Narrow Web Europe

An East European backwater opens up

By John Penhallow | July 10, 2012

Belarus is not the easiest European country to do business in

When the Soviet Union imploded just over twenty years ago, the Soviet Republic of Belarus, also known as White Russia, decided to ignore Mr. Gorbachev and carry on as before. Alexander Lukashenko became the newly independent country’s first (and so far, only) leader. His successive election victories have not been sanctioned by international organizations or leaders – not even by Mr. Putin (which says a lot). Recently, however, there have been signs of a thaw in both political and commercial relations between Belarus and the rest of the world. Enter Bernhard Grob, export sales manager of Edale, the UK press manufacturer. Exotic countries are rather a specialty of Grob, and last year sold a servo-driven flexo press to the Bobruisk Printing House. In April of this year Bobruisk agreed to host an Open House to demonstrate several of Edale’s presses, including the popular Alpha label press. “We were able to welcome several customers and potential customers, mostly from Belarus but some of them from Ukraine,” says Grob. “I also took the opportunity to spend two days traveling around Belarus to visit other prospective buyers for Edale’s equipment.”

Drupa disappoints some – but not all
For the past two or three months the talk in Europe has been about drupa, the once-every-four-years print show in Düsseldorf. Many exhibitors produced gushing post-show press releases, but visitor numbers were a colossal 25% down from 2008. Admitting this disappointing result, the organizers blamed the state of the European printing industry, pointing out that in Germany alone the print industry shed 61,000 employees over the past decade. Against this, as Matthias Dornscheidt, president & CEO of the organizer Messe Düsseldorf insisted, “Visitors were of a high quality, business was done, and points were set for the future of the sector” - all of which  is quite possibly true but a tad difficult to quantify. Outside the digital print sector (of which more later), the emphasis at the show was on cost-cutting, productivity-improving innovations. In his press conference on the opening day of the show, Heidelberg’s CEO Bernhard Schreier gave a speech that could have come straight from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “For us, as for our customers,” said Schreier, “The imperative is to cut costs and improve productivity.”

The Inventor who Came in from the Cold
Cutting costs was not on the agenda of another drupa exhibitor, the ebullient Benny Landa. His opening-day press conference was a spectacle worthy of primetime television. The Canadian-born inventor and founder of Landa Digital Printing stood center stage flanked by his two prototype digital presses, one for continuous rolls, the other for sheets. Films projected on a giant screen explained – in part – the concept of nanographic inks which are at the heart of Landa’s invention. In other respects, and at the risk of gross oversimplification, Landa’s digital print process is a digital offset remarkably similar to a souped-up version of the Indigo technology developed over a decade ago by…well, Benny Landa of course. Part of the soup involves stylish, iPad-inspired design, ergonomic sit-back-and-watch operation, and a liberal seasoning of eco-friendliness (water-based inks, low energy consumption). At the drupa extravaganza, a journalist asked Landa if the two presses on display were now on sale. His answer was revealing. He explained that back in 1993 he, as CEO of Indigo, had gone to market with a technology which was not yet ready, and the resulting teething troubles had badly affected the prestige and market success of digital narrow web technology. “I try not to make the same error twice,” he said. The new Landa presses, he promised,  would be brought to market during the second half of 2013. Your correspondent, along with many of the journalists attending the non-launch, went away saying, “Great performance, let’s look at this again in 18 months when he’s actually got something to sell.” Others were not so offhand: before the drupa show was out, Landa had signed technology-sharing “partnerships” with some of the biggest names in the world’s print industry: Heidelberg, Manroland, Komori, to name but three. Unconfirmed reports say that a dozen converters have already made down payments so as to be first in the line-up when the new presses are finally launched some time next year.

Could this be the label press that does everything?
The combination digital/flexo press has seemed for many years to be a brilliant idea that for some reason never really got off the ground. Nilpeter joined with Caslon to produce one, and Omet also developed one, but the “pure” digital narrow web presses have for the past ten years been making most of the running. Now another press manufacturer – UK’s Focus Label – has entered the ring. Traditionally a maker of flexo presses, Focus used drupa to launch “d-Flex,” a full color, digital inkjet press with an inline servo-driven UV flexo printhead. Incorporating the latest piezo drop-on-demand inkjet heads from Konica Minolta, it offers inline flexo printing/coating, corona treatment, cold foil, laminating, varnishing and diecutting, either in roll to roll, or roll to sheet applications.

