Gravure’s packaging revival

May 4, 2017 10:11 am

Despite losing out to flexo in the United States, gravure has a promising outlook in packaging, strengthening its position in Europe and still dominant in the surging markets of China and India, according to James Siever, secretary general of the European Rotogravure Association (ERA)

While its publication print market has wilted, gravure is posting strong growth in packaging sector, boosted by its popularity in surging Asian economies, technological advances that keep it competitive with flexo, and its continuing quality benefits, reports James Siever, secretary general of the European Rotogravure Association (ERA)

While publication gravure has long been struggling, press manufacturers have reported record sales of packaging gravure presses over recent years. This is striking as only a few years ago packaging gravure was stagnating, whereas flexography was seen as the more flexible and more cost-efficient process.

A glance at the share of the different print processes in the production of flexible packaging shows gravure to be excellently positioned. Whereas in Europe pregravure and flexography have about the same market share, gravure is clearly ahead in the dynamically developing packaging markets in Asia.

This is particularly the case in China and India, each with a rapidly growing market and more than 1 billion consumers. The unique selling propositions (USPs) of gravure such as excellent quality and high consistency even with very long print runs naturally favour gravure’s position in these markets.

In India alone, there are some 500 gravure package printing plants, significantly more than the approximately 360 plants operating in Europe. While many of the packaging gravure printers in India are not yet equipped with the latest gravure technology, they are now investing in modern gravure technology to meet the increasing demands of the growing Indian market.

 

Retail changes

This is currently changing the country’s traditional structures of retail trade, particularly in the big cities, where all kinds of consumer goods and everyday essentials are now distributed by large supermarkets and hypermarkets. A significant number of new packaging gravure presses has been delivered to India.

Compared with Asia or Latin America, however, packaging gravure is stagnating in the United States. Flexography is the dominant process in US packaging printing and gravure’s market share is below 20%.

What are the reasons for this? On the one hand, it is the effect of successful marketing by the suppliers of flexographic printing equipment. On the other, lower quality demands in the United States are a cost advantage for flexography, especially in pregravure press. This would not be the case in Asia, where cylinder manufacturing, due to lower labour costs, is significantly cheaper.

Moreover, in the United States, investments in modern gravure equipment have been rather low, which does not promote the more favourable development of gravure. This is shown by the relatively high cylinder costs, which are more than 100% above European costs and significantly higher than 200% of the cost level in Asia.

As in Germany, Europe’s strongest economy and largest single market, and the other Central and Western European countries, gravure has not only well defended its market share in Europe as a whole, but also further strengthened its position. Particularly in the production of packaging for the large brand owners and retail chains, gravure is going strong.

This was already revealed by a study by the German market research institute GfK on brand owners’ perception of the different print processes. According to GfK, 8 out of 10 brand owners prefer gravure to print their packages, as only gravure guarantees the best quality, which is the most relevant factor for the brand owners’ choice of print process for their packages. The appearance of packaging plays a crucial role in the competition in the supermarket shelves.

However, it is not only the high quality of gravure that explains its ongoing renaissance in packaging. Despite gravure’s undoubted printing quality, only a few years ago the process was regarded as conservative and not very innovative, and less cost-efficient than its competitor, flexography.

 

Technological innovation

This somewhat antiquated image of gravure has now changed due to numerous technological innovations in the process. Improved automation in pre-press, which now can be operated fully automatically, and faster engraving and shorter makeready times on the presses, have significantly increased the productivity and cost efficiency of the process.

In fact, flexography has practically no cost advantage over gravure anymore: as flexography has improved its quality over recent years it has become more expensive and therefore lost the cost advantage it had in the past. This shows that there is always a price to be paid for quality.

To maintain its competitiveness and good market position, the gravure industry is continuously working to further develop the process towards even higher productivity and efficiency. The Cellaxy direct laser engraving into copper system developed by Hell Gravure Systems has been introduced successfully.

Cellaxy engraves directly onto the conventional copper cylinder. This has not only led to further technical progress such as high sharpness in linework, but it is also a significant step forward towards higher efficiency and simplification in laser engraving.

As the print runs in packaging are becoming increasingly shorter, reduction of make-ready times is of great importance for the packaging printers. This is the field where the press manufacturers have recently been very innovative: they have developed trolleys and other special devices on the presses to increase the speed of changing cylinders, which meanwhile is done automatically.

And at the printing units, which are now individually driven, cylinder changes can be done in such a way that at the beginning of a printing job, not much time is needed for setting the correct register, equally not too much substrate will be consumed.

 

Colour standards

Progress has also been made in the difficult issue of standardisation. Under the leadership of Janoschka, Europe’s largest cylinder house, and GMG, a leading supplier of pre-press software, the first colour standard in gravure package printing PaC.Space was developed.

Thanks to PaC.Space the workflow in the preparation of the necessary pre-press data for the cylinder engraving has been significantly simplified. Usually the cylinder engraver receives the data of the packaging design in digital form directly from the brand owner or his agency. But very often in the past, the cylinder engraver had to adjust this data, so that he could use it correctly.

