Occasionally someone asks me if I regard any one printing process as better than the others, and if I’m feeling humorous, I reply by drawing an analogy with cars. To my eyes, flexo is like a tried-and-tested Land Rover: not flashy, but solid as a rock. Gravure reminds me of an old Audi: heavy and bold. I’m not quite sure about offset, but digital is a kicking motorcycle!
Of course, the fact is there is no “best printing process.” To introduce another analogy, it is a question of “horses for courses.” They have all — even digital — been around long enough for us to appreciate their respective strengths and weaknesses and to know what to expect from each under certain circumstances.
Both flexo and gravure out-perform offset on standard flexible packaging materials. For fastest time-to-market, digital beats them all, especially gravure. Offset and flexo enjoy good reputations on environmental impact and sustainability, whereas gravure is marked down for the VOC emissions from standard solvent inks. Judged on cost-per-square-meter, flexo performs best when you consider costs such as substrates, inks, image transfer media, waste and, of course, the overall investment required.
When it comes to quality, however, flexo used to struggle in comparison to the others but lately things have changed. The quality gap has narrowed considerably to the point where even the experts, at first sight and without being able to compare the overall “look and feel,” find it difficult to tell whether a package has been printed flexo or gravure. For the general public, I would argue the task is impossible.
This huge improvement is due to breakthroughs in the key components of flexo technology: the presses, the anilox rolls, and the plates (Kodak’s FLEXCEL NX technology in particular has played a key role in this transformation). The net result is that brand owners and packaging producers no longer face the difficult compromises between cost and finished quality. The decision whether to convert is now purely based on considerations such as production speed, applications flexibility, color management, substrate cost, start-up cost, volume impact, overall production costs, and so on.
The result is that we are seeing more and more instances of flexo encroaching into the territory of both digital — because short runs are economic now — and gravure — because plates such as FLEXCEL NX are more robust and therefore suited to longer runs. In recognition of this trend, “Conversion to Flexo” is one of the four key criteria against which submissions to Kodak’s new Global Flexo Innovation Awards will be judged.
As chairman of the independent judging panel, I can say that we are eagerly anticipating what entries will tell us about the reasons for conversion. Questions we expect answers to include: Are flexo printers promoting flexo conversion by encouraging their customers to give the process a try? On specific jobs, did conversion call for any compromises? How did the job compare with the previous printing method in terms of print quality, time-to-market, overall cost, environmental impact, etc? And why was the decision taken to convert in the first place?
The deadline for entries to the awards is 31st December this year. The findings will provide a unique insight into one of the major trends in package printing — knowledge that everyone in the packaging production supply chain will benefit from.