In the current period of low growth in the printing products market in Europe, ink makers have been desperately seeking ways to stem falling prices and cling to their margins.
For many, an effective means of persuading customers to stop pressing for lower prices is improving or extending services. In the bulk sectors of heatset, coldset and sheetfed inks, services are becoming the only way for ink suppliers to differentiate themselves.
“The inks being provided in the sheetfed market are all of much the same quality,” said Doug Aldred, vice president, commercial inks, for Flint Ink in Europe. “The difference is in the services. You have to be able to offer fast delivery with strong technical support.”
OpportunitiesThis emphasis on service is offering some opportunities for smaller ink companies which can use their local links to pay close attention to the needs of printers.
“There are fewer ink people available to look after the requirements of the printers because of the huge amount of consolidation within the European ink sector in recent years,” explained a sales manager at one regional ink regional ink supplier.
“The big ink makers have set up pan-European structures for the manufacture and production of their ink, and that has left gaps at the local level which the smaller players can exploit,” he added.
At a time of tight margins, however, some medium and small ink producers have succumbed to the temptation to cut costs by reducing expenditure on services.
“Some of our competitors have been closing service centers,” said Steve Mason, sales and marketing manager, Shackell, Edwards & Co, a U.K. ink producer. “Our view is that if you are to provide a quality product to the printer you must maintain the standard of your services.”
Siegwerk Druckfarben, one of the largest German family-owned ink makers, has been reorganizing the provision of services to its customers as part of a restructuring of the whole company.
The company has slimmed down its operations by selling its sheetfed ink business to Epple Druckfarben, another sheetfed ink supplier in Germany. The company’s main area of operation now is the flexo and gravure markets, with a strong emphasis on packaging inks.
“There will be cutbacks in services because their size needs to reflect the conditions in the market,” said a Siegwerk official. “But the objective is to raise efficiency without sacrificing quality. In a recession everyone has to look hard at all their activities.”
A priority for Siegwerk is the expansion of its packaging operations, which account for nearly 40 percent of its sales. As a result, it is concentrating on building up close links with global packaging customers. These ties will involve a high level of service.
It has also been investing in SAP software systems to streamline its own administration, which helps to ensure smooth communications both internally and externally with customers.
Gebr. Schmidt, another privately-owned large German ink maker, is planning to expand its services this year but it is taking a much tougher line on the costs of its services.
“When margins are under pressure, the provision of services for which customers are not prepared to pay in some way is becoming more and more impossible,” said Hans-Wolfgang Blumschein, managing director of Gebr. Schmidt.
“If we are to provide a service which saves a customer money in terms of cost and added value, we expect him to honor that by either paying a premium price for our product or by paying separately for the service itself,” he said.
The company is expecting to double the number of customers this year being served by its system for vendor managed inventories (VMIs). These enable new orders for ink supplies to be triggered automatically through computer links when inventories drop below certain levels.
Schmidt is increasing the number of customers able to submit orders through its e-commerce business-to-business (B2B) systems.
“We are only providing these extra services to specific customers where they make sense by adding value,” said Mr. Blumschein.
In the current economic climate, it tends to be larger ink manufacturers which have been best able to set the pace in providing services in Europe. They can employ their technical and research resources to open up new areas, particularly in the supply of consumables and auxiliary products.
They are in the forefront of moves to use the Internet to upgrade customer services, particularly in the supply of round-the-clock technical advice. B2B communication systems are offering opportunities to give printers much more detailed information about formulations, technologies and even advice on problems with printing processes.
Sun Chemical, a pioneer of VMI systems in the European ink sector, is also now active in the supply of technical advice over the Internet. Coates Lorilleux, a Sun Chemical subsidiary, is currently launching a consultancy project called CLINICS (Coates Lorilleux Integrated Ink Consultancy Service). This brings together all Coates’ technical and support services into a single system, at the center of which is an online technical help desk.
The big ink players have also been well placed to push forward the concept of integrated solutions.
Sun has been doing a lot of work in Europe on the combining of inks with consumables and auxiliaries into packages of products for its customers, particularly those in the sheetfed sector.
In early 2002, Sun Chemical Gibbon, a U.K. subsidiary, launched a Finaset package primarily aimed at the sheetfed market comprising four-color process inks, blankets and pressroom chemicals. The objective is to provide a premium high-density set for perfecting.
“For now, Finaset will set the standards against which all other perfecting and straight four-color sets will be judged,” said Graham Frost, Sun Chemical Gibbon’s managing director.
Sun Chemical Gibbon also has a consumables arm, Boss Graphics, which has just introduced a system for the pneumatic dispensing of inks from either plastic- or cardboard-bodied two-kilogram cartridges.
Flint, a relative newcomer to the European sheetfed market, is also offering similar total-solution packages to its sheetfed customers in the region, but it is not supplying them directly but through distributors in all its main markets such as the U.K., Benelux countries, Italy and Spain.
“A well-established distributor will understand the local culture and know fully what the needs are of local printers, “ said Mr. Aldred. “Working through distributors is the way forward, as long as they are reputable and above all can provide adequate technical expertise.
“Printers don’t want to see lots of sales people anymore,” he said. “They want to talk to technical experts who can help them solve their problems in the press room.”
A key area in services and technical support is color management. Color mixing, particularly in the sheet-fed market, has ceased to be an in-house activity carried out by the printers themselves. Instead it is being done by distributors, the ink companies themselves or even through projects set up by printing equipment manufacturers.
Flint recently opened a mother plant at Helmond, Netherlands, which enables it to run a color management system for its sheetfed customers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The facility produces base inks which can then be modified at a network of mixing centers and stations to meet the exact requirements of printers and end-users.
Customers scan colors with spectrophotometers, then send the spectral data by telecommunications links to the mixing units so that the inks can be made up and delivered, if necessary, within 24 hours.
“One of the major benefits of this system is that it helps us meet the requirements of global customers who are concerned that the identity of their brands could be undermined by inconsistencies in color printing,” said Mr. Aldred.
“This level of service also helps to ensure that customers stay with us because of the extent of the added value that it provides them,” he added.
Smaller ink makers in Europe have also been busy setting up networks of mixing stations, usually parallel with service centers.
Brancher, a medium-sized French ink producer, helps distributors to install mixing facilities by providing all the necessary equipment on a turnkey basis.
“We have started to promote the idea in Eastern Europe, which for us is a growing market,” said Stephane Atoumo, executive director at Brancher. “We not only buy and install the equipment for the distributor but also train the staff how to use it as well.”
Sun has been bolstering its position in color management services by forming partnerships with specialist companies. This expanding presence in color management complements its strength in prepress products, where it is a global leader through Kodak Polychrome Graphics, its joint venture with Eastman Kodak.
Last year, it formed an alliance with Eltromat GmbH of Germany for the global marketing of on-press color management systems. Under the deal Eltromat took over Color Valid Group, a U.K.-based manufacturer of on-press color management systems in which Sun had a majority share.
In an agreement earlier in the year with Datacolor Inc, Sun extended the scope of its computerized ImageChek color management system. This enables end-users and graphic designers to verify colors on computer monitors rather than relying on physical samples to ensure color consistency in materials printed at different locations throughout the world.
This degree of global capability in services further widens the gap in resources between the leading multinational ink producers and the smaller ink companies. On the other hand, the wider the coverage on a worldwide scale, the greater the likelihood that opportunities in services will be opened up at a local level to niche players.