The last decade has seen major advances in the quality, consistency and efficiency of flexography, to the point where the process is a viable alternative to gravure for most applications.
This message is even reaching the Asian market, for so long a stronghold of gravure. This is good news for Bangkok-based TPN FlexPak, which became Southeast Asia’s first flexo packaging converter in 2001. The company is now reaping the benefits of that pioneering investment, along with multiple awards, including a Gold Award from the Flexographic Technical Association and Best-In Show Award from the Asian Flexographic Technical Association.
Managing Director Ananchat Thangkasemvathana explains how improved technology is winning converts to flexo among both brands and printers, and why the outlook for the process is very bright.
It was a bold decision to adopt flexo back in 2001. What was the thinking behind the move?
Flexo has a number of advantages over gravure, such as greater ease-of-use, substrate versatility, and so on, and we saw its potential on certain types of packaging. A key factor in investing at the time that we did was also the arrival of gearless presses on the market, which we first saw at drupa 2000. This persuaded us the time was right to make the move.
What were your early experiences with flexo in the Asian region, where gravure has historically been dominant?
In the beginning, there was some resistance from clients to what they regarded as a new process. As you say, gravure is big in Asia; even today, flexo only accounts for around 10% of the total flexible packaging market. And there were some quality issues — visible rosettes on certain screen rulings, for example — which clients would not accept, so at first, we were limited in the jobs we could print flexo.
What did you do to change clients’ perception of flexo?
We knew we would have to improve the quality, and the launch of the KODAK FLEXCEL NX System in 2008 gave us the opportunity. Until then it was a challenge to provide consistency and repeatability because of flexo’s inherent limitations, but with FLEXCEL NX we could really raise the bar, regularly printing 150lpi screens, and occasionally reaching 175lpi.
How did clients react when you suggested they switch their packaging to flexo?
Naturally we asked their permission to print a job flexo, and understandably they examined the results a bit more closely than they normally would! But after they saw that the quality matched gravure, there were no issues and no complaints.
We offer both processes, and most clients are happy to simply provide the artwork and leave us to decide on the right print process for each application. Flexo has won the trust of the brand owners and we don’t encounter any objections.
What about in the Asian market in general? Are brands still sceptical of flexo?
Yes, but in many cases I think it’s just an inherited prejudice, and it isn’t based on experience. If we don’t tell them we’ve printed a job flexo they’re perfectly satisfied with the quality. And over the last five years attitudes have definitely changed, albeit gradually. Japanese customers, for example, who are trained to regard gravure as producing the best quality, are much more accepting of flexo now.
Are any particular sectors driving the growth of flexo-printed flexible packaging?
Food packaging, without a doubt, because of the influence of the big international brands based in the US and Europe. These players know flexo, they’re comfortable with the process, and they expect their overseas suppliers to offer flexo so that they can replicate what they do at home.
For me, these demands will be a big driver of flexo’s future growth in the Asian market. Brand integrity demands identical print quality around the globe and using the same print process everywhere is the best guarantee of this. Brand owners want to work to a “distribute and print” workflow, with a central pre-press department producing a single file that all packaging producers work to — it’s straightforward, eliminates variables and delivers greater control and higher consistency.
After nine years working with Flexcel NX, what are the major benefits of the system?
For one thing, production runs so smoothly that I don’t have to get involved so much in operational issues! But there are a number of specific benefits as well. Improved plate life gives us longer runs, with stable print quality throughout. We can run the presses faster — up to 300m/min, depending on the design and run-length. Because we use smaller-volume anilox rollers, our ink consumption is reduced by 10-15%, yet we can print higher densities. Add in greater efficiency at the pre-press stage, and the production process is more efficient, more productive and less wasteful — and without the ‘real estate’ needed to store gravure cylinders. The logistics of the flexo process are much simpler.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give packaging printers considering investing in flexo?
If they’re looking for a growth market, then give flexo serious consideration, because that 10% market share is sure to grow. Of course, it depends on the application; for example, gravure is still good for products such as retort pouches, but flexo is better on stretchable film. It’s also important to realise that flexo requires good all-round investment, at all stages of the workflow — press, pre-press, inks and all the associated consumables.
KODAK FLEXCEL Solutions has a new home now — Miraclon. What are you expecting from the new company?
The name is new, but in a way nothing has changed. The team is the same one we have grown to trust over the last nine years, and Miraclon possesses the same innovative imaging science that were developed by Kodak. What’s different, however, is Miraclon’s 100% focus on the flexo space, plus a flatter corporate structure that makes the company more agile and able to respond quickly to what’s happening in the market.
When we first invested in FLEXCEL NX we thought we were just investing in a good technology that would help part of our business, but along with the system we also got superb technical and marketing support. We don’t expect this to change!