Enter The New Era of Flexographic Printing
The future of flexography for labels and packaging is in practice right now within the walls of multiple, forward-thinking package printers. In Anaheim, Calif., Adcraft Labels is utilizing hybrid flexo/digital printing to offer beautiful possibilities at equally attractive price points. Meanwhile, Label Systems Inc. in Addison, Texas, recently installed a flexo press so advanced it can be run from a wireless mobile tablet.
What’s happening at these two companies illustrates how profoundly different flexo is today, compared to the process from the not-so-distant past. Dr. John T. Anderson III, Kodak’s director and VP of worldwide business development for flexographic packaging solutions, says that 20 years ago, flexography was at a standstill developmentally, erratic in terms of quality and excused for its shortcomings mostly because of its low cost.
Then, thanks to the advent of solutions such as Kodak’s FLEXCEL high-definition plate imaging technology and the emergence of industrywide guidelines for flexo production, flexography began standing up for itself as a credible competitor to gravure and offset lithography in high-quality label and packaging applications.
Progress has been so extensive that today, says Duane Woolbright, manager of training services for the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), printers and brand owners recognize that “flexo is no longer a graphic art — it’s really a graphic science.”
All About Automation
Considering the leaps flexography has taken in automation, print quality and its ability to work in tandem with digital as a single solution, flexo’s days of playing catch up to other print processes are over.
For example, Windmöller & Hölscher, a wide-web flexographic press manufacturer, instilled automation capabilities into the defect detection aspect of the printing process. The company’s Miraflex AM II features a fully integrated set of VISION modules that detect printing errors and enable quick correction. Its remote connection lets engineers at W&H’s diagnostic and information center “basically run the press from here” if that will help them solve machine problems, according to Klaus Kleemann, VP of sales.
An example of automation on the narrow-web side comes from Nilpeter’s FA flexo press, which is built to eliminate hands-on press interaction wherever automation can replace a step an operator would have to take on a conventional flexo press. According to Paul Teachout, Nilpeter USA’s VP of sales and marketing, the press is instilled with the capabilities of Industry 4.0, the technology behind networked production systems in which automation and data exchange shift the role of people from machine operators to machine monitors.
Meanwhile, hybrid solutions that combine digital and flexo have demonstrated their strong capability to implement the best attributes each technology has to offer.
“Hybridizing a flexo platform with inkjet turns it into a no-compromise workhorse that can handle every color reproduction challenge it will face,” says Chris Yanko, digital sales director for Mark Andy Inc., which makes the Digital Series hybrid press in use at Adcraft Labels. “Our high-density pigment inks do a good job of building most spot colors in inkjet CMYK; the flexo stations can spot-print the ones that the CMYK gamut doesn’t fully address, as well as apply coatings and high-value decorative enhancements. In addition, the extended ink set of the just-launched eight-color Digital Series HD platform, which includes a digital opaque white, can reproduce upwards of 93% of the Pantone gamut with a Delta E of less than two, with the press running and converting at its top speed of 240 fpm.”
The net result of advancements like these has been a major rehabilitation of flexo’s image in the eyes of brand owners.
According to Anderson, what customers wanted most from flexography — consistent quality, “the same day in and day out” — was the one thing the process seemed consistently unable to deliver. He says the packaging market’s attitude could have been summed up as, “we love flexo economically, but we just never know what we’re going to get quality-wise.”
The Best Kept Secret
But now, says Doug Weiss, business development and brand support manager for Kodak’s flexible packaging solutions, some brands have come to like flexo so much they treat it as a competitive edge to be kept secret. Printers, likewise, sometimes switch jobs to flexo from other methods without informing their process-agnostic customers, letting them enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of quality and price.
Anderson says flexo’s acceptance has increased most rapidly in flexible packaging and labels. It is also growing in folding cartons and corrugated containers. In the latter application, says Anderson, as an alternative to offset-printed, laminated top sheets, direct-to-surface printing with high-quality flexo is helping corrugated boxes get attention as attractive vehicles for marketing.
Occurring in parallel with technical advances in flexo has been the evolution of best practices for printing with it. These have been codified in FIRST (Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances), a document originally published by the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) in 1997 and currently in its sixth major revision.
Before FIRST, says Woolbright, the flexo industry was a “Wild West” of process variables and haphazard means of dealing with them. As the web offset market had done earlier in conceiving the SWOP and SNAP specifications, members of the flexographic packaging supply chain realized the time had come for flexo to establish quality targets and techniques of its own.
The outcome was FIRST: not a body of rules, but a set of procedures and guidelines aimed at obtaining high-quality and, above all, consistent results from press run to press run. Woolbright describes it as a “common sense” way to get variables under control and keep the process manageable. The specifications change to accommodate new developments in flexo technology, while certifications for plants and individuals uphold FIRST as the industry’s “bible” for top-notch reproduction (see sidebar below).
Tool for Their Trade
As pioneering adopters of advanced platforms for flexographic printing, Adcraft Labels and Label Systems Inc. exemplify of the quality-focused, run-to-numbers approach that increasingly characterizes the flexo industry.
Toward the end of 2016, says Ken Collins, VP of sales and marketing for Adcraft Labels, the company took a first-generation, beta-test version of the Mark Andy Digital Series press, added some proprietary enhancements and launched it as JetFlex Technology. He says the “power band” of the hybrid press consists of prime labels that either couldn’t be reproduced successfully with digital CMYK or would be prohibitively expensive to do with conventional flexo.
Collins says that because the Mark Andy Digital Series press surrounds the inkjet CMYK with multiple flexo stations, labels can be printed in large numbers of vivid colors with the help of both processes — a combination that holds plate costs down and keeps the job affordable. He says Adcraft Labels spends considerable time educating its customers about the creative possibilities available to them in hybrid flexo-inkjet production.
Amy Van Brunt, president of Label Systems Inc., remembers seeing a prototype of the FA press in a Nilpeter demo room and saying, “Wait a minute, let’s talk about this.” Installed at the end of 2017, the press became the first Nilpeter FA to appear in the U.S. Van Brunt says she counts on its automation features to deliver consistent quality “no matter what shift, or no matter what pressman is running the press.”
She explains that the press is the ticket to film packaging and shrink sleeves — capabilities the company will have in full when it installs near-line finishing equipment within the next few months. For now, with its UV inks, and its in-line laminating and diecutting, the FA is well equipped for one-pass production of pressure-sensitive labels.
At the rate new solutions for 21st-century flexography are being developed, package printers can expect more game-changing solutions like these to emerge. “The flexo industry is as innovative now as it’s ever been,” Anderson declares. “We continually search for the ceiling of flexo’s ability, and we’ve been unable to find it.”