The Gravure Report

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 09.09.05

Printers, ink and equipment suppliers are working to make gravure a strong short-run alternative. It remains to be seen if gravure can overcome its image of being a high quality, large-run process and successfully reach out to the ever-increasing short-run marketplace.

As was the case for every major printing segment, gravure printers had a difficult year in 2001, particularly on the publication side. While that is not necessarily a surprise, there are concerns that gravure’s market is being further eroded by quality gains made by flexo and press speed and width improvements by offset.

The key challenge to gravure is the belief that it cannot be a viable short-run printing process, a serious concern considering that printers are facing increased demands for shorter, more localized runs. Gravure printers and industry official say that is false, but gravure’s share of the market has not grown substantially in recent years.

It’s an important issue for many ink manufacturers: in the U.S. market alone, Ink World estimates that sales of gravure ink are nearly $600 million, split fairly evenly between publication and packaging.

There are more gains being made in short-run capabilities, and press manufacturers are creating more automated products. Ink companies are doing their part to create better systems. It remains to be seen if gravure can overcome its image of being a high-quality, large run process and successfully reach out to the ever-increasing short run market.

A Slow Year in 2001

While 2001 was a difficult year for the printing industry in general, there were some bright spots for gravure.

The U.S. publication market was particularly soft, and gravure also felt the effects of the economic downturn.

“Overall, the publication gravure market was down slightly for 2001 in what could be considered a very turbulent year,” said Ken Todd, national technical service manager, publication gravure, Sun Chemical Inks (GPI).

“It was a year characterized by plant closings and announcements of future plant closings,” Mr. Todd said. “Major retailers closed their doors, while others cut back on print counts. Some publications just went away. On the positive side, new presses came on-line, and some gravure plants did very well. Their success hinged mainly on their ability to run efficiently, as well as on their work mix.”

“The market in 2001 was down from 2000, and 2002 looks more or less the same,” said Hermann Langweg, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Siegwerk, Inc. “With Service Merchandise going out of business recently, the catalog segment will be hurt even further.”

The publication side was weaker throughout the world. “Following the weaker global economy, the performance and growth is rather stagnant and declining,” said Herbert Forker, CEO and president of Siegwerk Druckfarben GmbH.

Mr. Langweg said that the prospects for the packaging gravure market are better. “The packaging gravure side appears to be increasing,” Mr. Langweg said.

“Shrink and stretch label systems are growing very rapidly, and certain stand-up pouches are now gravure,” said Bill Klein, executive director of the Packaging and Label Gravure Association (PLGA).

“While 2001 wasn’t a boom year for packaging, gravure printing seemed to hold its own in flexible packaging,” said Bob Mullen, vice president, packaging sales and marketing, Sun Chemical Inks (GPI). He added that the market for folding carton may have softened somewhat, and that flexo appears to be gaining share in that segment versus offset and gravure.

“Gravure continues to play a significant role in the packaging market,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, market development for Flint Ink’s North American packaging division. “The most prevalent use of gravure is for candy on film substrates and on folding cartons in the paper market segment.

“The market overall has been steady for gravure, but I see gravure’s market share slowly eroding in the future,” Mr. Impastato added. “The uncertainty of demand in last year’s economic slowdown was not helpful for gravure printers. A combination of shorter runs and a drive to reduce inventories did not generally support gravure as a printing method. Gravure continues to be attacked by other printing methods more suited to short-run economics, but the high level of reproducibility with gravure printing continues to attract the high-end of the market.”

Worldwide, the results for gravure were similar on the packaging side. “Despite the weaker global economy in 2001, there was a positive performance and stable growth of more than 5 percent,” said Mr. Forker.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Printers and ink manufacturers alike agree that quality will always be the hallmark of gravure. The key disadvantage is the cost of shorter runs, which is an area of research.

“The key advantages would include the image depth or clarity resulting from very fine line screens, consistency throughout the production run and excellent repeatability from order to order,” said Jeff Koch, operations manager at American Packaging Corporation. “The main disadvantage (in the eyes of purchasing managers) would be the prepress and engraving costs.”

