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The Gold Standard

By Robert Bittner

May 17, 2024

High quality, speed, efficiency, and long life are helping flexographic printing remain a top choice for today’s boxmakers

Flexographic printing has played an important role for corrugated converters since the 1940s and the introduction of the first mechanically engraved metering roll, known as an anilox. Since then, advances in ink technology, anilox development, and ever-improving machinery have secured flexo’s place on shop floors around the world.

Although the rise of digital printing over the past two decades triggered concerns regarding flexo’s future, flexo remains the gold standard of printing within the industry.

The Flexo Difference

The common metaphor for describing how flexographic printing works is to imagine a rubber stamp operating on a continuous loop. “You’re transferring a known quantity of ink to a plate, and that plate is transferring ink to some kind of substrate—and you’re doing this in the round,” says John Burgess, president of Pamarco.

“The quality of the printing is determined by the amount of ink you’re transferring to the plate and from the plate to the substrate,” he continues. “The thickness of the ink film being transferred dictates the quality, the fidelity, and the aesthetic look of the print.”

Achieving flexo’s high quality requires that several elements all have to work together. “The plates, the inks, and the machinery are all critical,” John says. “There isn’t just one component that dictates a good box.”

John and his twin brother, Dave Burgess, have been involved in one way or another with printing for most of their lives.

It began with their father, Alan Burgess, who worked for many years as the managing director of United Kingdom-based Cunliffe Whitham Holdings. He was primarily responsible for the engraving of gravure printing cylinders and steel embossing rolls—progenitors of today’s anilox rolls—for the decorative wallcoverings industry. In 1979, he accepted a position as executive vice president of sales for Pamarco Inc., and the family moved to the United States. “John and I both worked for Pamarco for many years,” Dave recalls. “I was vice president of sales, and he was vice president of manufacturing.”

Dave left Pamarco about 15 years ago. Today, he is sales director for JB Machinery, a supplier of products designed to enhance productivity and overall quality for die cutters and flexo machines.

Both brothers have built their careers serving the corrugated market with flexo-related products and services. In their experience, it is an industry that continues to embrace flexo’s benefits—and it’s not the only one.

In The Future of Flexographic Printing to 2025, a 2020 market report by David Zwang of Smithers, the global value of flexographic printing was predicted to rise from $168 billion in 2020 to $181 billion by 2025. Zwang’s research indicated that sales of new flexo presses would increase by 0.4% each year to 2025, complemented by what the report called “a thriving secondhand and press enhancement/refurbishment sector.”

Granted, these are relatively small increases. But they highlight the fact that flexographic printing continues to be a competitive choice even in today’s marketplace. There are several reasons why.

Speed. Modern flexo presses are capable of printing at up to 600 feet per minute. “On a flexo folder-gluer, a top printer, we’re seeing people hitting speeds of 20,000–25,000 boxes an hour,” Dave says.

Efficiency. Every flexo print run requires time and money to create printing plates, a step that might be considered a downside to flexo printing. Yet once those plates are made, they can be used many times over without additional expense. This means that larger print runs will have lower per-unit costs. And it results in lower overhead and less prepress time when running repeat orders in the future.

Efficiencies do not stop there. Many modern flexo presses include in-line converting capacity as well as other functions such as foil work, lamination, multilayer and reverse-side printing, and radio frequency identification insertion. Adhesives, coatings, and varnishes can also be applied in-line, streamlining the production process.

Durability. “These machines are built to last,” John notes. “There are a lot of flexos that have been running 20, 30, 40 years in the field. Old flexos never die; they just go somewhere else to play.”

“Once they’ve outlived their usefulness in the United States, they often take on a whole new life in other countries,” Dave adds. “Unlike older digital machines, older [flexo] presses were built like tanks. They are still working and may run for years and years. They’ve got fantastic side frames, and most of them are old-fashioned gear machines,” which may make them easier to maintain and repair than more modern, servo-driven machines that rely upon computer control.

Ongoing Innovation

The introduction of computer-controlled servo drives for flexo printers is just one example of how ongoing innovations are ensuring flexo’s relevance today.

