Gravure is retaining its share of the European printing market despite the trend toward shorter runs and the digitalization of printing processes.
In the European packaging sector, gravure has actually won back ground lost previously to flexo, its main rival process, as major brand owners are giving greater priority to quality printing.
In both the packaging and publication markets, the manufacturers of gravure equipment and suppliers, as well as the printers themselves, have managed to keep pace with the productivity gains throughout the printing sector.
Ink makers have contributed to these advances by introducing new and improved inks and products for gravure businesses.
At the same time, new environmental regulations introduced by the European Union (EU) have worked in favor of the toluene solvents crucial for the efficiency of publication gravure presses.
Massive efforts have been made to cut costs to ensure that the gravure process remains competitive with other printing methods, especially with flexo but also with offset in the publication market.
The result had been been continued consolidation in the gravure sector and investment in giant printing works to achieve the highest possible economies of scale.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, is worried about plans for a combination into a joint venture of the gravure printing activities of Bertelsmann’s Arvato and Gruner + Jahr with those of Axel Springer AG in Germany and the UK. As a result, it is conducting an in-depth investigation into the move on anti-trust grounds.
It claims that the deal would give the merged operations 40 percent of the magazine market in Germany, where Arvato’s Maul-Belser subsidiary is expanding a huge gravure printing facility at Nuremberg. In the UK, Arvato is constructing another gigantic gravure works near Liverpool.
The Commission’s decision, which is expected next month, could determine the future of publication gravure in Europe, where it currently accounts for 60 percent of the printing of magazines and 50 percent of catalogs.
The new joint venture will be by far the biggest rotogravure printer in Europe, even though Bertelsmann’s gravure printing operations in Spain and Italy are not being included in the merger.
The drive toward lower unit costs in gravure printing has meant that ink makers have been expected to help maintain or even raise quality without the need for extra expense.
At the same time, the move to greater concentration in gravure printing has resulted in ink producers having fewer customers, although with bigger supply contracts to bid for.
Still, compared to North America, the European gravure market remains relatively fragmented. While in publication gravure the U.S. has only a few independent gravure printers, Europe still has more than 25, despite the many mergers.
In packaging, gravure has managed to remain a big player in the European market, while flexo dominates in the U.S. Consequently, there are opportunities for smaller ink makers in niche segments in packaging gravure in Europe.
In publication gravure, the importance of cutting costs has been paramount. Although magazines with relatively small sales due to narrowly defined groups of readers have been gaining in popularity, big publications with multi-million circulations are still common.
In the catalog segment, European-based companies have publications with a vast potential readership. The Swedish furniture retailer IKEA prints 150 million copies of its catalog annually.
Large publishers like these are trying to reduce their expenditure on paper, which is their main raw material cost. Some have switched to cheaper machine-finished (MF) paper, which has similar levels of brightness and opaqueness to coated papers.
MF paper has provided a test for producers of gravure inks because its rougher surface can lead to lower print densities.
“The requirement has been to find a way of printing efficiently on MF paper without loss of dots,” said George Battrick, a technical coordinator at the European Rotogravure Association (ERA), Munich. “The solution has been the development of anti-penetration extenders which modify the surface of the paper and prevent ink soaking into it.”
Ink companies have introduced binders as anti-penetration extenders which are applied by the converter as a pre-treatment to MF papers or within the ink itself.
Siegwerk has been modifying an existing anti-penetration extender for use on MF paper in the gravure sector.
“It is not a pre-treatment binder (applied) separately from the ink,” said Hans Mueller-Starke, Siegwerk’s vice president, R&D and application engineering in publication gravure. “No extra printing unit is required. The anti-penetration extender replaces the standard extender and is combined with regular inks. Some pre-press process adjustments ensure optimization of print quality.”
In an effort to cut unit costs in publication gravure through economies of scale, machines with widths of more than four meters are being installed in Europe. At Arvato’s Maul-Belser printing plant in Nuremberg, Koenig & Bauer Group (KBA) is installing two 4.32m (170”) gravure presses.
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These large and fast gravure presses would not be able to operate without toluene-based inks, whose future has been clouded by threats by the EU to impose tough restrictions on their use because of health concerns. But these legislative uncertainties seem now to have been lifted.
Toluene is virtually the only solvent which evaporates rapidly enough for high-speed gravure presses, while at the same time having very low interaction with the components of the paper.
The EU has been drawing up an occupational exposure limit (OEL) for toluene to ensure that exposure during an average eight-hour day through a working life would not have a negative effect on the health of printing workers.
The initial proposal was for an OEL of 20 parts per million (ppm). But after lobbying by ERA and other groups, this was raised to 50 ppm.
The short term exposure limit (STEL) for a 15-minute maximum average concentration was going to be fixed at 50 ppm. This was increased to 100 ppm.
At the same time the limits were made “indicative,” allowing the 25 EU member states to set their own higher limits as long as they have a scientific basis. Germany, which has strict air pollution regulations, has been expected, for example, to keep a STEL of 200 ppm.
In new regulations on the classification and labeling of materials, the EU also decided not to include toluene in high risk categories. “If this (exclusion) had not been achieved, toluene would have automatically been banned for gravure,” said Josef Paul Bernard, ERA’s technical coordinator for environmental, health and safety affairs. “What the consequences for the publication gravure industry, the related industries and their employees would have been, we do not even want to think about.”
With the future of toluene inks assured, ink suppliers have been focusing on ways to help publication gravure printers to recycle the toluene solvents within closed loop systems. Some offer a service under which they clean the toluene before reuse.
The larger publication gravure machines do not require any major changes to the formulation of the inks.
“The big difference is the extra width of these machines rather than any additional speed,” said a gravure ink specialist. “They do not go much faster than the narrower gravure presses, so there are no additional drying difficulties.”
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A much wider range of demands are being made on ink makers in the gravure packaging sector. The move toward higher quality printing has helped gravure make a comeback against flexo.
In low to medium quality packaging printing, gravure is between double to 1.5 times more expensive than flexo. But at the upper end of the market gravure is less than 10 percent more expensive while flexo still cannot match it for quality.
Owners of leading consumer-product brands have been continuing to express a preference for gravure because of the increasing importance given to high standards of printing in packaging.
“Packaging gravure has been going through a renaissance over the last two to three years, which has enabled it to regain market share,” said Mr. Battrick. “Brand owners want the higher quality it provides because it make their products look more attractive on the supermarket shelves.”
Half of brand name manufacturers use gravure exclusively for their packaging against 20 percent who predominantly favor flexo, according to ERA figures.
Flexo tends to prevail in paper and board packaging so the real competition between the two processes in Europe is in flexible packaging, with gravure having the edge in polymer film.
“What customers want from both is higher quality but at a low cost,” said Hans Jacob Koch, responsible for gravure packaging inks at BASF Printing Systems, which has just been merged with ANI Printing Inks. “They would like more color through more ink being transferred on to the substrate with a good dot size.”
ERA officials said that surveys show that among food packaging customers, 86 percent give priority to design and print quality and 74 percent to “shelf optimization.”
“The trouble is that with both gravure and flexo, it can be difficult to achieve higher levels of pigmentation in solvent-based inks, while keeping the same level of viscosity to ensure more ink is transferred to the substrate,” Mr. Koch explained. “The solution may lie in the development of a new types of additives or binders.”
The battle between gravure and flexo in packaging will continue to present for some time tough technological challenges for ink makers.