The battle of Analog versus Digital spills over into a wide variety of spaces, from home entertainment to city planning. One major case study is the packaging industry, and label printing in particular.
Billions of labels are created each year. As with anything, producers have had access to unique options as technologies have evolved over time. The popularity of different printers and inks varies based on region and industry, and there are proven benefits for each depending on a company’s specific needs — from budget to speed to print quality.
Over the past several years, hybrid solutions have steered the conversation, and many industry experts are betting big on their success. These “best of both worlds” solutions, as stated by Printing Impressions, allow printing specialists to streamline operations and save money by leveraging components of both digital and flexographic printing.
Flexographic printing, also known as flexography or flexo, involves flexible relief plates instead of the metal plates used in gravure printing. Notable advantages of this process include the use of more colors in a given project and faster-drying ink.
Gravure came to prevalence in the 1960s and is still used around the world, but has been steadily replaced by flexo in some of the largest global markets. Flexo has become the standard for U.S. businesses over the past several decades, and it is also the preferred choice in South America and Europe. But the rise of these printers has not been without drawbacks, such as poor color strength and print defects like dot bridging and the “halo effect.”
According to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), the latest flexo technologies are greatly reducing the prevalence of such issues. These advancements include:
- Finer linescreenings on anilox rollers
- Repro tools for improving highlights and shadows
- Improved press stability on machines
- Enhanced ink transfer and pigmentation
- Reduced noise and vibration
In spite of these improvements, standard flexography is still not ideal for shorter print runs due to the time and cost of changeovers between print jobs. For the modern company, this can be a major constraint that limits its project portfolio.
Enter the world of digital/flexo hybrids.
Big-name imaging companies like Fujifilm and Kodak are now marketing printing presses that combine principles of flexography with inkjet, dry toner, and digital capabilities. This combined approach “has enabled printing companies to choose their operational workflow,” according to Business Wire.
Hybrid printing technology “can help converters achieve the short-run advantages of digital, while still implementing the embellishment capabilities of flexo,” as put by Printing Impressions. In some cases this involves a complete hybrid system that replaces existing machines, while in others it can involve adding digital components onto a company’s conventional equipment. By working directly with certain suppliers, printing businesses can construct the perfect flexo-digital hybrid solution based on their demand and the types of projects they will oversee.
Adopting a hybrid system can be a hearty undertaking — and this printing philosophy continues to evolve, like any disruptive technology tends to do. But by working closely with suppliers throughout implementation, businesses can ensure they find the maximum value in a hybrid press. A successful hybrid label printing initiative can lead to greater productivity, increased throughput, and a higher quality of prints, among other benefits.
An FTA study reveals that 83% of flexible package printing operations in North America use flexography, as compared to 17% using gravure. The reverse is true of the Asia Pacific market, where gravure still commands an 85% share. This could well change in the coming years with the success and wider availability of hybrid solutions, which are capable of the same print quality as gravure but at a lower cost.
FTA words it as simply as this:
“There is no need for gravure printing anymore — You can do it all with flexo.”
From hybrid printers to the sustainability movement, it is an exciting time of change that will inevitably see unique challenges as well. Modern threats like counterfeiting and data theft have created a need for better tracking and digital security. Developers have answered the call with technology like RFID tags, smart barcodes, and tracking chips that can be attached to products in the labeling process.
The intelligent labeling ecosystem was valued around $12 billion USD in 2018, and it’s estimated that 30 billion RFID tags will be sold globally by 2020. You can read about our Global Resource Locatorand our plans to contribute to this space, helping businesses track any asset from anywhere in the world. We’re excited to follow the digital transformation of printing and do our part to push it forward into the future.
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