Earlier this year we looked at the shift to more and more work with new substrates in flexography – in How flexographic printing can unlock new packaging potential. Here we focus on three industry perspectives in a series of short interviews…
Rising regulation and costs pressures… Anand Patel, Director at Pentaflex, on what’s driving packaging innovation in India and using flexographic printing to deliver on changing brand needs
From your point of view, what’s the main issue driving substrate innovation in India?
There was a time when we didn’t talk about different types of substrates with customers at all. But that’s changing. Companies and brands are looking really hard at sustainability. There’s a sense of urgency because many governments, including in India, are becoming more and more proactive. But India is still fundamentally a volume driven market, and price is of utmost importance. That’s something that can hinder innovation.
Where have you seen the biggest shifts in substrate use?
Frozen food is maybe the best example. It doesn’t require heavy packaging because it’s stored in a cooler environment. The shelf-life doesn’t come from the packaging itself; it comes from the environment that it’s stored in. So we’ve seen a huge shift there: I’d say 90% of our frozen food clients are now using only surface printed polyethylene – nothing else. And of course, surface-printed PE is effectively 100% recyclable. That’s one sector where we’ve seen a huge shift. The challenge we have is that for some products – such as a bag of chips, for example, no other packaging is going to offer the same shelf life at the same price point as the traditional laminate structure people are using right now.
What are the big challenges in your opinion?
In India, concepts like biodegradability, compostability and recyclability are still very new. Trying to find a way to implement these ideas is going to take time. Waste collection and recyclability are the big challenges here. Just changing the packaging is not going to help unless it is segregated at the user level, collected and recycled. What’s missing at the moment is the financial incentive for the waste to be collected, segregated and recycled properly.
Laurel Brunner, Managing Director at Digital Dots, on shifts in the flexographic printing industry to single-material packaging and process digitization
What’s the biggest change that’s happening right now in the world of packaging?
For me, the move to replace plastics with paper is the big thing. Recycling is obviously important, and the whole awareness of the damage that plastics do is something most big brands are very sensitive about, so they’re trying to move away from that. Products that are traditionally made as complex laminates can now be made with single materials. They still do the job they’re supposed to do, but they use paper – which is recyclable. It’s an interesting area, but it’s still early days.
Are there any other trends you’re following?
The other trend that’s important to consider, I think, is flexographic printing with ECG, extending the core CMYK ink set without having to buy special inks. That’s a big trend because it saves money and it saves waste. But also from a producer point of view, it makes sense because it costs less.
Is there a technological development that really stands out for you?
In terms of technology change, the most active area is substrates. Then, I’d say process digitization throughout the packaging supply chain, so that brands and users are more closely connected than ever before. Brands don’t just use the package to communicate information, and consumers don’t expect just to see the package. Everyone expects more.
What do you think are the main challenges facing the industry over the next few years?
In general, the challenges are going to be in supply chains and logistics management. One of the biggest problems flexographic printers and brands face is how to manage that supply chain. Do you continue to take the risk of having long, drawn-out supply chains – or do you start looking at shorter supply chains where you have more control and more reliability? The problem with that is often higher costs. I think you’ll see a lot of innovation in using AI and digital technologies to manage supply chains better.
Rodney Pennings, Director of Sales at PCMC, a global converter equipment manufacturer, on the narrower operating window some substrates have and the flexographic printing advantages in bringing down production costs
What are the main challenges for flexographic printers of working with some of the newer substrates on the market?
From my perspective, I’d say the machine consistency needs to be much more precise. Previously, the substrates we used had very wide operating windows, with a lot of variability – whether it’s the plates, the impression, the inks or how your dryers work. You could run your machines all day, limit to limit. Many of the new substrates don’t have those same operating margins, so our machine setup needs to be very precise. It’s usually the shrink wraps, and the Cryovac® low density polyethylenes – those tend to be more challenging in my experience.
How are you addressing those challenges?
We’re building a lot of artificial intelligence into our equipment these days, especially around impression and register settings. We actually have algorithms that can look at how the machine is running and tell you when you’re running out of standard. That has two benefits: it helps operators learn more quickly, and allows them to build up from a lower skill set from the start.
How can flexographic printing help with that?
Well, the cost is a major benefit. We all know that offset used to have the advantage of higher print qualities. But because of advances in plate technology, and advances in the press performance, like deck stability and precision designs, the quality of print available on a flexographic printing machine is now nearly at the level of, if not the same as, offset.
So when the quality is the same – well, that’s where the economics of flexo really come into their own. That’s causing a lot of people to make the switch.
Where do you see the big cost advantages?
For most printers, 50-60% of their ink buy is white ink. So if you can lay it down more evenly, or find ways to use less of it, that’s a win. With Miraclon’s FLEXCEL NX plates, you get a nice, even surface coverage that allows you to get good results with less ink. And if you’re using less ink, it’s going to cost the end customer less to run.
How PureFlexo Printing gives unprecedented control over unwanted ink spread, expanding the print operating window