The Gravure Report

By Kerry Pianoforte, Ink World Associate Editor | 10.10.05

As technological advances continue to be made in the gravure packaging market, gravure is now able to compete with flexo.

It was a mixed review in terms of growth for the gravure packaging market for 2003. The segments that reported modest growth were mainly in shrink sleeve, retort packaging and other high performance areas. However there is reason for optimism: companies report that as the technology for gravure improves and speeds up press runs, costs will be lowered, allowing it to compete with flexo.

“We’ve seen some growth in various market segments, particularly in the high performance areas,” said Tony Renzi, director, packaging ink technology at Sun Chemical. “In general, the North American gravure market has been flat in 2002 and 2003. Europe has encountered slight growth, while the Asia/Pacific region has enjoyed higher levels of growth.”

“In total, the packaging gravure market growth was static in 2003,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, market development, Flint Ink North America’s packaging division. “Some parts experienced significant growth while others showed little if any growth. The areas showing solid growth in 2003 were shrink sleeve, retort packaging and high-end film printing.”

“It did experience growth to the tune of about 3.5 percent,” said Randy Butler, graphics manager, Printpack. “Last year I believe it was 2.5 to 3 percent growth. I think that can be attributed to the technology in gravure catching up and being competitive with flexo. The prices are coming down. There are a lot of things happening in the gravure market that have allowed us to lower prices.”

Inland Printing Company, a La Crosse, WI printer, produces beverage labels with its newest gravure press, a 36” wide Schiavi.(Photo courtesy of Inland Printing Company).

Mr. Butler attributed growth in packaging gravure to a number of factors including faster cutting heads. “Previously we were cutting at 4,000 to 5,000 cells per second and now we are cutting at 8,600 cells per second,” he noted. “Laser engraving is being widely accepted in the market. Three to five years ago, laser was being looked at as a specialty market, and now people are starting to realize that the laser has taken the quality to the next level with the same price as electro-mechanical engraving. Tobacco and flexible packaging are starting to use the laser technology because the laser is cutting at 70,000 cells per second compared to electro-mechanical at 7,000-8,600. You are basically increasing the quality for the same price. Plastic bases are being used instead of steel, reducing the cost. A lot of those things are contributing to growth and it is just beginning.”

Trends and Innovations
Technological advances in gravure have helped it become a more competitive process.

“Innovation in both press and cylinder technologies allow new presses to run at very high speeds, which makes gravure more competitive with other processes,” Mr. Renzi said.

According to Mr. Renzi, quicker and more efficient job change-overs are due to the combination of high speeds with new blade and automatic wash-up systems, and the lighter weight polymer coated cylinders and cylinder sleeves. “The quick turnover time is a fraction of what the traditional gravure process allows,” Mr. Renzi added.

Highly prized for its high quality finish, gravure lends itself nicely to the complex graphics packaging demands. “In the flexible packaging market, graphics are becoming much more complex,” said Mike Hines, vice president and technical director, strategic accounts, INX International Ink Co. “The package has become an advertisement, with very nice graphics and lots of color.”

“We continue to see the same trends that we have over the past several years,” said Ken Cummings, area technical manager, Southeast, Color Converting Inc. (CCI). “These include substrate changes that affect the entire packaging industry, including but not limited to gravure, namely polyesters and cheaper corona versus chemical treatments and increased demand for high quality printing – finer process printing, more complicated graphics, etc.”

“The major trend I see in packaging gravure is to understand the strengths and weaknesses and focus on market segments where the converter can capitalize on gravure’s strengths,” said Mr. Impastato. “In the past some gravure printers attempted to compete head to head with litho or flexo in areas that were not supported by gravure’s strength. This was a mistake and often led to disappointment. There are specific areas where gravure’s advantages can be leveraged and the other technologies have a disadvantage.”

As retort packaging, which uses high-end gravure inks, grows in popularity, gravure will benefit as well. “The biggest trend we are seeing right now is in retort packaging,” said Mr. Butler. “Retort is helping the move away from cans and jars. There is a huge influx in Europe, Asia and South America. There is actual milk in retort there. It is beginning to pick up in the U.S. Retort packaging uses high-end gravure inks. There is a trend in shrink wrap and tubes as well.”

While the aesthetic benefits of gravure printing are well known, only recently have customers begun to become aware of the cost benefits. “One of the key advantages is quality,” said Mr. Butler. “It has long been the norm that gravure is the process of choice for quality. The perception, especially in the U.S., is gravure is much more expensive than flexo. There was a time when this was true, but if you look at the purchasing structure it is pretty close today. Flexo is doing a great job and has a large market share, but in the long run, gravure is competitive in today’s market because of the new technologies.”

According to Mr. Cummings, advantages of gravure over flexo printing include higher print quality, better control of ink application and higher press speeds.

“Gravure offers a technology that provides the best control of graphics and repeatability,” said Mr. Impastato. “Colors are easily controlled and process printing is more stable. In addition, gravure presses generally have better drying. Therefore, trapping is less of a problem and heavier, denser colors can be printed with less worry about blocking, tracking or retained solvents. And of course, for long runs gravure is still the most economical.”

