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Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to About Flexography to Make an Informed Decision on Your Printing Job

Background

So much in our lives we simply take for granted. For example, when you bring home a shopping bag from a department store it may be imprinted with messages and designs. The paper, plastic, or Styrofoam coffee cup we casually buy at a convenience store carries a brand name, colorful patterns, maybe a logo, or something else.

Driving along, we see signs and billboards on the street shouting out all manner of messages designed to grab our attention to sell us something, or inform us about a social/political issue.

Our world is veritably saturated with printed materials and products. What people don’t realize or contemplate (and really, why should they?) is the astounding level of technology that underpins all that printing.

A deeper look into how the public address system is supported by printed messaging uncovers an advanced industry that’s nothing short of astonishing. When you pull back the curtain and get a view of how all that printed “stuff” is created — well, it’s amazing!

A visit to the production area of a modern print shop reveals printing technologies that look like something out of the “engine room” of the Starship Enterprise.

What You Need to Know About Flexographic Printing

These thoughts come to mind because today we want to bring you up to speed on an important widely-used printing technology called flexography or flexographic printing.

A bit of background and knowledge about this printing methodology will help you make an informed decision about choosing it to best serve your budget, business, or communication needs.

A Brief History and Definition

Flexographic methods of printing first began being used in the 1890s. The term “flex” addresses the situation that traditional printing presses historically used hard, ridged, and fixed plates. These were thick slabs of metal that carried blocks of movable letters made of lead. The lead letters were coated with ink and the paper was pressed down into it to transfer the image.

Flexographic printing was the innovation of making the printing plates flexible (flexible relief plates) so that, in effect, the press could not “go to the paper” rather than the paper needing to be “brought to the press.” This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but let’s press on (no pun intended).

Flexographic printing afforded many new capabilities, including a much better way to print words and images across diverse surfaces. It made it possible to print on many additional types of materials, such as plastics, metal films, and cellophane, to name just a few.

In the 1920s and ’30s, flexographic printing proved to be an ideal solution for printing packages for food. The latter tend to be made of non-porous substrates. In short, flexographic printing made it safe for inks to be used on packages that shipped and stored foods over long periods. However, improved and even safer inks were adopted in the 1940s.

Fast Forward to Today’s Flexographic Printing

Flexographic underwent a crawling sort of evolution from the 1890s through the 1980s. But it was in the 1990s when new technologies could be brought to bear that transformed flexographic printing into a new way to print on an impressive array of diverse materials.

One of the most significant breakthroughs was the invention of photopolymer printing plates. Most recently, the advent of “digital direct-to-plate” systems combined with laser-etched ceramic anilox rolls that deploy chambers of ink systems has been yet another game-changer.

In addition to dramatically improving the look of the final product, including full-color picture printing of marvelous quality, printers now have a superior capability to reproduce highlighted tonal values.

These advances were key for taking flexographic printing to a new level because they provided a work-around for what had long been a drawback of flexographic products –- a high dot grain effect.

The Pros and Cons of Selecting Flexographic Printing for Your Project

Keep in mind that numerous kinds of printing technology offer all kinds of options today. Flexographic printing offers many advantages, but there are some aspects of flexographic methods that may not be best suited for some projects.

Pro No.1

Flexography is Compatible with a Wide Variety of Inks

Again, flexographic printing involves pressing a raised image onto a flexible surface. This “stamping” action is ideal for working with a variety of materials and that makes it possible to employ more types of inks. Furthermore, because flex techniques can be used on both porous and non-porous surfaces, it is ideally suited for many different commercial needs and appreciation by the end-user.

There are five ink types used in flexographic printing:

  • Solvent-based
  • Water-based
  • Electron Beam Curing Inks
  • Ultraviolet Curing Inks
  • Two-Part Chemically Curing Inks

Pro No. 2

Surface Compatibility, Functionality

With the ability to deploy fast-drying inks, flexographic printing is an attractive option, especially for packaging. It works extremely well for disposable cups, shopping bags, and wallpaper. It can use water-based inks, fluorescent inks, and metallic inks in addition to more common inks.

Pro No. 3

Shorter Setup Time

If your deadline is a factor, flexographic printing can cut down on press setup time significantly. That means your project can move ahead faster. Add to this the fact that flexography can employ fast-drying ink which cuts down on the turn-around time for the finished product.

Flexography contributes to a fully streamlined process. For example, it makes it easier to integrate die-cutting, laminating, and other finishing procedures to round out a project.

Pro No. 4

Affordability

Shorter project turn-around time translates to less cost overall. You can obtain more sales-ready output in less time. Additionally, the flexographic relief plates are more durable. That means you don’t incur more costs by having to replace them sooner as compared to other kinds of plates. When you do need to replace, flexographic plates are competitive on price.

Pro No. 5

Excellent Solid-Color Printing

Flexographic printing delivers deep, saturated colors that really pop. It also delivers vibrant solid colors with just a single go, whereas other printing techniques require several layers of ink and multiple passes through the press. This is yet another reason why flexography is faster and cheaper because it makes conservative use of ink.

Pro No. 6

Sustainability

Environmental sustainability is fast becoming a “core value” and a major element of all business dealings across all industries. Flexographic printing is more sustainable because it reduces the need for toxic substances, such as solvent-based inks and harsh cleaning materials that are extremely harmful to the environment if not handled and disposed of properly.

Have no doubt, the printing industry is facing growing criticism among environmentalists because of the many chemical solvents, dyes, heavy-metal-based inks, and other substances that have long been the standard commodities of the industry. The pressure is growing to find new methods and substances that get printing done right while also leaving zero impact on the environment.

Flexographic printing methods are further along in this regard than many other printing technologies.

Con No. 1

Not the Best Choice for Small, Limited Jobs

The fact that flexographic plates are so durable makes using them for short runs wasteful. Flexographic plates can handle millions of impressions. That makes the cost-effective for big jobs but “overkill” for small runs. Keep in mind, also, that jobs that call for multiple colors require a separate plate for each color.

Con No. 2

It Can Sometimes Take Longer

We already told you that an advantage of ‘flex’ is the low set-up time that makes it faster. That’s not always the case, however. In jobs that call for multiple colors, for example, setup time takes longer. New technologies have made flexography better, but in some cases, it has resulted methods that are becoming increasingly cumbersome.

Con No. 3

Complexity of the Equipment, Configuration

Speaking of a more laborious process, the complexity of flexographic printing machinery sometimes means that setting up the integral systems needed for specific jobs requires that printers are afforded sufficient notice about deadlines. Some printing jobs can’t simply be started “on a dime.” That means clients should plan accordingly and make sure printers have the lead-time they need to configure their equipment properly for the job.

Final Thoughts …

Business entities that are heavy users of printed materials almost universally praise flexographic printing for the phenomenal production speed it can deliver. Once a project is set up on a press, blazing-fast and continuous production offer an excellent value for long runs.

The range of colors is another attractive advantage — as is the ability of flexography to work with many different varieties of inks. The fact that flexography can use water-based inks is important because they are non-toxic and address that critical sustainability factor.

Certainly, flexographic printing is not the only option for printing. However, it is a fantastically developed technology that produces beautiful and fast results at a price that’s often less than technically equivalent or superior alternatives.

The best way to learn more is to discuss this printing option with an experienced and professional provider and to call for a quote on your project.