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Why Inkjet Will Ultimately Replace Flexo and Gravure?

Terence Kenneth – Aug 25, 2017

Inkjet Replacing Flexo and GravureOver the past twenty years or so, we’ve seen how flexography has eaten away at the market once dominated by gravure printing. Flexo did so because:

  • It’s print quality improved
  • Changeover times were faster

Also, it was simply cheaper to make a rubber or photo-polymer flexo plate than it was to fabricate a gravure cylinder. Flexo was king of short runs, and flexo presses could be set up in just about any small industrial space.

Well, things are changing once again...

Inkjet or digital printing is quickly turning out to be the go-to printing method of the future, and here’s why.

Let's take a look at the 5 advances that are making inkjet, an ultimate flexo and gravure replacement.

#1 Advancing Technology Resulting from New Materials

This is everything in a nutshell. We live in an age now where information and therefore the advance of technology, is increasing at an exponential pace. We can do things today that we couldn’t do last week, and that is making a difference in the printing world.

Advancing Technology Improving Ink QualityToday advancing technology affects:

  • The building blocks (raw materials) of ink formulation
  • Printing technology (innovation and software), and
  • The way in which we think about how to accomplish different tasks

New raw materials that go in to making inks are being developed at a faster pace, which in turn enable:

  • Better ink adhesion
  • Higher print quality
  • Faster drying, and
  • Better materials for the environment

Advancing technology increases the amount of resources that are available to us

A case to consider is: Back in the 70s people were afraid that we were going to run out of oil. That was because with the technology of the day, we could only drill so deep and through certain rock types. Now, advancing technology allows us to drill much deeper and through different rock layers that we couldn’t in the past. This makes the quantity of oil available practically infinite. Plus, consider the invention of the fuel injector. Now our cars are many times more efficient on gas than their predecessors.

Our resources increased because our technology increased - better drilling technology and fuel injectors effectively more than doubled the amount of oil we have available to us today. Likewise, inkjet is also seeing advances made possible by advancing technology.

The figure below depicts the transition of printing machines from 1930s 'Albert Printing Machine' to modern 'Digital UV Inkjet Printer'.

Albert Automatic Printing Machine in 1930s  Digital UV Inkjet Press 
Albert Automatic Printing Machine in 1930s  Dotrix Digital UV Inkjet Press 

#2 Development of Better Inks from Small Size Binders

My business is based on developing new ink systems and enhancing existing inks. This means that we rely on new raw materials to help accomplish things that we couldn’t last year.

Small Size Binders Improving Ink Formulation The backbone of any ink formulation is the resin or binder. This gives the ink its physical properties and affects things like:

  • Adhesion
  • Rub resistance, and
  • Other physical properties

In the past, there were no resins that could be successfully jetted through a printing nozzle a few microns wide. Even if the resins did, they certainly didn’t present any useful physical characteristics. Older resins also made the ink viscosities too high, which also made jetting impossible.

Now, with the advent of lower viscosity / small particle size binders, we’re able to formulate tough, resilient inks to stand up to almost any environmental abuse. Also, special software now allows us to compute different formulation parameters. This software factors in:

  • Raw materials
  • Substrates
  • Ink film thickness, and
  • Drying parameters

Formulation parameters create new ways of constructing formulations - something that we had to do manually through trial and error in the past.

#3 Better Printing Technologies

You thought Flexo was designed for short print runs? Well, Inkjet printing really is designed for short runs, and mass customization on a wide array of different print media. Digital printing allows us to print much finer details than any of the analog methods could produce. And today we see almost everything being printed digitally, like:

  • Books and magazines
  • Clothes
  • Displays and banners
  • Household objects like: Cups, plates, labels, packaging (included corrugated packaging), and
  • Specialty areas like printed electronics, including: Printed circuit boards, membrane switches, and other conductive traces

Digital printing now utilizes hard solvent, eco-solvent, waterborne and UV curing ink technology - a carrier array that not even flexo and gravure can boast. Here are just a few sub-sets of the inkjet printing world:

  • Hard Solvent inks
  • Mild solvent inks
  • Eco solvent inks
  • Dye sublimation inks
  • Latex inks
  • Direct-to-garment water based inks
  • Reactive inks
  • UV curable inks
  • UV/LED inks

  • Airplane Decorated Via Inkjet Printer  Digital Corrugated Printer 
    Decorated Airbus Airplane with Inkjet Printer  Digital Corrugated Printer 

    The digital printing platform also includes everything from small desktop printers to wide and grand format printers, and even specialty printers. This means you can print on anything using inkjet inks - including bottles, mugs and even airplanes!

    Development in UV Curable Ink Formulation

    Over the past five to eight years, we’ve seen even bigger strides within many sectors of inkjet ink formulation. Most notably is in UV curable ink formulation. Traditional mercury lamps are notorious for generating a lot of heat. This limited the substrates that could be printed with UV ink. This is because the excessive heat caused shrinkage of some of the more sensitive films.

    Then, photo-initiators were developed to allow UV inks to cure in the LED liquid spectrum. LEDs are cool to the touch and generate minimal heat. This enables you to print on heat-sensitive substrates such as:

    • Thin slides
    • Self-adhesive films
    • PVC, and
    • Other delicate materials

    LED lamps can be switched on and off without any degradation of intensity, which:

    • Saves time (no warm-up time required), and
    • Allows for faster operations and higher productivity

    Modern UV / LED Printer
    Modern UV / LED Printer

    Some other benefits of UV / LED include higher durability and lower energy consumption than the mercury bulb lamps. Also, UV / LED are a much greener product as they don’t contain mercury and there is no need for mercury disposal. LEDs also don’t produce any ozone gas which needs special ventilation.

    So again, advancing technology allows us to do things that we couldn’t do “yesterday”.

    #4 Versatility of Printing on Varying Platforms

    Inkjet is by far the most versatile printing method that exists. A large part of this versatility can be attributed to its ability to print different kinds of fluids on different kinds of printing platforms. So in addition to what we traditionally think of as ink - inkjet is also being used in the 3D bio industry to print human tissue. And, we now have printable “skin” for wound dressing and other printable cells.

    Printed Skin from Inkjet Printer
    Printed Skin for Wound Dressing

    #5 Ease of Installation

    Anyone can do it! Inkjet printing is one of the easiest businesses to do. This is because there are an infinite number of printers and scales that you can use depending on the types of materials that you want to print. You don’t need plate making equipment or a large industrial space. Waterborne inks allow you to print without any fear of causing a fire or polluting the environment.

    So, are there any areas where Inkjet does not excel?

    At the moment the only deficiency for inkjet (and this may change tomorrow!) is speed. Right now, inkjet printing cannot match the speed of a gravure press running at over 1200 ft/min. But, we can say with all certainty that it’s just a matter of time before digital catches up. In summary, the main takeaway is the many benefits that inkjet printing affords the user, and these by far outweigh any of the negatives.

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