Sample Research Paper on Flexography History

The modern day printing industry is a resultant of continuous evolutions cutting across several years. The printing industry has evolved in both technology and technique, leading to the realization of more effective and efficient methods that result in higher qualities of output (Thomas 177). The present printing technologies began the evolution journey in 1890 with the invention of the first printing press which used water based inks in England (Howard 141). The technology used in the printing press by then was flexography, even though by then it was referred to as the aniline process. The name flexography was only adopted later due to complaints from the food processing industry where most of the printed materials were used in food packaging. Flexography as a printing technique is widely applicable ad preferred to the initially liked lithographic process due to its versatility since it can be used i a wide range of contexts with a wide variety of substrates. Flexographic printing can be applied where the substrates differ that varieties such as paper, plastic, metallic films and cellophane can be used.

The food industry is the greatest consumer of flexographic printed materials due to the diversity of food packaging materials that are used in the industry. With increasing demand for better quality of printed materials, the food industry continued to place pressure on the printing industry with the complaint that water based inks were not sustainable. The initial flexographic process produced rudimentary quality of prints on all the media that was used due to the smearing property of water based inks (Howard 140). Since the 1990’s, there have been numerous improvements in the flexographic process with results being increased print quality, improved designs of photopolymer plates, improved design in the material selection and creation methods and transition to direct plate printing methods which result in lower rates of waste.

Although many studies have been carried out on the subject of printing and its relationship to improved document qualities, there is still a gap in relation to the management of production costs and wastes in the printing industry (Lee 468). Technologies such as laser printing have come up to replace ink printing due to the supposed higher quality of laser printed documents. Technologies such as laser etching of ceramic anilox rolls have aided the industry to improve the qualities of print outputs (Gascoigne 12). In technological advancements with respect to the use of the flexography technique, companies such as Kodak and Esko have taken the lead in bringing the print industry to a more advanced system which reduces the operation costs and improves the efficiency of printing and waste management (Howard 144). Through Esko, screening technologies which promise fast wash outs have helped top improve the print quality in the printing industry. All these have continued to promise faster growth in the quality of print materials to levels that cannot be comprehended theoretically.

Among the most recent and most efficient flexographic technologies is Esko’s Equinox which was unveiled to help the printing industry reduce its costs through increased productivity and efficient management of wastes. Equinox has been described as effective in cost reduction through reduced operation times and reduced wastes. It is also said to increase the print quality through production of materials that can only be equalized with superior technologies such as laser printing (Hyatt 200). Moreover, it saves on ink use through the use of a single unit pack which does not have to be changed at change of jobs. The effectiveness of the process has made it gain global recognition, with wide spread application in the UK. Most of the printing companies which have used this technology report of its effectiveness and have given testimonies of how the technology has increased their business values and profit margins (Labels and labeling par. 10).

The present study was carried out with the objective of exploring the advancements in the printing industry and determining how wastes and costs can be reduced in the industry through adoption of new technologies. Of particular interest to the study is Esko’s Equinox printing press and strategy which has taken the market by storm and which most of the companies who have adopted it commend for its efficiency and ability to reduce costs. The study was carried out based on a review of relevant literature and a survey targeting those who work in the printing industry. It is believed that the study will contribute to an increase in the amount of knowledge available on the subject of flexographic printing and how costs and wastes can be managed effectively in the process.

Project Significance

The printing industry is laden with information on processes and various other factors that influence the industry. Moreover, most of the previous works done on the printing industry focus on its evolution with a slight mention of the challenges the industry faces. The present study is significant due to its potential for offering information that differs from what other authors have provided before. The study provides a wide dearth of information relating to the printing industry. With information on process history, its evolution, benefits, limitations and the wastes associated with industry as well as the ways in which costs as well as wastes can be reduced, the study will be an invaluable addition to printing technology information. The target audiences for the study include the academia, particularly students studying printing technology and the stake holders of the industry who have been looking for ways to monitor and deal with wastes and cost escalations in the printing industry.

Problem Statement

Despite the continued growth in the print industry and its development in technology and quality of outputs, two key challenges have continued to press the industry in ways that cannot be imagined. The printing industry has to deal with the issue of waste management while also trying to find ways of reducing production costs. This implies that technologies have risen which give an opportunity for printing companies to reduce their operation costs while still giving high quality print materials which are acceptable by the potential consumers. The need to address environmental concerns raised by the Environmental Protection Agencies in relation to the printing industry while at the same time maintaining profitability has made the printing industry reduce the margin of profits This study aims at addressing the issue of costs and wastes in the printing industry by identifying the improvements that have been achieved in the printing industry in light of new technologies and identifying how both costs and wastes can be reduced to enhance profitability in the industry. The aim was achieved through identification of the wastes associated with the printing industry and highlighting ways in which each of the identified wastes can be eliminated. It was expected that obtaining information regarding this subject will be a key limitation for the research and that

Research Questions:

To effectively meet the research objectives, the study was guided by the following research questions.

