Gravure still clinging on

19 July 2018

With a continued focus on high quality output demanded by brands, converters have continued to offer gravure. Dave Howell assesses the current market and asks whether digital will eventually displace this stalwart print converting technique

Where high-quality output is demanded, the gravure process has traditionally been the only print process that could meet the needs of the world’s brands. According to the ERA (European Rotogravure Association), gravure now accounts for 25% of the global output in packaging converting across Europe, with the North American market shrinking to just 18%. However, Asia (50%) and Japan with 85% market share of the gravure print across the packaging sector, illustrates the stark differences in the geographical fortunes of this established print process.

The clear differences in the use of gravure by the world’s converters illustrates how the technology is being impacting by other print technologies. The rapid expansion of digital output can’t be ignored especially as the quality of this output has continued to improve.

To gauge the current state of the gravure market, considering its supply chain – most notably ink suppliers – is a good way to illustrate how this print technology is fairing. According to Transparency Market Research, the global gravure printing ink market was valued at US $1.8 billion in 2015, with a projected rise to US $2.6 billion by 2024 – a CAGR of 3.98% As already noted, the large market share that gravure has across Asia makes it no surprise that six of the eight leading developers of gravure inks are based in this region.

Smithers Pira’s Sean Symth also commented on the publication of their report ‘The Future of Functional and Industrial Print to 2022’: "While analogue printing methods – gravure, flexo, litho, screen, pad printing and foiling – are widely used, there is very strong growth in digital methods, with new inkjet inks and fluids opening many new opportunities."

However, expanding markets across Asia and other regions are driving the continued use of gravure. A good example is the recent announcement from Toyo Ink that have developed a new range of high-performance polyurethane-based surface and lamination inks for flexo and gravure printing aimed at the expanding Latin American market for flexible packaging.

“With Latin America being a key segment for flexible packaging, we are looking to boost our presence in this important market,” said Sergio Pera, director of Toyo Ink Brasil. “Demand continues to grow for packaging solutions that offer greater convenience features, stronger barriers, and lighter weight materials, and for shorter print runs. For this reason, we have been working closely with our customers to improve our range of polyurethane resin-based inks to meet their requirements for greater versatility, performance.”

For converters, their brand partners are clearly driving the choice of output technologies. Gravure has traditionally been considered the only choice where high quality is central. However, the lower cost of digital continues to be a pressure point the converting industry is feeling, as packaging form factors and the substrates they use continue to evolve.

Commenting on gravure’s longevity, Bob Houghton, head of marketing and communications as Multi Packaging Solutions told Converting Today: “The solid colour saturation that gravure achieves is still difficult to match by other processes and as such several key brands ‘insist’ on this production route. The technique is strongly favoured in mainland Europe with a number of carton printers retaining this ability for tobacco, wet-glue labels and even in confectionery.”

Brands continue to specify gravure, which speaks volumes about the process’s robustness in the face of the challenge from digital. Indeed, in May Clifton Packaging announced its investment of £3 million in its FMCG business including a Nordmeccanica Supercombi SC4000 combi machine that offers gravure coatings and water-based adhesives.

Brand demands

The current position of gravure within converting is moving towards more specialist applications. A good example is the new stand-up pouch from Rasna. Developed in association with Uflex, the pouch also has an integrated side handle, with the substrate being printed via eight-colour gravure. It was vital that the new form factor had high-quality graphics, which only gravure could provide.

Uflex have also illustrated how gravure can be highly effective when used with other print processes. A recent example is the Shudh Plus Ultra Mouth Freshener brand. The tactile packs use a combination of flexo, gravure and electron beam coating. The finished effect is striking and is an exercise in how converters can create engaging POS packaging.

In addition, the work that Law Print carried out for Happy Jackson confectionery illustrates how gravure was the only choice that could be made to deliver the demands needed for this brand’s range. Kate McCauley, marketing manager commented on their continued use of this print technology: “We do believe that gravure is vital for brand packaging, especially in crowded and competitive markets. For our customers, it provides unrivalled print quality in flexible packaging when compared with flexo and digital.

McCauley concluded: “As with any business in 2018, sustainability is top of the agenda and there’s growing pressure to invest in more sustainable processes. We are looking at introducing new mono film materials that can be fully recyclable but only where facilities exist, and the problem here is that they are difficult to locate in the UK. The other challenge with new mono film PE/PE is also noticeable poorer print quality using gravure in comparison to PET films, so it’s a compromise that many companies will need to make moving forward.”

As packaging form factors continue to develop and the substrates in use along with them, gravure will endure if in an increasingly narrow range of packaging applications. Gravure is a casualty of the demand by brands to reduce costs and offer more personalisation across their packaging, but the technique is not dead just yet.

Future converting

It’s telling that many of the large converters are not offering gravure to their clients. Robert Olsson, DS Smith’s print performance development manager explained to Converting Today their current strategy:

“Within DS Smith we don’t currently use gravure printing, we have activities on flexo, offset, digital and screen printing. This combination of printing techniques allows DS Smith to meet the varied needs for brands in today’s world. Whether a brand is looking for a premium look and feel, rock bottom prices, or more recently, the flexibility to have numerous variations in packaging for localisation or contests, we offer them the right printing technique for their needs.”

What are the current pressure points gravure converters are feeling today? Olsson continued: “There are two general trends conspiring against gravure today: One is shorter and shorter order lengths and the other is the increased print quality by offset and digital. Those two trends have really squeezed gravure out of the marketplace.”

Does digital continue to erode the market for gravure output? “To some extent digital is eroding the market,” Olsson stated. “But with something like our HP T1100S digital printer we can print thousands of packages, each one of them unique, which can provide a huge sales boost for FMCG brands through things like customer contests or collectors’ editions of the packages. This is the kind of value added printing that gravure cannot compete with.”

And what does the future of gravure look like? In Olsson’s view: “Not bright. The world of retail has been moving towards personalisation, celebrating individualism and transforming purchases into experiences. To maximise those trends DS Smith are investing heavily into digital print and we don’t see those trends changing in the foreseeable future.”

The demands on converters of course have continued to change as brand owners look to meet consumer demand that has itself changed radically over the last decade. Says Rudi Weis-Schiff, director, Business Development for Janoschka: “Rotogravure has proven its capabilities in printing for special inks and varnishes, even on the most difficult substrates to print on. In order to touch all these capabilities is still a long way for digital printing. But digital is developing and has its future, but it will also develop new products which have never been printed before and it will open doors for new businesses.”

Gravure is still specified by brands who continue to appreciate its unique capabilities that digital presses can yet meet. The converting environment is shifting with some geographies maintaining their use of gravure with others in clear decline. Overall, the heyday of gravure has passed, but this technique still has many years of life.

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