Is 7-Color Process the Right Direction for Brands in Flexo?
Ever since I joined the EFTA in 1997, fresh out of University with Tony Bath, who was a driving force behind the growing association, people have talked about flexo and 7-color process printing like it was the Holy Grail for packaging.
The challenge for flexo was that consistency was not very good, and we were challenged to deliver consistent 4-color process at that time. A question I often heard Tony ask was, “If you can’t do 4-color process well, why do you think you will do better with 7 colors?”
Why did the trend toward 7-color process start?
The drive behind it was simple in many ways. Flexo used a LOT of spot colors—some companies or applications used spot colors almost exclusively—and this was seen as a significant cause of waste including inks, press time wasted changing colors, time washing down the decks, etc. As flexo became less “cheap and cheerful” and went after more challenging work, cost became more important. In the late ’90s, I visited companies that were taking 8 hours to change over a job, and the runs were extremely long, often taking days. The advantage of the 7-color process is to achieve quick changes, leaving the ink and anilox rolls in the press, so only changing the plates for the next job made 7-color process very attractive. In addition, 7-color processes also partially drove the opportunity for sleeved presses which we take for granted today. In reality, today with the quick “job change over” equipment and mentality, the thought of an 8-hour change over sends shivers down the backs of plant managers.
The need for 7 colors instead of 4 colors related to the relatively poor ink transfer and compressed color gamut of traditional 4-color flexo compared to other print processes. The pin holing in flexo killed the solid ink density achieved, giving flexo its reputation for “muddy” colors from overprints, so most brands did not like the results from 4-color process in flexo. The addition of 3 more colors allowed flexo to expand the color gamut that could be achieved on press, but this still did not match more than about 85% of the Pantone colors.
7-color process was a major driver in the development of the 10-color CI presses, where you often need more than 8 print decks to print 7 colors, plus white, plus any remaining spot colors or a line black for the text, etc.
What has changed in flexo?
Since the early days of digital flexo plates 15 years ago, fast change sleeved presses with automatic ink changes are much more common. Flexo plate technologies have moved to a new level with Flexcel NX and DigiCap NX, often capable of a 25% gamut increase compared to traditional digital flexo plates using just 4-color process. The anilox technologies and chambered ink delivery systems have changed, with finer rolls and more efficient ink transfer, combining with the plate enhancements to get stronger cleaner colors, often using less ink.
Print runs are also getting shorter and shorter and the costs are more competitive with reduced margins throughout the supply chain, so the shorter runs and need for faster change overs supports the 7-color process as a viable option. There is a need to be dedicated to 7-color process, and to dedicate at least one press to it to stop continuous ink changes. When dedicating a press to 7-color process, it really needs to be dedicated to either surface or reverse printing, because switching back and forth with the reversed print sequences kills the primary benefit of 7-color process which is press productivity and minimum down time.
Is flexo the only print process used?
Flexo is not the only print process that uses process colors, or even expanded color gamut color sets like 6-color or 7-color process. In fact, flexo is about the last major print process to embrace it in the way it has. Offset and digital printing processes are dominated by 4-color process, and it is relatively easy to move jobs between offset and digital. Publication gravure also uses primarily 4-color process, with packaging gravure still using a mix of 4-color process and spot colors.
Almost all of the proofing devices on the market base their standards on offset printing using 4-color process. So much of flexo is relatively late to the process printing party, but now that we have learned the printing dance, (with me, dancing is not a strength) we want to dance it all the time. In fact, we have to dial back to get the densities down to the standards that the others used to match, something almost unheard of five years ago!
The challenges of matching on shelf
The challenge for brand owners when converting to flexo process printing is not whether we can print the job in 4 or 7 colors, or how great it looks when we blow the doors off the color expectations. The reality hits later, in the cold light of day, when a family of products on the shelf surpasses the quality of the 4-color offset process printed carton, the 4-color digital printed label, or it makes them look bad side by side. That is a question most flexo printers dreamed of hearing 10 years ago, but today it is a reality every day.
Should brands be looking at 4-color process for all their printing?
So as an industry should the brands look more at 4-color process instead of 7 colors in the future for flexo? We have already seen major retailers make the shift in the private label products to 4 colors. Can we get G7 to work for flexo using the same standard as for offset using 4-color process in flexo, without watering down the target density values? The answer is yes, there are printers doing it every day today.
There are great printers out there doing 7-color process printing in flexo. Printers need to be dedicated to the process and have significant knowledge in file separation and best practices. Those who embrace 7-color stand out as great examples for the industry for what can be done.
But for the brand owner, as their versions increase and run lengths decrease, use of digital printing increases, there are definite benefits in the flexo 4-color process. The latest flexo plate and ink technologies outweigh the additional costs of needing 10-color presses, 25% more plates, tape, ink, dryer energy, etc. And the challenge of matching digital print is driving brands back toward the 4-color process.
Flexo can match the other print processes economically
The flexo process can excel or match today almost every competing print process day in and day out, with 7-color process or 4-color process. The question for the brand owners is why don’t you use more flexo printing instead of the other print processes? Flexo offers high-speed printing, conversion inline for cartons and labels, and quicker turnaround than most gravure printing. Economically and for your shelf impact, flexo should be your process of choice today—and you choose if you want the capabilities of 4-color or 7-color process.
Dr. John’s Contact Information:
For anyone who does want to email me, please use firstname.lastname@example.org and please don’t miss out the number 3 in the address, or you will reach another John Anderson in Kodak manufacturing!
Have a wonderful day.
Tel: +1 412 531 6209
Source: FlexoGlobal Blog