Flexo plate production in times of crisis – part 1

18 May 2020
Uwe Stebani, General Manager Xeikon Prepress

The world, as we knew it, no longer exists; what are the effects of the shock
waves that the Corona crisis is sending into the packaging market?
Of course, even before the outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic there were studies dealing with a worldwide pandemic caused by a new bacteria or virus, some of them even with almost prophetic results [1,2]. Hence, the pandemic cannot be described as a “black swan” [3], a completely unpredictable event that has been beyond the human experience so far and, as such, also the imagination. And yet we are all surprised by the impact of the crisis, which affects us all personally. In addition to the direct interventions in everyday life, however, at the time of writing this article it is not yet possible to predict how long and how deep the cuts will be to which economic life will be subject after the pandemic.

Current short-term effects of the Corona crisis draw a very different picture in the packaging industry. Due to a sudden change in purchasing behavior, certain consumer goods are experiencing a short-term sales boom. In addition, more emphasis is put on the protective properties of packaging. In addition to avoiding the spread of infection, the main priority is to increase the shelf life, especially of food. Business models that are already seriously questioned, such as the delivery of frozen foods or the slow development of delivery services for online grocery orders, are experiencing a growth and sales boost. As a result, consumables for packaging printing are experiencing a special boom. The manufacturers of flexographic printing plates and inks are experiencing increased sales. However, manufacture of solvent based inks is disrupted by supply bottlenecks with solvents such as ethanol, especially needed for disinfectants.

This contrasts with a downtrend in capital goods. Manufacturers of printing presses, be it for flexo or digital printing, are losing orders which they believed certain to close. These are either postponed without re-schedule or cancelled completely because cash flow becomes extremely important in the crisis. Solvency, particularly towards employees, is rightly preferred to an investment, with its risk and sustainability even more difficult to assess in the current environment than in normal times. As a result, a number of manufacturers have introduced short-time work and are putting the brakes on costs.

But which basic lessons can be learned from the crisis and how do these lessons help to resume business or strategically reposition it in the future?

One lesson we’ve learned is that you have to question established supply chains, especially the geographical vulnerability of these chains. For the supply of consumables, it is for example a challenge when pigments for packaging printing inks are manufactured in China, binders in the USA and printing inks in France for a customer in Germany. In addition to the time-delayed failure scenarios of the raw material manufacturers due to the delayed regional spread of the pandemic, logistics challenges suddenly emerge, which are caused by sudden reductions in global freight capacities as well as regional and local restrictions on movement due to border controls and curfews. This will certainly lead to a reassessment of safety stocks.

A second lesson is the use of home office and digital communication tools. Prepress in particular, is used to dealing with digital tools and databases. Nevertheless, previously the work took place almost exclusively in shared offices, since personal contact, exchange and coordination were seen as essential. However, the need to work from the home office has shown in many places that, thanks to the motivation of the employees and existing software tools, it often works very well in this situation.

However, the third lesson may still come. With the data and packaging designs created in the home office, which were coordinated by video conference with the managers of the brand owners working in their home offices, plates have to be produced that are then delivered to the packaging printers. This still works quite well at the moment, but what if a processing device fails? In addition to the critical supply of spare parts, there may also be problems with service technicians, especially if travel restrictions are maintained for some time. Suddenly it becomes apparent that automation and especially digitalization is only rudimentary in the area of flexographic plate processing.

Will there be a solution to these lessons? And if yes, will the answer be limited to flexo?

We at Xeikon have some insider news for you – STAY TUNED (and AT HOME) for more to come soon…