Early this summer, a small group of people from a Chinese converting company spent time by the shore of Italy's Lake Como, beneath the mountains that towered above the town of Lecco. The weather and the scenery were beautiful, but this wasn't a vacation. These people, two of whom had spent two months there, were customers of Omet, the press manufacturer. They were buying a press: the biggest Varyflex press by far that Omet had ever manufactured. It was over 200 feet long, and it could print on anything. Mostly, however, it was a carton press, and its primary product would be packaging for China's huge cigarette market.
Top: GiDue's new Athena carton press, which made its debut at Labelexpo Europe 2005 in Brussels. Above: Omet's largest press, manufactured for a converter in China.
The major press manufacturers all offer machines that print on board material. Many of these are designated multi-substrate presses, and their ability to handle folding carton stock is made known to the converting world. Folding carton seems to be mentioned often in combination with unsupported film, though the two are worlds apart.
Yet it seems that few established narrow web label printers are in the folding carton market in a significant way. Those who are acquiring, or thinking about acquiring, narrow web folding carton equipment are those who know the segment already, albeit from a wide sheetfed offset perspective.
"The market is challenging," says Jon Guy, president of Gallus Inc., the US arm of the Swiss press manufacturer based in Philadelphia, PA. "It's an established market, and all of the players know the traditional way of doing it and are comfortable. Asking them to step away from what they are used to is difficult to start with. Also, there's overcapacity in the marketplace. You have to find someone who's willing to take a risk and order more equipment when they already have capacity. But with narrow web it's a different kind of capacity — for shorter runs. These guys are definitely challenged, and they are trying to find ways to cope with that. There is a degree of resistance."
The new KM 510 carton press from Gallus
"Activity in the folding carton market right now is moderate. It has been higher, and it has been lower," says Mike Pfaff of Mark Andy, the director of paperboard and folding carton press sales at the Comco division in Cincinnati, OH, USA. "In 2002 and 2003 there was some wrenching change: a lot of overseas competition, things formerly made here now being made there and packaged there; printing in China and Eastern Europe. That, coupled with general post-9/11 pressure, caused a big downturn. Pressure on margins continues to this day."
Narrow web folding carton presses offer something that the larger machines do not, and that distinction is foremost in the sales argument: The great majority of folding cartons are made on sheetfed offset machines, but they are pretty inefficient," says Pfaff. "It takes two passes, the substrate use is not nearly as efficient. We try to point out these differences to people as a way of contending with the realities of the marketplace today. Short runs are something that a narrow web press addresses. Nobody's willing to pay the inventory to make oodles of cartons and put them in a warehouse until someone asks for them. With a narrow web short run press you don't have to have such a high minimum-order quantity.
"A lot of the economies that the label people have known about forever are starting to be understood by the carton people," Pfaff notes.
He agrees that most of the interest in the Comco machines is from those already converting cartons, "though we do get those who want to dip their toe in a new market. It turns out to be tougher for them, though. There's a whole different set of customers, a whole different mentality. It's a lot more complicated. When they get into it, some of them discover what it entails and they back off.
"They think that it's just printing, but they underestimate what's involved," Pfaff says. "They need to see themselves not just as narrow web printers but as packaging printers. The vendors are a whole different universe. The products have different tooling and different customers. Even a narrow web carton press has to be more robust, more sturdy than a standard label press."
Press tensions are a lot higher running paperboard, says Pfaff. "Diecutting and converting are a whole different animal. In labels, diecutting is almost an afterthought, but cutting through folding carton stock means heavy loads."
On display at Kocher & Beck's stand at Labelexpo Europe this year was a pair of male/female flexible dies. These, according to Mal Nicholas-Jones, have been developed by the company over the past six months specifically for the folding carton market. Kocher + Beck is headquartered in Pliezhausen, Germany, and has a US division in Shawnee, KS.
"They are fed into the diecutting unit through a jig, and separated each to its own magnetic cylinder," Nicholas-Jones says. "They crush-cut using normal die pressure." Some converting companies are using the dies already, he observes, though he adds: "They're not directed to the high volume market. They work well on runs of a couple of hundred thousand pieces."
Male/female crush-cut dies are in use throughout the folding carton market, but are not necessary. The magnetic versions cost far less than solid dies because they are thin sheets of metal (excluding the cost of a pair of magnetic cylinders), but they don't last as long. "And the speeds are not as fast as standard solid diecutting speeds," Nicholas-Jones says. "But still, we have one customer who is diecutting with them at 80 meters per minute." In feet, that's 262.
Federico d'Annunzio, managing director of GiDue, says that his company is working with Kocher + Beck on a new (and secret at the moment) diecutting concept that will be incorporated into the company's new Athena press early in 2006. GiDue, based in Turate, Italy, introduced the Athena carton press at Labelexpo in September.
Simply put, folding carton stock is brutal to cutting dies. The stock is heavy, and it must be cut through completely as well as scored for folding.
"You need a good, stout, precision-made diecutter that runs fast," Pfaff says. "They are expensive. Customers say that they can't pay for the dies, but the root of the matter is that the process, taken in its totality, is a lot more efficient when done that way. You need a solid rotary die, particularly in narrow web. It's the most hassle-free way to cut your folding cartons."
A folding carton die, adds Pfaff, is more of an engineered product than a label die. Samples must be sent to the die maker prior to creation of the tool, because each type of paperboard — recycled, virgin, coated, uncoated — presents its own challenge.
"Once the operators get their arms around diecutting — and it's a bigger, heavier machine with more tension — they're on their way," Pfaff says.
But wait! There's more. "Folding carton is easy to print, and easy to cut, but what do you do with it after that?" asks David Grove, technical salesperson for Schober USA, Cincinnati, OH. "You can stack it, shingle-feed it or whatever, but that's always the big issue: how you handle it after the cut."
Schober, whose parent company is in Eberdingen, Germany, makes solid rotary tooling as well as a wide variety of converting equipment. Among its products are delivery systems for the folding carton market.
Schober's PBO rotary
carton converting system
Delivery systems can be inline or offline. "If the delivery system is going to slow down the press," says Grove, "you probably want to do it offline." Some delivery systems can be mounted on rollers and moved around.
Schober's delivery systems "can shingle, stack, roll the product, and stack several stacks across the web," Grove says. "We can handle staggered product and stack it, or staggered product and shingle it." Options for the equipment include matrix rewind, re-registration, counting, stacking, gluing units, and inspection equipment.
Among the label converters with experience in the folding carton market is the Stratus Group, based in Cincinnati, and run by President Bob Curran and his son Curt, the vice president and general manager. In its carton division, the company prints using both rollfed flexo and half-sheet offset.
A sample of cartons manufactured by Stratus Group.
In its 13 years of folding carton converting, Stratus worked closely with Arpeco, which manufactured all of its flexographic printing equipment as well as the finishing machinery. "We've been running flatbed inline diecutting as well as rotary diecutting," Curran says. "All of the flexo printing is UV curable; no water based on either the ink or the coating sides. We looked at a lot of the other machines, but we thought that Arpeco had the best system in terms of durability, and the ability to transport the web through the machine." The company undertook rotary diecutting in 1997. Stratus uses only solid steel tooling from RotoMetrics.
"It took us about two years to quit bleeding and get the company going," Curran says. "The cost of equipment is high; presses alone are $2.5 to $3 million. You have to sell a lot of cartons to get that kind of money back, and that's not even the finishing equipment.
"If a label guy asked me today if he should get into the carton business, I'd say he was crazy."