Stricter Tolerances and Expanded Gamut: Key Emerging Trends in Flexo Printing

Having just attended the Flexographic Technical Association conference in San Diego, it’s clear that two major trends are emerging as the Flexo industry evolves. Both present a challenge to printers and suppliers but the technology exists to help us successfully address both.

Flexo Quality Control (FQC) – One of the most interesting sessions of the conference addressed the growing demand for higher quality in Flexo print production. Most flexo printers check the color accuracy at the beginning and end of a run to produce an acceptable printed product. While this is the norm today, printers and brand owners are requiring more frequent color accuracy checks during the run. Brand owners are setting higher standards for their printers and they expect to receive a printed piece that meets those tight tolerances. Kevin Chop of Diageo, Steve Smiley of SmileyColor, and Doug Bartlett of Spears discussed at length the work that they perform to test for color deviation during the print run for different printing methods – offset on metal, dry offset on metal, gravure, flexo corrugated coated, and uncoated. Kevin was emphatic that the strength of their brands relies on continuous color consistency and cross platform packaging. The brand demands consistent color across multiple presses and plants and the printers they partner with are going to have to meet those demands.

Today’s brand owners have moved well beyond simple parameters of PMS colors and are now providing printers with specific LAB and color tolerances. Not only are they requiring printers to meet these requirements, they also want proof of continuous color accuracy monitoring through detailed production reports. If a problem comes up in the field, they want to have the ability to trace the data back to where the problem originated in the press run.

Expanded Gamut – The other major trend discussed at the conference is the continued move from simple CMYK printing to Expanded Color Gamut (ECG). This discussion reminded me of the 6-color or Nth-color ICC profiles that we developed and commercialized at Monaco Systems in 2003 (which incidentally was sold to X-rite in 2003). Brand owners increasingly want more bright colors that “jump” off the shelves and more closely resemble the original design seen on the computer screen. Unfortunately, CMYK can’t meet that demand, so the industry is expanding to a six or seven color process. With ECG, colors like orange, green and violet are added to the process to allow greater design and print flexibility while providing the dynamic color palette needed.

The restrictions inherent in traditional four color process – avoiding too many colors, keeping fine print out of large coverage areas, and avoiding unwanted colors where the process colors overlap – are largely eliminated with ECG. Make ready is reduced because spot colors can now be created with screens and overprints. The process is more efficient with significant savings in time and materials.

In order to make the leap to ECG, printers must be more disciplined in their control and measurement processes. The adjustments that need to be made with CMYK are long standing and familiar, but controlling the additional colors with ECG demands more sophisticated print and measurement technology.

These two trends highlight the continuing evolution of the print industry. More printers are adopting and investing in advanced technologies to be able to meet the increasing demands of the brand owners. At the same time, technology advances are allowing the industry as a whole to expand capacity and to deliver a higher quality product at a reasonable price. The demands of stricter tolerances and Expanded Color Gamut can be challenging, but the technology exists for printers to handle both of these trends.

by George Adam