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What Is Flexographic Printing & How Does It Work?

Flexographic printing, which gets its name from the flexible plates that make it possible, is a cost-effective, efficient process for high-volume labels.

    3 minute read

Sometimes, it works out that the name for a process expands to include definitions beyond its etymology. Take flexographic printing, or flexo for short. In this case, the flex refers to the flexible plates used in the printing process (known as flexography). However, it might as well speak to the many applications flexo offers customers. 

Flexographic printing can be applied to a variety of substrates: porous and non-porous materials, plastics, papers, paperboards, vinyl, and more. The process also can accommodate numerous inks and decorative effects that can be added inline. With precise die-cuts, it even enables intricate designs for custom labels. 

Even with the rise in digital printing technology, flexography remains a consistent, quality, and efficient printing option for large-run jobs.


How Does Flexographic Printing Work?

Although flexography takes advantage of modern bells and whistles—ultraviolet (UV) lamps or infrared (IR) dryers, laser-cut dies, and sustainable inks and coating—the process traces its origins to printing press inventor Johannes Gutenberg himself. The letterpress technique (repeatedly stamping an ink-covered, custom plate against sheets of a substrate) that made mass printing possible later evolved to accommodate uneven surfaces, just in time for the emergence of consumer packaging. 

The first flexographic printing technique debuted in 1890, and it’s evolved with the times. Today, the flexible plates are most commonly made from photopolymer material that bends around narrow cylinders.

The Flexographic Printing Process 

  • As the roll of substrate unwinds, the sheet passes through a series of printing stations.
  • An anilox roller (made from steel or aluminum) with a surface etched with shallow wells dips into an ink fountain.
  • The anilox roller is then wiped clean with a doctor blade to leave an even, consistent layer of ink. 
  • The ink is applied to the plated images.
  • The substrate is then pressed against the plate, with an impression cylinder applying appropriate pressure, to transfer the image onto the surface. 
  • A series of UV lamps or IR dryers dry the ink prior to the next process. 

Because flexography uses ink with low viscosity, it dries quickly, preventing smearing from one station to the next. Elaborate presses also feature multiple print stations. That means the printed image can be combined with specialty inks, coating, inline cold foil, die-cutting, and more.


Use Cases & Benefits of Flexographic Printing

Once the presses are set up (creating the plates and preparing each printing station takes some time), you can print thousands of labels with unique structures and combine them with a wide range of decorative effects. While some of these decorating techniques are now possible for digitally printed materials, the quality and consistency flexography offers make it the preferred process for long-run labels, and even those with short lead times. 

Flexographic printing serves as an important resource, as labels have exceeded their original practical purpose. They’re now a crucial part of marketing, in addition to providing vital information to consumers. 

The labels’ quality needs to shine through in retail and online settings, where they often serve as the primary visual cue for customers. Think of this in the context of the highly competitive health and beauty industry. Consumers associate elegant packaging with an elegant product. 

To accomplish this, you could print on a special substrate, add a unique coating, or combine inline cold foil with embossing for a subtle, metallic look. 

Such decorative touches are most cost-effective with flexography. 


What’s the Right Printing Method for You? 

Flexography is a great option for high-volume label needs, but it’s not always the best option. That, of course, depends on the nature of your project. 

With no plates to create, and very little set-up of the machine, digital presses eliminate most of the make-ready hours required with conventional flexographic presses. It enables variable data printing, gives you access to extended gamut printing, and is ideal for extended content labels and instant redeemable coupons (not to mention short-run folding cartons). 

Finding the right process is about understanding the full scope of your project. That’s where it pays to work with an experienced printer. Oliver offers state-of-the-art flexography, offset, and digital printing options. In addition to those services, the Oliver team provides expertise in all things printing. From discussing your material choices to incorporating appropriate adhesives that prevent peeling over time, our experts will land on a solution that fits your preferences and budget. 

As with flexographic printing itself, every detail matters.

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