The Packaging and Label Gravure Association (PLGA) recently presented its Print Quality Award for Paperboard-Top Coated award to Wrigley’s “5” Family (Cobalt, Flair, Rain), printed by Alcan Packaging-Montreal, Canada.
Although other processes, notably flexographic printing, have threatened to take over gravure’s piece of the pie, recent improvements over the last few years in both cost and turnaround time have allowed gravure to retain its position in the market.
The Publication Market
Although it remains a dominant player in the printing market, the publication gravure market must still face the challenges presented by a marked decline in magazine circulation, the move to internet-based advertising and increasing raw material costs.
“The publication gravure market in North America and Europe is a major printing platform because of the quality it provides,” said Mike Green, vice president/general manager of Flint Group’s North American publications and news ink divisions. “Shifting market demands and increasing postage are challenges to the publication market and, therefore, to publication gravure printing.”
“In North America, publication gravure is a mature market,” said Liz Scherer, director, publication gravure technology for Sun Chemical. “It is challenged by the same issues as the rest of the publication printing market, namely, increasing raw material prices, the decline in newspaper circulation and competition from different means of advertising, such as the internet. Offset printing is also vying for a larger piece of the publication print business. The wider, faster offset presses are now doing what traditionally had been gravure length print runs.”
Packaging gravure is enjoying a renewal in popularity over the last few years as a result of a number of process improvements.
“In North America, gravure has been holding its own for the last five years,” said Mike Impastato, vice president market development of the North American packaging inks division, Flint Group. “Ten years ago, there were major questions about the future of gravure in packaging in North America. Due to the many improvements that have been made, we saw a resurgence in gravure three to five years ago.
“Gravure has always been a high quality process,” Mr. Impastato added. “Improvements have made gravure more competitive in cost and turn-around times, giving gravure a strong position in packaging North America.”
“The gap between gravure and flexo has closed over the past decade with regards to print quality between the two processes,” noted Angelo Spano, Flint Group’s segment manager – liquid inks in Australia. “New technologies in inks, plates and aniloxes have enabled this step change.”
According to Mr. Spano, while flexo has enjoyed growth, “gravure still has the advantage of being able to achieve higher film weights, and for cold seal and some adhesive applications has maintained a very competitive, consistent and unique edge in the market.”
“In the packaging market, gravure continues to be the leading printing process of choice in Europe and continues to be a standard by which other printing processes, specifically flexographic printing, are measured,” said Michelle Hearn, director of marketing, Sun Chemical North American packaging. “In North America, flexographic printing dominates the packaging printing business, but there are a number of gravure printers in North America.”
“Flexo still dominates the U.S. packaging market, and we’ve also seen flexo expand its share in Europe,” said Shingo Harako, marketing manager, packaging inks for Toyo Color America, LLC. “Demand for high-quality printing in Europe and North America, however, is rising, allowing gravure to win back lost ground as the process of choice, especially for mid- to high-end packaging applications and the packaging needs of global brand owners. In contrast, in Japan and many other countries in Asia, more than 90 percent of flexible packaging applications are printed by the gravure method.”
The Future for Gravure
Further improvements will be necessary in order for gravure to continue to remain a competitive option.
“Gravure will continue to have a strong presence for years to come, but the industry needs to be competitive on ‘shorter’ runs,” said Mr. Impastato. “Notice I did not say short runs. Gravure will continue to be handicapped when competing on true short run jobs.
“As flexo quality continues to improve, that technology will place more pressure on gravure for mid-size runs,” Mr. Impastato continued. “The more gravure can offer, in the way of turnaround times and cost, the more opportunities gravure will have to grow. The market itself is not growing at a high rate in North America; so gravure must go head-to-head with other application technologies to significantly expand its market penetration. Gravure’s success will depend upon staying competitive on cost, while delivering the outstanding quality buyers are used to seeing from gravure.”
Water-based and “greener” inks are also trends driving the gravure market. “Another trend in packaging gravure is the revisiting of water-based inks as an alternative to solvent-based inks,” said Ms. Hearn. “The main reason for this trend is the desire of more printers to find answers to the market’s demand for sustainability.”
“We continue to see growing demand for green products and materials in food packaging and commercial applications,” said Mr. Harako. “Toyo Ink has consistently made advances in the R&D of green products and materials that reduce fossil fuel use. We’ve developed a biomass-based and retortable water-based gravure ink, both for the flexible packaging sector. Another addition to Toyo’s ever-growing lineup of green products is our EB gravure coatings that have been developed for the U.S. market and are being produced at our manufacturing facility in Conyers, GA.”
“The emerging green movement we see in packaging will have a significant impact in the packaging market over the next five years,” said Mr. Impastato. “Everyone is looking for the completely sustainable package, which truly does not exist. And they are also looking for environmentally friendly inks, which exist only on a relative basis. I don’t believe gravure will be helped or hurt specifically be the green movement. Gravure printing has the potential to reduce its environmental impact, just like other application technologies. Gravure, however, may have more of a challenge due to the relatively thicker ink film applied. The capability to apply a thick ink film has been a plus for gravure. It allows gravure to use larger particle size specialty pigments. This is a graphic advantage for gravure. But, in the world of sustainability, the thicker ink film is a negative. Solids are typically lower and solvent content higher for gravure. This can be a negative and should be reviewed to determine how it can addressed to provide the best combination of graphic capability and low environmental impact.”