Twenty years ago, when water-based flexo matured and its UV sibling was gaining strength, digital label printing was the new kid on the block. Five years later it was viewed by flexographers as a challenge to the classic label press, and some were saying that flexo’s days were numbered. How wrong they were. Today the two processes are complementary, and the industry is enjoying economic health through the technological advances of both.
Label printing veterans will recall that flexo’s reputation half a century ago was rough: plates with big dots and low count anilox rolls in one or two colors on corrugated substrate, piles of makeready waste, cranked out on simple machines by cigar smoking operators with casual quality control. How we have changed. Makeready today is a marvel of economy, colors are endless, inks and substrates are versatile, dots are minuscule and high definition resolution is a daily achievement.
The decision to go with flexo is determined by several economic and production factors: length of runs, range of substrates and inks, speed requirements, finishing options, and the needs and demands of the markets served. Digital printing relies on the same input, and in most cases the differences in data make the choice clear.
Flexographic presses incorporate any number of finishing processes besides diecutting – cold or hot foil application, lamination, embossing and debossing, application of a plethora of coatings for protection and special effects, holographic placement, and a wide range of inspection systems. Offline converting equipment is in wide use, especially by digital printers, but flexo championed full inline converting a long time ago. Ultra high speeds? Been there. Multi-web construction? Done that.
The flexographic press today benefits from electronic job setup, the ubiquity of servo drives, 21st Century printing plates, anilox rolls that have changed the dot game immeasurably, and from the development of an expanded color gamut, which enables printing of just about any color using CMYK plus additional colors. The so-called hybrid press, which some maintain is still finding its footing, involves the marriage of digital inkjet and flexo in one platform.
Flexo’s challenges cannot be overlooked. Job setup can be long, prep waste is a thing, plates for each color come at a cost, frequent maintenance of complex machinery is required, and good press operators are harder to find in a changing industry landscape.
But in the long run, it comes down to the long run. Press time for a short run on a good flexo press can be achieved on today’s flexo machines, but for those long ones – and never forget that they are critical to the success of the label business – no other process comes close.