This is now not necessary anymore: if the agencies follow the guidelines of PaC. Space when preparing the design data, the data can be used without any further finishing touches for the engraving of the cylinder. This procedure not only saves time and money, but also guarantees the usual high quality of gravure printed packaging material.

 

Outlook

What will the future hold? ERA’s International Packaging Conferences demonstrate that gravure has built on its strong position in packaging markets and should remain a process of choice for brand owners.

In view of the strong development of packaging gravure in Asia and also the Middle East, ERA intends to return with its conference to Dubai. Ongoing dynamic economic development in the emerging markets in Asia such as China and India, and the shift of their retail structures towards the North American and European models, offer gravure the best opportunities for further positive development.

Provided that gravure can keep its high technical standard and even continuously improve the process, the gravure industry has good reasons to look forward with confidence.

 

ERA

The European Rotogravure Association (ERA), the Munich-based technical organisation of the gravure industry, plays an important role in the innovative development of gravure package printing.

Founded 60 years ago as a platform for technical information by some large publication gravure printers from West European countries, ERA has developed into the leading organisation of the gravure industry. In addition to the publication gravure printers and the major suppliers, some of the most important European packaging gravure printers and cylinder engravers are also among its membership.

Apart from services for the industry such as the organisation of conferences, seminars, and technical meetings, and presentations at exhibitions and events, ERA among other things regularly prepares a list including all packaging and decorative gravure presses operating in the European market.

To gain more publicity for gravure printed packages and innovative developments in the process, ERA organises the European Packaging Gravure Award every two years.

 

DHARMESH ZAVERY

 

Vice-president, sales and business development, Huhtamaki Middle East, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE

It is a fact that the gravure printing process is a superior process compared with flexo technology.

There are specific markets that have good end-to-end solutions to the printing processes. They determine the growth of any particular technology. For example North America is primarily a flexo market due the fact that very good-quality plate making is available and investments have been made for continuous improvement.

The Middle East is a gravure driven market due to the very high-quality cylinder engraving availability to the users. If there are investments made in particular technologies, the marketers are bound to sell it with its benefit.

It is very difficult to comment on the future of both and the way things would turn out. But one thing is sure. Since gravure has been a technology that has already been invested in, the resources have been geared to ensure full utilisation and growth. Investments in newer technology would not only involve print processes but good-quality plate making, training of the resources, changes in the inks systems, and understanding of the commercials. From a commercial point of view it would need a complete evaluation with a sign in from CPG companies.

These are a few points I would like to mention beyond the debate over pros and cons of the two technologies.

All of us understand that the run sizes are going to be a big concern area in future. The deliberations are then going to focus on efficiencies from existing system, unless there are very strong commercial sense on investments.

 

RAJA GANDHI

Managing director and owner Hexxa Flexible Packaging Ras Al Khaimah, UAE

In our flexible packaging print production, 95% of our print is on gravure while 5% is from flexography.

However, with new developments in high-definition flexo imaging, especially on the pre-press front, flexo has considerably improved its print quality.

Some of our shorter run lengths which were printed using gravure are also now moving towards flexo as we have invested in a narrow-web UV flexo press recently.

Brand owners in the Gulf region predominantly prefer gravure to flexo. However, as flexo print quality has improved substantially we see some brand owners willing to go the flexo way, especially with the shorter run length and more SKUs.

Given a choice between the two, obviously all brand owners still prefer gravure. However, looking into the cost factor, there is a clear difference of 30–35% between gravure and flexo cylinder and plate making respectively.

Price-conscious brand owners prefer to go the flexo way while quality-conscious ones still prefer to go for gravure.

Another interesting finding is that some of the very well-known brand owners who never entertained flexo printers are now considering to discuss and consider the possibility of doing some of the jobs in flexo. This is due to the substantial improvement in the print quality, although gravure still reigns supreme.

In conclusion, I would like to say that gravure will still have its dominance while some of the jobs would move from gravure to flexo. Gravure and flexo will coexist complementing each other.

 

MUHAMMAD RAFEEQ

Pre-press and technical manager Obeikan Graphic Center Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

My view is that rotogravure and flexo both have their own pros and cons. Rotogravure cylinder preparation is complex, time consuming, and expensive. But the rotogravure print process has fewer variables than the flexo print process.

Additionally, they have their own segments to cater to, as most CPG companies have a mix of products that help them choose the print process based on long and short/ medium runs, premium and economy, etc. I have seen SKUs move from rotogravure to flexo and vice versa, some based on print run length, while some due to process limitations.

At the technological end, both vendors have their own story to say on the pros and cons. Nevertheless, there have been some new innovations in the flexographic end, so it is in the limelight.

Though there is considerable competition for gravure from the flexographic print process, due to cost and short print length, I think both processes have a lot to offer to the packaging domain and would complement each other, rather than compete!

Comments are closed