Editor's note: the following is excerpted from the newly released white paper from Smithers Pira, "Flexographic Printing: the 5 critical steps to drive your business forward."

Focused mainly on package and label printing segments, flexo has been the least affected of all traditional printing processes by the rise of digital on the one hand, and by the downturn in graphic printing markets in the West and also some transitional and even emerging economies in some instances. With corrugated packaging generally growing in line with the global economy, and flexible packaging taking share from other pack types, flexo has performed creditably and there are growth opportunities on offer around the world going forward. Only in labels is digital beginning to make real inroads into flexo, although in the longer term the trend towards shorter run lengths could have an impact in areas like cartons and flexibles, albeit mainly in niche areas at the margins.

Flexographic printing is continuing to improve as a result of various developments. These include advancements in plate technology and exposure methods, improved methods to mount plates, print unit and press design, anilox rollers, inks and curing/drying systems. Over the period to 2019 there will be continuing improvements in the process as suppliers continue to innovate to win share of a market that has growth prospects. Whether an individual flexographic printing concern will flourish or not in the new environment will depend to a large extent on its technological investment decisions and how it adapts to changes in technology.

With this in mind, Smithers Pira has identified a number of practices that are designed to take advantage of these changes in the future. The five critical steps to drive your business forward are:

•Optimize prepress workflow to boost quality and turnaround

•Improved plate materials and imaging—bring CtP in-house?

•Anilox technology, link to ink and plates to boost process color—develop maximum process color gamut to minimize press downtime

•Growing use of process color to replace multiple spot colors, reducing changeover and waste

•Better press control through use of independent servo motors to improve setup

Optimize prepress workflow to boost quality and turnaround. The greatest changes in flexo printing have been in prepress where plate technology has developed with enhanced imaging as flexo computer to plate (CtP) exposure has improved the reproduction quality with a greater dynamic range and more detail particularly in highlights. The most important trend at this time in the evolution of flexo is the continuing development of the prepress, or pre-production stage. Quality is improving, while the time and cost of approving artwork and producing plates is reducing.

Improved plate materials and imaging—bring CtP in-house? More flexo printers are taking control of prepress, including in-house CtP, as they establish recognized specifications and quality monitoring, as well as improve the performance and productivity of the process. There have been developments in flexo platemaking that have improved quality hugely, allowing valid comparisons with offset and gravure. Flexo computer-to-plate is now common, with laser ablation masks and direct exposure systems allowing fine details and text to be reproduced. In addition, there have been developments in screening in order to improve highlight and shadow details.

Anilox technology, link to ink and plates to boost process color—develop maximum process color gamut to minimize press downtime. Anilox rollers have changed significantly in recent years and are a major contributor to improvements across the process in terms of quality and consistency.minimize Replacing mechanical engraving of copper (chrome plated) and steel rollers with laser engraved ceramic surfaces transformed the consistency of flexo printing by stabilizing the ink supply. Surface materials and engraving continue to improve, with higher cell counts enabling finer detail on the plate to be reproduced. Higher cell volumes and cell configurations are helping to transfer more ink to the plate, while chambered doctor blade ink systems are becoming more widespread. There are improved cleaning systems that keep the cells open, while lighter weight anilox sleeves loaded onto mandrels are replacing the cylinders with integral shafts.

Growing use of process color to replace multiple spot colors, reducing change-over and waste. Many converters are moving to change from multiple spot color printing to using process colors (in some cases extended gamut 6- or 7-color process) to match the required brands colors. This minimizes press downtime by reducing the number of ink changes, boosting press uptime and minimizing waste.

Innovations to improve wet-on-wet trapping by incorporating solvents are being developed. This is a result of process printing to recognized standards becoming more widely accepted. In radiation curing, the use of wet-flex technology (using a hybrid UV or EB formulation incorporating a solvent that evaporates, to aid wet-on-wet trapping) has been in operation for several years. This is improving the achievable process color quality, while the prepress stage now has many tools allowing spot to process color conversion to give good color matching. Standardized printing conditions have developed, allowing brands more predictability when using converters in several locations. The objective of the standards is to help reduce cycle time and minimize rework through improved process control.

Better press control through use of independent servo motors to improve setup. Modern flexo presses are capable of fast changeovers with waste measured in meters per color printed. Italian narrow web press manufacturer Nuova Gidue is refining its “Digital Flexo," using high levels of control to automate press setup. It employs eight servo motors on each print unit with a high definition camera reading register and pressure marks for fully automated adjustments.

Nuova Gidue is championing significant improvements in flexo production to boost the proactive uptime of presses. It has developed a team of interested suppliers including workflow, substrate, ink and plate suppliers under the banner of “REVO, Digital Flexo Revolution” with the aim of developing the flexo process to compete in label and narrow web packaging where digital alternatives are improving rapidly.

Among the published objectives of the project are: 90% (or better) real production uptime for the press; 10 meters or less substrate waste per job change; 10 minutes or less press downtime for setup and changeover; high production speeds and consistent productivity for mid and long runs; and just in time, fast turnaround of short run work.

The project intends to help flexo compete with digital technology, particularly for short runs where digital is taking share. High quality print, increased efficiency, higher productivity and improved sustainability are the desired results to boost the competitive position of flexography.

Smithers Pira survey of trends in the flexographic printing industry

Ahead of the production of this white paper, Smithers Pira conducted a major research program over the summer of 2014, consulting on major trends and pressures impacting flexo converters. Of the 152 respondents to the survey, 100 were from North America with the remainder mainly based in Europe and South and Central America. Almost half of all respondents were printer/converters, a large proportion of which were active in flexible packaging and labels, with others including major consumables and machinery suppliers.

The prevailing experience of converters is that output grew steadily in 2013 and continued to do so during the first half of 2014. Going forward, there is little indication that flexo will be affected by competition from other print process options for work—unlike in the graphic printing sphere, for example, where digital is making significant inroads.

However, in terms of key trends affecting the industry, growing demand for shorter  print runs was cited as the single most important factor by survey respondents ahead of eight other trends, with rising competition from digital print (which has benefited from the shift to shorter runs) ranking fourth. In terms of technologies, meanwhile, increased automation including the adoption of direct-drive servo-controlled presses was regarded as the most important development ahead of seven others.

Smithers Pira also has published The Future of Flexographic Printing in a Digital World: market forecasts to 2019. Based on exclusive primary research and leveraging Smithers Pira's network of contacts and industry reports, it is the definitive market report for the flexographic printing industry. Included are quantitative global market sizes and forecasts; detailed market trends for end-use sectors; market breakdown by end-use sector, geographic region, and suppliers to 2019; and key drivers and market trends that will shape the future of the flexographic printing industry. Ordering information is available here.