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Has Digital Killed the Flexography Star? Digital Printing vs. Flexographic Printing

Posted by Mark Portelli

Feb 25, 2018 12:56:00 PM

It’s no secret that the packaging and label printing industries have recently been paying more attention to digital printing.digital_printing_future.jpeg

But what does that mean for flexographers?

It’s true that digital printing does offer certain strengths in comparison to flexographic printing. But there are also disadvantages.

Let’s briefly review what digital printing is all about.

An overview of digital printing

Large-scale digital printing processes create images by depositing toner directly onto on a surface, while flexographic presses use rubber or plastic plates to press ink onto a substrate.

This makes digital printing an inherently flexible process, yielding a number of advantages including:

  • Quick turnaround: Setup is fast and jobs can be completed quickly, as there are no plates to create nor images to change or distort.
  • Low-volume jobs: Thanks to the quick turnaround, digital printing is also ideal for low-volume work.
  • Increased consistency: Computers manage the job in digital printing, leaving less room for human error. This means that “[when going] label to label, job to job, the colors are consistent and repeatable with no variation between operators,” explains FLEXO Magazine.

However, digital printing still comes with a number of disadvantages:

  • Ink limitations: Digital ink fades more quickly than flexographic ink in direct sunlight, though this is usually only noticeable on items used outdoors over a long (or indefinite) period of time. Digital inks are also thinner, making them less opaque than flexographic inks.
  • No in-line processes: Add-on processes such as cold foiling and lamination aren’t possible with digital printing.
  • Lower durability: Labels created on a digital press don’t last as long or stand up to the elements as well as those created using flexo.

What digital printing means for flexography

Flexographers need not worry. Digital printing is a complementary process to flexographic printing — the two can happily co-exist side-by-side.

In comments to FLEXO Magazine, David Walsh of market research and technical PR firm LPC, says, “Flexo or conventional presses are not going away. People are still printing what they’re printing.”

LPC reports that, in 2016, “conventionally printed labels made up 90 percent of a $13 billion North American label printing market, and there were between 90 and 100 conventional presses sold.”

LPC predicts two percent year-over-year growth for the conventionally printed throughput industry , and that “by the year 2020, one of every four presses sold will be conventional.”

Walsh’s colleague Jennifer Dochstader adds:

“That’s a really important point. We want to make clear that when we talk about the future of digital, it’s not like we’re going to see a bunch of conventional presses end up on the trash heap. Not at all. These presses don’t have obsolete buttons. They last a long, long time. But we are seeing more and more work passed over to digital and it opens up and frees up more capacity on conventional presses.”

Digital printing may even open up new opportunities for flexographic printers.

Mark Turk, president and CEO of International Label & Printing, said to FLEXO Magazine, “We’ve never been busier, flexo-wise, since we’ve gotten the digital. So, it has really opened up a lot of business for us on the flexo side.”

Kevin Hayes, executive vice president of Outlook Group, says in the same article:

“One of the things that digital printing is allowing us to do, is to address a broader group of clients. With shorter run equipment and the higher speeds that [digital] provides, we are able to play in new markets and attract new customers, and we marry that up under a G7 Master Printer environment, so it all looks and feels the same.”

He adds:

“It also allowed us to address lead time issues with our customers… we can just move over there quickly and print, and within hours have the product on its way to the customer.”

Right now is the perfect time for flexo-only printers to consider breaking into digital. LPC estimates “electrophotography (dry and wet toner) market growth over the next five years will be 10 percent, while digital inkjet/hybrid market growth will be leading the pack with 13 percent to 14 percent growth.”

But before you make the leap…

If you’re a flexo-only printer contemplating breaking into digital, it’s important to ensure maximum profitability in your current application before expanding your business.

In other words, you need to be on top of your ink management. Changes to any one factor — temperature, viscosity, evaporation, pH — can drastically alter your end result and greatly increase the chance for rejects. Fortunately, ink control automation provides an effective solution.

Norcross’ StablINK system is designed to improve ink performance by continuously monitoring and making adjustments in solvent-based or water-based printing applications. To learn more, download our brochure or contact Saint Clair Systems directly to discuss your application.

Click to get your StablINK brochure

Topics: flexographic printing, digital printing

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