The Gravure Report

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 10.25.05

The growth of flexible packaging has been a bright spot for gravure printers and ink manufacturers, as technological advances are improving turnaround and lowering costs.

“Art of the American Indian,” a set of 10 United States Postal Service stamps converted by Avery Dennison, Security Printing Division won the Best of Show in the Packaging and Label Gravure Association’s (PLGA) Global 2004 Print Quality Awards competition. The set of pressure-sensitive, 37-cent stamps were printed in seven colors plus a water-based, phosphor coating on non-phosphor stamp paper.

In recent years, the gravure industry has faced difficult times in the marketplace, and has seen itself defined as a printing process that is ideal primarily for long-run applications.

For years, gravure faced stiff competition from flexo, but new press and cylinder technologies have shortened lead times and cut costs. As a result, gravure printers are anticipating improving opportunities and market share.

“I’m pretty optimistic about gravure,” said Murray White, vice president of operations for Multi-Color Corp. and outgoing president of the Packaging Label Gravure Association (PLGA). “Gravure was languishing for a number of years, and its market share declined. Sometime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some significant technological advances began to show up, such as the quick change presses developed by Cerrutti and Schiavi allowing changeovers in a significantly shorter time. In addition, a number of engraving advances drove the cost of making gravure cylinders down substantially in terms of time and money.

“Now, major printers can turn around a job from artwork to a completed run in less than a week, and that is a dramatic change,” Mr. White said. “Meanwhile, flexo’s quality has improved, but that has driven flexo’s costs up, which further improves gravure’s cost competitiveness.”

“Gravure is faring very well in U.S. and international markets. The improvements of cylinder sleeves have reduced cylinder cost and turnaround time, making gravure much more competitive,” said Derrick Ayers, product manager, packaging group, for SICPA North America.

The good news for gravure printers can be found on the packaging side of the business, as the growth of flexible packaging has led to new opportunities for gravure. However, the publication gravure side remains a concern.

Gains in Packaging
For gravure printers and ink manufacturers alike, the gains being made in packaging worldwide has been good news indeed.

“Gravure has been a strong competitor in packaging, both in the U.S as well as in most foreign markets,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, new market development, packaging, Flint Ink North America. “In fact, gravure is the leading printing method for many packaging types in Europe and in Asia, whereas in North America, flexo is the number one printing method.

“Ten to 15 years ago, the experts were predicting that gravure would lose significant market share to flexo,” Mr. Impastato added. “However, gravure is holding its own against flexo in most markets. Although gravure marketshare may have slipped, the slippage has not been significant. Gravure printers have done a fine job of focusing their efforts to be more competitive with the other printing methods, as well as concentrating on markets that value the unique abilities of gravure.”

“Gravure is under threat in North America, primarily due to to lower costs and competitive quality that can be obtained by other processes,” said Tony Renzi, packaging technical director for Sun Chemical.

“However, in other countries, costs for gravure are lower, and gravure is enjoying much wider use.” For example, Mr. Renzi said he has heard estimates that in China, there are 5,000 gravure presses, and 300 gravure presses in South Korea.

“The gravure market suffers some from continued reduction in publication and carton applications, but fortunately there has been excellent growth in the flexibles market, helping offset this decline for some printers,” Mr. Ayers said.

Flexible packaging has been a strong area for gravure. “Flexible packaging is one of the high growth markets for packaging, and gravure has grown along with this market segment,” Mr. Impastato said. “A good example of gravure’s vitality is to look at two of the top growth areas in flexible packaging: shrink sleeves and retort. Both of these markets are dominated by gravure printing at this time. This will likely change to some extent, but gravure will continue to play an important role in flexible packaging.”

“Gravure technologies are shifting, however, not as quickly as flexo, likely due to the maturity of this market,” said Dr. Lothar Schaeffeler, head of application engineering at Color Converting Inc. “Retort applications could have some impact on gravure packaging printing. While not necessarily flourishing, we continue to see interest at several major gravure package printers. Also interesting in the gravure world is the potential delisting of MEK. This could have a major impact on printability of gravure ink. It opens windows for formulation that could certainly provide improved printability.

“The demand for water technologies has also increased recently,” Dr. Schaeffeler said. “And while this may be related to specific customer data points versus a tangible market dynamic, we have seen interest this year in both water lamination technologies as well as surface applications which require high resistance properties.”

In flexible packaging, gravure offers some key advantages for printers, including consistency, higher ink coating weight and better drying rate.

