Can you give some examples of how flexo is helping brands get what they need from promo print?
On a recent trip to the US I saw aluminum beer cans that weren’t printed directly. That was interesting. Normally cans are printed with a rotary indirect letterpress method, which requires huge print runs. But I saw two cases where the can was sleeved, in a flexo-printed shrink sleeve. I saw another example where the can was covered with an adhesive label that was printed with flexo. This approach allows for smaller runs, so a product like beer in cans can be used as a promotional piece.
Then there’s the different effects flexo can achieve. Flexo can help with creating a 3D hologram effect, for example, by embedding tiny elements or printing refractive surfaces. And because it can release a very thin and controllable layer of ink, it makes for better usage of finishing techniques like varnish too.
But there are other reasons flexo is well suited to limited edition packaging print. What trends do you see that suggest a printer would be better off using flexo?
Every statistics and graph I’ve seen shows the demand for shorter runs and color changes increasing. So the amount of job changes customers are expected to make now can be very demanding. We hear numbers of 20 to 50 or even 60 job changes per shift, which is unbelievable. That kind of number can make the printers go crazy over the extra time it requires – if they’re not approaching their work in the right way.
According to one press manufacturer, most of the problems facing its customers related to them having to stop the press because something was wrong with the colors. These stoppages are probably even more important in short-run promo printing than in any other printing, but again they only happen because the printing system hasn’t been calibrated correctly.
Flexo can now handle process control print, which is the direction everything is now heading. As promos are short runs, they benefit greatly from very well calibrated and known printing conditions, and process control allows the characteristics of the press to be fully predicable, as they’re maintained within certain values, such as Extended Color Gamut (ECG).
Looking now at the client brands themselves, what are their prime concerns when it comes to their promotional packaging print?
Brands typically seek to achieve certain goals without possibly spending more money. They want the ability to do more with less.
Things are definitely heading in the direction of compostability, recyclability and biodegradability. We had one brand that wanted to print labels on a craft paper that was glossy on one side but rough and uncoated on the side that would be printed. They needed the material to comply with environmental standards, while still pushing that quality.
Flexo is very good at handling these rougher substrates, as it can be calibrated to run with different ink volumes. And it boasts a wider variety of ink types than any other printing system, from water-based inks, electron beam and UV inks with LED curing, to a range of solvent-based inks.
We hear a lot of talk about the rise of digital and the potential threat to flexo that it represents. Do you see that as a real concern?
The winning thing here will be in hybrid systems, the integration of digital and conventional printing. If you’d walked around LabelExpo this year, every conventional press you saw was equipped with a digital element, and vice versa. A digital press requires a conventional printing station to do finishing effects like varnish, or the application of cold foil or holograms. The key is being able to rely on a consistent and predictable printing system. And that means flexo.
Similarly, the majority of offset presses today are sold with at least one flexo printing station within it, for applications like varnish or coating. Take cast and cure, an application involving an engraved plate made on a metallic surface, that squeezes a transparent varnish. The result is a varnish with a structure that reflects the light in a different way and creates a hologram effect. It’s not flexo, but you need a flexo printing system to lay down the transparent layer of the varnish on the substrate.
Finally, how do you see the future for flexo?
Bright. Brands demand quality, and packaging products are expected to catch the attention of buyers with ever more eye-catching graphics. The number of consumers has increased, so the variations in product have gone up exponentially. This is one of the reasons we have shorter and shorter runs, and increasing quality demand. And more and more printers are working hard to deliver that.
This drive for quality will only continue. Printers will need to adapt their printing system to the demand of the brands. Environmental concerns will force brands to evaluate new substrates and new approaches to sustainability. And their printers will have to implement a method that allows for the introduction of a new component in the shortest time, and the ability to get very accurate and predictable results.
The need is out there and flexo can meet it.
Stefano d’Andrea is a flexographic process trainer and consultant, as well as technical expert for FTA-Europe and Atif, European and Italian flexographic technical associations.
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