LETTERPRESS VERSUS FLEXO PRINTING: HOW TO CHOOSE

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WWW.MPS4U.COMLETTERPRESSVERSUS FLEXOPRINTING:HOW TO CHOOSETHE BESTOPTION FORYOUR BUSINESS

TRENDS IN THE LABEL INDUSTRYMore and more, labels become a way for brands toachieve a market specific approach late in the supplychain. This means shorter runs, and the ability for labelconverters to turn around a job quickly, given late-stagenew designs, personalization of labels and/or labelfunctionality requirements. These are also the forcesdriving digital press adoption.Common challenges are: Shorter print runs Processing different types of labels More diversified jobsLabel companies see a shift from basic labels tohigh-end applications. In the FINAT Radar of 2018, FINATstates: ‘The continued growth in demand for packagedconsumer goods, especially in growing economies,raises the demand for materials with which end-userstry to distinguish their brands on the shelf.’High volume sectors such as food, health and beautyproducts also drive the demand for labels with highquality (transparent) product decoration in high speed.This trend encourages manufacturers of self-adhesivelabels to also start producing high-end packaging suchas pouches, sleeves and other flexible packaging.These trends challenge label printing companies toachieve and maintain a lucrative cost price per squaremeter in their overall label and packaging printproduction.A changing customer behavior and a rapidly changingindustry are driving these challenges. This also is thereason digital print is gaining in popularity. With theability to personalize, make short runs and diversify,digital printing technology is a strong competitor fortraditional letterpress. Letterpress technology, on theother hand, has been around forever.A BRIEF HISTORY ABOUT LETTERPRESS PRINTINGLetterpress printing is a relief printing process thatinitially utilized raised metal type and engravings toimprint words and designs on a page. It originated inthe 1400s and was the primary form of printing for over500 years.In the late 1980s, letterpress printing was popularamong printers aiming to achieve the tactile, handmadequality that offset printing did not provide. It wasn’t untilthe 1990s that it became popular among individuals fortheir personal printing needs.LetterpressLetterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business2

THE LETTERPRESS PROCESSLetterpress printing is also called relief printing, whereimages are printed with a relief image plate. The printplates are inked over an ink roller set, controlled viaink-key settings. The image is transferred directly fromthe plate to the substrate using pressure.This is also how you can recognize a printed imageproduced by a letterpress:1. Indentation on the back of the substrate.2. The halo effect when too much pressure was applied.In letterpress, graphics are built using dots - the smallerthe dots, the lighter the color; the larger and closer thedots are, the darker the color.A skilled operator will vary the pressure. Carefullybalanced pressure is very important for the quality of thepicture, as too much pressure creates a halo effect andtoo little pressure creates gaps in the graphic becauseof missing dots.Direct letterpress(rotary letterpress printing)Ink fountainInking unitPlate cylinderPlatePaper web or sheetImpression cylinderDirect letterpress (rotary printing)Letterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business3

LETTERPRESS IN THE LABEL PRINTINGMARKET TODAYThe use of letterpress in the commercial print market isnow small and shows a declining market usage, howeverletterpress is still of importance in the self-adhesivelabel sector. The label industry trend towards shorterruns has created a market for intermittent feedletterpress technology on shorter run jobs which requirecomplex in-line multi-process printing, embellishingand conversion.Typical applications have included short runs of highadded value wine, spirit and cosmetic labels.A lower capital investment makes it a popular processin the developing countries and while the quality ofletterpress printing has never been in question, over thelast two decades it has been displaced by other printingtechniques. Preparation time for letterpress can be quitelengthy, and its use is being overtaken with faster andmore efficient printing methods such as offsetlithographic and flexographic processes.In the more mature European labels markets, surveysshow UV flexography has overtaken letterpress as theleading narrow web process in the global narrow webmarket. But it would be wrong to think that this is anobsolete technology, as there is still a large base of bothrotary and intermittent fed letterpress machines runninglabel work on a daily basis.The development of semi-rotary, servo-driven systemsmakes the process very competitive on short runs thatrequire complex embellishing and converting,particularly when matched with flatbed die-cutting.Converters are often reluctant to make the shift fromletterpress to flexography because of the need tochange technologies and the more expensive ink andplate systems associated with ether printing methods.Letterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business4

