The challenges facing all industries in 2020 were many. With no let-up in sight during the first part of this year, what should flexographers focus on to win in 2021?
Chief Commercial Officer at Miraclon, Grant Blewett, says that distribution and consumer buying behavior will be key challenges for the industry in 2021, with the majority of the packaging converter industry still “running at capacity”.
“The community is looking for higher and higher levels of efficiency in their press room, running presses faster, running presses for longer, running presses with less changes. Where we are focused is on bringing that very high level of optimization and productivity to press rooms.”
“There’s so much demand and we’ve got to make sure we get that out of the factories in the time that the brands need it.”
Last year, a whitepaper from the German flexographic printing association, The DFTA, said that brands were increasingly expecting agility from the packaging print industry.
“Time to market is the key phrase for brand owners, says Professor Dr Martin Dreher, of the DFTA. “Once they have agreed their design they want it to be on the shelf the next day. That might not be possible, but we are talking days, and even if we compare it to digital, if you have a flexo press available you can make flexo plates today within hours and theoretically deliver material the next day.”
“One of things you need to do with make-ready and shortening make-ready is to have everything within the process repeatable and consistent”
This need for speed and efficiency extends to different run lengths – from short, low volume, to long-run orders.
For Global Flexo Innovation Awards (GFIA) judge Jason Goode, even in 2020, flexo’s benefits were encouraging companies to switch from gravure to flexo for long-run items. “In the next 10 years, based on what I’ve seen here in Australia, we’ll see a switch out of gravure into flexo,” he explains. “The big volumes within the industry are with the long-run commodity items – things like toilet paper, frozen veg, frozen potatoes and the chip aisle.”
Catherine Green, Product Support Manager at Miraclon, says hectic production schedules mean it can be difficult to monitor and maintain plate consistency which is a key part of staying efficient and keeping quality high, particularly with longer runs. But simple steps can be followed, she says, to keep plates at their optimum.
“Preparing plates correctly makes a real difference,” she continues. “This includes properly setting back exposure, checking imager performance, monitoring feature formation in the main exposure, verifying processing parameters, ensuring dimensional stability through drying, and confirming post exposure and light finishing times.”
“Although some of these steps are commonly overlooked, following them consistently will increase uptime on press, while ensuring long-life print performance.”
Published in 2020, Smithers’ ‘Future of Flexographic Printing to 2025’ report found that despite brand SKU rationalization, consumer trends and buying behaviours continued to drive the need for shorter, more customised print runs.
With the pressure of increased print demand, a reduced workforce, and supply chain and logistic challenges still looming large, achieving fast make-ready times and operating efficiently can be even more important for short print runs but isn’t always easy.
Talking to printers in 2020, GFIA judge Stefano d’Andrea found maintaining quality while meeting fast turnaround times was a common issue. His advice is that putting in time to standardize processes in advance pays off when it comes to achieving quality and speed.
“The best way to tackle the issue is to really know the process before printing,” he explains. “I train people to think across three pillars: understanding every component and variable in the system and how they work; understanding how to interact with colors, related to the measurement, evaluation, and color management.”
Miraclon’s Steve Smith, Principal Consultant – Advanced Print Applications, says that ensuring colors approved at the packaging design stage are replicated on press – using digital tools to create color fingerprints – having reliable plates, and how ink is applied to the substrate are all key aspects of standardization. On shorter print runs, make-ready time could account for as much as 150% of the total press time for a job.
“One of things you need to do with make-ready and shortening make-ready is to have everything within the process repeatable and consistent,” he explains.
“When it comes to ink, that efficiency can be achieved through quickly obtaining a smooth laydown. With flexographic printing, if you’ve got smooth laydown of the solids it actually enables you to have lower impression which then gives you greater latitude and less defects caused by over impression.”
Stefano d’Andrea goes on to point out that speed and efficiency aren’t the only benefits of an organized and controlled process. When the operational pressures of the pandemic eventually ease, the concerns consumers and brands have around sustainability will resurface, potentially even more powerfully than before. Flexo printers need to be ready.
“The calibration and control of the press help unlock benefits such as using fewer layers of ink and lower energy take for drying and curing,” Stefano explains. “If flexo printers take the time to create standardization directions they can boost their efficiency and profitability while also improving their environmental footprint. No new technology required.”
Fellow GFIA judge Laurel Brunner – who also contributes to the Verdigris print sustainability project – agrees. “The full sustainability benefits of flexo can only be achieved with tight process control,” she explains, “from ink and substrates management through to machine set-up and control.”
The push towards virtual processes and automation continues and is an area many businesses are likely to explore further in 2021, to tackle current and future challenges.
“We were able to do virtual work with our customers to understand what they were doing”
For Grant Blewett, continuing success in 2021 will involve making the most of the digital support available to keep equipment running at a high level and plates performing at their best. He explains how Miraclon’s knowledge and “playbooks” for getting the best from plates, normally provided as support to customers onsite, has shifted to a remote service.
“A lot of the work we were doing to help customers optimize their plates on the press we took virtual. We were able to do virtual work with our customers to understand what they were doing, and invested in tools to be able to do some of that remote diagnostic we couldn’t in person.
“If we think about an area like preventative maintenance, we have equipped customers to complete tasks through guides and videos. Providing this support, when we can’t be onsite, has been incredibly important to us and we know it’s what flexographers need – more than ever at the moment – and meeting the needs of our customers remains our top focus.”
For obvious reasons, e-commerce trends will continue to influence brands packaging choices too, whether that’s designs that stand-out on screen, or tactile considerations for impact on delivery. Flexo’s benefits across substrate types will grow in importance in 2021 and primed printers can be ready to win business as a result.
In its look at packaging trends for 2021, Packaging News found that brands would be exploring a host of approaches this year, from textured packaging to mono materials for sustainability.
“There’s a massive difference to how people shop online and what their expectations are of the product once it gets to their home”
Grant says that packaging trends include moves towards down weighting, where the packaging weight is significantly reduced, to a single barrier layer allowing for easier recycling, as well as wider use of biodegradable and bio-sourced films.
“Flexography is perfectly suited to doing this. We can maintain very high quality print, in register, in a flexographic environment…because of the way flexography works the medium is supported through the print process.”
GFIA judge Chip Tonkin, of Clemson University, says the impact of e-commerce still isn’t being fully appreciated by the industry: “Retail packaging is still mostly designed from the perspective of how a retail shopper will react to it on the shelf,” he explains. “But there’s a massive difference to how people shop online and what their expectations are of the product once it gets to their home. So, brands will have two goals in mind for their packaging: what’s it going to look like in someone’s pantry, and how will that drive future purchases from the same brand?”
Fellow judge, P&G’s Ken McGuire agrees, the explosion of e-commerce is having a lasting impact on packaging: “We may now look explicitly to design for e-commerce first,” he says.
Plates and processes that can adapt to new design or substrate requirements remain essential in the packaging print toolkit. If the brand landscape is becoming more complicated, an efficient and adaptable printing platform will enable new requirements to be met profitably.
“This year is going to continue to be a challenging year for everybody, including our community; we know that for many companies there isn’t any spare capacity,” adds Grant. “Our energy will be focused on bringing that high productivity and optimization to the press room so printers can stay on top of the changes and challenges the year brings.”