The challenges that beset global industry through 2020 and beyond are without doubt unprecedented, but do they leave us with hope for a stronger print and packaging supply chain in the future?
The emergence of Covid-19 naturally caught the industry unaware, as it did with every major global sector. The packaging sector, however, has been in a stronger position than most, able to rebound quickly and effectively through strong retail demand.
Within an ever-changing print sector, we tend to think of flexo as a lighthouse – strong, resilient and still the fastest growing print method, according to published research from intelligence body Smithers Pira. While it’s true that flexographic print is a very secure anchor for the packaging sector, the dramatic shift in demand and operation has thrown even the most robust and prepared business models into flux.
Between volatile availability of materials and consumables, increasing prices, reduced headcounts and international freight blocks, we are currently looking at a print market that’s very different to the one we knew at the close of 2019, but is certainly on the road to recovery. Following upheaval, we’re back in a position of stability and strength. The flexographic supply chain, from brands and their printers through to the ink, equipment and substrate suppliers, is preparing for acceleration and a steady return to previous outputs and operations.
What we would like to see is the challenges of Covid-19 build an even stronger flexo supply chain in the future, and we know many of our FIAUK members echo this sentiment. To do that, we need to fully understand the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the flexographic industry.
Think remote working
The huge switch from office-based working to a remote or flexible hybrid model has been particularly pronounced in the flexo print sector. Of course, in the press shop itself this isn’t possible, but the flexo industry is so wide and varied that for the foreseeable future, a hybrid model is likely to be in place for most, if not all, businesses.
As well as cutting down commute times and resultant CO2 output, important areas such as artwork approval and origination have been sped up with digital workflows. A more flexible working model is likely to be a permanent fixture as we move forwards.
Sustainability still counts
Brands and printers saw a rapid priority shift at the start of the pandemic, focusing on volume, capacity and speed as stores rushed to restock shelves. There’s no doubt this has been made more difficult with necessary cuts to headcount through furloughing and staggered working to enable social distancing.
However, consumers have made their voice clear – sustainability is still kjng and the foot is firmly back on the gas. We’re seeing the reactivation of sustainable strategies and innovation, driven by reaccelerating shopper demand for eco-friendly products and packaging. Key focus areas for flexo lie in creating a tighter, less wasteful manufacturing process, alongside substrate innovation such as compostable or fibre-based materials, ahead of changing regulations including the UK packaging tax and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
Speaking with our members, there is a clear movement towards process automation, be it workflows, artwork setting, logistics or otherwise. While beneficial for speed and accuracy, many are finding the ‘hands-off’ hygienic advantages of automation to be equally as important, dramatically reducing required levels of physical contact.
Moving forward, we are expecting to see hardware and software automation technology take a much more prominent role in development plans, switching from a speed advantage to a more health and safety and quality consistency focus.
Resurging need for training and knowledge sharing
There’s no getting around the fact that, at present, the wider printing sector is still a legacy industry, where key knowledge tends to be siloed. This has become particularly apparent during periods of furlough. Our members have identified this issue previously, which we’ve used to shape our offering in the FIAUK Academy learning platform.
A key lesson for the flexo sector is that optimal print and operation techniques need to be commonplace knowledge, particularly as we seek to encourage more fresh blood into the industry.
Rethinking ‘glocal’ supply lines
One of the most significant roadblocks for flexo businesses has been international travel barriers affecting the availability of materials, as well as import and export of finished goods. At present, we tend to optimise supply chains for margin, sourcing various raw materials internationally. By the time a flexo-printed product reaches the consumer’s hands, it’s often crossed many borders and combined thousands of miles in its creation.
The challenges of the pandemic have shone a light on potentially how vulnerable this model can be with immediate reductions in international freight capacity. Moving forward, it’s likely that we’ll see more focused attention on safety stocks and local sourcing to protect output.
At FIAUK, we’re proud to be representing the fast paced and innovative field of flexographic print in the UK. As difficult as the challenges have been, flexo is a particularly resilient sector and we hope that the disruption acts as a springboard towards a more secure print sector in the long term.
Despite many roadblocks, the flexo sector has seen great innovation, dedication and success – which we look forward to celebrating this year at the upcoming FIAUK Print Awards 2021. The awards close for entries at the end of July, and winners will be announced at our event on 4th November 2021.