“Look at the money that the larger equipment builders are putting into the flexo side of the business,” Dave notes.
“At one time, they supplied the printer
and die cut portion but let other companies produce the feeder, the stacker, the material-handling side of the process. Now they are investing big-time in machines that do it all, providing a true one-pass solution.”

That original equipment manufacturer commitment is leading to equipment that continues to get faster, more efficient, and easier to use, while delivering ever-improving levels of quality. “We now have the ability to print much higher line screens—using 800- and 1,000-line aniloxes, compared with a standard machine that uses a 250-line anilox—which allow us to put down much thinner ink films,” John says.

In addition, new accessories have improved customers’ ability to switch out different aniloxes, altering the types of graphics being printed. It is an advancement John describes as “massive.”

“Some people are working with turrets for their anilox rolls, allowing them to store two, three, or four anilox rolls in each print station,” John says. “With the press of a button, you can change the anilox. So, rather than taking a big lump of metal out—these aniloxes each weigh 1,500 pounds or so—and then exchanging it for another one, you can flip a switch and move from one anilox specification to another. That means you could go from a very high-graphics job for point-of-purchase sale displays to a very low-end e-commerce box just by flipping a switch. When I first got into this industry, there were some cases where it would have taken us 12 hours to change an anilox. Now it’s down to minutes.

“The latest innovation is the ability to print inside and outside the box. In days of yore, you’d have to double bump the sheet to print both sides. Now a lot of machines can top print and bottom print on the same machine, which is often aproposfor e-commerce, where you can print some nice graphics inside the box.”

Not every innovation is just about putting ink on substrate, however. “We’ve been working diligently on trying to produce products that reduce the role of the operator in the process,” Dave reports. “Because the reality is that every time we go into plants, we’re seeing a different operator. The labor market’s been challenging the last few years for boxmakers, so we want to do whatever we can to make the equipment easier to use and maintain regardless of how a plant may be staffed.”

Better Together

Once digital printing became a viable option for boxmakers, a popular topic for conversation was how digital printers would eventually replace mechanical presses, much as email has largely replaced traditional letters. It seemed like a reasonable possibility.

“In the old days, flexo’s printed graphics didn’t come out as well,” John recalls. “I think that helped digital get its jump in the market, to some extent.” But times have changed. “Today, flexo has a very good name.”

Yet the “either-or” discussion around digital versus flexo continues. Both Burgess brothers think there is a better way. “Some continue to look at flexo and digital as competing technologies rather than complementary ones,” John says. “My business is equity-owned. And my equity owners read all the financial papers and trades and say, ‘Digital’s going to take your business away in 10 years. What are we going to do?’ My response is that I think digital is a very complementary product to flexo. The ideal to me is a shop that has both digital and analog equipment—analog being flexo—and does the short-run stuff on digital and the long-run stuff on flexo. And there are a lot of shops like that out there now.

“The problem with the idea that digital is a replacement for analog printing, like flexo, is that the speed of technological change means that the digital printer you buy today could be obsolete in two years. Then what the hell are you going to do with that machine? Nobody wants an out-of-date digital machine.”

“Digital has its place,” Dave adds, “and it satisfies a particular niche market. But flexo remains the high-quality printing choice for long runs. If you look at some of the new machines, they are very accurate, high-productivity machines. And let’s not forget the value of making a box and then printing a very simple image on it; that is not something that’s going to be done with digital. The whole point of digital is to put a lot of colors on a sheet, to give yourself some brand presence. You’re not going to waste the money it costs to produce digitally on a simple brand box.

“Most of our customers in North America want a single-pass solution, where they can print, die cut, fold, and glue all in one run. It’s never been really popular to print and then take it offline—which is what you have to do with digital—and then come back and finish it, die cut it, or whatever you’re going to do to it. We’re not Luddites, though. I’m not going to say that digital will never come to replace other machines. But I believe its rate of growth is way slower than the digital machine manufacturers were hoping.”

Having said that, Dave is convinced that digital has a unique advantage over flexo when it comes to the future of the industry. “Digital printing is bringing younger people into our industry because of the front-end digital requirements,” he says. “It’s great to see some youth and talent coming into the business. And even though they’re coming in on the digital side, who knows where they’ll end up?”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.

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