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Beating price pressures with efficient flexo

27/04/22

Grant Blewett looks at how current inflationary pressures bring productivity and return on investment into ever sharper focus for prepress and printers. But can efficiency really balance out the price pressures?

Whether brands, converters or prepress houses, players in the printed packaging industry are facing extraordinary and sustained inflationary pressure at the moment.

In the Flexographic Technical Association’s (FTA) recent flash poll on expectations for 2022, 80% of flexographic converters were most concerned about raw materials costs, with respondents reporting numerous supply chain issues and talk of economic corrections as inflation and rising prices bite.

In February this year, Flexible Packaging Europe magazine said substrate costs had continued to rise into Q4 2021, from coated paper to PET film; although, there were signs that some substrate prices were falling, for example for HDPE and LDPE. Meanwhile, ink prices show no sign of letting up, with forecasts also on an upward tick, driven by demand for raw materials outstripping supply and elevated freight costs.

“With more process control and higher productivity, growth in 2022 can still be profitable, even as margins are squeezed by cost pressures.”

That leaves the flexo community needing to find more ways to cut costs and boost productivity so there’s resilience in the face of price pressures, ideally right across the value chain.

Still growing
Meeting customers, we also know there’s lots of appetite to grow as they respond to increasing market demand. That was reflected in the FTA’s poll, where 78% of printers expect to grow in 2022. One of the key trends identified by judges in the recent Global Flexo Innovation Awards, sponsored by Miraclon, was the wealth of entries documenting conversion to flexo from other processes. This growing demand for flexo has come off the back of decades of process and quality improvements.

“How can that efficiency be realized, and that higher uptime delivered? The answer lies in your plate.”

To deliver these improvements has meant significant investment; in this inflationary market there’s an ever greater need to fully exploit all that investment and innovation in flexo, on every job. With more process control and higher productivity, growth in 2022 can still be profitable, even as margins are squeezed by cost pressures.

Productive print
In a print operation, every percent of uptime is highly prized. In the FTA poll, 88% of printers and converters put maximizing efficiency at the top of their to-do list.

How can that efficiency be realized, and that higher uptime delivered? The answer lies in your plate. Better plate processes and performance can reduce waste, maximize what you put into the whole production process and limit press stops, yielding benefits across the whole value chain. For a printer, eliminating just one press stop a day can save between €50,000 – €60,000 a year.

On the production floor, getting the press ready on-point is a crucial step in profitable production. Better on-press performance can both increase press latitude and eliminate unscheduled stops. That doesn’t just make each job more profitable, it frees up time on the press for other jobs, making a significant difference to the whole ROI of an operation.

Productive prepress
It’s no different earlier in the value chain, in the trade shops. Using automation software, for example, to optimize plate layouts can drastically improve plate utilization, reducing the number of plates needed. This not only cuts cost, but reduces energy consumption and solvent usage, helping to contribute to sustainability targets.

Automating plate layouts also reduces errors by minimizing human intervention, while delivering consistent print results when the supplied plates roll through the press. This means the savings add up in reduced callouts for onsite assistance.

So, even as brands are putting increasing pressure on their suppliers to adhere to specific sustainability standards, converters and trade shops don’t need to absorb additional financial costs if their platemaking actively contributes to lowering the environmental impact of the production process.

How automation helps
There’s no doubt that technology is at the center of flexo transformation. Automation – technology guided process – is becoming more and more widely used, but it needs to be part of an efficient, optimized system to be truly beneficial in today’s market.

“In the market conditions we’re in, where our inputs are expensive, making efficient use of every input is essential, from ink usage to plate utilization. That’ll make a difference to the bottom line.”

Technology should be adding efficiencies right from prepress, whether it’s faster make-readies or fully optimized, accurate plates. As presses become more automated, the process to create plates should become more automated too, without a negative effect on press performance.

Prepress automation done well means plates that meet the higher quality brands expect today with less time spent in plate layout. And with the right plate technology printers can enjoy the full automation capabilities that press investment offers.

Much of the efficiency that comes from automation in plate layout is in labor savings. With labor shortages another operating pressure across the flexo community, not only does this maximize the people hours each shift, it also helps new entrants get up to speed faster.

Getting more from your plates
In the market conditions we’re in, where our inputs are expensive, making efficient use of every input is essential, from ink usage to plate utilization. That’ll make a difference to the bottom line in trade shops and press rooms, whether you measure availability, performance and quality for overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), or are interested in what the ROI is on your capital spending.

We’re committed to working with the flexo community to keep driving that equipment and resource maximization from platemaking to on-press performance. It’s at the core of what our R&D team are working on when it comes to innovating within the KODAK FLEXCEL NX System, and what our technical support teams are focused on.

We see it as a partnership; we’ll only get efficient, streamlined, best-in-class flexo if we understand the pressroom and trade shop conditions, right down to the plant room specs at play. Even if prices pressures start to ease, as supply catches up with demand, creating a smoother, more efficient flexo process through better plate technology will remain a priority for us.

How the latest developments in the FLEXCEL NX System help printers and trade shops balance out costs pressures, helping you print profitably: https://www.miraclon.com/products-technology/flexcel-nx-system/