While publication gravure has been struggling in recent years with structural changes in its markets, packaging gravure is booming. In this report, Secretary General of the European Rotogravure Assn. James Siever delivers good news for the entire packaging-gravure supply chain.
Press manufacturers reported record sales of packaging-gravure presses in 2010. This is rather surprising, as only a few years ago packaging gravure was stagnating while flexography was seen as the more flexible and cost-efficient process.
The share of different print processes in the production of flexible-packaging material—used in huge quantities by brand owners to pack food products and confectionery—shows gravure to be well positioned. Whereas in Europe gravure and flexography have about 50/50 market shares, gravure clearly leads in the dynamically developing packaging markets in Asia (80% gravure/20% flexo).
This is particularly true in China and India with their rapidly growing markets and more than one billion consumers each. Gravure’s USPs, such as excellent quality and high consistency, even with very long print runs, favors its position in these markets. And the high number of packaging-gravure printers in these countries shows the enormous potential for the gravure industry. In India alone, there are some 500 packaging-gravure plants, a significantly higher number than the 350 plants operating in Europe.
By comparison, packaging gravure is stagnating in the US, where flexography is the dominant process, thanks to successful marketing by flexographic-press manufacturers, and flexo’s prepress cost advantages. (North American print-method market shares are 80% flexo and 20% gravure.)
This isn’t the case in Asia, where cylinder manufacture, thanks to lower labor costs, is significantly cheaper than in the US. Moreover, in the US, investments in modern gravure equipment have been slow. This is evidenced by high cylinder costs—more than 100% above European cylinder costs, and more than 200% above the cost in Asia.
Eight out of 10 brand owners prefer gravure
In Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, and other Central and Western European countries, gravure has defended and strengthened its market share. Particularly in packaging production for large brand owners and retail chains, gravure is going strong. This was underlined in a study by German market researcher GfK on brand owners’ perceptions of different print processes, which found that eight out of 10 brand owners prefer gravure, as only gravure guarantees best quality, which is the most relevant factor for the choice of printing process for their packaging.
However, it’s not only the high quality of gravure that explains its ongoing packaging renaissance. Despite gravure’s undoubted quality, only a few years ago the process was regarded as conservative and not very innovative, as well as less cost-efficient than flexography. But now this image of gravure has changed thanks to numerous technological innovations.
Improved automation in prepress, which now can be operated automatically, as well as faster engraving and shorter makeready times, have significantly increased productivity and cost efficiency. In fact, flexography no longer has a cost advantage over gravure: As flexography has improved its quality over recent years, it has become more expensive and therefore lost much of its previous cost advantage. 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 develop the process towards even higher productivity and efficiency. For example, testing of the Cellaxy direct laser engraving into copper system developed by Hell has been concluded. Unlike the Daetwyler Laserstar, often used for cigarette packaging because of its sharp linework, laser engraving no longer requires a zinc surface. The Cellaxy is able to engrave directly into the conventional copper cylinder and is now in regular production. This has not only led to further technical progress such as high sharpness in linework, but it is also a significant step towards higher efficiency and simplification in laser engraving.
As print runs in packaging become ever shorter, reduction of makeready time is of high importance for packaging printers; this is the field where press manufacturers have been particularly innovative, developing trolleys and other special devices to increase the speed of cylinder change and to automate the process. And at the printing units, now individually driven, cylinder changes can be carried out without wasting time on register setting or consuming much expensive substrate.
First color standard for packaging gravure
Progress has also been made in standardisation. Under the leadership of Janoschka, Europe’s largest cylinder house, and GMG, supplier of prepress software, the first color standard in packaging gravure—PaC.Space—has been developed. Thanks to PaC.Space, workflow in the preparation of prepress data for cylinder engraving is significantly simplified. By following PaC.Space guidelines, design data can be used without further finishing touches for cylinder engraving. This procedure not only saves time and money, it also guarantees high-quality gravure-printed packaging.
The article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of PACKAGING & Print Media.