Naturally, it’s important to consider industry trends concerning the print quality necessary to meet customer demand and market dynamics. It is becoming increasingly difficult for printers to tout high-end print capability if offering only limited repertoire in terms of print genre. Flexo, gravure, offset; where are the lines of competition drawn, who draws them and why? It could be as one would suspect, customer-driven, or possibly supplier-driven in efforts to maintain the status quo while avoiding the risks associated with capital expenditure in a depressed economy; survival versus growth strategy.

Higher-end printing concepts are nothing new; they have always been in perpetual motion. But where are they in print packaging today and more importantly, where will they be tomorrow? High-end print quality could be defined in terms of explosive graphics, high line screens/resolution, extreme registration tolerance, clean highlights, smooth gradations, proof matching ability, myriad coating/substrate options, and more. Is the demand great enough to command the attention of customers? Moreover, does it represent value to customers and can it be achieved on numerous substrates with a single press, or would several presses of varying genre be required? Regardless, results “off the shelf” suggest that high-end print quality is intrinsically linked to greater sales and therefore, to greater value.

Flexo v Gravure v Offset/Litho

Although some modern flexo presses are capable of producing high print quality, they would be in the extreme minority as an industry whole. Generally speaking, flexo print quality cannot match that of offset or gravure. Additionally, water-based applications possess the inherent obstacles of ink adhesion to wide arrays of film, lamination bond-strengths, limited press speeds, and warrant incessant operator attention to ink properties and anilox condition. Solvent-based applications connote less than ideal environmental overtures, including hazardous waste, fire hazard, employee safety and massive energy consumption. UV possesses prohibitive ink costs, photo-initiator drawbacks, and does not lend itself to all CI press manufacturer offerings. Flexo EB? No time soon, at least not in truly productive and profitable arenas.

Gravure enjoys high-end print capability, no question, especially concerning long print runs. However, many buyers are adopting “just in time” lean inventory practices, so pricing structures could ostensibly become subject to additional makereadies and wash-ups between print runs, representing additional cost that must be either absorbed or passed along to customers. Where does the gravure genre find itself in the short to medium volume theatre? Granted, these formats may not be gravure's bailiwick, but at some point may need to be to remain competitive, for SKU proliferation is upon us. Prohibitive cylinder cost, engraving lead-time constraints, and the water-based/solvent-based dilemma identical to that of flexo, gravure burdens potentially mount. Would gravure be considered a universal high-end print application despite its large volume specialization? Likely not, although gravure recognizes its role and presently acquires its target very well.

Offset (or Litho), is a print genre that is lacking industry exposure, particularly electron beam (EB) sleeve applications, which lies in relative infancy primarily due to poor press manufacturer history, a dearth of capable print suppliers and industry unawareness. Incidentally, EB web offset sleeve flexible packaging pursuits are not to be confused with that of cassette-style or folding carton applications, as the differences in process and substrate is markedly opposed.

Offset's Positives

What are the mysteries of offset and why hasn't the industry been more exposed to its arguable heralds? Honestly, offset web electron beam sleeve-oriented flexible packaging press manufacturers remain limited in their offerings.

Offset’s extremely high line screens and its registration tolerance is phenomenal. Robust ink adhesion to films and favorable lamination bond strengths are noteworthy. Electron beam’s near complete curing characteristics, absence of VOC emissions, hazardous waste abatement and overall environmental stewardship must also be reckoned with. Given the small percentage of offset packaging in the marketplace, it is possible that print packaging professionals who admire higher-end pieces unconsciously attribute them to gravure, even though such items may have printed offset.

Offset may be unrivaled concerning speed to market. Urgent order files electronically transmitted to an ftp site and on-press in high-speed production within an hour or two finds offset at the head of the class.

No print genre offers the color manipulation ability of an offset press, in my opinion. When a flexo or gravure press fingerprint, press optimization, or process is less than perfect, it can be a problem unless willing to make color concessions, often substantial concessions. Formulate ink stronger to aid one area of the sheet and in turn harm it in another, either genre's color manipulation technique alters color entirely across the substrate, while offset can execute both isolated and intricate color maneuvers, which enables offset to match proofs with superiority. Returning to the drawing-board known as prepress is not an intelligent approach to matching proofs, nor is it profitable. Pulling jobs, jeopardizing deadlines, re-outputting cylinders/plates, and repeating makereadies and wash-ups until firm is clearly disastrous, which is not the case with litho. Even on the occasion that an offset plate may require tweaking, expedience of file rework and plate output is unparalleled compared to flexo or gravure and at a fraction of the cost.

Although offset may not currently dominate the industry regarding extended color gamut, it may take its rightful seat at the head of the table concerning ability. The fact that the industry is unaware of or unsaturated by offset is irrelevant. Extended color gamut adds colors and therefore adds complexity, especially when incorporated into photographic images. Designer targets are now compounded by the addition of up to three process colors; that’s a lot of colors, file separations and artwork with which to contend to match proofs. The reduction of costly spot-colors and efficiency of makeready associated with leaving a press outfitted with unchanging colors from job to job with wash-ups all but eliminated represents an attractive feature of extended color gamut and aligns well with customer cost saving strategies.

Frequency modulation (FM) screening is another offset hallmark. In short, it eliminates troublesome screen angles associated with conventional screening, especially those of process images and more so with that of extended color gamuts. Minute registration imperfections do not subject artwork to color-swings encountered with conventional screen angles, nor is the dreaded moire pattern encountered. FM, stochastic, staccato, hybrid screening; call it what you will, it can be a very difficult undertaking for flexo and gravure, while litho may take the approach in stride.

SKU proliferation must somehow be intelligently managed; new items, revised items, brand extensions, promotional items and their many graphic changes can be daunting. Clearly, scrapping expensive gravure cylinders or flexo plates is not the tidiest of solutions and would certainly carry with it an up-charge. Not only does litho handily print numerous SKUs, but frequently combines them within a given print-run on the same set of plates, providing the repeat length is identical and the colors compatible. With offset, customers may choose to mix and match SKUs as they see fit, both initially and on subsequent orders based on consumer demand. Since offset plates are disposable, somewhat inexpensive and fully recyclable, plate-cost is a relative non-factor. Offset also readily achieves both screen/solid artwork of the same color on the same file/plate, something flexo/gravure may typically separate and add print stations to accomplish due to varying anilox/stickyback constraints.

Offset is Not Without its Drawbacks

Offset is not without its drawbacks. Frankly, offset presses cost more, as does maintenance. Offset may charge what is perceived to be premiums, but when considering machine cost and near entirety of ability, it is likely not the case. Offset is a new endeavor (in these markets) and human nature dictates that design, marketing, brand and purchasing executives do not typically welcome change. Litho indoctrination, unfamiliar terminology, design theory and workarounds require some investment of time and education to understand, but may behoove those steeped in tradition to seek advantages in the marketplace.

Offset possesses other complex obstacles, fortunately not so much for customers as for print providers, as litho does not currently benefit from substantial industry accomplishment. More often than not, offset may find itself alone in the development of customer-driven innovations and the R&D required achieving them. Some might say that litho remains reserved for either the bold or the visionary at this juncture of its campaign.

Offset may indeed offer the most complete high-end print platform for flexible packaging and multi-wall bag markets today. Offset might also be characterized as a clean, modern and intelligent approach to print packaging. Of course, only customers ultimately will decide.

Gateway Packaging Company
(618) 451-0010