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What’s in a Print: Flexographic Printing

Hey there! As we round up the first quarter of 2024, we’re continuing a series that we started last October. That’s right, this is another edition of “What’s in a Print”! For this month, we’re going to talk about flexographic printing, a fascinating technique that can create amazing packaging for your products. And without further ado, let’s get started!

Photo by Ramiro Chambi on Pinterest

The History of Flexo

Flexographic printing, or flexo for short, is a printing process that uses flexible relief plates to transfer ink onto various substrates, such as paper, plastic, metal, or cellophane. It’s a modern version of letterpress printing, which was invented in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg (What is flexographic printing & how does it work?, 2023). Flexo can print on almost any type of material, and it’s especially suited for packaging because it can handle rough surfaces, thin films, and large areas of solid color.


Flexo was first patented in 1890 by Bibby, Baron and Sons in Liverpool, England. They used water-based ink that smeared easily, so their invention was nicknamed “Bibby’s Folly”. In the early 1900s, other European presses used rubber plates and aniline oil-based ink, which was faster drying but also toxic. The process was then called “aniline printing” or “gummidruck” in Germany. In the 1940s, the FDA banned aniline dyes for food packaging, causing a decline in sales. The industry then renamed the process “flexography” and developed safer inks and better plates.


How does Flexo work?

Flexographic printing uses a rotary press with several stations, each with a different color of ink. The flexible plates are mounted on cylinders and rotate at high speed. The plates have raised areas that pick up ink from an anilox roller, which has tiny cells that control the amount of ink transferred. The inked plates then press against the substrate, which is fed through the press in a continuous web. The substrate passes through a dryer to cure the ink before moving to the next station.

Flexographic printing can use different types of ink systems, such as water-based, solvent-based, or UV-curable. Water-based inks are environmentally friendly but require more drying time and energy. Solvent-based inks are fast drying but emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that need to be controlled. UV-curable inks are cured by exposure to ultraviolet light and have high resistance and durability.


The Pros and Cons of Flexo

Flexographic printing has many advantages over other printing methods, such as:

  • Ability to print on rough materials: Flexo can print on corrugated cardboard, kraft paper, chipboard, and even cellophane, which are difficult to print on with other techniques.
  • Fast-drying and quick process: Flexo uses low-viscosity, fast-drying inks and high-speed presses that can produce large quantities of prints in a short time.
  • Facilitates versatile finishes: Flexo can use a wide range of ink types, including fluorescents and metallics, as well as water-based, solvent-based, and UV-curable inks. Flexo can also create various effects, such as gloss, matte, varnish, or laminating.
  • Cost-effective printing technique: Flexo has moderate investment costs and low setup costs compared to other methods. Flexo also has low waste and material loss in press proofs. (Weavabel, 2019)


However, flexographic printing also has some disadvantages, such as:

  • Limited print quality: Flexo cannot produce very complex and detailed artwork like digital printing can. Flexo also has some limitations in color matching and consistency due to variations in ink viscosity and temperature. (Flexo, 2022)
  • Time-consuming plate making: Flexo requires a separate plate for each color and design change, which can be expensive and time-consuming to produce. Flexo plates also need to be stored properly to avoid damage or deterioration.
  • Environmental impact: Although flexo has improved its environmental performance over the years, it still generates some waste and emissions from ink solvents and cleaning agents (Weavabel, 2019). Flexo also consumes more energy than digital printing due to the drying process. 


Where does Flexo work best for product packaging?

Flexographic printing is widely used for product packaging because it can create attractive and durable prints on various materials (A beginner-friendly guide to flexographic printing, 2021). Some examples of flexographic printing applications are:

  • Shrink-sleeve and adhesive labels: Flexo can print on thin films that conform to the shape of bottles or containers. Flexo can also create vibrant colors and effects that catch the eye of consumers.
  • Shopping bags: Flexo can print on paper or plastic bags that are used for carrying products from stores. Flexo can also create large areas of solid color or logos that promote brand awareness.
  • Folding cartons: Flexo can print on cardboard boxes that are used for packaging products such as food, cosmetics, or pharmaceuticals. Flexo can also create high-quality images and text that inform and persuade consumers.
  • Ice cream cartons: Flexo can print on paperboard or plastic tubs that are used for packaging ice cream or frozen desserts. Flexo can also create appealing designs and colors that entice consumers to buy.
  • Gift wrap: Flexo can print on paper or foil that are used for wrapping gifts or products. Flexo can also create festive patterns and motifs that suit different occasions and seasons.
  • Pouches: Flexo can print on flexible bags that are used for packaging products such as snacks, pet food, or liquids. Flexo can also create resealable or stand-up pouches that offer convenience and functionality.

Flexographic printing is a versatile and efficient printing technique that can create stunning packaging for your products. Flexo can print on almost any type of substrate, and it can handle rough surfaces, thin films, and large areas of solid color. Flexo can also use different types of ink systems and finishes to create various effects and qualities. However, flexo also has some limitations in print quality, plate making, and environmental impact. Therefore, you should consider the pros and cons of flexo before choosing it for your packaging project.


And that’s about it from us about Flexographic Printing! We hope you learned something from this month’s segment. Stay Cr8tive and see you next time!

References and Sources

Weavabel. (2019, February 12). What are the pros and cons of flexographic printing?. Weavabel. https://www.weavabel.com/blog/what-is-flexographic-printing-and-what-are-its-pros-and-cons

Flexo, A. (2022, February 21). Flexographic printing pros and cons. Flexopedia. https://flexopedia.net/flexographic-printing-pros-cons/

What is flexographic printing & how does it work?. Oliver Inc. (2023, January 19). https://www.oliverinc.com/blog/what-is-flexography-printing-and-how-does-it-work

A beginner-friendly guide to flexographic printing. CMYK. (2021, February 22). https://www.cmyk.ph/flexographic-printing/

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