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Pushing flexo ahead


Global Flexo Innovation Awards 2020/21 judge Laurel Brunner wrote about her experiences on the independent judging panel for the Verdigris Project. Read her account here...

“Fellow judges were packaging professionals with stellar credentials and a liberal dosing of PhDs, so the judging process was a humbling experience.”

I recently had the privilege of being one of the judges on the Miraclon Global Flexo Innovation Awards (GFIA). The GFIAs were set up in 2018 as part of the tenth anniversary celebrations for the Kodak Flexcel NX system. They celebrate companies using Flexcel to drive worldwide transformation in the flexo industry.

Fellow judges were packaging professionals with stellar credentials and a liberal dosing of PhDs, so the judging process was a humbling experience. Over the last few months we have together considered nearly 200 entries from around the world. These awards are unusual in that print quality isn’t treated as a primary criteria in evaluating the entries, because quality is assumed to be high. It just goes to show how far the graphics industry has come in the last thirty years. Flexography particularly has really jumped in the last fifteen or so, thanks to material and ink innovations.

The GFIA entries are judged according to how well they fulfill four different expectations: graphic design creativity; conversion from other print processes; print production workflow efficiency, and a commitment to sustainable print. This is quite a set of asks, and the challenges facing judges were equally demanding given the number of entries. The entries and the awards themselves reflect how technology is improving flexo production quality and output consistency or to cut costs and waste.

Process Migration

In going through the entries, winners and not so winners, it’s clear that flexo is changing for the better, driving wider changes across the graphics industry landscape. Extended Colour Gamut printing for instance allows packaging printers to reduce the number of spot colours and have greater control over colour consistency. No more tankfuls of special purples that are all just that little bit different. But what is particularly striking in many of the entries is the migration to flexo away from other processes such as digital printing and gravure.

Moving from digital printing of labels or packaging to a process that provides greater throughput and lower unit costs is not particularly surprising. And we’ve seen process migration for a number of years as the various printing methods available get better, faster and cheaper. But the trend away from rotogravure is now obvious. Throughput and quality improvements, plus requirements for faster turnarounds and shorter production chains, allow other print methods to compete successfully with gravure. If costs, emissions, waste and time can all be cut and quality maintained, the preference of brands and service providers for other processes is inevitable.

Technological change is always an existential threat to outmoded means of production. Although gravure is still used to print high volume work such as magazines, flexible packaging and printed electronics, its advantages over other print methods are diminishing. It’s not a question of if, but rather when rotogravure will become redundant for commercial work. Its practitioners in the packaging sector are becoming an increasingly endangered species.

First published by the Verdigris Project