The debate was broadly on the technologies affecting flexographic printing; it was equally concerned with the forces at work in the industry and how companies might capitalise on, or mitigate, those threats and opportunities.
Since this was a semi-private discussion, I have agreed not to quote any particular speaker on any particular point. But some fascinating themes came out around the place of flexo in the markets it serves and the economic and commercial challenges it faces.
One that came up early in the debate was the level of investment that has gone into the flexo print for corrugated in recent months. That was seen as a good thing. But concerns were raised that there is currently not the necessary level of demand for the decorative packaging that it produces. That will cerrtainly come, the group felt, but there was nevertheless a risk of a price war in the meantime.
On the battle between flexo printing and its rivals litho, gravure and digital, the debate heard views that flexography should be sold on its qualities rather than on price; and that digital printing is unlikely to make major inroads into the market in the short term, in corrugated pre-print at least. The major issue, one speaker said, was the cost of ink for digital printing, which remains significanty higher than in other technologies.
In labels it’s a rather different story; there is stronger take-up of digital, but the EFIA members were of the view that it was not the threat it may turn out to be. While wholesale personalisation of packaging is unlikely to happen, one speaker argued, there is a very strong chance that in years to come it will be standard practice to have a digital unit on a flexo press that could offer some level of localisation or versioning for packs.
One major theme to come out was the lack of a robust standard for flexo printing that can give confidence to brand owners that their print will be consistent, whoever they buy it from. Litho has the ISO12647 standard, the debate heard; where is the equivalent in flexography? One speaker vehemently argued that flexo should move out of the realm of black art and be considered much more scientifically. Others weree concerned as to whether this would be possible.
Another crucial argument to emerge was around the role of packaging in supermarkets. One of the speakers argued that supermarkets’ entire business model at present is based on price promotions. But there will be an end to that; if the trend for BOGOFs and so on continues, prices will reach rock bottom. What then? The next differentiator is packaging. What this means for the industry remains to be seen; but the suggestion was that packaging suppliers would need to get faster and more flexible. There will be more just-in-time packaging, more versioning and so on. Or does it just mean more price pressure?
Flexographic printing is clearly facing some challenges for the year ahead. But its practitioners – at least, the ones I met – are well up for that challenge.
Josh Brooks is editor of Packaging News