A new stratum of narrow web converters is emerging as the decade comes to a close. It can be described, some might say, as an upper middle class within the broad-based pyramid that defines the industry. Members of this group have recognized that the industry's maturity, coupled with relentless innovation among their packaging customers, means that the big players with all their fancy equipment and high technology might soon become separated from the average label printer by a wider gulf. These players don't want to be in the middle class any more.
They are turning to combination presses, so that they can pursue new markets, so that they can keep their existing customers by proving to them that they, too, possess the technology to make a converted product pop, zing, shine, zip, or whatever else the client wants it to do.
"We are seeing really strong interest in combination presses," says Mike Polkinghorne, vice president of Propheteer International, Palatine, Ill. "It is obviously driven by all the new substrates that packaging users want access to — film especially."
"We're getting a lot of questions about it: What's practical, what's profitable," reports Chris Faust, marketing manager at Comco International, Milford, Ohio. "They're asking the right questions, and they have a more knowledgeable base of customers. They're going out to try to capture the markets. They see opportunities out there, particularly with screen combination presses. Everyone's looking for a different look in their package."
What's the combination?
By "combination" is meant any grouping of various printing and converting processes: flexo, UV flexo, rotary screen, letterpress, offset, gravure, hot foil stamping, cold foil stamping, embossing. Among many converters today, a popular combination is flexo, UV flexo, rotary screen and hot stamp. But the variations are virtually limitless, especially with the recent emphasis on the mobility of print stations from one part of the press to another.
For years, converters of extremely high end labels and printed products — particularly those who produced for the health and beauty and pharmaceutical industries — were relatively few in number. That's changing today. Combination technology, while still a significant investment, is much more accessible to a printer who would not have even picked up the phone to enquire about it a half decade ago.
"It used to be that the larger or more progressive converters were involved in combination printing," says Jeff Clifton, sales manager for Allied Gear & Machine, St. Louis. "But we've actually seen a change, and now we're getting some of the smaller players coming in to talk with us. They are looking and buying. The last two presses we built with rotary screen capability were sold to relatively small companies."
What's driving it?
"The creativity is coming from the end user, the people buying the packaging," notes Andrew Colletta, president of Roto Press International, Cincinnati. "They are looking to do a lot more with the space they have on the package; for example, inserting a recipe or instruction booklet, or a dosage booklet if it's a pharmaceutical product.
"From a pyramid standpoint," Colletta continues, "with the innovators on the top, there has always been a big group in the middle where everyone was doing the same thing. What has happened to the middle section is that they now realize they can get their customers to the point where there is added value. Because the quality of the flexo process has moved along so well, they're now bumping heads with other processes, such as lithography in wine labeling. Those are now being printed with flexography."
There are, of course, converters for whom combination printing is nothing new. They've been doing it for years, with presses such as those manufactured in Switzerland by Gallus and in Denmark by Nilpeter.
"It's all combination presses," says Tom Tucker, sales manager for Nilpeter USA, Davie, Fla. "Our market has been combination presses for quite a few years. I would say that 90 percent of the presses we sell today are combinations of offset, flexo, letterpress, screen, hot and cold foil. We've been doing a lot of that for a long time."
Nilpeter recently began making inroads into the middle segment of the narrow web market, introducing 10" and 12" presses that are "more standard, more affordable," Tucker says. Still, he points out, it is rare that the company sells a basic flexo press, even to a customer in the middle market segment. "It starts out as being a simple flexo press, but it doesn't end up that way. The customers get interested in other technologies, and the next thing you know they want to hang things on the press. If they do make the decision to pay a little more and come with us, they go with various combinations."
"Our forte is combination presses," says Bob Yates, West Coast sales manager for Gallus Inc. "Even the Arsoma presses, which are becoming more popular here, are going out with one or two screen heads. That's where the market is headed — to the healthier high end. There's no sign of abating at all." In the middle market, Yates observes, "virtually everyone can do the same thing, so the competitive people are searching for other ways."
Those other ways can even include gravure units, not a common process in narrow web printing. "Some of our customers are asking for gravure units on the end of the press," says Comco's Faust, "for coatings and metallic and fluorescent inks."
Mark Andy, Chesterfield, Mo., which sells more narrow web presses worldwide than any other manufacturer, does not market its combination presses with offset, letterpress or gravure units.
"The full combination today is conventional flexo, UV flexo, rotary screen and hot foil stamping," says Roy Webb, national sales manager for Mark Andy. "We find that the quality of flexography has risen so high that we can compete in that arena without creating high end capital costs associated with those processes."
Webb says Mark Andy has sold some presses "that have been all rotary screen, and one of them had eight screen units on it. That company went after a market that required rotary screen exclusively. The majority, however, are one or two, with the rarer ones up to four."
The screen angle
A few companies manufacture their own rotary screen units, such as Propheteer and Gallus, but others use equipment produced by outside companies such as Telstar and Stork. The latter has become quite popular among most of the major press manufacturers. Stork Rotaform, based in Charlotte, has OEM arrangements with Mark Andy, Chromas Technologies, Comco, Nilpeter, Arpeco, Ko-Pack, and several other companies.
"We're seeing more and more multiple screen units," says John Costenoble, sales manager for Stork Rotaform. "As converters' business develops, they find out how the process works and what it can do. They bring that to their customer base, and the buyers of labels become more educated." Costenoble estimates that 50 percent of the initial installations develop into additional screen head sales.
Screen printing is used primarily to put down a strong layer of opaque white on the substrate. Beyond that capability is the addition of more screen colors to produce thick, bold graphics and type.
"We train the printers," Costenoble says, "typically the flexo operators. Usually everyone's a little nervous about it, because the boss just spent a lot of money on new equipment. We spend three or four days with them, as long as they want. When we go back six months later they tell us they can't believe how easy the process is."
Another aspect of training takes place in the sales department. Consultant George Ohlson of GO Technologies, Hanover, Mass., is working with Macaran Printed Products in Albany, N.Y., to help the company appreciate what it now can produce using its new Propheteer combination press. "Sales people are used to selling 'regular' labels," he says. "They're used to talking to the purchasing agents, but now they are going to have to talk to the creative people at the customer level, to help them understand that they can do a great deal more."
"No one process can give you everything in the world, in terms of coverage, pigments and graphics. You have to look at the various benefits of each," says Eric Short, president of RDP Marathon, a press manufacturer based in Montreal. The company's presses are rooted in lithography, but it offers a variety of combinations.
"If you want fine graphics, excellent reproduction and fast turnaround on plates, you'd like to use the offset process. If you need a heavy laydown of opaque colors, special varnishes, remoistenable glues, scratch-off coatings, you want to go to gravure and flexo. You'll be forced to look at other processes if you want to be competitive.
"Even five years ago people were interested but uncertain whether it was workable. There were all types of issues, such as operator training, consumables issues, combining inks, all those variables. Today the practicality is not a stumbling block — it's totally accepted."
"Any label printer doing prime quality work now on a flexo press shouldn't be afraid of the technical challenges of combination printing," says Polkinghorne of Propheteer.
"As time goes by, customers' expectations increase dramatically," says Colletta of Roto Press, "and there will be a myriad of upgrades in the press auxiliaries that we haven't seen yet — a constant shift toward the higher end of the marketplace. I see that as the next arena. Converters will be competing a lot more fiercely, and they will have to have wide-reaching capabilities."