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Replacing flexographic printers with digital for printing packaging Print E-mail

Flexo printing will not disappear, and offset and gravure still continue to have utility for packaging, but for the last several years the trend is to add digital options as well. But the questions are more complex than the answers: inkjet, eco-solvent, latex, UV-cured, narrow-format, web-fed!! So many digital options.

Packaging is printed by flexographic process, offset, and gravure, in the past

Company after company comes to FLAAR to ask for consulting on where, when, why to switch from relying on flexographic printing and move to digital inkjet for printing packaging.

The gravure printing industry is another industry that is facing digital challenges. It is not whether digital is good or bad, and certainly not whether digital is better. Sorry, it's that digital is short-run: mass customization and short print runs are what are putting older technologies into retirement.

For example, on the Gravure Association of America web site, they have a PDF presentqation from Graph Expo 2002. 2002, what century was that in? A report on wide-format printing in 2002 would be ignored today. Otherwise the gravure web site was informative, but a bit like a printing museum (and yes, digital inkjet will someday be replaced by newer technology; like the horse and buggy went before the car).

Digital proofing with inkjet: Packaging prototyping

There is a rush among wide-format printer manufacturers to offer printers for proofing.

But which ink to use: eco-solvent, mild-solvent, lite-solvent, bio-solvent? Yikes, and no one tells the true pros and cons of each ink.

Then the printer manufactures promise everything but don't admit what few things their new printers can't handle, such as which materials (you don't find out until you have the printer installed; then it's too late).

And what about UV-cured ink? But here you have free-radical UV and cationic UV? Uups, what's the difference? What are the implications for packaging prototyping!

And what about latex ink. Here you will get venomous statements of what latex ink can't do (strange that these claims come from printer manufacturers who don't have this ink…). But yet several of the claims of what latex ink can do are a tad unrealistic.

So now you see what you receive when you come to FLAAR: we don't sell latex ink or solvent ink: we can assist you to understand the benefits and glitches in each ink and in every printer: brand by brand, model by model.

RIP Software and color management spectrophotometer for packaging proofing

In addition to finding the proper printer and the appropriate kind of ink, you also need software and color management.

GMG is a respected proofing RIP software from Germany (but available worldwide, including throughout North America). They have joined with BARBIERI electronic and Mimaki to offer proofing solutions for digital proofing that covers flexo, offset and gravure packaging printing. Use photos from GMG booth showing me etc with Wolfgang of Barbieri, PRINT ‘09.

Packaging short-run production

Major brands will not only need proofs before final production, many major brands will wish tests in different market areas. To test different sizes, shapes, colors, logos, etc. So your packaging printing company needs to have more than a flexo, offset, or gravure printing press: you need the ability to offer proofs and short run both.

Proofing for flexo, offset and gravure can be done with wide-format inkjet printers. There are some brands and models that are made specifically for proofing.

For short run, here there are more choices, indeed this is where we prefer to offer consulting, because your needs and the needs of your specific clients may be different than what other packaging printshops are looking for. So FLAAR prefers not to issue a report, but instead to provide individual consulting.

Packaging as display (POP signage really)

When you enter some big box stores, such as Sam's Club in the US, you are buying the entire shipping carton full of product. So you may never see the actual product: only the exterior shipping carton. So in this case the shipping carton is the POP display.

Every country has these now. In Guatemala the equivalent is called PriceSmart. You become a member and they you can buy your food at close to wholesale prices. But you need to see the information about the product on the outside of the shipping carton, since this is a box-warehouse type of store: this is not Kroger's or a regular grocery store.

I recently saw samples of flexo printing (on PP) that were very sad looking compared with digital inkjet on the same polypropylene material. The inkjet printed materials were so much better.

And what about the Green initiative?

When is it more greenwashing than realistically good for the environment. For example, it's amazing how many solvent ink manufacturers try to claim their ink is GREEN. That's a bit like saying gasoline and diesel are green.

Where does FLAAR get its experience?

Recently it was possible to visit not just a packaging printing company, but rather the company that makes the machines that print the packaging. In this case Polytype. Got many hours, including with their top people. Very impressive, as you would expect of a Swiss manufacturer.

Since we are under NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) with most of our clients, we can't show many photographs of Dr Hellmuth in the headquarters of the various packaging companies. But he routinely is flown around the world to provide expertise.

The nice thing is that FLAAR is not beholden to any one technology and since it's an independent institute, it can be frank (and blunt) about which printers to avoid, and which to consider for your short list.

Plus we have access for training and knowledge from many of the leading wide-format printer manufacturing companies around the world. So we usually know what is coming in advance of these printers being announced to the public. Now you can understand why packaging printers ask for consulting from FLAAR.

Packaging materials

Everything from Kraft paper to leather can be used for packaging. Increasingly we are asked to help find printers and inks for printing on PP, polypropylene. It is typical in fast-paced texting today to misspell words such as this, such as polypropilene or polypropelene. And no matter how you spell it, polypropylene is a challenge to print on with digital inks (fortunately there are solutions, such as primer, flame treatment or corona treatment).

Flexible packaging is a world of its own, since many materials can't take the heat of UV-curing lamps. Fortunately there is

Label printing is an entire other genre

Printing labels is obviously part of printing packaging. But label printing gets you into a really wide range of options including variable data short run digital presses such as HP Indigo, Xeikon, etc. Thus I am glad to have been trained in the several Indigo and HP facilities in Israel (just before DRUPA 2008).


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Consulting for UV printer manufacturers, available to manufacturers only: ink, media, substrate, scanner, RIP software, printer manufacturers, integrators, parts manufacturers, please request this by e-mail from This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

First posted November 13, 2009.



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