Gravure printing has long been associated with high quality and long runs. However, with market demands changing toward shorter run lengths and flexo printing making major strides in terms of quality, gravure was under increasing pressure.
Nielsen Dairy’s The Ultimate Chocolate Milk, printed by Alcoa, earned Best of Show honors in the 2007 Packaging Label Gravure Association (PLGA) print quality awards.
While flexo is leading the North American packaging market, gravure has been able to make significant progress in recent years.
“Gravure has done very well in the packaging market over the last three to five years,” said Mike Impastato, vice president of market development, North America Packaging Ink Division, Flint Group. “Packaging has been dominated in North America by flexo printing, unlike in other parts of the world where gravure has historically held a significant share of the market. Ten years ago there were serious questions if gravure would be even able to hold its small market share in North America. Flexo print quality had improved significantly. This, coupled with shorter runs, had many people in the market wondering if gravure would be able to be competitive.
“I think the question has been answered,” Mr. Impastato added. “The response by the gravure community has been very positive. We have seen gravure reduce the size of press runs and continue to be economically competitive. There are certainly areas where gravure may not compete, but gravure has been very healthy over the last several years.”
The growth of flexible packaging has had a positive impact on gravure’s growth.
“Flexible packaging growth has supported the increase in gravure’s market share in packaging,” said Mr. Impastato. “Stand-up pouches and shrink sleeves are high growth areas and gravure is strong in both areas.”
Ink World estimates that the North American publication gravure ink market is $300 million, thee same size as the packaging gravure ink market in North America. While packaging gravure is doing well, publication gravure remains flat.
“In North America, the publication gravure business has remained relatively flat in ink pounds sold,” said Mike Green, vice president/general manager, North American News Ink Division at Flint Group. “The publication gravure industry is a critical part of the printing industry but business is projected to remain flat.”
Publication gravure is a larger market in Europe, and Siegwerk is witnessing growth in its business, driven by new technologies and strong service.
“Siegwerk’s publication gravure business in Europe has been growing volume-wide by 4 percent per annum over the last two years,” said Hans-Joachim Lauterbach, vice president marketing and sales, publication gravure, Siegwerk. “The main reasons for that are our innovative extender solutions for difficult-to-print papers and total cost-of-ownership approach in business with big commercial printers.
“Ink prices have dropped year by year during the past 10 years, and raw material costs have increased as some raw materials such as gum resins are running short. It has been a tough time for ink suppliers,” said Mr. Lauterbach. “Thanks to consolidation among gravure printers and combined buying power, it has become possible – though only in tough discussions – to increase ink prices for the second year in a row now.”
In the U.S., Siegwerk has a lower market share of approximately 7 percent in publication gravure. “Constant business has been possible through price increases,” said Mr. Lauterbach.
Press Innovations Drive Growth
Recent advancements on the press side have also helped to increase gravure printing’s popularity.
“The driver for gravure has been and will be high quality printing,” said Mr. Impastato. “This is not new. What is new is the ability of gravure to be economically competitive on (relatively) shorter runs. This has been supported by quicker change-overs.”
On the publication side there are a number of new technologies that are driving growth. “RFID and laser engraved cylinders are new technologies, but they are still in development,” said Mr. Green.
“Independent direct drives have made shorter press runs more economical,” said Bruce Beyer, technical director, Gravure Association of America (GAA). “Direct drives have an electronic motor on each cylinder. Eliminating the need for long drive shafts, these presses have a shorter web path due to the elimination of the compensator roller, and each cylinder is basically pre-registered. This results in reduced web spoilage and increased available press times, which make it very competitive with other processes. All the press manufacturers are coming out with direct drive presses.
“Laser engraved cylinders with resolutions of 380 lines/inch are already being used in the gravure process,” Mr. Beyer added. “Aside from the high photographic quality of these printed images, security printing can now also be realized. On-the-fly web viewing/defect detection has also helped to advance the use of gravure printing, as viewing equipment that spots defects at gravure speeds and can scan/grade bar codes. Wal-Mart and most large retailers fine heavily for unreadable bar codes, so this is a very important issue for packaging printers. Gravure printed electronics are in the near term, with Motorola already having printed transistors.”
New ink technologies are also helping to drive growth. Flint Group has several new gravure inks for flexible packaging, including Sterling. “The Sterling ink system provides high bonds and low retained solvents on a variety of flexible packaging constructions,” said Mr. Impastato. “This product offers printers the potential to eliminate a number of specialty ink systems and consolidate to Sterling, simplifying operations and decreasing inventories.”
Siegwerk offers a number of new technologies for publication gravure printing, including special extenders for difficult-to-print paper grades and a highly concentrated single ink set which was one of the applicants for the Golden Cylinder Award at the GAA convention in Kansas City in April.
The Future of Gravure
Although there are some challenges ahead, expectations for the future of gravure printing remain optimistic.
“Siegwerk’s expectations for the gravure publication segment include decreasing publication gravure ink volume over the next year due to the trend to concentrated ink sets,” said Mr. Lauterbach. “As we expect to begin to offer publication gravure in India and China, there could be some growth in that area within mid-term. Publication gravure printers, especially in Europe, have to consolidate further in order to get rid of overcapacities.”
“I believe gravure has reached a relatively steady state in packaging,” said Mr. Impastato. “Some additional market share growth may be possible due to the ever improving and challenging graphics we see in packaging. But, total economics will be the determiner. With more SKUs, more customization, more niche marketing and cost sensitivity, gravure will be hard-pressed to make significant increases in market share. On a positive note, gravure will see positive growth in packaging due to the overall growth of the packaging market.”