ADVANTAGES OF LETTERPRESSCost-efficiency of the letterpress printing process is akey factor in considering which printing press is moresuitable for your business. As mentioned, letterpress hassome advantages compared to flexo such as low toolingcosts allowing it to combine processes such as UV,stamping/embossing, hot and cold foil, reverse printingetc. Although digital is rapidly growing, many printersstill prefer letterpress because of its very fast changeover, print quality comparable with digital and becauseit is ideal for small jobs.Also, letterpress continues to develop in pre-press platemaking, ink trays , sleeves etc., making it a process thatstill has a large role to play in the label printing industry.Yet today, letterpress is in the throes of a full-blownrevival for printing shorter runs, processing differenttypes of labels and more diversified or personalized jobs.Many print houses still own a letterpress and with newmethods of plate making and the characteristics ofdigital, the letterpress is gaining in popularity.This revival brings new developments, as Typographyspecialist Erik Spiekermann explains in his Spiekerblog.He developed a new printing process, which he calls‘post-digital printing’, which uses a combination ofnew laser plate cutting technology and letterpress.But letterpress has its challenges, too.COMMON CHALLENGES FOR LETTERPRESSPRINTERS Letterpress printing is a real skill. Therefore theresult is depending on the operator. Letterpress printing costs considerably morethan flexo printing. Letterpress works best for shorter runs. Large runscan be done, but are not very economical. With letterpress, multi-color jobs require multipleruns, which greatly increases time and effort, 1-colorand 2-color jobs are best for letterpress printing. Letterpress works best for typography, illustrations,line art, etc. Halftoning/screening images is possible,but would not provide the results that flexo canprovide. Letterpress printing comes with a lot of waste, asthe ink rollers wear out quickly.As highlighted earlier, high volume sectors such as food,health and beauty drive the demand for high volumes oflabels with high quality (transparent) product decorationin high speed. For this, the letterpress is economicallyunsuited.Letterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business5

THE FLEXO PRINTING PROCESSBased on letterpress-printing principles, flexographicpresses are composed of the same basic elements asletterpress cylinder-to-cylinder presses; that is, thecylinder covered with a rubber packing and an inkingsystem. Flexographic presses are usually roll-fedrotaries that can reach large dimensions and highprinting speeds. They consist of a group of severalidentical units that print an equal number of colors.Flexography provides economical printing, either ofsolid lines or with quite a coarse screen, on unfinishedsurfaces, paper, cardboard, plastic film etc.FLEXOGRAPHIC PRINTING IN LABELMANUFACTURINGFor many years, flexographic printing was consideredan inferior printing process and serviced the lower endof the label market. Labels requiring higher qualitywere generally printed using the offset litho orletterpress processes.In the last three decades, considerable progress hasbeen made in the manufacturing of highly engineeredflexo presses and developments in printing plates, aniloxrollers and printing inks, now making flexo the leadingprocess tor the manufacture of self-adhesive labels.The introduction of UV ink curing has also made a bigimpact on the flexo process. In particular, the switchfrom aqueous and solvent based inks to UV cured inkhas improved print quality and made iteasier to print filmic and metallic substrates, andhas reduced the usage of solvents.‘In the last threedecades, considerableprogress has been madein the manufacturing ofhighly engineeredflexo presses anddevelopments in printingplates, anilox rollers andprinting inks, nowmaking flexo the leadingprocess tor themanufacture of selfadhesive labels.’Letterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business6

TYPES OF FLEXO LABEL PRESSESThere are three configurations of flexo presses usedin the label industry: the stack press; the commonimpression press; and the in-line press. All thesepresses can be equipped with solvent, water-based andUV drying systems depending on the press specification.The press configuration most widely used for labelmanufacture is the in-line press.The image below illustrates the layout of a standardflexo unit. The applicator roller runs in the liquid ink heldin the ink tray. The ink can be manually poured into theink tray or alternatively pumped into the tray using acirculatory system to ensure that the ink viscosity ismaintained. The applicator roller applies ink to the aniloxroller and the pressure between these two rollers can beadjusted to increase or decrease the ink film to theprinting plate.FLEXO PROCESSFlexography is a relief or raised image printing processusing the same principle as letterpress. A flexible rubberor photopolymer plate is mounted onto the plate cylinderusing a filmic double-sided adhesive tape. The plateimage is inked with a liquid ink which is transferred fromthe anilox roller, direct to the surface of the image areaand then printed onto the substrate, using a very lightcontrolled pressure (impression).The basic flexo printing unit comprises of an ink tray orduct, the ink applicator roller, the anilox roller, the platecylinder and the impression roller.Flexo printing has evolved to be one of the most popularprinting processes in the label industry, and can nowprovide low-cost, high-quality printing with a simpleprocess and no need for additional work and cost.That is why more and more printers are switching tothis technique.However, when switching to a new printing technique,you need to consider a number of factors, such astooling, operator training, and the overall cost priceper label.To avoid losing your existing customers, it’s smart toalso take into account your current order package.Inking unitPlate cylinderAnilox rollFountain rollImpressioncylinderInk panFlexo printing processLetterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business7