“Gravure is always a great choice for long runs; it is the highest speed and most consistent process of all,” Mr. Hines added.

According to Mr. Renzi, gravure offers less variability than other processes, along with the unique advantage of continuous patterns.

“The gravure process can produce high quality, functional products that cannot be achieved by other processes,” Mr. Renzi said. “Gravure remains one of the best choices for long runs, high consistency and economics.”

“Pre-press costs for gravure are dropping in price, while other processes are getting more expensive in an attempt to compete with gravure on print quality,” Mr. Renzi added

Retort Packaging and Beyond
Gravure was the initial process used for retort packaging and still dominates the retort market. “The selection of gravure will continue to be based on a combination of economics and graphic capacity,” said Mr. Impastato.

Mr. Renzi noted that the gravure process has grown in packaging segments, including shrink sleeves, stand-up pouches, retortable packages, security and active packaging devices.

“These significant innovations are experiencing growth because they are aesthetically pleasing to customers as well as functional,” Mr. Renzi said. “The gravure process lends itself to the specific quality demands for these applications.”

He added that the retort market is growing rapidly in the U.S. to compete with high performance packaging and graphics that come out of Europe and Asia Pacific, where the gravure process has been utilized for years.

Mr. Butler noted that he has seen inroads in RFID and security and logistics. “In using RFID we can use metallic inks probably better than any other printing process. The gravure process will lend itself to the growth of RFID.”

Photo courtesy of Inland Printing Co.

Gravure Continues to Evolve
According to Mr. Hines, INX International Ink Co. has mainly been working on applications for UV and EB. “We continue to evolve our solvent- and water-based gravure systems as market needs change. Our gravure Lamiall laminating ink system is being used on more and more retort and other high-end flexible packaging applications.”

For water-based gravure, Flint Ink has developed a new set of high-strength inks to provide more color intensity and better value. “In solvent-based gravure we have a new high-performance laminating ink system that combines superior end-use performance with excellent press performance,” said Mr. Impastato.

“Most of Sun Chemical’s innovations grow from the development of novel polymers used in response to customer-driven performance requirements,” Mr. Renzi said. “This technology addresses the evolution of high-speed gravure presses.”

According to Mr. Renzi, Sun Chemical will introduce new gravure lines at upcoming trade shows, including Sunpli RT, which is designed with resistance to high temperatures used in retort packaging and RotoPure Ultra and RotoPure, which offer high color strength, are designed for high-speed applications, and are ideal for use in stand-up pouches and other flexible packaging applications.

According to Mr. Cummings, CCI’s Sealtech R-38 ink series has had very good market reception recently. “Originally designed as a universal roto laminating system that achieves excellent bonds on most substrates, including polyesters, it prints very well at the higher press speeds demanded by gravure printing and has very low GCs,” he said.

CCI’s acquisition by the Siegwerk Group in December has also added many new offerings to CCI’s gravure portfolio. “Most relevant recently have been the PV-77 series of retort inks as well as 2-part systems for applications which require high chemical resistance,” said Dr. Lothar Schaffeler, vice president of technology, CCI. “Other interesting technologies that we are bringing from our headquarters in Germany include embossing lacquer, twist lacquer, release lacquers for cold seal applications and anti-fog lacquers.”

“Other developments for gravure printing have stemmed out of the demand for more specialty products that help create shelf appeal,” said Mr. Cummings. “These include high-end metallics, glow-in-the-dark products, heat and light sensitive products among others.”

A Solid Future
New processes and technologies will drive the demand for gravure printing. “New presses are being sold and installed, making packaging gravure viable for now,” Mr. Renzi said. “Improvements and innovations in gravure will drive the demand for gravure printed products.”

He named press manufacturers and print differentiation as two factors that will drive gravure.

“Manufacturers must continue to develop the press hardware and software to drive the cost of the process down,” Mr. Renzi said. “Also, with the proliferation of products and packages, differentiation will be a key to setting your package apart from competitors. High quality graphics and more complex package designs fit the packaging gravure process.”

“The future for gravure in packaging is stable,” said Mr. Impastato. “Gravure will continue to be an important printing process for packaging, but in general I don’t see gravure as a high-growth technology. The other printing processes have been able to take some of gravure’s market share over the past 10 years, and I don’t see that reversing in the future.”

“We believe that the flexo/gravure split has reached a steady state and don’t expect too much more shifting going forward,” said Mr. Cummings. “Gravure will continue to be appropriate for long run and/or high print quality applications. An interesting area in regard to potential growth in gravure is retort. If and when retort takes off, gravure printing will surely benefit.”

“I think the future of packaging gravure is headed in the right direction,” said Mr. Butler “We have done a poor job of marketing gravure in the last 10 years. Flexo, on the other hand, has done a great job. They have pushed the envelope to the point where they are producing excellent quality. Gravure has always done this. We need to do a better job of promoting, marketing and selling gravure. We are working to change the perception that gravure is costlier than flexo.”

Mr. Butler reported that the Packaging Label and Gravure Association (PLGA) has developed a cost model that includes several companies and has proven that on the jobs they ran, “they were neck and neck in terms of cost.” The cost model will be rolled out at the CMM Show in 2005.

Related Printing Inks: