Narrow-web flexo has reached maturity, and saturation

Despite this, many players are now looking beyond labels for growth opportunities, says Sethunath Padmanabhan of Reproflex3

14 Nov 2023 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Efficiency in the flexo process has witnessed significant improvements due to advancements in various areas; collaborative developments in tapes, inks, anilox, and plates

Sethunath Padmanabhan says, "My experience with narrow-web label users in India has been intriguing. Narrow-web flexo has reached a level of maturity and, in some ways, saturation. However, the recent surge in eCommerce-driven brands has injected new energy into this segment. Despite this, many players are now looking beyond labels for growth opportunities."

Ramu Ramanathan (RR) : How do you see this space evolving with people moving from 340-430-mm presses to mid-sized webs almost breaching the CI domain?
Sethunath Padmanabhan (SP):
In the current landscape, label converters are making strategic investments in larger presses, ranging from 560-600-mm, allowing them to expand into packaging applications, including cartons. This move towards mid-sized webs is bridging the gap between narrow web and CI flexo, making this space even more dynamic and competitive.

RR: Will the evolution of narrow-web label users into mid-sized web printing bring significant changes to the industry?
As label converters venture into packaging, they will need to adapt to different printing requirements, substrate variations, and production complexities. This expansion opens up opportunities for diversification and growth, but it also comes with the need to embrace new technologies, optimise processes, and develop expertise in the packaging segment.

RR: So, the shift from traditional narrow-web label printing to mid-sized web presses represents an exciting transformation in the Indian printing industry.
Yes. The exploration of new applications and markets is expected to fuel innovation and competition, pushing the industry to embrace advancements in flexo technology and expand its capabilities beyond traditional labels.

RR: Are brands using flexo better?
Unfortunately, the adoption of flexo by brands in India is still limited. Brands are more familiar with and inclined towards gravure when it comes to flexible packaging. This preference for gravure is a result of the high standards and established reputation set by the gravure industry over the past few decades.

RR: And internationally?
Internationally, flexo is the preferred printing format, and designers create packaging designs with printing technology in mind. They leverage the benefits and capabilities of flexo to produce high-quality and innovative packaging.

RR: Still early days?
Brands are still in the early stages of understanding and appreciating the advantages of flexo printing. There is a learning curve for brands to recognise the potential of flexo and its ability to deliver cost-effective, sustainable, and high-quality printing solutions.

RR: Any design innovation in packaging?
As brand owners and designers become more familiar with the capabilities of flexo printing, we may witness a shift towards greater design innovation in packaging, incorporating the strengths of flexo to deliver visually appealing and sustainable packaging solutions.

RR: What more should the flexo players do to convince top brands in order to establish technology leadership? It’s often said that flexo is the poor cousin of gravure. How would you respond to such a critique?
Contrary to the prevailing belief that flexo is primarily suited for short runs, the scenario in India is different, with flexo players employing the technology for larger quantities, particularly in surface printed applications like milk and oil packaging. However, there exists an erroneous perception in the market that flexo cannot achieve high-quality results. To address this, the flexo industry must undergo an approach shift. Indian converters are already investing in high-quality, modern flexo machines, but it is crucial for the entire industry to collectively emphasise the standards and capabilities of flexo as a robust printing process. Convincing brands involves highlighting the cost-effectiveness, improved service standards, and superior quality of flexo. Moreover, the industry should position itself as an eco-friendly alternative with its recyclability advantages, appealing to the growing sustainability concerns of consumers and brands alike. By showcasing innovation, creativity, and setting industry benchmarks, flexo players can dispel the notion of being the poor cousin of gravure and instead establish themselves as technology leaders with unique offerings and significant value for brands. This comprehensive approach will lead to greater brand adoption and elevate the status of flexo printing in the Indian market.

RR: How many customers are asking for ECG?
The number of customers asking for ECG solutions is increasing steadily. As awareness about the benefits of ECG spreads within the printing industry, more brands and converters are expressing interest in adopting this technology. ECG allows for the use of a fixed set of inks to achieve a broader colour gamut, enabling more accurate and vibrant colour reproduction in the printing process. As customers become more conscious of the need for consistent and high-quality colour output in their packaging and printing materials, the demand for ECG solutions is likely to continue growing.

RR: In production, how easy is it to implement ECG?
While the concept of ECG is intriguing, I must take a pragmatic approach. Currently, the flexo industry is still in the early stages of effectively controlling and stabilising the standard four-colour process. Introducing ECG, which involves working with seven colours, is theoretically possible, but it requires a systematic and disciplined approach to ensure successful implementation.

RR: What are the three things one must know to get it right?
However, for those willing to explore ECG, here are three key things to consider to get it right: robust SOP; advanced colour management; in-house expertise and review process.

RR: Also how easy is it to create a process-oriented approach - and produce the right flexo plate at the first attempt?
We have achieved an impressive 99% RFT rate, proving that it is indeed possible to consistently produce the right flexo plate from the outset. Our approach involves investing considerable time in onboarding each client, understanding their specific needs, and tailoring a customised process to meet their requirements effectively. This focus on a client-centric and process-driven approach has been the key to our success in delivering high-quality results consistently.

RR: Has the process become more efficient? For example, we were talking to a gentleman from Tesa and he was saying how one can arrive at lower waste with tools from Tesa. What is your experience in the department?
Efficiency in the flexo process has witnessed significant improvements due to advancements in various areas. Collaborative developments in tapes, inks, anilox, and plates have played a crucial role in enhancing overall efficiency. By ensuring that progress in one area complements others, we create a level playing field, ultimately leading to a more efficient process that benefits our customers.

RR: The higher the lpi the lower the plate life. Your take on this statement?
The statement needs clarification. Higher lpi with unmatched accessories can indeed reduce plate life. However, if there is a proper process in place to support the higher lpi reproduction and the accessories are well-matched, it does not necessarily reduce the plate life.

RR: What is the R3 strategy?
At R3, we have experienced extraordinary benefits from our plates. Our repeat plates are negligible, indicating that our plates are running more efficiently in the press, even at 150-lpi and higher. This demonstrates that with the right combination of process, accessories, and technology, it is possible to achieve excellent plate performance and maximise plate life.

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