What Flexography still needs on its way to a fully industrialised process

What Flexography still needs on its way to a fully

industrialised process

Flexography has developed tremendously and has deserved to be the worldwide dominating packaging

printing process that it is today. Despite of that it has to take a number of steps still in order to develop a

fully industrialised production process. This appears to be necessary in light of the author´s vision of the

future of packaging printing.

Packaging printing by the year 2050

My roadmap for packaging printing, which must be outlined here for a better understanding of the “todos”

for Flexography, is based on a couple of assumptions on the impacts that may affect the

development of the printing processes in the packaging arena during the coming years. One of the most

important factors will of course be so-called digital printing, which currently is much overhyped. Further

significant factors may be online sales, i.e. the ordering of goods over the Internet, thus circumventing

the usual shops, the integration of printing into the packaging

lines, the use of data goggles and so-called 3-D printing.

While the aforementioned aspects may be looked at as potential

threats, there are still substantial positive factors ahead. For

instance there will perhaps always be a need for a physical

packaging at the very place, where a product is being produced.

Substitution by digital media does not work with physical

packages. Only so-called 3-D printing, which potentially lets

every home user produce the product by himself, could be seen

as a threat. However, in that I cannot imagine this to be used

with all the mass products we currently sell or buy, I find this to

be a minor threat for packaging.

Where today the conventional printing methods dominate the

markets we will, however, see a noticeable shift towards digital

printing within the next five years. Still it is the conventional

printing methods, Flexography well included, that set the

standards for print quality and, most of all, for the fulfilling of

the many complex physical, chemical and technical

requirements. Nonetheless, it is the relatively high minimum

order quantities and delivery times of the conventional printing

methods (mostly Rotogravure) on one hand, and the evershrinking

lot sizes on the other hand, that have put a lot of

„pressure to the vessel“. This is what currently discharges

through the aforementioned overhyping of digital printing.



Pic 1: Online Sales

Pic 2: Data goggles make surface

decorations redundant

Plausible in my eyes, yet speculative, is the assumption that the growing online sales market will lead to a

simplification of the graphics of many packages particularly affected of that. We may see a shrinking

number of printing inks being used and the utilisation of fixed colour palettes with more than four process

inks (see also later). There are, however, opposite assumptions in the market, too. The general trend to

answer this question will have developed by the year 2022.

Until about the end of the third decade I expect that packages will typically be produced in very small

quantities to start with and to evaluate them in the market. Printing decoration will then be done using a

digital method. Once such a product/packaging has proven to be successful and survive the market´s

selection process, the focus will be on the cost of mass production for the bigger quantities needed by

then, perhaps even more so than is the case today. And it will be the conventional printing methods with

Flexography at the very forefront that will be unbeatable in this respect. A few preconditions must,

however, be fulfilled by then.

Integrating packaging printing into the packaging lines is a factor of uncertainty in my considerations. The

more this actually happens, the more digital printing will be used. In any case, Flexography will have to

be in a position to utilise existing graphic data from other printing methods, digital printing in particular,

seamlessly by then. I will get back to this point again.

In the course of the fourth decade I expect that many digital printing applications have been realised in

the aforementioned packaging lines, yet there still will be conventional off-line packaging printing using

conventional methods in the markets. It is the sheer amount of packaging material needed that justifies

this assumption alone. By then we will see the printing methods fully complementing one another.

Although they are present today I do expect a substantial impact of data goggles onto our lives only in

the fifth decade. The scenario that has been advertised by The Matrix movies makes it redundant to

physically decorate any surface as long as it is only its visual appearance that is of interest. Packaging

decoration is one of the processes thus made redundant, like wallpapers or painting of vehicles. But even

in this horror scenario there will still be physical packages to protect the contained goods and I do assume

that many of them will still carry a decoration applied by printing technologies. Packaging printing may

not be the big thing by then, but we may enjoy a whole number of very successful years until then.

What will (have to) change?

Flexography has developed very well over a whole number of years. Particularly its latest innovations in

the realm of printing plates (so-called flattop printing plates, especially those of the „automatic“

version) yield a high potential for simplification and cost savings, aside from better stability and

reproducibility, one of the basics for industrialised production. Cooperative interactions between prepress

and printing may still have room for improvement, but will be industrialised, too, by the proposal for an

industry standard to be outlined further


If my assumptions over the evolution

packaging printing hold true, Flexography will

experience ever more print design files that

have been used in a digital printing method

before. Typically - as this is one of the

limitations of digital printing - such design

files will be generated using a fixed colour

palette of six or seven primaries and special

inks are an extreme exception. This is when

we must be able to cope with such files in

Flexography, too! And for cost reasons there Pic 3: 4C++++ versus 7C+

must not be any rework of the files required!

In the course of the aforementioned

multicolour separations with fixed colour

palettes of more than four process inks one

must consider the colour separation method

of so-called grey component replacement

(GCR). As soon as there are more than the

usual four CMYK inks being used in a

photographic image the question for the

available halftone screen angles arises. Their

limited availabilities make it necessary to

render all tertiary colours through black

instead of using the opposite colour in the

colour circle, as would be the case in chromatic colour separations. Printing a

GCR colour separation well does, however, require a highly saturated black that

nonetheless does not allow for increased dot gain. This is something where a

whole generation of Flexo printers has to develop towards to.

It is, on the other hand, a potentially advantageous undertaking to strive for

such capabilities, because there is substantially reduced consumption of

chromatic inks and, most of all, vastly reduced press setup times caused

by (the absence of) ink setup to be gained.