ADVANTAGES OF FLEXO PRINTINGDISADVANTAGES OF FLEXO PRINTING Flexo presses have short set-up times, minimumwaste, and guarantee high-quality output. The need for additional work and cost is eliminatedwith flexo printing. The press automates additionaltasks in-line that are most commonly needed forlabels, such as die-cutting and lamination. Letterpressprinting requires performing these processes onseparate machines after completing the printing,requiring additional time and manpower. The principle of flexo printing is simpler. It’s a relativelystraightforward and more controlled printing processthat requires less-trained operators to achievehigh-quality output. Flexo printing gives less waste than letterpress. The price of flexo printing plates is relatively highcompared to other types of plates, but they last formillions of impressions if they are properly cared for. Version changes are time-consuming to makecompared to digital printing.MPS flexo printing pressLetterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business8

HOW TO SWITCH FROM LETTERPRESS TO FLEXO PRINTINGTHERE ARE THREE WAYS TO MAKE THE SWITCHFROM LETTERPRESS TO FLEXO PRINTING:1. Invest in a flexo machine to use next to yourletterpress. This requires an additional investment,but gives you the opportunity to tap into a whole newmarket, and make use of the high volume, and highspeed flexo offers.2. Replace your letterpress with a flexo press: Thisrequires a short-term investment and you need totrain your operators on a new print technique. Thistransition will be challenging, but will result in lowercosts in the long run.3. Embrace hybrid printing as your main printingtechnology: If flexo printing is the future, hybridprinting is the ‘future’s-future’. This innovationmerges the capabilities of flexo and digital printing,integrating the reliability and efficiency offlexographic printing with the creative possibilities ofdigital printing. The payoff? Access to the high printquality and low cost of flexo printing, and theflexibility and rapid change-over times of letterpressvia the digital printing unit.IS FLEXO PRINTING A BETTER OPTION?Flexo printing has become very popular because of itsability to print on almost any flexible substrate material.This includes paper, cellophane, metallic films andplastics – thus making it ideal for printing labels,pouches and packaging.Flexo printing presses are also very efficient and costeffective. A modern press can print at a rate of up to400m per minute - a phenomenal speed compared toletterpress. It also has the advantage of using a varietyof ink types such as water based, solvent & UV inkswhich makes it ideal for almost every applicationincluding those having a high level of health & safetyregulations such as food packaging.To make the best decision for your business, considerthe above comparison of the two printing techniques,and how to switch printing techniques in three easysteps.Letterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business9

MORE INFORMATION?If you would like to know more about letterpress – orflexo printing, or to further discuss options for yourown business, please contact us.Leopold der Nederlanden, Manager Trainings s:Spieker blog: https://spiekermann.com/en/Label Academy, Labels and Labeling publicationsInterview and blogs: Leopold der Nederlanden, Hans sko.comFinat mLetterpress versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business10

ABOUT MPSMPS, a Netherlands-based solution-oriented flexo andoffset narrow web press manufacturer, with years offlexographic printing expertise, recognizes thechallenges facing label printers. Through the use ofknowhow and capabilities, MPS continuously helpscustomers enhance their printing processes. With moreand more digital and hybrid solutions being introducedto the market, MPS tackles the question of whetherhybrid solutions are hype or the future.To gain more insight into digital printing, MPS partneredwith digital expert Domino to join expertise of the twocompanies and together examine in which scenariosa hybrid solution is the viable solution.MPS SYSTEMS B.V.Delta 100, 6825 MV ArnhemPO Box 3152, 6802 DD ArnhemThe NetherlandsT: 31 (0) 26 760 15 00E: info@mps4u.comI: ess versus flexo printing: how to choose the best option for your business11

Based on letterpress-printing principles, flexographic presses are composed of the same basic elements as letterpress cylinder-to-cylinder presses; that is, the cylinder covered with a rubber packing and an inking system. Flexographic presses are usually roll-fed rotaries

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