The future is flexible
Having grown in popularity and application to become one of print’s major players, flexo is now facing up to a different challenge: attracting a new generation of practitioners to take the technology to the next level…
Few innovations in print have expanded quite as far or as fast as flexo in recent years. The technology’s growth has been spectacular: according to The Future of Flexographic Printing Markets to 2025, flexo’s global value was worth $167.7 billion in 2020, and is forecast to grow at 1.6% year-on-year. That means by 2025, flexo will be worth $181.1 billion – with flexo plate sales predicted to increase by 3.1% year on year.
That’s a meteoric rise by any metric, but, in many ways, the potential in flexo is only just being discovered. With the demand for packaging growing exponentially every year, especially in key markets in Asia, customers are recognizing the edge flexo can give them – whether in terms of sustainability credentials, versatility, press speed, shorter print runs, or just plain old value-for-money.
“Flexo has really come of age over the last 10 years,” says Paul Callaghan, an industry veteran with more than three decades of print experience, including as publisher of Print Innovation Asia Magazine and Chairman of the SHIIFT_20 Conference.
“People now see the advantages flexo has in quality, sustainability and speed. There will always be times where offset, gravure or digital are more suitable, but flexo has now established itself as an important part of the packaging industry. I think the future looks very promising.”
Back to school
But like many industries, flexo is facing a challenge over the coming years: how to attract the brightest young minds into the industry to help build on that success.
“Reducing the training gap is probably the biggest opportunity to make an impact,” says Hersh Lulla, Miraclon’s marketing manager in Asia.
“Here in Asia, the touchpoints between the flexo industry and educational establishments aren’t as well established as they could be. That’s where companies like ours can play a more active role in reaching out to fill the gaps and promote flexo.”
“We’re always working on something new for our customers, which for a new graduate like me is really exciting.”
Paul Callaghan agrees. “The lack of training facilities in Asia is a big obstacle, especially since the setup costs in flexo are high. When staff move companies, skills don’t get passed on, and that investment is lost. That’s something flexo needs to fix if it wants to continue its growth.”
One solution is for print providers to work more closely with universities and colleges to show students what a career in the industry could look like, what it offers and help provide access to the latest print technology.
“That’s exactly the kind of investment we need more of,” says Chip Tonkin, Director of the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design & Graphic at Clemson University, one of the few U.S. colleges that incorporates flexographic-specific modules into its degree programs.
“Presence on campus makes a huge difference, to be honest. Historically, the companies that have been most successful in recruiting our best students are those that have gone out of their way to get involved: running seminars, mentoring students, creating networks, identifying students with the interest and aptitude to succeed.
“Flexo needs to do a lot more of that if it wants to compete with the other big tech and engineering companies.”
Chip, who is a judge for the 2020/21 Global Flexo Innovation Awards, says investment in equipment and technology is also important to enable students to learn the physical processes. “Having the right technology and utilizing it properly in the overall curriculum is critical – our program only works if we get this right, and given the pace of change, it is a challenge to keep up.”
“Here in the States, there’s definitely an awareness gap,” says Alex Bonemeyer, a product marketing specialist at Miraclon’s campus in Oakdale, Minnesota. “I don’t remember a lot of discussion about print as a potential industry during my engineering degree, let alone flexo.”
“All of our students have worked with flexo across several courses at Clemson, and they understand the fundamentals, but we need help in convincing them that this knowledge can be leveraged for a wide variety of career paths,” says Chip.
“The biggest obstacle is that printing is not well known enough in the graduate job market. But this is such a big industry with many areas for specialization.”
“Honestly, I think companies need to start thinking of new talent recruitment in much the same way they do with potential customers. These graduating students have a lot of great options, and if the flexo industry wants their attention they are going to have to be recruited aggressively.”
Chip adds that he’s not talking about money, instead students need to hear a compelling narrative about what their career path would look like.
“Students need to understand how the knowledge and experience that they have – and will gain – will benefit them in their future roles, and they need to feel like that path is going to take them into roles that they want to be in.”
One area many students are interested is some sort of marketing role.
“If companies could come up with a path that gets them there at some point down the road and do a good job explaining why those experiences would be critical for them to be ready for that role, many of our students would be open to it.
“That is just not what is happening now – most companies just lay out the role that needs to be filled and assume the opportunity speaks for itself.”
Having recently completed his MBA, Alex Bonemeyer is a new entrant to the industry, so he’s well-placed to recognize what flexo needs to do to attract graduates like him. In Alex’s case, he was the beneficiary of a special Miraclon recruitment program, which set out to find MBA graduates with an engineering background. “That kind of initiative is a really good idea,” Alex says. “I hadn’t thought about print as a potential industry once I graduated, but once I talked to the recruiters and saw how much potential there was, I applied.”
“Getting former graduates into universities to talk about their own educational journeys and career paths really helps.”
Carlos Campos, a recent graduate who works in the operations department at Miraclon’s Mexican base in Guadalajara, gives similar advice. “The biggest obstacle is that printing is not well known enough in the graduate job market. But this is such a big industry with many areas for specialization.
“Miraclon products are full of unique technology, and our commitment to R&D is very exciting. We’re always working on something new for our customers, which for a new graduate like me is really exciting.”
Another key factor in encouraging interest is having younger, more diverse employees out and about inspiring the next generation, says Chip: “Getting former graduates into universities to talk about their own educational journeys and career paths really helps. If a young graduate can see how she will fit in with a company, that can make a big difference to how she will view the opportunity.”
Mind the gap
Along with better educational links and increased graduate engagement, there’s another area that flexo needs to focus on – the need for on-the-job training once graduates enter the industry.
“There are things we can do now to help the transition, through mentoring, online courses, knowledge sharing”
Hersh Lulla explains. “That’s a challenge in Asia. With fewer players in flexo, the expertise and knowledge is limited to a smaller section of the industry, so there’s little opportunity to learn about it unless you work somewhere that’s already involved in flexo.
“That will change over time as the industry grows, but there are things we can do now to help the transition, through mentoring, online courses, knowledge sharing and so on. Miraclon is committed to helping future flexographers in their journey.”
Ensuring that education and training doesn’t simply stop once graduates enter the industry is critical. Initiatives like the UK’s European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA UK) online training program together with hands-on training, that leads to CertEFIA and DipEFIA qualifications, or the FIRST certifications from the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), are valuable. They can provide that professional development and training journey, which can encourage graduates to commit to an industry.
As the flexo industry continues to grow, inspiring the next generation to join the flexo community will be crucial if flexo technology is to continue to fulfil its potential. The good news is, we can start today just by getting better about telling future hires exactly what that potential looks like.
Read about Chip Tonkin's role as a judge for the 2020/21 Global Flexo Innovation Awards