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