Packaging Innovations 2015

Live debate: Flexo or digital - competing or complementary?

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

Left to right: Tonge, Allum, Whelan, Webster
Left to right: Tonge, Allum, Whelan, Webster

Related tags: Printing

Flexographic printing is one of the most common label printing techniques within the food and beverage industry, but thanks to its fast turnaround and flexibility, digital is catching up.

Until recently, digital printing could not deliver the same results as flexo but now it is hard to tell the difference.

MPS EF UV flexo press

Tom Allum, chairman, Abbey Labels, Chris Tonge, sales and marketing director, Ultimate Packaging, Daragh Whelan, technical director, Adare and David Webster, MD, The Label Makers, took part in debate at Packaging Innovations in Birmingham last week to discuss the pros and cons of the technology.

Allum said Abbey Labels recently invested in an MPS EF UV flexo press to increase its efficiency and product range. The eight-colour multi-substrate press has a web width of 340mm and an APC automation extension package which contains servo positioning motors to automatically set print pressure settings.

It also runs four Gallus Arsoma presses, a digital Xeikon press and a range of AB Graphic finishing equipment.

We can’t be a ‘one trip pony’, my father started Abbey Labels 25 years ago and we offer a range of products. Two to three years ago the market was changing for us and there was a demand for shorter print runs​,” he said.

We put in a Xeikon press which we are looking to expand and we went for MPS EF UV flexo because it gives us a wider printer range. There are no hard or fast rules about which technology is better. Our clients don’t demand a certain printing process, only for spot colour​.”

According to industry insiders, the advantage of digital is its fast turnaround and flexibility because it is quicker and easier to change and update label designs, but it cannot perform the same color as flexo (graduated tints, metallic inks) and there are not as many choices with regards to what materials to print on.

Fresh produce and chilled food sectors

The benefits of flexo are the quality of the results and the versatility. Labels will stay vibrant for longer than digital prints and can include all materials such as stickers, tags, banners and coupons.
Tonge said 70% of the flexible packaging produced by Ultimate Packaging is for the fresh produce and chilled food sectors and the company is about to replace two flexo machines with two new ones but it uses a combination of both flexo and digital.

We are at the start of the journey; digital ink is different to flexo ink, it is a different product on the shelf from a print quality​,” he said.

We are looking forward to the day when we can use digital at its best. For flexo to survive it will have to increase the speed and time of its set up. If we can set up a flexo job in five minutes that’s where it will score​.”

Whelan added Adare recently invested in digital flexo but customers ‘don’t really care what you use’ as they struggle to tell the difference.

We’ve seen a large shift towards flexible packaging so we started to look at digital because of the speed​,” he said.

The improvement on conventional presses was incredible. We have digitalized all of our conventional practices independent of operators, with cameras on every station​.

We can make a digital flexo job ready in 10mins whereas conventional machines took up to two hours. We have digitalized everything to give customers speed to market and flexibility of shorter stock runs​.

It’s been really successful for us andI thank the digital guys for waking up conventional printers​.”

'There isn’t one technology that can cover everything’

According to Webster, The Label Makers has both flexo and digital printing presses because ‘there isn’t one technology at the moment that can cover everything’.

We have got flexo presses and just installed a 14 station press in January​,” he said.

We are still investing in flexo, having said that I believe in digital as well but it depends on what market you want to do. Digital cannot do metallic inks, so you need to look at what your customer base is, and offer them the right solution for a particular product, no one fits all​.”

Webster said his company moved into digital flexo four years ago because it needed to run smaller runs of high quality labels for the wines and spirit sector.

We’ve colour managed our presses so that they can move from one job to another, however, the more we sell the ‘inkjet silk screen look’, the more difficult it is to move back to flexo. We end up producing larger runs than we should do because customers love the way the ink stands out, it’s an interesting course.

Most press manufacturers will have to change quite quickly to survive and I believe there will be an interesting cross over in the next six months or so​.”

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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