The ink on a bag of snacks or the graphics on a sample lotion pouch may appear identical to consumers, but not every ink is the same. Many variables can have an impact on ink system requirements. The flexible packaging market brings its own challenges to ink formulation and the ink industry has responded to meet the needs of both converters and its customers.
An important consideration when it comes to ink selection is the chosen printing process. While many types of printing processes exist, the flexible packaging market focuses strongly on two. Michael Impastato, vice president of strategic marketing, packaging and narrow web, Flint Group, noted that flexographic and gravure presses account for “95% market share in flexible packaging.” These printing processes offer cost effectiveness and speed. He added, “The new flexo and gravure presses can-and do-print up to and beyond 2,000 feet per minute.”
Given the increase in press speeds, most notably within flexography, Impastato has seen a rise in higher-strength inks than in the past. “Higher strength inks allow increased density or thinner ink film thickness, which allow for enhanced drying and higher press speeds,” he explained.
The majority of flexible packaging converters utilize the flexographic process, although some favor gravure, confirmed Jim Coleman, executive director of National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM). For flexographic printers, ink choices include solvent ink, water ink and energy-curable ink-ultraviolet and electron beam, with the latter primarily used in narrow-web applications. Flexographic packaging solvent ink sales have seen a 6.5% rise in sales through 2nd quarter 2010 compared to 2009 and flexographic energy curable ink sales have seen 10% growth this year, said Coleman.
Coleman also pointed out that the gravure category primarily utilizes solvent ink for long print jobs, with a smaller demand for water gravure ink. Ink sales for gravure packaging solvent ink have edged up 3.3% higher through 2nd quarter 2010 as compared to 2009 figures, he added.
Ink's RoleRegardless of what type of printing process and corresponding ink is chosen, flexible packaging applications put challenging demands on the ink industry. Ink performance requirements include “a wide variety of end use properties like scuff resistance, high opacity, specific Coefficient of Friction (COF) properties, low odor, low retained solvent and high bond values on a wide number of substrates for laminated constructions,” said Impastato.
Despite these needs and the wide variety of substrates available, a trend that Impastato has seen is increased “universality” when it comes to ink utilized by flexible packaging converters.
“With the new ink systems we have formulated, we are able to reduce the number of ink systems and the complexity which comes from using and inventorying multiple systems,” Impastato said. “In some cases, we have reduced the number of ink systems to a single system.”
Ink purchases can play a larger role in bottom line profits than may initially be realized. According to Impastato, on average, printers spend 3% of total cost on ink. “But if we look at how ink can impact the operation we see that ink can have an impact on more than 75 percent of a printers’ costs,” said Impastato, noting that stable ink can produce less waste, enable more uptime and facilitate higher outputs and lower labor costs.
“We have seen concrete examples of inks providing more cost savings than the total cost of the inks themselves.”
Inks, Safety and SustainabilityInk manufacturing has also been affected by increased environmental, health and safety concerns, brought on by both government legislation and corporation-based policies, noted Ken Kisner, president of INX Digital International.
This year, INX Digital introduced two ink sets addressing this need. The first, Triangle BIO line products, tap into renewable resource content and the second, Triangle ECO Solvent inks, are “formulated with special attention on environmental impact, human health and safety, and regulatory concerns,” said Kisner. The company also developed a grading scale for its ECO inks, where odor, Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), No Toxic Air Pollutants, and several other factors are graded on a scale from one through ten.
“The ink industry overall is a very seasoned industry that has displayed leadership in pushing products to contain renewable resources, as well as using safer products to formulate inks,” Kisner added.
Flint Group has seen an uptick in requests for environmentally-friendly ink. While Impastato said that “any ink can be used in an environmentally conscience manner,” Flint Group has worked on several initiatives tied to environmental concerns. The company has produced compostable inks for customers already utilizing compostable substrates. It has also offered products with raw material components derived from renewable resources.
Sun Chemical also places high value on the importance of sustainability. Among other initiatives, it teamed with its SunCare Environmental Services partner, ENVIRON, to complete a carbon footprint assessment and identify ways to lower that footprint. “One of the objectives of the assessment was to have the input data necessary for our customers to understand the greenhouse gas impact of the products they are using,” said Michelle Hearn, director of marketing, North American Inks, Sun Chemical.
While ink functionality is vital, its aesthetic value is what likely captures a consumer’s interest. Eckart America focuses specifically on special-effects ink. The company reports that within flexible packaging, there is increased usage of higher sheen metallic inks and colored metallic effects.
“People want to differentiate and one way to do that is through specialty inks. We are seeing a growing interest in these areas, and through innovation, the costs of these higher end effects are coming down,” said Joseph Perdue, marketing manager for Eckart America. “It comes down to what do you want on the shelf: A blasé package or something that catches the eye?”