Flexographic printing continues to grow in the label and package printing industry. The advent of new technologies and automated features have modernized the process, which still accounts for the majority of printed labels today.
Flexo presses and a wide range of consumables have improved over the years. These mechanical advances have resulted in quicker make-ready times, less material waste and more predictability and consistency with elements like color. Prepress and plate technology has evolved, as well, with materials, mounting tapes, sleeves, anilox rolls, doctor blades, curing all improving in quality.
“For narrow web printing and converting, the use of flexo printing is still growing because of its quite remarkable advantages for label printers and converters,” says Matthias Marx, head of marketing, Gallus. “The flexibility and productivity, combined with high quality, are the reasons that a whole range of applications for various market segments are produced with flexo presses, ranging from self-adhesive labels, glue-applied labels, sleeving like wrap-around and shrink sleeves up to in-mold labels.”
Flexo plate technology in general is playing a significant role in fueling a lot of the advancements, says Rory Marsoun, director Deployment COE – Prepress and Platemaking, Esko. “The introduction of flat-top dots, produced in different ways by a number of vendors, has helped improve print consistency and overall quality significantly,” he says. “This, combined with advancements in press, ink and anilox technologies, has brought flexo printing to a level that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.”
In regards to flexo press technology, all the major players, from Bobst and Gallus to Mark Andy, Nilpeter, MPS, and Omet, have been developing new and enhanced printing presses. Mark Andy continues to build on its Performance Series platform, which the company describes as having “future-proof” capabilities. Mark Andy engineers and designers have focused on numerous improvements to provide a more accurate automated control system, faster press setup times and higher max press speeds. This is done while still maintaining the simplicity, reliability and flexibility to increase productivity and profitability.
Nilpeter, meanwhile, has equipped its presses with Clean Hand Technology. The company’s FA press is directly targeted at the modern press operator and the workforce of tomorrow.
The flexographic process will continue to become more automated, especially as companies struggle to find skilled workers to run their presses. In addition, data and connectivity will help attract the next generation of flexo employees.
“The industry is well aware of the lack of skilled press operators,” says Steve Schulte, vice president of sales, Mark Andy. “It’s pretty straightforward: increased automation means that operators are required in fewer numbers, and can operate more efficiently, effectively and with less knowledge than operators traditionally need with more mechanical equipment. The use of software enhances the automation possibilities for flexography. Simple user interfaces, greater flexibility and increased control are just some of the reasons why flexo machines are having a major impact on productivity.”
What should label converters look for when investing in a flexo press? “There should always be a balance between user-friendliness, robustness, quality and efficiency,” says MPS’ Weyermann. “Even if the price of a press is a bit on the higher side, it’s worth looking at the ROI. An MPS press may not be the cheapest available, but if it saves work, waste, and therefore money, it’s definitely worth the investment. Productivity is one of our key pillars, as we’re focusing on the customer’s end result. We strive for the most optimal use of our machines in order to get the very best result.”
Application range is worth assessing, too. “Gallus is always working together with customers to optimize the machine systems, as well as the applications produced on them,” comments Marx. “Gallus is continually reviewing and optimizing in order to offer stable running, productive and cost-efficient machine systems to our customers.”
Of course, the ability to produce high-quality labels can only go as far as the selected flexo ink set. Suppliers have answered the bell, too. “The ink industry is fortunate to be quite diverse in applications,” notes Paulo Vieira, Flint Group’s R&D director for North America.
“Energy curable flexo inks have completely changed in the market: the higher strength, lower viscosity, and faster cure speeds of today could not have been imagined several years ago,” comments Bill Phillips, business development manager of liquid inks at hubergroup USA. “Acquisitions and mergers in raw material suppliers to the market have caused a slight decline in development of new raw materials from suppliers to meet our customers’ needs.”
The evolution of flexo inks is currently on full display, with ink sets featuring high performance under harsh demands. “Flexo inks have evolved in the past 10 years by moving from slower UV flexo presses to exceeding speeds of 600 fpm with newer presses,” says Andrew Wasserman, managing partner, Cyngient. “And the addition of combination presses that include UV LED curing lamps have had a big impact as well. We have seen some older flexo ink technology with higher viscosity and slower cure that still exists and creates problems for cure and poor adhesion for narrow web converters, which have newer, higher speed presses.”
“Both water-based and energy curable inks must continue to evolve in order to keep up with the technological advances being made with plates, sleeves, screening processes and anilox rolls, as well as the presses themselves,” adds Jim Krstulic, national account manager – Envelopes, and product manager – Tag and Label, for INX International Ink Co. “Water-based inks, in particular, must improve and increase pigment strength, transfer properties, press stability and overall resolubility. This is due to the higher line plate screens being used more frequently in today’s industry.”
The future of flexo presses will continue to be categorized by increased automation and adherence to Industry 4.0 technologies. The next wave of innovation will focus on promoting efficiency and streamlining a converter’s operations. For example, Nilpeter’s Landberg states a modern FA-line press will replace several old, manual machines.
Manufacturers also envision converters going wider with their presses as they explore newer revenue opportunities such as flexible packaging.
Bobst, for example, offers high levels of automation on its inline flexo presses to eliminate variables that can be caused by operator intervention and to deliver non-stop production with only minimal waste of time, substrate and ink. The Bobst M5 is an example of a highly automated, inline flexo press that prints on any substrate and allows any type of label production while also being operator-friendly and easy to run. Some of Bobst’s newest developments include DigiColor closed loop color control, which features color sensors on each print station for automatic color management in real time and reductions of ink usage. It works together with Bobst oneECG extended color gamut technology for the reproduction of up to 95% of Pantone shades with a 7-color setup.
“I believe the next area of technological advancement in flexographic printing will be in the ink delivery system,” Schulte says. “There have been some efforts already in this area industry wide but have yet to prove practical in daily industrial use. This will be a fertile area of development as we continue to strive for waste reduction, environmental sustainability, operator safety and even better print quality.”