Flexo responds to growing challenge of digital in corrugated and carton print

Flexo responds to growing challenge of digital in corrugated and carton print

Rising demand for printed packaging will ensure genuine growth in the market for flexo printing as the global economy recovers from the Covid-19 shock. The flexo supply chain is having to innovate to protect markets from moving over to digital presses however, according to the latest research from Smithers.

The Future of Flexo Printing to 2025 shows that in 2020 global value will reach $167.7 billion; with only a marginal increase compared to 2019, due to the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. While not especially positive, this outlook is much better than for many competing analogue processes. It is largely due to flexo’s widespread use in packaging and labels work. These have generally held up well, even as falling demand in graphics and publications will see total print volumes drop by up to 10.7% in 2020.

As markets recover, flexo printing is forecast to grow at 1.6% year-on-year to reach 181.1 billion in 2025, with packaging increasing its market share. Innovation in production to respond to the threat of high-throughput inkjet is a major stimulus; and one that presents opportunities for print service providers, OEMs, consumables and substrate suppliers.


The top four end-use applications for flexo are all in packaging and make heavy use of paper and board substrates.

Source: Smithers

Corrugated is clearly the leading end-use with a 57% share by value, worth $95.9 billion, in 2020. It is set to break the $100 billion mark before 2025. Flexible packaging accounts for a fifth of flexo print by value, and labels 8.6%. Folding cartons are 5.1% of the market by value, and will see an acceleration in growth over the five years to 2025.

The main recommendation for flexo is that it is the most cost-effective solution for mid- to long-runs of packaging. This will continue to be true, but the wider availability of digital presses will take more short run work from flexo presses; and is challenging OEMs to innovate to improve responsiveness and turnaround.

Corrugated board

Despite being the largest segment, in corrugated flexo faces the most direct competition from digital print. Single-pass inkjet machines specifically designed for corrugated packaging have now been in operation for several years. These have has shifted the digital versus analogue crossover point significantly in inkjet’s favour.

Innovation to counter this, has included more hybrid presses; with an inkjet station adding some variable data print. Furthermore flexo plate and equipment improvements is allowing some corrugated print to reach the quality seen with offset and gravure and take work from these print lines.

This aligns with buyers placing more short run and shelf-ready packaging orders. Many of these are high-colour commissions – using three or more colours – which command a higher price. In 2020, lockdowns caused by the coronavirus is also causing a surge in demand for lower quality e-commerce corrugated packs to ship direct to the consumer. 

Folding cartons

Flexo print will continue to be a significant market in folding cartons, but again has to react to new market conditions. Overall growth is highest in developing regions, where western style retailing is driving new demand for cartonboard packs.

In developed and premium segments, there is a demand for more print embellishments, from equipment fitted in-line with flexo presses. These allow brand owners and retailers to differentiate themselves on more crowded shelves; and create a direct connection with consumers buying through e-commerce. There is also interest in more coated cartonboards – especially water-based coatings – as brands look to move away from rigid plastic packaging.

The main advantage for flexo in carton packaging again depends on its low cost for longer run lengths; while progressive improvements in automation and computer-to-plate (CTP) technology are lowering production, make-ready, and turnaround times.  

There is also competition from new inkjet machines. Several of which were due to have been shown at Drupa 2020, such as the VariJET built by Koenig & Bauer with Durst, and MGI’s AlphaJET B1 press. Furthermore offset OEMs are adding more automation to their machines. For example, the Koenig & Bauer Rapida 105 Pro has an AutoRun mode, in which pre-selected printing and make-ready processes are carried out on the press without the need for manual intervention.

Flexible packaging

The majority of flexible packaging is plastic-based. Gravure and flexo are the leading processes. Many brands have made commitments to minimise their use of plastics in packaging, or invest in more recyclable flexible formats, however. This is seeing more interest in simpler and mono-material polymer constructions, and some brands are also looking to use more coated paper pouches.


Labelling is the sector where digital has made the greatest inroads, and experience gained here is supporting its wider use for other packaging substrates. In 2020 around 43% of labels are printed on flexo. There is pressure for more embellishment, mass customisation, and shorter runs, which are threats. The obvious solution for label converters is to move to digital printing; but the digitisation of flexo equipment will see it remain a lower-cost alternative in the mid- to long-run market.


For equipment sales continued growth in corrugated and carton production will support more wide-web installations over the 2020–25 period; and a corresponding growth of sheetfed folder gluer installations to handle finishing. Flexible packaging growth will support the use of more medium-web presses; but competition from inkjet and toner will see a decline in demand for narrow-web flexo machines.

Historic and future developments in this market, including the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, are examined in depth and quantified in the new Smithers report – The Future of Flexo Printing to 2025.

Find out more and download the brochure here >

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