In 2016, after over 20 years as a leading Indian manufacturer of PE film for flexible packaging, Ahmedabad-based Pentaflex Films decided to add printing to its portfolio by taking the flexo route in a gravure dominated market. Within a year, a new Bobst wide-web CI flexo 8-color press was installed in a state of the art plant.
And in two years of operation, Pentaflex took the Silver with High Honors in the Kodak Global Flexo Innovation Awards. (In early 2019, Kodak divested its flexo plate business to a private equity investor who formed a company called Miraclon that now develops, manufactures sells and supports the Flexcel NX technology consisting of the imaging and processing device and the plates.)
Pentaflex’s Anand Patel acknowledges that he and his fellow directors took a risk. He explains why it was a very calculated risk, “Flexo is only about 15% of the FMCG market that we focus on, and most of that is dairy packaging. The rest of the market is largely gravure, so there’s a huge opportunity to win brands over to flexography — and we have some really serious factors working in our favor.”
Push for sustainability
An argument for brand owners and packaging converters to take a serious look at Flexo is the Indian government’s policy regarding its waste control order, which is looking at sustainability and recycling of flexible packaging. Patel explains, “Many countries have adopted Extended Producer Responsibility, which makes consumer brands pay attention to what happens to their products after use — in particular, material recovery and recycling. In India we’re now catching up, which is placing significant pressure on brand owners to put sustainability front and centre of product development. This will be good news for flexo.”
Patel says Pentaflex did its homework, “We researched the current consumption of plastics and film in India, and how this would grow in line with increases in people’s disposable income — which translates into more spending on consumer goods. Add that to the drive for sustainability, and the outlook for flexo is really positive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sudden boom in flexo in the next two or three years, maybe by 40% before settling down to steady incremental increases.”
Confident as Pentaflex was of the potential, the company took its first steps as a flexo printer in the market it knew best, dairy. Since flexo was already established in the segment, the discussions were more straightforward and gave Pentaflex the confidence to invest in flexo. “In the past, flexo had a bad press on issues like printability and quality, but you can trace that to older technology such as stacked presses. Our Bobst CI press [an MW125F] is a different generation of machine altogether, and the word is spreading,” says Patel.
The second lesson was that a huge opportunity existed for CI flexo in the reverse-printed laminate market. “Reverse-printing with flexo was almost unheard of in the region,” recalls Patel. “However, by combining the Bobst CI flexo with the Kodak Flexcel NX technology for flexo platemaking, we could offer brands much higher quality in the reverse-printed space with the added advantage that the pack is recyclable.”
The company’s winning entry of flexible packaging for salt in the flexo innovation awards demonstrated this proposition. Salt is traditionally packaged in a PET+PE laminate, printed on gravure for reasons of printability and quality. The brand owner wanted a sustainable replacement, and Pentaflex proposed a PE+PE laminated structure, a 100% recyclable alternative, with similar mechanical properties and shelf life. The well-produced new pack was difficult to distinguish from the gravure equivalent. There was also some cost-benefit in the handling of packaging waste.
Considering how new Pentaflex was to flexo, it was a significant achievement, and one that involved a degree of trial and error, according to Patel, “We put a lot of time and effort into trying out new applications, and we’re not shy about experimenting. But we’re fortunate to have a high level of technical expertise running throughout the company, from the directors to the rest of the team. It’s our USP.”
Work to be done
Three years on this expertise is behind increasing success in bringing more gravure work over to Flexo. Recent contract wins include a locally-based manufacturer of ready-to-eat and instant-mix products taking the flexo route in a major rebranding of its products. “We have no trouble showing prospects that flexo produces quality print,” says Patel, “but that’s not the only factor in the decision to switch. We have to remember that brands and their printer-converters have a heavy investment in cylinders for existing jobs. Hopefully, we can get in front of them when they change designs, but that doesn’t happen very often.”
When Pentaflex does get to the table, he says, they can make a strong case. “The Indian market is very cost-conscious, and throughout the supply chain, everyone is trying to gain margin. So the cost of gravure cylinders is a factor, particularly for brands with lots of SKUs or frequent design changes. Flexo plates are cheaper, of course. Faster time-to-market is another powerful argument for an FMCG brand with multiple products in different sizes, where waiting a week for a gravure cylinder can be an issue. Flexo offers quicker turnaround for platemaking and the press so that we can handle shorter runs without a drop in quality.”
Finally, there’s Flexo’s substrate flexibility. “The amazing thing about Flexo is the fantastic quality, whatever the substrate. You can surface-print on PE, reverse-print on PET, surface-print on breathable paper or aluminum foil, or just paper. We’re doing it all.”
While Pentaflex is confident that Flexo is the future, Patel concludes that how quickly it arrives will depend on cooperation between all the stakeholders – “There is an enormous variety of potential jobs out there, some more challenging than others. It takes a lot of expertise to bring together the right anilox, the right dot structure, and the right ink. Going forward, all of us need to work closely to make the transition happen.”
This article is based on inputs from Miraclon and edited by Naresh Khanna