It is a fact not widely known (i.e. your correspondent has just found out) that the feast-day of John the Baptist, on June 24, is also the ‘fête des imprimeurs’. The French city of Strasburg this year used the occasion to celebrate its most famous son, Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg, the inventor of printing. Actually, as we all know, he didn’t invent printing, he invented movable metal type, but let’s not quibble. Strasburg was also the city where, in 1605, the world’s first news magazine was printed, starting a trend stretching down over the centuries to culminate in Label & Narrow Web. The celebrations in the Place Gutenberg in Strasburg this June included works by dozens of artisanal printers, bookbinders and artists, and even included some labels (wine labels, of course). Digital technologies were also on display – a cuckoo in the nest?
A new record for digital labels
Many of Europe’s top label and package converters were recently invited, along with a very select handful of journalists, to visit HP Indigo’s headquarters and production sites in Israel in the context of a “Worldwide VIP Event.” The main shop window accomplishment presented was the successful digital printing of Coca-Cola labels each with a popular first name. HP Indigo – rightly – presented this as a tremendous technical achievement, but at least some of the credit must go to Peter Overbeek, the CEO of Eshuis Etiketten in the Netherlands. He is the man who assembled a team of eight digital and around 25 conventional label converters, and who piloted the logistics of getting the right labels to the right bottling plants at the right time. Speaking at the VIP Event, Overbeek spoke of the difficulties in coordinating the printing of some five thousand different labels for delivery to the 35 European countries taking part in the project. By the end of this year, according to Overbeek, one billion of these special labels will have been printed, equivalent to 25 million running meters. All the labels were printed on carefully calibrated WS6600 presses, and Overbeek proudly announced that one of his presses had broken all performance records with 8.2 million clicks in the space of 24 hours.
Why do they all love package printing?
It is no secret that HP Indigo, Xeikon and other narrow web digital specialists are making a powerful bid to establish themselves in the package printing business. Labelexpo, the worldwide forum of the label industry, is also opening its doors to package printing. The question which thoughtful people are asking is: how much technical or marketing synergy is there to be gained from this trend? For flexible packaging the answer is relatively simple in that it is a roll-fed process and not too dissimilar to running unsupported filmic labels. For solid fiber and corrugated boxes the answer is more difficult. HP Indigo obviously sees this as a future trend, and is putting its money where its mouth is, investing massively in a new series of sheet-fed digital package print presses. While the digital prepress and print processes are similar in both label and carton printing, the finishing and all the materials handling are very different. A majority of makers of conventional label presses do not market combined label-and-packaging equipment: Gallus, for example, decided long ago to acquire a separate company to make package printing presses. Marketing managers also seem to be in two minds: some argue that brand owners want a one-stop-shop for their label and packaging requirements. This seems to be the thinking at French-based Autajon Group, a leader in package printing and converting. In 2007 the group bought out Bopack, one of Europe’s biggest label converting groups. This marketing approach can be compared with that of Autajon’s main European competitor August Faller. This German company is first and foremost a package printer, but in 2006 entered the digital label printing field and has developed this division substantially. Do end users really like buying labels and packaging from a single source? One major pharmaceutical company says yes, because they like that there’s only one guy to blame when something goes wrong. Others say no, because they see label and package printing as two different businesses and they prefer to buy their labels from a label specialist who only does that.
For some digital label specialists, possibly including HP Indigo, there could be another, much simpler reason for the move into packaging equipment. They are so well established in their specialty that gaining further market share becomes increasingly uphill work, with the ever-present threat of falling foul of Europe’s anti-trust laws.
