An interview with Professor Dr. Martin Dreher, Managing Director of the DFTA Technology Center for Flexographic Printing in Stuttgart and lecturer at Stuttgart Media University
Even in times of more conscious resource use, it’s impossible to imagine everyday life without packaging. Whether made of paper or plastic, packaging is almost always printed with lots of product information. In most cases, this is done using Flexographic printing, or “Flexo.” TRANSFER Magazine met up with printing process expert and Steinbeis entrepreneur Professor Dr. Martin Dreher to talk about Flexo, the outlook for the future, and concerns regarding the future of the industry.
Hello Professor Dreher. You work intensively with Flexographic printing. Could you tell us what’s special about “Flexo”?
These days, most products are sold as packaged goods and almost all packaging is to a lesser or greater degree embellished by printing technology. Flexo is the most widely used printing process for doing this. In basic terms it can be compared to using a conventional stamp, although of course it’s a lot more advanced than that in technical terms. The really big advantage it offers is that it can be used on a whole variety of materials. Whether you use paper or cardboard to make packaging, or plastic films or metal, almost any material can be printed using Flexo. Not only is this invaluable if you want to design new packaging and not have to think about limitations, but it’s also extremely helpful if you want to use alternative materials for existing packaging, for example to replace plastic.
What advantages does this form of printing technology offer to companies, especially SMEs?
The first and not insignificant advantage is that purchasing Flexographic presses is relatively inexpensive. Flexo printing is particularly efficient for print runs of 3,000 items or more. Also, you don’t need to apply much ink, which is mainly water-based, so the entire printing process is environmentally friendly and, if required, safe for use with food and beverages.
On top of that, as mentioned it can be used to print on an extremely wide range of materials. This makes it possible to optimize packaging to meet a broad variety of requirements. Of course the particularly topical issues at the moment are the environment and profitability.
Flexo also delivers uniform quality at high production speeds, and printing plates can be reused for a long time. You can print and print again in the same high quality, almost permanently.
Packaging is subject to a whole host of requirements. It should protect contents, it must be easy to use and environmentally friendly, but it should also promote the product and the company that makes it. In what ways does packaging printing help meet these requirements?
The requirements you mention are already incorporated into packaging design. That said, it’s important to understand the word “design” in the way it’s used in some languages, in the broader sense, so this also includes the design for the functional role of packaging. The print that goes on the packaging must do justice to a holistic interpretation of the word “design.” It does this by ensuring sufficient clarity when it comes to the symbolic meaning of typography. And then there are the graphics, which should be creative and appealing and inspire the buyer at the point of sale – and ideally get them to buy.
To do that, printing packaging not only has to allow you to process the right kind of packaging materials, it also has to ensure the look on the outside is of high quality, and if necessary realistic-looking. Another thing that’s special about packaging printing is the finish. So, for example, you can have gold lettering on packaging, or glossy or matte areas that draw the eye to important features. So as you can see, there’s almost no limit to the possibilities offered.
Then there are the high expectations of marketing departments, which apply to all product manufacturers. Aside from the obligation to provide certain information, people want to make use of the large number of finishing options and in particular attract the attention of customers. This means keeping a constant eye on two megatrends: sustainability and environmental friendliness.
What are the issues driving SMEs in the field of packaging at the moment? What can you do at the DFTA Technology Center to help companies with those issues?
The burning issues faced by packaging printing SMEs are the well-known issues of our time: skills shortages, raw material shortages, rising costs. But the image of packaging is also suffering and I believe that’s also fueling the shortage of skilled workers in our sector of industry.
We at the DFTA Technology Center can provide support in three key areas. First, we can educate people and share information, which is something we’re doing in partnership with the Packaging Technology degree program at Stuttgart Media University.
Second, we use the fast-track courses offered through our Flexographic Printing Academy in Stuttgart to direct training at semi-skilled and retrained staff at the small and medium-sized companies we’re targeting. This has proven to be a highly successful and mutually beneficial model, for many years now!
And third, we provide access to modern technology, not only to our member companies, but also to any company unable to afford a testing environment in the field of Flexo printing itself. We do that by temporarily renting out our standard industrial printing press to companies, who use it to carry out controlled trials so they can undertake developments with their materials or Flexographic printing components. That’s also been working successfully for more than 25 years now!
Furthermore, we switched to an expanded partnership model in 2018. This has intensified the partnership between the DFTA Flexographic Printing Trade Association, the HdM Stuttgart Media University, and the Steinbeis Network and it’s established a basis for profitable and long-lasting collaboration. Knowledge-sharing with industry, having access to trade and industry, and educating and retaining young academics are just some of the synergies that came about as a result of the new partnership, and this continues to benefit all involved parties to this day.
What do you think the future of printed packaging holds for us? Will digital printing replace conventional printing processes?
They’ve been saying conventional printing is in its death throes for almost exactly thirty years now – and apparently we won’t have to wait much longer before digital printing completely takes over. Well, hasn´t happened yet!
Of course our main focus at the DFTA Technology Center lies in Flexographic printing, i.e. a conventional printing process. Many of the members of the DFTA Trade Association, which support the Technology Center, are SMEs. Inevitably, they’ve all had to – and still have to – deal with the potential migration to digital printing. This prompted us to make an important decision: On October 1, 2015, we joined forces with Leipzig University of Applied Sciences and starting setting up a dedicated center of excellence for digital packaging printing, the Digital Printing Competence Center. So I guess I can quite rightly say I also have a pretty good overview of digital printing.
Potentially, digital printing could replace conventional printing processes at some point in the future, but another 20 years will pass before that happens, at least, and in some cases conventional packaging printing processes will have some very good things to look forward to during that time.
That’s particularly true for offset and Flexographic printing, which have really ramped up materials and processes to meet the challenge of digital printing and still offer further potential.
But I should also warn people not to extol the virtues of digital printing too much: We’ve seen now that it struggles to meet all of the many demands posed on the printing process, as well as the printing ink, which after all is what’s important with packaging. Here there are even more competing targets than in “normal printing” anyway, and even there digital printing is far from having achieved a dominant position. As I said, it’s entirely possible that there’ll be a substitution one day, but I believe we’re still decades away from that happening. So there’s no reason to look down on conventional printing processes!
Prof. Dr. Martin Dreher (interviewee)
DFTA Technologiezentrum Flexodruck Stuttgart GmbH & Co. KG (Stuttgart)