“Historically, the gravure process has been the process of choice when printing millions of impressions,” Mr. Todd said. “High quality and color consistency over long press runs are attributes associated with gravure printing. High front-end costs, including cylinder making and proofing, are recovered through the ability to output more impressions per hour based on press speeds and web widths. These fixed pre-press costs are spread over higher numbers of impressions to reduce the cost per printed piece.”

“The advantages and disadvantages of gravure are well known,” Mr. Impastato said. “Key among the advantages is the high level of graphic reproducibility. This lends itself to high-end photo quality graphics. The most difficult challenge facing gravure is the economics of the short run. Gravure has made great strides in the last 10 years to reduce the cost of short runs, but as run sizes continue to shrink, gravure can not be cost competitive with other printing methods.”

“The advantages still are for the long run jobs. Also, it appears to give better reproducibility from print shop to print shop providing the raw materials utilized and pressroom standard operating procedures are followed. The disadvantages are for very short runs,” said Bill Witzel, product development director publication gravure at Flint Ink.


An operator does a test run on Sun Chemical’s Genik pilot press, located at The Daniel J. Carlick R&D Technical Development Center in Carlstadt, NJ. (Photo courtesy of Sun Chemical)


Viability of Short Runs

There is a general belief that gravure is only suitable for long runs, while flexo is better for short runs. Gravure printers take exception to this perception.

“This is due to the cost associated with graphics changes,” said Mr. Koch. “Customers may require frequent promotional type labels or need something as simple as an address change on their label and perceive the cost of gravure cylinders as a negative when compared to other print methods. The flexographic community has done all they can to highlight this perceived weakness when in reality, the cost variance between roto vs. flexo is minimal. Gravure cylinder engravers have driven out substantial costs in their internal operations and are closing the gap rapidly.”

“It’s a false perception,” said Pat Kaelin, vice president of operations at Nordenia USA. “For 10 years, flexo officials have said their process is almost as good as gravure. The truth is that the cost of state-of-the-art flexo is on a par with the cost of gravure, and the cost of cylinders is comparable to the cost of the finest plates and aniloxes. Even at its best, flexo still doesn’t match the quality of gravure.”

Time management is critical for gravure printers.

“In 1994 American Packaging adopted the ‘SMED’ (Single Minute Exchange of Die) techniques,” Mr. Koch said. “Up until this time, we had felt we were very efficient and there was little opportunity to improve upon what we felt were industry-leading make-ready times. By changing our attitude and committing to this program we have seen results nobody had anticipated – more than 50 percent reduction on all equipment, through studies, separating internal steps (those which can not be accomplished outside of the make-ready) from external steps (those which can be accomplished outside of the make-ready) and developing plans to convert the internals to externals along with actually choreographing each phase of the changeover.

“APC also invested significant dollars in the equipment to eliminate the need for tools and replace them with quick clamps wherever possible,” Mr. Koch said. “It is our belief that as long as there is changeover time required between designs we have an opportunity to improve.”

Ink manufacturers also see a brighter future for short-run gravure.

“Economics have dictated the long runs in the past,” said Mr. Witzel. “However, better economics are presenting themselves for short-run gravure with the advent of faster make-readies brought about by the digital front-end, elimination of the proof press, and greater automation in the cylinder and press areas. Certainly, the drive for improved consistency in the raw material stream (paper and ink) will minimize variation and help with more rapid startups to color approval and rapid changeovers.”

“The reason gravure has been better suited to long runs is related to high cost of gravure presses,” Mr. Impastato said. “Consequently the cost must be spread over longer runs. The high cost of cylinders are only economical if the cylinders can be used on long runs. With the relatively long setup time, the ratio of set-up time to run time becomes reasonable only for long runs. All development in gravure to make it more competitive on short runs will occur in the prepress and equipment areas.”

“Recent advances in improving the cylinder preparation times through faster engraving equipment, more efficient plating processes and the use of digital files and proofing have lowered these costs substantially, allowing the gravure process to be more cost-competitive for shorter runs,” said Mr. Mullen.

