M-real’s one surviving label paper mill is in Bergisch Gladbach, not far from Cologne in Germany. Papermaking has been going on at this site, we are told, since before 1829, when Johann Wilhelm Zanders took over what was even then “the oldest paper mill on the River Strunde,” and it looks as if several of the buildings date from Old Man Zanders’ time. Added on to repeatedly over the years, it is now a jumble of tall, forbidding structures housing its pulp processing unit, its two production lines, and its various finishing shops, labs and offices. You almost expect to see Scrooge lurking in a dark corner shouting, “Bah, humbug!” All this to say that appearances don’t always count. The more recent of its two paper making lines is a 600-foot long, 20-foot wide giant, with a capacity of 240,000 tons per year of coated and uncoated papers. It was built back in the roaring, no-expenses-spared days of 1992, and is said to be still the most modern mill of its type in Europe (gives you some idea of the way Europe’s paper markets have gone these past 20 years).
M-real’s blockbuster product is Chromolux, a high-gloss cast-coated paper for wet labels which has for many years been the favorite among Europe’s wet glue label printers. Now comes the Zanlabel range, available in both coated and uncoated variants, another base paper for metalizing, and a facestock material specifically for making self-adhesive laminates. There will also be a paper, to be launched later this year, for flexible packaging. The reason for this flurry of new products is the company’s aim to offer label converters exactly what they need, particularly in the less expensive grades. It is significant that M-real’s ambition is to increase the percentage of rollstock sold from the current 20 to 50 percent within five years. This lends weight to the argument that over time, sheetfed label production will be squeezed out by continuous rollfed processes. Since this is Germany, the company is paying great, almost exaggerated attention to every aspect of sustainability.
Down from the hills
Last month, this column brought encouraging news from label press maker Omet. Now another Italian machinery manufacturer is in the news: Prati Company, a maker of web inspection and finishing equipment, has just inaugurated its new factory and head office. Prati is a genuine family business, set up by Pietro Prati in 1973 and now managed by him in partnership with his two daughters, Chiara and Annalisa, who look after sales and finance departments, respectively. “Our success comes from our technical excellence,” says Chiara Prati, “and I can claim to have added a sprinkling of business flair.”
The recipe seems to have worked, and Prati Company has transformed itself in the space of five years from being an Italian company with some exports into a global player with 70 percent of its sales generated outside Italy in 2010. The company has increased sales every year for the past decade, and last year saw sales nearly doubled, largely due to exports. For all that, the company is still a relatively small, highly specialized one, with just 25 employees and $15 million in sales. “We have built up a magnificent network of representatives,” says Chiara Prati, “and we are now present on all the major world markets except China.” Why not China? “We are considering it, but at the moment China’s cavalier attitude to intellectual property protection is giving us pause for thought.”
Prati was founded in Pietro’s home village in the hills above Bologna, and the original workshop there was extended wherever there was a vacant space. Now it has moved lock, stock and barrel to a purpose-built structure in the town of Faenza, on the plains, just half an hour’s ride from Bologna. With everything under one roof, the company is poised to increase its production in clean, modern and efficient surroundings.
One of Prati’s machines, the Pharmacheck, gives insight into how European markets are structured. As its name implies, the Pharmacheck just checks pharmaceutical labels. And re-checks, and double-checks, front and back. Who in their right mind would pay a lot of good money for all that? Answer: German companies would – and do. Chiara Prati explains: “German pharmaceutical companies have the most stringent quality control procedures in the world. Of the eight Pharmachecks we have sold so far, four went to Germany. In this business, reliability is practically everything. Service is everything else. Of course price is important, too, but it’s an also-ran compared with the other two.”
Where next for Prati? CEO Pietro Prati sounds a word of warning. “We have invested heavily, and not just in bricks and mortar – I should say steel and glass – but also in R&D. 2011 will be a time of consolidation.” This conservative strategy has not stopped Prati from appointing two new representatives, one for Brazil and the other for parts of Southeast Asia, nor from setting up an office in the United States. The manager of the newly created US office is Brian Irving, and he was present at the grand inauguration. Can an Italian manufacturer really send heavy machinery halfway round the world and still be competitive? And what about a euro/dollar exchange rate that gets worse (for European exporters) by the day? Irving is cautiously optimistic. “Many of our customers operate on both sides of the Atlantic, and they know what it can cost to have a faulty or missing label, particularly in the health sector. So although we’re the new kids, we’re not starting from scratch.” Is Prati planning to start manufacturing in the States? “We have no immediate plans to do that,” says Irving.
If you can’t buy it, make it
Francis Comberton makes wine. So, according to official statistics, do 93,000 other people in France. But Comberton has a flair for design, and he designed a spiral-shaped label to make his wine stand out from that of the other 92,999 competitors. He took it to a label converter, then to another and another. Always the same reply. Too complicated, too small a quantity. Undeterred, he looked for a press that could print and convert his label in the volumes he wanted and at a cost he could afford. “I saw the digital UV inkjet printing and converting equipment supplied by US manufacturer Primera, liked the quality and the price, and bought it,” he said. “Suddenly, I was a label converter.” His company, SpeedEtiq, is (literally) a garage start-up, but already he is getting orders from fellow growers, and even from food manufacturers and retailers. “I know it’s a cliché,” he says, “ but the phone really doesn’t stop ringing.” A fruit of the entrepreneurial spirit, you may say. But then a worm of doubt emerges: If it’s that easy to print labels digitally, how long before a whole lot of other label end users want to get in on the act? That might upset quite a number of apple carts.
…and if it doesn’t exist, invent it
Upsetting apple carts is what François Bayzelon enjoys. The French-born CEO of ETI Converting (Montreal, Canada) has for years been making it his business to challenge preconceived ideas. His company’s machinery prints face material, coats it with adhesive and silicone, slaps on a liner and, “Hey presto!” you have a roll of printed labelstock. It’s not quite as simple as that, but the machinery is good enough to be bought by Autajon, the biggest label converter in France, by Germany’s number one Rako Etiketten and by Germark, one of the top three label converters in Spain. Autajon’s Sales Director Gilles Poncato admits to having several of ETI’s printing and converting lines, but stresses that they are used mainly for low-volume specialty grades which it would not be economic to order from one of the established labelstock producers.
As spring comes to Europe this year, label professionals of all stripes are starting to think about what new ideas will sprout from Labelexpo Europe, to be held in the Belgian capital (always assuming the country still exists in September). But Belgium or no Belgium, this year’s show will be bigger than ever (say the organizers), and the “beauty contest” of four competing label presses side by side and all running the same label, first held in Chicago last year, will be repeated. That alone should make it worth the trip.