There is a widely held belief in Europe, and particularly in Belgium, that Belgian technology is good, and that Belgian beer is the best in the world. There was therfore some concern last year when the Belgian company EskoArtwork was acquired by the American Danaher. However,  judging by the crowds at the Esko booth at drupa, the company’s prepress systems are as much in demand as ever – and the beer served was of the best Belgian quality. After the show, Jeff Stoffels, Esko’s marketing director, said, “Esko had a great drupa. Not only did we overachieve our targets for  sales and leads, but also received confirmation that our long term strategy for integrated end-to-end solutions integrating with other business systems  is the right one. “

When the chips are down
For several years label industry experts have agreed that RFID has not fulfilled its promise; manufacturers who rushed to get into the business have mostly rushed to get out. But not all of them. At drupa, Melzer GmbH was presenting its latest RFID tag assembly machinery. And who is buying the stuff ? Well, Germany’s Interior Ministry is, for one, in order to churn out 80 million or so of the latest generation of national identity documents. The Moscow subway  is another Melzer client, consuming several million “smart” tickets every week. Not content with its successes in the RFID sector, Melzer is now a leading developer of electronic papers, now starting to be used more generally for smart labels. Lenka Huslik, Melzer‘s marketing director, explains, “Think of electronic paper as a low-power, silicone-free smart material. The advantage for labels is that unlike classic RFID chips, electronic paper can be bent or rolled, so it’s ideal for making continuous roll labels.”

Best-kept British secret
Most of the companies selling narrow web digital presses could be found at drupa. All were different, and all had in common that they promised the vividest colors, the highest productivity and the fastest growth. All, that is, except one:  British exhibitor FFEI, which described itself in the drupa show guide as “one of the best-kept secrets born of the graphic arts industry.”  There is much truth in this. FFEI makes platesetters, simulation software and prepress workflows. At their drupa booth they gave pride of place to what was essentially a Caslon digital label press powered by FFEI’s own workflow software, and including an opaque white print unit. FFEI’s commercial manager Charlie Seccombe said that digital narrow web was a new-old business for the company, as they had partnered developments with Nilpeter, Fujifilm, Agfa and others. However drupa 2012 was the first time the company had presented “a totally automatic, complete configuration for label printing, available as a standalone unit or as part of a combination digital/conventional line. “ Join the club.

US plates for French presses
Waterless offset is something of an acquired taste in European label circles.  One of the few press manufacturers specializing in this technology is Codimag.  Waterless offset generally uses Toray plates which have a layer of silicone on top of the plate to repel the ink in the non-image areas. Now a US company, Presstec, is out to get a bigger share of the action, providing competing plates. Presstec’s European director Axel Thien says, “Our plates are optimized for waterless offset and are well placed to compete with the market leader on cost and quality. Presstec plates in our opinion are particularly well adapted to Codimag presses.”

FINAT supports sustainability – and soccer!
Readers of L&NW will be aware that the Greek economy is in something of a mess, which may have got worse by the time this article appears. However, little of this was evident in Athens when label association FINAT met in June for its annual congress. Delegate numbers were down, but mainly because there was until very recently no Greek label association to boost numbers. Another factor was the reduced number of delegates from Germany, possibly due to persistent anti-German comments in the Greek press - along the linesof : “In Greece we are drowning in debt and all that Germany wants to give us are swimming lessons.”

This year’s FINAT theme was “Sustainable Labeling,” and the keynote speech was presented by Louis Lindenberg, the packaging sustainability director at Unilever.  Lindenberg touched on the familiar issues of recycling compatibility between the label and the packaging, the reduction of plastics and the elimination of PVC in all its forms, and the various, rather murky definitions of  “biodegradable.” Unilever is moving towards the use of only sustainably sources packaging and labels, he said. In an intriguing aside, he mentioned a pilot program to turn synthetic packaging into diesel fuel; experts think that flying pigs will be developed first, but who knows, and experts have been wrong before. 

Following Lindenberg’s was Mark Shayler, billed as the man who “cuts the crap from carbon footprinting.”  This promise was at least partly fulfilled, and delegates applauded when Shayler told them “If green is costing you money, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Delegates rushed to get translation headsets when Dimitrios Skordakis started speaking. Skordakis announced the birth of a Greek Label Association to represent the country’s 40 or so label converters.

As so often happens, the informal roundtable discussions were as interesting, even more so, than the mainline speeches. Art Yerecic (representing TLMI) insisted that sustainability can improve profits, and that the use of thinner materials along with waste-reducing investments help the environment but also make sound business sense.

As in previous years, the congress ended with a football (soccer) match between the visitors and the locals. The result was variously billed as 7-3 or 5-3, but in either case it was a clear victory for Greece. Your correspondent was nearly sent off for illegal tackling, but otherwise did not contribute to the score.