Over the last two decades, flexographic printing has grown in popularity, with roughly 60% of the entire packaging industry utilizing flexography in the construction of their packaging.  Since its invention some 130 years ago, flexography has come a long way. This two-part series covers the origins of Flexo printing as well as its growth in popularity from the invention of the first rotary press using rubber plates to the commercialization of UV pigments in the 1990s.

Part One of flexo printing history: Flexographic Printing from Its Inception to the 1950s will cover flexographic printing from its inception to the 1950s. Flexography, Part Two through the Modern World examines new products and applications developed from the 1960s to the present day, as well as the impact of the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) on the flexo industry.

Flexo Chronicles: A History of Flexography | Part 1: From the Beginnings of Flexographic Printing to the 1950S

From Conception (1853) To the 1920S:

Flexographic printing first appeared around 170 years ago, when an English paper bag printing company developed a unique rotary press. A more efficient printing process was required to meet the growing demand for individually wrapped products. Charles Holweg, a French businessman, and his brother August decided to enter the booming paper bag trade by establishing a manufacturing plant.

In 1903, Charles Holweg created a press that used a synthetic aniline dye ink compound due to its fast-drying nature. Because of its protective nature and capabilities similar to wood, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the use of corrugated cardboard as an official packaging material in 1914. The shift in demand from wood to corrugate was welcomed by many due to the scarcity of wood packaging caused by the war.

In the 1920s, corrugated box manufacturers decided to build their presses, formulate and prepare their inks, and even create the rubber plates required for printing. The majority of these early presses failed as a result of incorrect ink formulas and a general lack of ink metering. In the 1930s, manufacturers and printers scrambled to improve their press designs, ink formulae, and printing processes.

Printing in the 1920S and 1930S

With the increased demand for product packaging, press operators and packaging manufacturers faced the growing challenge of developing the perfect ink, and most ink-makers avoided aniline printing entirely due to its poor quality. It wasn’t until 1927 that the first ink was created, which used tri-methyl methane dyestuff that was dissolved in cellosolve and chemically fixed. 

When wet, this ink prevented bleeding. Companies such as National Aniline, Calco Chemical Co., and DuPont developed the first dry inks soon after its invention. These new “dry” inks were highly sought after because they included:

  • Long shelf lives
  • High-melting points
  • Solubility in alcohol
  • Fast-solvent release
  • Good-color properties
  • Compatibility with aniline dyes

The first pigmented white aniline ink using titanium dioxide was not created until 1931. This pigmented ink could be used as a base coat or as an additive, giving printers the ability to create opaque colors. Certain chemicals caused the rubber plates to harden and crack, rendering them useless in the printing process.

During the Great Depression, the printing industry saw few innovations, but one inventor created the first self-adhesive paper sheets, paving the way for flexography to capitalize on an entirely new industry. In 1932, synthetic rubber was introduced into the plate-making process, enabling presses to withstand harsh chemicals better and swell less.

The Evolution of the Aniline Press in the 1940S and 1950S

In 1941, the Interchemical Corporation introduced the first mechanically engraved metering roll – the anilox. During the Great Depression, the Kidder Press introduced a newly designed press for printing on film. 

In the late 1940s, the Mosstype Corporation introduced the “Mounter-Proofer” – a machine used to address the issue of registration. Flexography was used to print many different types of packaging by the 1950s, including:

  • Grocery bags
  • Counter rolls
  • Wrappers
  • Tapes 
  • Tubes 
  • Laundry soap boxes 
  • Ink bottle caps 
  • Corrugated paper

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, most press houses were printing-packaging for the food industry. The process was originally called “aniline” because aniline was regarded as a highly toxic and harmful substance. Franklin Moss suggested a new name for the process in Mosstyper, a publication produced by his company, in 1951.

The lengthy list was reduced to three terms: flexography, rotopake, and permatone. A ballot campaign was included in several printing-industry magazines to allow readers to select their preferred name.

The term flexography was coined in October 1952, at the 14th Packaging Institute Forum in New York City. The first flexographic forum was held in 1957, and the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) was founded the following year. In 1959, New York hosted the first technological forum, and Flexography Principles and Practices were published in 1962.

Coming soon: Flexo Chronicles: An Anthology of Flexo Printing History (Part 2 of 2)