Q1: What does the process of flexography involve, what are its advantages and limitations?

By answering this question, it will be possible to provide a strong foundation from which to work into the other sections of the project. A study of flexography will provide an overview of the printing industry as well as the challenges associated with the industry.

Q2: How has the process of Esko Equinox improved the printing industry?

The question will help to bring out clearly the benefits that Equinox has added to the printing industry. By mentioning the changes associated with Equinox, it will also be easy to identify whether it has increased the effectiveness of the printing process or not.

Q3: What are the wastes associated with the printing industry and how can they be minimized?

This is the ultimate question in the research. Through this question, the issues of cost and waste reduction in printing will be explored and extrapolated effectively in order to understand the rationale behind the process adoption.

Project limitation

The key limitation of this project is that it covered a limited scope in terms of industry outlook. The surveys carried out were limited to companies within the country and it is difficult to generalize such information to the global context. There is a probability that information that is relevant to the UK may not be relevant to the developing countries. In addition to this, consideration was only made of Esko Equinox as the newest technology in the printing industry. While this focus may be good, it may not favor other people from geographical regions within which the use of Equinox is still incomprehensible. Consequently, there is need for a greater research to be done on the printing industry as a whole in order to get information that may be globally applicable.

Definition of Terms

In this study, some of the key terms that will be used include:

Flexography – a printing technology which uses ink to print on flexible but variable substrates such as papers, metallic films, plastics and cellophane. The method has gained wide application in the food industry where there is need for printing on non-porous substrates.

Lithography – a printing method where a plate is used to make the print on the substrate. Only the areas that are to be printed take up ink from the plate while the other areas are treated prior to printing in order for them to repel the printing ink.

Esko Equinox – A new improved flexographic printing method which uses a gamut of seven colors to produce high quality prints. The method was developed by Esko in the wake of increasing pressure for the printing industry to adopt technology changes. The method has been said to be effective in cost reduction and waste management and thus more potentially profitable to the printing industry.

Substrates – The materials from which printing materials are made such as cellophane, plastics, papers or metallic films.

Literature Review

Fleming (12) describes the process involved in flexography. From the description given by Fleming, flexography is an advanced process that produces print outputs of qualities almost similar to those produced by lithography. The key difference between the two is that while lithography is somewhat restricted to the nature of substrate that can be used, flexography covers all forms of printable substrates (Hird 10). The printing technique reportedly gained in use through the 1990s after the initial quality improvement in 1990 (Gascoigne 16). The process is said to have began using water based inks alone, a process which was stressful since most of the ink smeared on the substrates leading to a reduction in print quality and increase in wastes (Briggs and Burke 68). It was thus essential to find other alternative ways of producing print compared to flexography and whereby the quality of the work to be done mattered most.

Adams and Dolin also discuss the process of flexography, as a basis for other printing technologies. Flexography is compared to methods such as laser technology which together produce effective results in terms of quality. From the work of Fleming (21), development of fast washout strategies and latest technologies for print screening has made it possible for flexography to match other print methods and perform even better in terms of print qualities. The improvements that have been reported in terms of flexographic developments include reproduction of prints with highlight of tonal values whose quality rivals the lithographic process. Despite the rivalry between lithographic techniques and flexography, it is still clear that flexographic techniques are still the most preferred when it comes to printing on variable substrates (Carter and others 11). The flexographic process is used in a wide range of applications such as printing of folding cartons, disposable cups, labels, adhesive tapes, containers, envelopes, plastic bags, newspapers and milk and beverage cartons among other applications (Rothernberg and others 22). The process involves a roll of substrate being fed into a series of units through which the substrate is passed and produces the desired prints (Bruno 3).

Kipphan (402) asserts that flexographic techniques have been in use for ages and doing away with them may prove to be a difficult nut to crack. Instead of elimination, newer variants of the technology which boasts of improvements in the mode of operation and effectiveness of waste management and cost reduction. In the improvement process, the industry has proven that flexographic printing technique has the potential of exhibiting a wide range of benefits in the printing process (Romano 17). First, flexography uses a wide variety of substrates which cannot be used by other printing techniques. This implies that for those demands that require the use of multiple type substrates, flexography offers the best solution to cost effectiveness. Secondly, the process can use a wide variety of inks. Contrary to the lithographic process which uses water based inks to a large extent, the flexographic process can be able to used water based, solvent based inks as well as electron beams of different types. It is also possible to use curing inks in the process to cure the inks chemically.