“Gravure has three advantages in flexible packaging,” Mr. Impastato said. “First is its consistent graphic quality. Second, gravure printing allows a higher coating weight of ink to be used. This can be an advantage for graphics requiring high opacity. And finally, a gravure press allows better drying between colors. This enhanced drying capability results in better control of retained solvents. Further, with faster drying, higher print speeds are possible.”

“Two of the largest advantages are the ability to produce large orders without stopping for cleanup and plate changes as seen in flexo,” Mr. Ayers said. “Gravure continues to be the standard for print quality as well, with flexo always trying to produce ‘gravure quality’ graphics. Gravure also offers higher ink coating weight, making it ideal for high color intensity and white opacity. Another advantage is the ability to print inks with solvents unfriendly to flexo, allowing the use of solventborne vinyl/acrylic /polyester, etc. ink types.”

Retort packaging, which has flourished in Asia-Pacific and Europe but has yet to make major gains in the U.S., is a key opportunity for gravure.

“While commercial projects are not overwhelming at this point, we continue to see work with several of the major gravure printers on development projects for retort packages,” Dr. Schaeffeler said. “The ink technology for these applications is readily available for the gravure printers. The jury is still out as to how quickly retort applications for flexible packages will take hold in the U.S. and replace traditional packages as it has done in other parts of the world.”

Gravure should continue to do well in packaging.

“I expect gravure will maintain its position in packaging, but I don’t believe it will see significant growth,” Mr. Impastato said. “Cost and turnaround time, which favor flexo, will continue to be a major hurdle for gravure.”

New Packaging Ink Technologies
When it comes to ink, Mr. White said that innovation is essential to help differentiate products for consumers.

“We are looking for inks that are reactive to different environments, such as thermochromics, as well as looking into RFID,” Mr. White said.

“New ink technology matches gravure’s push into emerging and growing markets such as retort, sleeving and plastic labels,” Mr. Ayers said.

Mr. Impastato said that Flint Ink has two new gravure laminating ink systems: Sterling GL and Arrowbond Ultra. “Our Sterling product is a very good general-purpose laminating ink,” Mr. Impastato said. “ It will provide good bonds and low retained solvents on a wide variety of substrates. Arrowbond Ultra is our high-performance product where very high bonds, extremely low retained solvents, and excellent printability are required. Both systems are press-friendly and have been found to be reliable performers on multiple substrates.”

Mr. Renzi said that Sun Chemical has launched a variety of new products, including RotoPure and RotoPure Ultra inks, which are TDI- and tin-free for use in food packaging. Coates USA recently introduced Harmony, a gravure ink system for the shrink sleeve market.

Publication Gravure
Gravure has faced challenges on the publication side. “Publication gravure is holding its own, but it is a mature business with no leaps of volume anticipated,” said Liz Scherer, director, publication gravure technology for Sun Chemical.

“Strong competition and overcapacity rule the market, but offering the highest quality products ensures Siegwerk’s success,” said Dr. Juergen Roth, general manager, Siegwerk Inc. USA. “Publication gravure is the technology of choice for high quality publications and catalogs and will maintain a strong market position.”

Flint Ink officials reported that the publication gravure market in the U.S. has been relatively flat in terms of pounds of ink and printed impressions, although it helps that the retail and catalog markets did not see the strain of the economy to the extent the magazine printers did.

In the mid-1990s, rising paper prices negatively impacted use of gravure, and Ms. Scherer is concerned that situation may occur again.

“With paper prices expected to rise in the coming year, that could have a very chilling effect on gravure printing and gravure ink if history repeats itself,” Ms. Scherer said.

Competition in publication gravure has been strong in Europe, and service and quality are essential.

“The publication gravure business in the past few years has been driven by strong competition,” said Dr. Hans Müller-Starke, head of application engineering, publication gravure Europe for Siegwerk Group. “Customer service, high flexibility and high quality are the key factors for Siegwerk’s success. Especially in Europe, huge investments have been made and are still being made in the newest print technology.”

Constantly developing and perfecting new technologies will be key to growth in the coming years. For example, for Flint Ink, the focus is on developing technologies that drive cost out of the supply chain for itself and its customers. Siegwerk is also developing new technologies.

“Siegwerk continuously adapts the printing ink formulations to the demands of the market and the technological changes where necessary,” said Dr. Müller-Starke. “We believe that toluene-based inks will meet all requirements of the future markets in a perfect way. In publication gravure ink, the Siegwerk Group presented new special extender varnishes which ensures highest printing quality even on difficult papers. Combining highest quality with optimal cost efficiency, these varnishes are tailor-made to meet the requirements and the order structure of the clients.”

In the coming years, gravure will face challenges, and developing new technologies will be essential to help gravure move forward.