From wet-glue offset to ps digital
A label converter unlikely to be troubled by anti-trust is Imprimerie Bouley, a family-run business in the heart of rural Burgundy. Nestling among the vineyards, Bouley employs just twelve people and makes – wait for it – wine labels. It is one of several hundred small French label converters, but what makes it special is that it points to two interesting trends: for a whole generation of the family, Bouley made wet–glue labels using two Heidelberg offset presses. Then ten years ago the present owner’s father, seeing the way the labeling wind was blowing, designed, built and patented a machine for turning cut-and-stack labels into pressure sensitive ones. Your correspondent was privileged to see it in operation. It has a slightly Rube Goldberg appearance but yes, sir, it does the job – slowly. With run lengths falling like a barometer before a hurricane, Imprimerie Bouley looked to digital printing as a possible answer. “We spent a lot of time at Labelexpo 2011 talking to digital press manufacturers,” says Ludovic Bouley, the present general manager. “It was a hard choice but we finally opted for a Xeikon 3030, along with a laser diecutter from Italy’s SEI.” The equipment was installed just six months ago and gave such good results that Xeikon regularly invites other label converters to visit and inspect it. In Burgundy, as in the Bordeaux region, competition is less than cutthroat. Traditionally, wine growers and cooperatives rarely change their label supplier, but as runs become shorter it is beginning to happen and Bouley is ready and waiting when it does. Of course local label converters do not share information on prices (that would be illegal) but they seem to have an almost telepathic esprit de corps which discourages savage price-cutting. “Our customers want service,” says Bouley. “If it’s a small order, it’s generally for a premium wine and few customers will argue the price so long as the quality is good and the delivery is fast. And if it’s a really big order it probably won’t come to us anyway.” Along with quality and speed, Bouley also offers security and traceability. Another French company, but an internationally active one, is ATT, who supplies Bouley with the expertise and the software for the unique QR codes which protect the classier wines, while at the same time providing an added marketing tool to woo smartphone-savvy wine lovers.
To boldly go…
Belarus is a country which seems to attract label equipment suppliers. This is surprising for a place that is not in every respect a model of squeaky clean democratic decency. Its president is the only old-style communist autocrat still left over from cold war days, and Transparency International places Belarus 123rd out of 174 countries. All this has not deterred Belgium-based Esko from installing full HD Flexo at the plant of its customer Uniflex, a label and package converter employing over 500. Print runs in Belarus are getting shorter (sound familiar?) and business is being shifted from offset to HD Flexo. “Today, 40% of all work is HD Flexo,” says Uniflex prepress manager Evgeni Lungin. “We are continuing the conversion process to Full HD Flexo, and our mid-term target is to print 60% of all jobs using this Esko solution.” Also in Belarus, there have recently been several narrow web press sales.
Conflicting views in Munich
At the annual FINAT congress in Munich (a report on this can be read on page 30 of this issue), there was an air of cautious optimism, despite stagnant growth figures for labelstock. One or two speakers spent a little too much time praising their own companies, and in the case of two other speakers the subjects were largely irrelevant to the world of labels. As often happens, the best moments were the unscripted panel discussions. Jakob Landberg of Nilpeter reminded delegates that narrow web offset and flexo are both improving their performance on short runs, and should not be dismissed as yesterday’s technologies. For Mike Russell (Mark Andy) LED curing has to be the technology of the future, especially in countries with high energy costs; this view was shared by Jennifer Renner of EFI, but Eric Hoendervangers (MPS) noted the high initial investment in LED equipment and the limited range of inks currently on the market. Landberg intervened to say that some Danish converters are going back to hot air drying. Marco Calcagni of Omet noted the overlap between label and package print presses particularly in the mid-web sector (which Omet markets successfully), while Ferdinand Rüesch of Gallus took the contrary line (“Folding cartons are another world, not much synergy for label converters”). The growth of direct printing was seen by several panelists as a threat. Less threatening was the presence of low-cost Asia-Pacific press manufacturers (“a threat in Asian markets only”). Christian Menegon of HP moved that FINAT should be more proactive in lobbying the EU to do away with certain restrictive regulations. Surprisingly, ink and adhesive migration was not much discussed, except by the Xeikon representative, who said in all modesty that his company had unique answers for food labeling; he bet that he could eat a spoonful of toner but sadly no one took him up on the boast.
Low-cost Chinese goods are being dumped in the EU, says the EU’s combative trade commissioner. First it was telecom equipment, now it is solar panels, and this despite protests from Britain and Germany that cheap Chinese solar panels are the very thing they need for promoting cheap energy. Just to show even-handedness, a French minister has accused Amazon of being a bookshop-destroying dumper. China has retaliated against Brussels by threatening to introduce punitive tariffs on European wine (which fills everybody, including the wine label converters, with horror – China is a huge market for European wines). In theory of course you can’t go slapping import duties on anything that looks too cheap to be true. In practice a bit of chauvinist protectionism goes down well with domestic audiences here in Europe, despite the constraining rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization. What used to be Britannia Rules the Waves now looks more like Europa Waives the Rules.