees. This means that the better the white ink performs, the better the overall effect will be. Mazur says that white inks introduced within the last few years achieve high reflectivity with thinner ink films, reducing the need for multiple hits.
The No. 1 advancement for flexo inks in general has been formulation for higher ink densities without harm to print highlights, a perennial difficulty for the flexographic process. Helping out in prepress, says Mazur, are new plate patterning techniques that protect the highlights while permitting high densities for a rich color appearance.
Application examples abound, but the specimens of flexo printing on flexible film that Mazur admires most are the packs containing Doritos, the tortilla chip snack from Frito-Lay. This brand has pioneered in expanded-gamut printing and many other techniques besides. “Every new technology that comes along, it’s in a Doritos package,” he says.