The Gravure Update

By Kerry Pianoforte, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.09.05

Despite a tough economic year, the gravure market has managed some growth, with better things expected for the future.

All indications are that the gravure market experienced little growth this year, as the continuing economic downturn and the ongoing war in the Middle East contributed to this slowdown.

“The gravure market has been flat this year, and we don’t see a lot of upside right now with the state of the economy and political tensions,” said Debra Schafrath, marketing manager publication/commercial division, Flint Ink North America.

“Overall in the U.S., flexography in the packaging area has continued to grow and some of that has been at the expense of gravure,” said John Kalkowski, marketing manager, Sun Chemical (GPI). “Overall the packaging market has slowed, but it is still growing. Depending on what happens with the economy this year, we expect to see slight growth in the 1.5 to 2 percent range. On the publication side, all printing is down somewhat. It would be difficult to hazard a guess, because it is so closely linked with the performance of the economy.”

“Most market analysis seems to indicate that the overall gravure market exhibits relatively low growth, although some publication gravure printers continue to add new capacity,” said John Rooney, vice president of R&D at Sun Chemical (GPI).

“It’s been mixed,” said Richard Dunnington, executive vice president, Gravure Association of America (GAA). “Advertising has been slower to bounce back, although there has been an increase in advertising for Easter. It just depends on the market. Some people have seen a moderate slowdown, some severe and some none at all. It’s really been hit or miss.”

Mr. Dunnington said that many companies are using the slowdown to streamline their business. “Everyone has used any downturn to get leaner. The economic downturn is really masking a major problem–labor shortages. The war is making it really difficult to tell when and how the economy will bounce back.”

“In packaging, gravure growth is still positive, but since gravure is a relatively mature market, the growth is very slow,” said Michael Impastato, vice president, market development for Flint Ink’s North America packaging division. “Some areas may be growing faster, but losses to other printing processes have held the overall growth down to a low level.”

Gravure printing has a number of new technologies emerging. The focus has been on improving performance with an increase in automation and the development of universal ink systems that both reduce cost and cleanup times.

“From the packaging side, the newest trends are improved performance for laminating inks–high print quality, low retention of solvents and low bonds on multiple films,” said Darryl Sagraves, marketing manager laminating inks, Sun Chemical.

More Than Publication and Packaging
Gravure printing is not just for catalogs and inserts. There are a number of lesser-known applications including laminate flooring, vinyl products and wallpaper.

“While publication gravure and printing on film, foil and paper for packaging are well known, one of the chief advantages of gravure printing is the ability to print continuous patterns,” said Dr. Rooney. “Unlike most flexographic and lithographic processes, gravure does not have a plate gap. Consequently gravure is used to print simulated woodgrain paper for laminated furniture, wallboard, textiles, flooring and other product applications where uninterrupted patterns are required.”

“Gravure is widely used for vinyl applications–pool liners, play pens, high chairs, shower curtains, pocket planners and automotive interiors,” said Sue Raleigh, senior technical project manager, publication gravure for Flint Ink.

“We commonly think of the gravure process in terms of publication and packaging printing, but over the years gravure has become firmly entrenched in other less known areas,” said Mr. Impastato.

According to Mr. Dunnington, one of the growth areas for gravure printing is laminate flooring (wood grains and tile patterns). “Some of the little known applications include license plates and the black sun screening on automobile windshields,” added Mr. Dunnington. “The functionality of gravure applied coatings and images make gravure the process of choice. These niches tend to be narrow but stable.”

There are a number of reasons why printers are choosing gravure. According to Flint Ink, the speed and quality of gravure printing are superior while allowing the flexibility to use lesser grade stocks. For long runs, gravure is the best choice.

“Proponents of gravure printing point out that the process allows printing of continuous tones and patterns, as well as nested patterns with minimal waste,” said Dr. Rooney. “They would say that efforts by lithographic press manufacturers to develop gapless and single-fluid processes reflect a need to copy the features of gravure printing. Gravure is a relatively simple process and the durability of the imaged cylinder permits long print runs.”

“Economics for long runs and overall quality/consistency are sill considered better for gravure than heatset on mid- and low-range substrates,” said Ms. Raleigh. “However, the difference is becoming less and less distinct between two printing processes.”

According to Mr. Impastato, gravure is a very stable and reproducible process. “Typically, it has fewer variables to monitor and is affected by fewer process and product variables. Since gravure prints from a variable depth engraving, both fine process work and dense solids can be easily printed from the cylinder.”

Giving Customers What They Want
Gravure customers want a high-performance product that will also be cost effective. “For our customers, quality is a given and costs are paramount,” said Ms. Schafrath. “As a supplier, Flint Ink uses superior technical expertise to help hold down costs.”