“Manufacturers of gravure presses also are designing new equipment to minimize make-ready time, thus improving gravure productivity,” Mr. Mullen said. “These improvements are especially important in package printing, where gravure presses may not run as long as they do in publication.”

Koenig & Bauer AG, a leading gravure press manufacturer, is developing new technologies to further improve changeover time.

“In the gravure industry there is a strong worldwide trend to furnish presses with an ever higher degree of automation, increased monitoring and control systems and better, quicker error analysis and rectification systems,” said Johannes Boppel, project manager, rotogravure presses for Koenig & Bauer AG.

“Developments in Europe are towards ever-wider presses with a width of currently 3.68m (144.9in) and a production speed of 15mps (2952fpm). In America the classic web width is 3.18m (125.2in) with superstructures typically engineered for the production of smaller product sections i.e. 6x24 pages.”

“Presses which have been supplied by KBA in recent years, and above all new presses, feature a high degree of automation and an automatic form-cylinder changeover system,” Mr. Boppel said. “Presses supplied over the last one to two years also feature a ‘splashguard-free inking unit,’ a cleaning system for the forme cylinders and impression rollers, and automatic regulating systems for the ink, web width and ribbons. Together with the KBA pre-setting system, operator-friendly and efficient ribbon travel – particularly in the superstructure – changeover times can today be completed in between 20 and 60 minutes.”

A Digital Future

One area where gravure has made quicker strides than flexo or offset is in digital prepress.

“The cost of gravure is decreasing, while the total cost of flexo is on the rise,” Mr. Kaelin said. “Gravure is continuing to make technological advancements in equipment to address the short-run requirements of the marketplace. As an industry, we’ve been digital for more than 10 years. Changes on gravure presses are less than an hour now; seven years ago, it was two to three hours. The new technologies can make changeovers as quickly as 30 minutes.”

“Gravure began the move to digital engraving in the 1970s, and jobs were being done totally digitally from art through engraving beginning in 1990,” said Richard Dunnington, executive vice president of the Gravure Association of America (GAA). “The next wave of digital technology will involve color management. This will lead to an increased awareness of press fingerprinting.

Mr. Dunnington believes that fingerprinting presses will lead to better short-run capabilities.

“As more and more printers adopt this technology, they will also gain a bigger edge in producing shorter print runs in gravure,” Mr. Dunnington said. “Fingerprinting will help them start up new jobs quicker and more efficiently. This will also be a factor driving improvements in operator training and reduce the amount of folklore that goes into training today. For the ink manufacturers and other suppliers this will be great news.

“This is not to say that fingerprinting and automation will take away from the job of operating presses. Rather, I see operators being provided with the analytic skills to help them become more efficient and productive,” said Mr. Dunnington. “New automation alone will not ensure quick press change overs. Press rooms must have the organization to take advantage of the automation. Press teams will need to have the tools and the materials staged and ready to minimize changeover times.”

Mr. Dunnington said that the changing over jobs is analogous to a pit stop in a car race.

“A NASCAR pit crew is successful in keeping their car out on the racetrack because they planned, prepared and practiced to do so,” Mr. Dunnington said. “The same thing applies to the press room and the press team. As the tools, training and people come together, short-run gravure will be hard to beat.”

New Ink Technologies

Quality and support are critical to gravure printers. Mr. Koch said he expects ink suppliers to offer a wide range of products and capabilities, excellent technical support with quick project response time, very good quality systems with consistent batch-to-batch controls, dependable on-time deliveries and competitive pricing.

Innovation is essential; with the new efforts for gravure to enter short-run markets, ink companies are expected to develop new products to help printers meet future challenges.

Sun Chemical, Flint Ink and Siegwerk are all working on new products to meet those needs.

“Although a number of projects remain proprietary, we can certainly say that we have made a concerted effort to understand ink and ink/paper interaction from a much more scientific perspective,” Mr. Witzel said. “This has led to greater consistency in products as well as better performance. It has also been very beneficial in partnering with our customers to understand all the interactions and develop cohesive systems. This endeavor never stops and is part of Flint Ink’s continued commitment to quality.”

