Director of Advanced print applications at Miraclon, Dr. John Anderson has spent more than 12 years working on breakthroughs and support for flexo customers. He spends his time working with printers striving to provide a better packaging print experience for brands. We talked to him about how flexo squares up to brands’ key packaging concerns, its advantages over other print processes and why it’s nowhere near finished innovating in the packaging print world.
Is there a difference between small and big brands in terms of the support they require?
The small brands often want more help and advice upfront. They tend to work directly with their pre-press partner and rely on them to provide consultancy. Companies like Procter & Gamble (P&G) have a team of people working with the supply chain, with the color management for example, they understand that side. And we can work alongside their technical team to introduce innovations.
We’ve worked with some of the largest global brands. For them, consistency is all important and control is key. They often give their designers a color gamut and certain colors they can work with – the designers know not to go outside those colors. That’s how they manage the variation – controlling the design and controlling the inks at the printers. For smaller companies that’s harder to do. The unlimited range of colors may look nice on the screen, but in printing it’s very hard to do consistently.
One thing that is universal is the need for design freedom when it comes to graphics and image content. People used to think they had to simplify the design for flexo with less challenging images and graphics. With today’s flexo, very high res images and detailed fades are completely possible, so designs don’t need to be ‘dumbed down’ any more.
How does flexo benefit brands in terms of print run flexibility?
Recently I worked on a project with a major brand owner to support them converting production of some of their ranges from gravure to flexo. They have huge runs – 20-30 tons a run, a lot of film. But they want to change their designs more often, with features and promotions to help drive sales. They want to be able to rotate quickly between standard packs and promo packs. When I first started working in flexo 20 years ago, the brands I worked with typically aimed to change elements of their packaging every 25 weeks or so. Now it’s down to every six to eight weeks, sometimes every three weeks in the middle of a holiday season or major sporting events.
And flexo really suits that. It has the cost-effectiveness of a conventional print process, with the flexibility to accommodate short runs – and these days, excellent quality. I know that when we talk about short runs everyone immediately thinks of digital, but for packaging and the quantities required, even for a ‘short’ run, digital is typically too slow and not cost-effective. If you want 30,000-40,000, flexo really wins; it’s more economical. Major brands are often in the millions or billions.
What about color reproduction?
20 years ago graphics for flexo printed jobs were quite basic. Colors were strong, but, without great register the opportunity for detailed image content was limited. It didn’t have the ability to really do great process printing, so the resolution was low and images looked grainy. It struggled with contrast, which is what really attracts the eye. In the last five years, we’ve focused quite a lot on contrast from an innovation perspective. Advances we’ve made in changing and controlling ink transfer at the micro level during printing have changed the game. It’s now possible to print a really smooth thin ink layer with strong colors – but also deliver very high contrast for process images.
Brands are really starting to appreciate that they can use high definition photorealistic images they didn’t think were possible to reproduce with flexo. There’s been a steady shift upwards in linescreen used for printing. That’s great for image reproduction, but it also brings challenges with process control and print latitude in production. The challenge now is for innovators like Miraclon to find ways to help brands deliver that same shelf appeal but in a really robust production environment.
Sustainable packaging is more important to brands now than ever. What advantages does flexo have over other processes in that regard?
It comes down to a couple of key areas around the versatility of the flexo process: the ability to accommodate a huge range of substrate surfaces and weights, combined with the advances we’re seeing in the development of water-based ink systems. With gravure, or offset, or flexo, we’re transferring ink to the surface. The problem with more sustainable substrates – recycled versus virgin paper – is it’s much rougher. The surface isn’t smooth, so it’s harder to print on.
With offset it’s a very, very thin plate, so it can’t deal with the highs and lows in substrate. Gravure is similar, it likes smooth substrates. Flexo has sufficient height in relief from the plate, so has the ability to push into these substrates and transfer the ink into the low and the high spots. Flexo has a big advantage on recycled substrates. As I mentioned before, we are really focused on harnessing and refining that ink transfer capability – carrying ink on the surface of the plate while transferring a thin even layer, increasing the ability to deal with these ‘highs and lows’ without variation in color.
Are there any new trends you’re seeing within the flexo landscape?
There’s a lot happening in inks. Most flexo packaging is done with solvent inks. But there’s movement towards water-based ink and exploration with EB – electron beam ink – a virtually solid curing ink.
And in substrates. Major brands like PepsiCo have publicly stated that they are driving to more recyclable solutions by 2025 all over the world. Mono-material solutions have the benefit that you can just drop all the bags in a vat of molten plastic. The plastic will melt and be reusable, and the ink floats to the top to be removed and be incinerated. That’s coming. Those plastics tend to be harder to print on, with a rougher less attractive surface for the ink, but modern flexo and particularly KODAK FLEXCEL NX really suits that. The PepsiCo’s of the world drive the innovation, and then, in time, everyone else benefits from it.
How does flexo rate on the innovation scale, compared to other print processes?
Flexo is in the middle of a major period of innovation, with equipment and on press consumables advancing quickly. That’s what makes flexo such an exciting area to be in.
Flexo is growing. Advanced flexo plate technology is one key enabler for the growing quality and consistency of brand packaging. Now, all print processes occupy a level playing field for quality and that’s great news for brands, giving them the freedom to choose print processes based on cost, turnaround time, substrate requirements and vendor relationships – just the way it should be. Meanwhile we’ll stay focused on further developing flexo to help brands, big and small, achieve their sustainability goals while meeting their increasingly demanding cost targets.