Despite the diversity in the type of flexographic inks, Kipphan (401) gives the assurance that instead of making the process to be stressful through ink changes and other associated factors, the process is associated with higher efficiency due to the capabilities associated with the inks. For instance, flexographic inks are formulated to remain compatible with the similarly varied substrate range. What this means is that through the input of an ink assemblage into the printing press, it is possible to continue printing on different substrates without changing the ink pack. The reason behind this, as explained by Kipphan (354) is that each of the ink components performs a particular function during printing hence the lack of stress during the printing process and the ability to maintain high print qualities despite the difference in the ink types. Although the variation of ink types in the flexographic printing press does not give a challenge during printing, there is a possibility of difficulty when the water based inks used are of particle sizes less than 5μm (Tsien 210). These small sized particles pose a challenge during printing due to the difficulty involved in ink control which sometimes leads to the destruction of substrates and the subsequent need for replacement and reprinting (Johansson and Lyberg 53).

Because of the repetitive nature of the printing process involved in flexographic printing, it is purported that the process has a low margin for printing errors. However, if an error printing occurs, it is also very possible that the error will appear in all the similar copies of the material produced. Besides this, McQuilken (par. 4) indicates that flexographic printing that developments in the concept of flexographic printing have led to the realization of other techniques which though founded on the principles of flexography, are much more efficient and more cost effective. Printing techniques such as CMYK and Pantone and Esko Equinox have been realized to result in even greater waste management compared to the conventional flexographic printing techniques. From a study carried out by James (62), it was realized that most printing companies in the UK, which is the home of Esko Equinox have already adopted the technique and are making lots of positive advancements in terms of time management and cost effectiveness. McQuilken says that the decision to use Equinox lies in the hands of printing business owners and they cannot be coerced into taking the necessary step towards greater achievement.

Esko – Equinox Process

The surmounting pressure to provide an all round, cost effective and most efficient range of printing services led to the development of various printing strategies over the years. From complaints about water based inks smearing on printing substrates, there have been developments aimed at improving the efficiency of the printing industry services. The development of Equinox by Esko was one of the strategies that were used to develop the printing industry, moving it from the level of high wastes and costs to manageable levels. According to a research by Davis (1), the subject of cost effectiveness in printing makes a potential new technology in the industry be viable or not. This is explained as being due to the competing interests between compliance with all the environmental protection authority regulations and making large profit margins. While the high costs of production lead to a desire among the printing businesses to reduce operation costs, other outside costs such as environmental preservation costs incurred in waste management (Meggs 32).

Esko Equinox has been effective in the realization of the demand by customers to achieve prints of qualities similar to gravures and offset (Piccio par. 3). This achievement is said to be a result of the unique properties associated with Esko Equinox. From the work by James (63), Esko Equinox has the capacity of delivering high quality flexographic plates which have detailed highlights as well as shadow properties and other solid areas in print. The technique produces superior qualities which can be linked to long term stability and enhanced repeatability in production. With these qualities, it is easy to give support to what is discussed by James (63). Moreover, other strong features such as the ability to save make-readies, time used in prepress operations as well as during printing all contribute to greater effectiveness and higher profitability (Chea 23). These strong features have made Equinox to garner global cross- industry accolades, with the effect of cost effectiveness gaining the greatest attention.

Besides the already outlined qualities, Esko Equinox is also described by Esko (par. 3) as advantageous in the printing industry due to other properties such as a right solid density in the printing press, perfect ink lay down which makes it easy for the ink to be absorbed, Vibrant brand colors and superior plate making consistencies which attract customers more. In addition to these features, Esko Equinox printing process is also standardized since the process uses a standard set of inks. This makes the technique even more reliable in terms of cost reduction since one does not have to rely on a larger color set for different jobs. The same set of colors can be used across all printing operations hence making it easy for jobs to be ganged during operations. The end result is a reduction in the overall printing time (Esko par. 11). According to Esko’s website, the effectiveness associated with Esko Equinox results in higher productivity since time is saved in the print production process. The process of plate making has also been identified as being cost effective while still producing prints of the right quality and consistency. The entire package that is Esko Equinox has therefore been confirmed effective and profitable in business. This is based on the argument that as the hardware is effectively operational, so is the software part of the printing technique. Esko Equinox’s software has helped in enhancing the consistency of plate making and printing while also maintaining the quality of the print products from the process (James 61).

