Officials believe that since the mid-1990s, gravure has managed to hold its ground against web offset and flexography.
In the publication market, it is still the dominant force for quality printing of mass-circulation magazines, catalogs and brochures.
In packaging, gravure printers are now on level pegging with their flexo competitors on costs while they continue to consider themselves well ahead on quality.
The gravure industry believes that with the help of further cost and technical advances it can even start to win back market share, particularly in the packaging sector.
“We’re optimistic that we can expand in the publication and packaging markets in each of which we have about 20 percent of sales,” said James Siever, director general of the European Rotogravure Association (ERA).
“We are strongly placed in publishing and can grow there by a few percentage points,” he explained. “There are opportunities for growth in packaging as well, because flexo has no significant cost advantages and gravure wins on quality. Furthermore, gravure is preferred by the brand-name manufacturers.”
Some analysts, however, continue to take a gloomy view about the future of gravure. They argue that the challenges facing the process are so great that it will be a major achievement to hang on to its present position.
“It is likely to decline steadily over the next five to 10 years and could lose as much as a 5 percent market share in publishing,” said John Birkenshaw, business manager for printing at Pira International, the U.K.-based consultancy.
A few pundits are predicting the slide will occur much faster so that gravure will soon be only a niche technology, mainly confined to long-run tasks.
Some of the major hurdles facing the sector relate to ink. There is a continued reliance on toluene solvents in the publications gravure business and a lack of scope for UV inks in packaging gravure.
The health and safety risks linked to toluene no longer raise the same degree of controversy in Europe as they did a few years ago. Nonetheless, the issue will not go away. The latest threat is that under proposed European Union legislation, toluene as a solvent may have to be phased out.
Europe now has the world’s biggest concentration of publication gravure printers relying on toluene-based inks, after U.S. gravure printers moved from aromatic to aliphatic solvent inks.
Despite several years of efforts by European ink makers to develop non-solvent alternatives to toluene inks, a viable substitute has still not been found. It looks as though none will ever be discovered, especially at a time when gravure publication presses are becoming even bigger and operating at speeds of over a thousand meters per minute.
“It has become physically impossible to develop a water-based ink which can work effectively on the thin papers required for high-speed publication gravure presses,” said Winfrid Schoen, head of publication gravure inks at Gebr. Schmidt, Frankfurt, Germany, which is now part of the newly formed Flint-Schmidt GmbH & Co.
“Water-based gravure inks operate successfully in packaging printing but they require a paper substrate with a thickness of 250 grams per square meter against the 50 grams per square meter needed in publication gravure,” he explained.
European publication gravure printers and their ink suppliers have been concentrating instead on setting up systems for the recovery and recycling of toluene solvents. More than 90 percent of toluene in the inks is now returned to ink manufacturers.
“Toluene inks are not only the best performing inks in publication gravure, but because of the recycling schemes, they are ecologically the best as well,” said Mr. Schoen.
Extensive research in Germany on exposure of printing workers to toluene has shown that it is non-carcinogenic and it does not pose other health risks in the print shop as long as it is handled properly.
Regulatory threats still hang over the use of toluene in ink mainly because of the residues of the chemical left in the ink after printing, which could theoretically pose a threat to consumers.
Toluene is considered to be a skin irritant, dangerous during long exposure through inhalation and a possible risk to the unborn child. It is also seen as possible endocrine disrupter which could impair human fertility levels.
The toluene traces are so small that they are well within safety limits, such as those for the protection of pregnant women.
However, the European Commission, the European Union executive, is at present considering legislative proposals which would stipulate that hazardous chemicals, possibly including toluene, will have to be phased out.
“We have managed to ensure that toluene as a safety issue has disappeared from view at the moment,” said Mr. Siever. “But we have won a battle and not the war. It will no doubt come back to the forefront again.”
In the packaging sector, flexo printing has been closing the quality gap with gravure with the help of UV inks. While the development of UV inks for flexo has been technically difficult for ink manufacturers, they have not posed the virtually insurmountable problems of introducing UV formulations into the gravure market.
“For gravure printers, UV inks do not have a low enough viscosity for them to be run on their fast machines,” said Mr. Birkenshaw. “As a result, flexo printers have made themselves much more competitive with the assistance of UV inks which can provide superb colors through higher dot gain and greater pigment concentration.”
In the flexible packaging segment, however, UV inks have tended to perform well only with aluminum foil. Solvent inks have remained the most effective with polymer substrates, such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester, because they are more suitable for high speeds.
“Nitro-based gravure ink, which accounts for around 80 percent of ink in gravure packaging, are now so good at high speeds that even if the speeds of the printing machines were further increased it would be able to handle them,” said Hans-Jacob Kock, responsible for liquid and gravure inks at BASF.
“The flexo printers are finding they need solvent inks for fast speeds,” he added. “There is also still some concern about the risks of UV inks with food packaging. Water-based inks are also not a satisfactory option for flexo since they don’t work well with polymer substrates because of their lack of adhesion and poor printability.
“Also, as flexo printers try to improve their quality, their costs rise,” he continued. “The cost of high quality flexo printing can be so high that gravure can be competitive even on short runs.”
ERA has estimated that in the high quality segment of packaging, flexo has a cost advantage of less than 10 percent. But if a job has to be repeated, gravure is the winner because the cylinder set can be used over and over again.
Gravure printers have in recent years sharply reduced the time and costs of cylinder preparation and image processing through the digitalization of data and computerized cylinder engraving.
The average number of man-hours spent on an individual gravure cylinder has been cut by 60 percent in the last four years, while the cost of electronic image processing in gravure and flexo is now the same, according to Hueck Folien, a leading German gravure printer.
Peter Reich, a senior executive at the company, told a recent ERA press conference that because of the growing demand for shorter runs, cost reduction still has to be the number one target for gravure printers.
Nonetheless, gravure would continue to benefit from its reputation for higher quality, he stressed. Nestle, for example, one of Hueck Folien’s multinational consumer-product customers, sees advantages in gravure because of its high printing quality, low color shift during production and clean gradations, as well as its lower cost for high volumes.
A study by the German market research institute Gesellschaft fuer Konsumforschung (GfK) found that, among manufacturers of branded products, 50 percent use gravure almost exclusively for their packaging.
“Quality is very important to these companies because of the need to be able to differentiate their products in the eyes of the consumer on the supermarket shelves,” said Mr. Siever.
In the face of fierce competition from the web offset sector, Western Europe’s 25 independent publication gravure printers are also having to highlight their strengths in image reproduction, color intensity and consistency over the whole print run. But as in packaging, their ability to cut costs has become crucial.
As web offset makes bigger inroads into the large-volume printing of magazines, catalogs and brochures, publication printing is increasingly a buyers’ market. Overcapacity has been aggravated by a slump in advertising.
“There are a lot of large web offset presses due to come on-stream over the next year,” warned Mr. Birkenshaw. “So with the decrease in pagination due to lower advertising expenditure, prices are going to become even more depressed.”
An inevitable squeeze in margins will mean that there will be less money available for investment in large gravure presses up to 3.8 meters in width.
“The result will probably be further consolidation in European publication gravure,” said Mr. Siever. “We’ve seen a 15 percent to 20 percent reduction in the number of independent publication gravure printers during the last five years, and we’ll probably see a similar decrease over the next five years.”
Hence, in the publication sector, at least, if gravure is to grab back market share, it will probably have to do it with fewer printers and, as old machinery becomes redundant, with fewer presses as well.