By Dr. John Anderson
As I travel throughout the US & Canada these days, the conversations often turn from flexo, to digital printing as the technology for the future. If you listen to the marketing hype then digital is poised to take over from flexo as the process of choice for packaging. I guess one day this may be true, but is it really imminent?
What makes me smile most about the conversations is the thought that it has to be one technology or the other, where in reality a combination of the two, producing products for the optimum cost and efficiency, is the most likely solution for a LONG time to come.
When I started my PhD back in 1993, researching screen printing at the University of Wales Swansea, it was a 3 year research project sponsored by the UK government and the Screen Printing Association, with 30 screen printer companies as members of the project group. The drive behind the project was the emergence of digital printing, and how it was being marketed to wipe out and replace the screen printing industry within a few years. Sound familiar? There were huge issues in the screen printing industry at the time, with companies experiencing, in some cases, waste in excess of 50% of all of the raw materials, high costs, and bottlenecks with the slowest of the major print processes. In reality a perfect target for the digital printing technologies.
Half way through the project, just 18 months later, all of the project member screen printing companies were still in business, and every one had added some form of digital printing to their business. Instead of eliminating all of the screen printing, it was used to replace the high waste loss making short runs and allow the screen printing process to be used on more profitable jobs. By combining the two, it allowed the printer to reduce costs and increase profitability. In fact many of the printers commented over time that the digital printing services helped to attract more new clients, who then also gave them their screen printing work as well, making digital a true friend and not a foe!
Today, 19 years later, digital now has a much larger % of these companies, in some cases 100% of the business, but in many others screen printing is still used where it has technical or economical benefits over digital in terms of ink film weight, specialty inks, investment costs, or a number of other reasons.
So as we look at the packaging market, can we expect the same to happen with flexo and digital printing? I think the simple answer is yes, but in a long time from now! Flexo is still a strong and rapidly growing print process with many benefits and advantages that will make it a much tougher to replace than screen printing, or even litho in commercial and book printing.
Digital printing has come a long way. The new technologies and presses promise new levels of productivity, but they still face challenges in speed, substrate compatibility, conversion requirements, and food contact regulations, etc. High speed continuous inkjet seems to be the most likely contender to address the speed and productivity and ultimately the food contact regulations will be solved without the high cost barrier laminations of today, but the challenge to take over from Flexo remains a significant one.
There are certainly parts of the market today that are better suited to digital technology; narrow web labels is a clear example. At the last Labelexpo over 40 companies promoted their versions of digital printing presses. This year in Chicago there are sure to be even more! The challenge is how to transition from short runs and variable data, to producing millions of labels, or shrink wraps, or pouches with fixed graphics, and be able to do it economically.
There are thousands of flexo presses in the market, most are already paid for, many running at speeds of 1000-2000 ft/min on a 50+” wide web CI press, or 300-800 ft/min on a narrow web press. To match the productivity of one new fast change wide web CI Flexo press will take 3 or more digital presses, with each digital press costing as much if not more than the Flexo press. The economics of the press costs and replacing existing equipment may be digital’s biggest challenge in the next 15+ years.
A key benefit of the digital press has always been no plates, and instant change overs, but the quick change sleeved flexo presses, standardized process printing, and minimal startup waste focus, has somewhat eliminated most of the benefits for digital for all but the shortest runs. Plus as more printers move to co-printing multiple versions of jobs side by side, for example 4 cookie varieties run side by side instead of 4 individual jobs at 4 across each time, this reduces the flexo plates used on this set of jobs to just 25% of before, and increases the run length to be 400% longer, lowering costs and increasing productivity.
Flexo has also gotten smarter, higher quality, faster, and more productive, raising the bar daily for the digital offerings. Flexo today can also match or better the quality of digital, a fact that was certainly not true 5 years ago, so quality is no longer a driver to choose digital. The amount of packaging in each supermarket or store, and the number of stores globally, means that the challenge is way beyond any of today’s digital printing presses.
In the near term one area that digital and flexo WILL work together is in hybrid systems. Combining flexo and digital in-line, with flexo printing the standard overall graphics, and digital taking care of the identification, ingredients, etc., especially for the number of languages in Europe, etc., This practice is already starting to be seen, but for mass volume commercial viability production must be at flexo speeds, and not slowed significantly by the digital printing. It is exciting to see digital print technologies coming into the packaging space now that are starting to make this a reality.
The next wave of enhancements for digital printing will include hybrid technologies combined on existing presses,that add variable data and QR codes to help drive customer interaction, or brand value in the perception of the end customer, or security information with offset and flexo presses for packaging, to enhance and/or protect the final product.
As a flexo industry we should not be afraid of digital printing at all, instead we should be looking at how can we leverage and use digital to grow and enhance our businesses, and give our end customers and brands more of what they are looking for.
I am looking forward to seeing many of you at Labelexpo in Chicago this year, one of the best places to see the latest and greatest in flexo and digital technologies, and judge for yourself where the future is heading.
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Have a wonderful day.