Printing industry cost and waste reduction

The cost effectiveness of the Esko Equinox printing technique brings out the pressing need to address the issues of cost reduction and waste reduction in the printing process. The only way to reduce costs in the printing process is to use techniques that identify areas of wastes and then provide solutions on how these wastes can be addressed. According to Stinnet (2) additional costs are incurred in the printing industry due to wastes that go without being addressed. It is therefore mandatory that the areas where there are wastes be identified and then changes be made towards adopting strategies that are more cost effective.

It is the opinion of Mason (14) that the printing industry has many wastes even though the talk about printing wastes in most cases brings only the subject of papers to mind. The pressure to be more responsible with respect to the environment makes waste management and reduction a critical stage for each company in the printing business (Delchet- Cochet and others 12). In order to significantly reduce wastes and the associated costs in the printing industry, McQuilken (16) recommends that areas of waste should be examined followed by the structuring a method of implementing effective waste management procedures. Wastes in the printing industry are discussed as including wastage of materials, time and chemicals. In material wastes, the three key ways in which losses occur include; through offsets and failed deliveries; through roll losses; and through reprints due to errors in printing (Mross and Rothernberg 9). In order to reduce the instances of substrate waste in the printing process, it is essential to implement operational software which controls the substrate movements and also help in reducing errors related to mail operations. Moreover, the software can be used to run process controls that help to attain consistency in manufacturing leading to less wastes.

While software can be able to handle substrate wastes effectively, it is still difficult to address the issues of loss in time. In order to reduce wastes of time, it is essential to recognize positions where time is lost in terms of waiting time, pre-press time and processing time. Recognizing and terminating non-value adding steps in the printing process can help printing companies to address the challenge of time wastage through improved speed of operations. Also, Time wasted on job change over during offsets can be reduced through smart parameters that ensure the work flow is smooth and in most cases automated. The reduction in time wastages can help in reducing the operational costs through high productivity levels.

Another way mentioned by James (64) in which printing companies incur wastes is through chemical wastes such as inks. In order to reduce ink wastes, James suggests that the use of recycle or buy- back programs should be encouraged. The move to direct computer – plate printing is also recommended. This helps to eliminate the chemicals that may be used in the production of printing plates. While all authors recognize the roles of different types of wastes on the profitability of the business, it is also a global concept that reduction of wastes can help reduce operating costs. Moreover, the subject of wastes should be looked at in all its facets to avoid situations where some of the areas are not addressed effectively.

Conclusions and recommendations

The use of flexography as a printing technique has been in place through many years. With improved efficiency and quality of print outputs, the strategy has formed the foundation of various other techniques such as the CMYK and pantone strategies as well as the hyped Esko Equinox. Each of these modifications of the conventional flexographic printing technique realizes a new strength which makes it penetrate the market more. The Esko Equinox technique has been accorded global recognition due to its strengths such as a right solid density, vibrant brand colors and the perfect ink lay-down. The properties associated with Equinox have made it cost effective, particularly since it uses a standard ink set that does not require changing after every job. Moreover, it is also more enhanced in terms of plate making consistency making it the most preferred choice among the other flexographic methods.

Despite all its strengths, Esko Equinox still portrays the weaknesses of conventional flexographic methods in that aspects of cost reduction and waste reduction still surround its operations. However, it is possible to reduce both wastes and costs through effective consideration of the points of origin of all the wastes and eliminating them from the point of origin. Substrate, chemical and time wastes all result in losses for the organization and can be prevented through effective process controls and monitoring.


From the study of the literatures, the conclusions below were drawn in connection to the study questions.

  1. The conventional flexographic printing technique produces better quality of printing compared to other conventional methods such as lithography hence its use as a foundation for the more enhanced techniques such as Esko Equinox.
  2. Esko Equinox is an advanced flexographic printing technique which is more cost effective in its operations. It is currently being used mainly by printing companies in the UK and will continue to expand in its application.
  3. As much as Esko Equinox is a better performer than the conventional flexographic printing techniques. Wastes such as substrate wastes, chemical wastes and time wastes can be reduced through better operation procedures which eliminate the non-value adding procedures in the printing process hence helping to reduce operational costs.

It can thus be said that the paper has been effective in answering the research questions in full. However, the key limitation associated with the study is the limited scope within which the study was carried out.


From the conclusions drawn from the study, it can be recommended that printing companies should adopt a flexible approach to the use of Esko Equinox due to the ever present need to manage wastes and control costs. Through adopting internal audit procedures which can help to identify areas of potential wastes, it will be possible to eliminate wastes before they even occur hence controlling the organizational costs.


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