“Flint Ink is partnering with customers to develop and implement new

analytical methods,” said Suresh Mani, technical director for Flint Ink. “We also help customers incorporate additional data measurements and control of printing parameters to better measure printing economics and quality. These efforts have helped minimize the occurrence of chronic problems and continue to improve the economics of the printing process.”

In Europe, Sun Chemical has successfully commercialized a water-based gravure ink system for use in publication printing. The water-based inks do not contain flammable solvents and have some environmental advantages. Roto Smeets Deventer, a printer in The Netherlands, has run these inks extensively on super-calendered paper.

Sun Chemical has developed several new water- and solvent-based systems to allow high-quality surface and lamination printing for flexible packaging. This type of package printing is complicated by the wide variety of substrates, each with different ink requirements.

For instance, Sun Chemical introduced UltraPET, a solvent-based laminating ink offering excellent printability and high bond strengths for use on treated polyester films in gravure printing for food packaging. With its reduction in retained solvents, which can affect flavor, Sun officials said that UltraPET is ideal for use in laminating applications, such as juice pouches or meat and cheese packaging, and said that UltraPET also offers high performance on faster gravure presses because of its ability to dry quickly.

Looking further into the future, Siegwerk Druckfarben GmbH believes it has a prospective solution in its HotTech technology.

“Siegwerk is still developing the already patented ‘HotTech ink,’ a unique technique (a solid gravure printing ink without solvents that is melted immediately before it is applied to the printing cylinder) which will be successfully completed in a few years,” said Mr. Forker.

“We have done some successful testing on our HotTech technology, but it will take a few more years before we bring it to the market,” Mr. Langweg said.

Gravure is mostly solvent-based, but there are some opportunities for water-based gravure systems.

“Water-based gravure is limited for packaging printers, although it will continue to grow,” Mr. Kaelin said. “Water-based gravure is more prevalent in paper. There’ll be a leader who will eventually develop the market in packaging.”

Solvent usage is a concern, especially in Europe, which has led to interest in water-based publication gravure.

“Toluene usage in publication gravure, as it relates to the environment, is still an issue that can have a dramatic effect upon the gravure industry, especially in Europe,” Mr. Forker said.

“The Europeans have been using water gravure inks for a long time,” said Mr. Klein.

The Future for Gravure

Ink industry officials anticipate some challenges ahead for gravure in 2002, both from the economy and the improvements made in heatset presses. For 2002, Mr. Todd said that most people in the industry predict gravure printing will remain slow through mid-year, after which, there is some optimism that business will pick up again.

“Some pressrooms have a fairly good workload scheduled already, but others are very soft,” Mr. Todd said. “There have been recent announcements of retailers that are in trouble or going out of business that certainly will not help 2002’s overall impression count. Additionally, a proposed postal rate increase after mid-year could further impact gravure printing for direct mail.”

How much room is there for gravure to grow?

“Due to their problematic order situation, most gravure printers are now interested in objects with shorter runs (less copies) to maintain turnover and fit schedules,” said Mr. Forker. “Increased automation supported this development, but there is mostly a limitation because of the still-high costs for cylinder gravure in comparison to offset printing plates. This, in combination with the upcoming power of heatset presses to longer runs and more copies at once, leads to a stalemate situation. The changes at the border line between these two competitive printing processes are therefore rather small.”

“The primary competitor to publication gravure printing has always been web offset heatset,” said Mr. Todd. “Traditionally, the advantages of the gravure process have been press speeds, web width, the ability to run millions of impressions without re-engraving cylinders, color consistency throughout the run, lower waste, and higher print quality.”

“Most of these advantages still hold true,” Mr. Todd said. “While web offset heatset has made great strides in improving press speeds, the widest heatset webs are still less than half that of the widest gravure presses. Additionally, gravure has made great strides in reducing the cylinder prep time and reducing front-end costs, which has allowed the process to be competitive on shorter run work that would have, in the past, automatically been printed on offset.”

For gravure printers and their ink suppliers, the importance of further developing short-run capabilities remains a major priority in order to ensure growth in the coming years.