In order for the aforementioned

multicolour separations to work

correctly a good registration between

the printing inks is imperative. This is a

difficult task to achieve, particularly

with large formats and jobs with

manifold design copies on the sheet.

The respective plate makers typically

respond to this discussion by

highlighting their seamless print forms.

These do have the potential to solve

the registration problem, however, I

tend to think that they will introduce

other limitations at the same time. This is why I still favour mounted printing

plates. It remains to be seen whether or not automatic or semiautomatic

mounting machines will harvest some dormant potential for improvement in this

arena. It would be needed quite badly.

An other necessity that comes on the coat-tails of multi-colour separations is

the efficient colour management of the extra colour channels. The prevailing

strategy to inflate the respective test target sizes must be criticised vividly,

although this practice has proven technical feasibility. The test targets have

partly become that large, they cannot be printed in one sheet any

more. This is where clever simplifications are required, but I can

see them in the market already and have made good experiences

Pic 4: Cover of Flexo- und Tiefdruck magazine with 4C vs.


Pic 4: GCR (left) vs.


Pic 5: Mounting of a Flexo printing


Pic 6: Mini Colour Management Test

Target by ColorLogic

with them. Intelligently designed mini test targets seem to be the plausible solution.

In-line colour measurement inside the printing presses is another aspect I would like to see improved

and spread further in order to promote a seamless connection between pre-press, printshop and print

buyer. This does not only allow for a plausible check of the achieved colours during production, this will

also allow for continuous improvement of the quality of the utilised colour profiles for prepress. Through

the close connection with in-line inspection systems one can also prove the gained reliability to the


There must also be further automation in prepress and on press. Flexo is well on the way in that many

make ready and set up processes have been automated by now. Generating plausible and reliable colour

recipes for special inks outside of the printing press, however, appears to be work in progress still,

even if the aforementioned usage of multi-colour separations may

render this less important over time.

In times of the aforementioned overhyping of digital printing we,

of course, must explicitly work on prepress cost. This does

include the reworking of digital files in repro, but also making the

required print forms. The availability of the so-called flattop

printing plates, particularly those that provide this feature

intrinsically, has made things a lot easier. The DFTA technology

Centre has contributed here as well with its technology studies

and proposals. But the search for cost savings in prepress does

depend much on the following aspect:

The biggest and most important key to industrialisation is hidden

in print quality or a particular portion of it respectively. The highlight end

of the tonal range in halftone printing is key in this case. In this particular

respect Flexography must necessarily rise to the level of offset

lithography and be able to print a true 1% tint any time and long-term

consistent. This is the single most important precondition for being able

to use print files from other printing methods seamlessly.

As soon as one thinks about this question all the way through, the

achievement of a perfect linear print gradation particularly in the

highlight end of the tonal range is not only a question of quality per se,

for example with respect to smooth vignettes, but is also a basic

precondition for colour management with a reliable preview of the end

result and thus being able to link up with other printing processes

perfectly. This appears to be mandatory in light of my scenario of the

future of package printing.

The adjacent graphics try to illustrate this fact. While Flexography, as is

being illustrated in the upper graphic in a much exaggerated way, still

operates with a relatively high first printing tone it does render some

important parts of the colour gamut inaccessible. Contemporary halftone

printing rather needs harmonic transitions as have been demonstrated in

the bottom graphic. There is quite a number of Flexo printers mastering

this field already, but this capability must spread much further down to

the average printers.

Having said all this, in the meantime it is, however, the lack of an

industry wide colour communication standard that has perhaps

Pic 7: Image retouching

Pic 8: top: printing with dropoffs;

bottom: harmonic


become the biggest and most important obstacle for Flexo printers at current. Although the DFTA

workgroup for technology has published an official guideline for colour communication, the respective

colour profiles are still missing. They would be required to „translate“ the verbal instructions into colour

appearances useful for prepress and print


Unfortunately, this has led to some sort of

“anarchy” in prepress. In that by now many

print buyers work together with a so-called

central repro agency it is them who have

issued directives for the print shops about how

to establish their primary colours and dot gain

in halftone printing. On one hand they have

misused the power they represent with the

large print buyers in their back, on the other

hand they need such assumptions about how

printing will perform colour wise. Issuing such

directives is therefore not a bad thing per se,

but the various directives have turned out to

be substantially different from one another.

Please see the adjacent graphics for a better

overview. Mind that all these adjustments must

be carried out on the most costly instrument in

the process, namely the printing press, if a

print shop works for various customers being

represented by different central repro agencies!

Standard colour profiles may solve this

dilemma, but do include high risks in technical

and commercial respect if they are made and

published according to the wrong concept.

Offset lithography gives us a bad example we

do not want to copy. However, Flexography

did have some alternative concepts for quite a

while that would avoid the mistakes made in

offset, and now there is also the technology

available to carry out these ideas plausibly. A

DFTA workgroup will probably start working on

this within a few weeks. Flexography and the

print shops in particular may gain substantial

value of this.



Pic 9: Directives for Colour Hue by various central repro

agencies for Flexo printers (anonymised)

Pic 10: Directives for TVI by various central repro agencies



Flexography has come a long way, but still

needs to finalise a couple of roadworks on its

way to a fully industrialised process. A good

part of this has to do with the assumed

requirement for a seamless link with other

printing processes, namely digital printing

mostly. The current overhyping of digital

printing will, once the euphoria has settled

through reality, add to improved reputation and leveraged business for Flexography, if we can do the

outlined home works successfully.


Stuttgart, 23. August 2016


Eingetragen von

Prof. Dr. Martin Dreher  Elektronische Visitenkarte

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