Publication gravure customers tend to value consistency, reliability of supply, and a level of technical support that minimizes downtime,” said Dr. Rooney. “Efforts to introduce new technologies into the market such as hot melt inks, energy curable inks or even waterborne inks, have not met with much success. Packaging gravure printers are constantly exploring new market opportunities and attempting to print on a much wider variety of substrates, so in addition to the quality and service previously, they place an emphasis on product innovation as well.”

“Our customers are looking for a supplier who can support both their current business with cost effective high performance products and provide developmental support for the new products and construction they are being challenged to print,” said Mr. Impastato. “Packaging gravure is not a static business. We see a steady stream of new products going to market. Each of these new products has its own specific requirements related to ink and has to addressed on an individual basis.”

There are a variety of reasons why printers choose gravure, notably the high quality and consistency that gravure gives a product.

“The reason for having gravure as our printing process of choice is the excellent reproduction,” said Mark Prescott, print supervisor of Canadian General-Tower Ltd., a manufacturer of flexible polymer cover stocks, including vinyl for the automotive interior and swimming pool industries. “Our artists are able to design with full knowledge of what our process capability is due to press fingerprinting. We have the challenge of extremely tight color tolerances as the pool must match each run. The reproduction we get from the gravure process enable us to guarantee a color match for each run. This gives our customers the benefit of multiple tile patterns with one floor print which means for us we must use gravure, it is the only choice.

“We look for an ink company that can help take our products further in quality consistency and delivery. Pool inks are particularly difficult as they have to be UV and bleach resistant so our color palette is limited, but functionality is critical. It is this functionality that ultimately determine what we call a good supplier.”

Smurfit-Stone uses gravure printing because it provides low cost for inline production of its packaging products. “Other benefits include color consistency, a streamlined plant operation, good quality on high caliper paperboard, flexibility in applying all sorts of coatings and efficiency in general—not only for us but also for our customers,” said Doug Dawson, general manager, Smurfit-Stone’s Santa Clara, CA folding carton plant. “We make sure they are cost competitive, have a consistent product, are responsive and are very experienced with water-based inks.”

“The benefits of gravure are high quality in a broad gamut of colors on a variety of substrates,” said Zita Seahra, quality assurance manager, International Wallcovering. “The ability to produce transparent, metallic and opaque print with consistent results over long runs at high machine speeds make gravure print the way to go. ‘Batch to batch’ reruns are made more simple with fewer variables to control. Another benefit of this printing process is its superior ability to print line and tone in the same cylinder. This type of print is capable of producing process work of outstanding quality and is very adaptable to precise reproduction of digital, CAD and art work.

“The selection of an ink supplier for International Wallcoverings is initially based on quality,” said Ms. Seahra. “The ink must meet or surpass the standards and specifications for quality as set by the Wallpaper Association and the industry. The ink requirements are that they have consistent ‘batch to batch quality’ and the results are to be stipulated on the certificate of analyis. Other criteria to consider are the level of service and whether the delivery times meets our requirements. Partnership and the supplier capability to provide technical assistance when necessary are key considerations in this selection process. Any supplier that is selected must comply with the current regulations for the industry and be able to reformulate or research and develop inks that are more environmentally safe as the new technological advances are made. Obviously the cost of the ink is taken into consideration when making a selection; however, it is not one of the main decisive factors.”

To help meet those needs a number of new products and technologies are being launched. Look for a variety of new developments in the gravure market. According to some market insiders, gravure, in an effort to compete with flexo, is trying to go to lighter sleeves and quicker turn arounds, trying to improve performance on shorter runs.

“Gravure offers certain features that are difficult for other printing processes to emulate,” said Dr. Rooney. “The chief obstacle to the growth of gravure continues to be the relative complexity of the cylinder preparation, although there are a number of initiatives underway to address this area. Many new packaging gravure presses are hybrid machines incorporating other printing processes, such as flexo, ink jet and screen printing to accommodate a wider range of output.”

“The gravure industry is really trying to reduce some of the costs that are involved with shorter run lengths,” noted Mr. Kalkowski. “There are several companies that have been working hard on sleeves that can be placed on the cylinders to reduce high costs. These have been used in some facilities with some success in narrowing the cost and variation between flexo and gravure. If they can do that, gravure will be more viable for shorter run lengths.”

“I see the future of gravure as strong,” said Mr. Dunnington. “New presses are being bought and installed in all sectors of gravure – folding cartons, flexible packaging, decorative, narrow web labels, publication. People are starting to see the ongoing operational economies of gravure and they are coming back to gravure from other processes. I see a positive swing of the pendulum for gravure.”