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Why Belgium?

By John Penhallow | January 20, 2017

Readers of L&NW, who are mostly a well-traveled lot, will not need to be told about Belgium. It is that small, flat, triangular shaped country awkwardly placed between France, Germany and Holland. Because it is so flat it gets invaded regularly and has been the scene of many famous battles, including, of course, Waterloo. Today, it is a heavily federated monarchy: the mainly Catholic, French-speaking South is perpetually at odds with the more Protestant, Flemish-speaking North. There are also a few bits that speak German. Its capital, Brussels, has its own dialect, which not even other Belgians can understand, but Brussels is also the de facto capital of the European Union, and its modern battles are between legions of lobbyists and battalions of bureaucrats.

Belgium is, in short, an odd sort of country. However, one thing it seems to do rather well is designing, making and selling prepress software for printing and converting machinery. It all started in the very early 1990s with a company called Artwork Systems. Its founder, Guido van der Schueren, developed the first workflow systems for narrow web presses. The business grew fast, and in 2007 van der Schueren decided to sell out to fellow Belgian competitor Esko Graphics, pocketing 50 million euro (around $55 million at today’s rate). Not having an immediate use for that kind of money, he reinvested most of it in Esko Graphics’ holding company, and he accepted the specially created post of chief commercial officer. “It was the worst decision of my career,” he later admitted. “I was handsomely paid to do nothing at all. It was all immensely frustrating.”

In 2011, Esko Graphics in turn was acquired by the American group Danaher, a conglomerate making everything from false teeth to filters. Once again, van der Schueren, now nearing retirement age, sold out his share, which was quite enough to keep him in comfort (Belgians are not big spenders) for the rest of his days. Instead of putting his feet up, he talked to former Artwork associate Mike Rottenborn, who had set up a US company in the business software sector under the name of Hybrid Systems. The two men noted that Esko was (and still is) the undisputed market leader in narrow web prepress automation – a worldwide market worth around $400 million. “Esko’s products are good,” van der Schueren says, adding modestly, “They must be, they’re still using my best ideas.”

But market leaders can get complacent, and having bought into Hybrid Systems, van der Schueren set about shaking up the market. Other former Artwork executives came on board, and soon Hybrid Systems was launching competing products like PackZ (for packaging design) and PackZFlow (automating all prepress functions). The company had 70 employees and sales of a little over $7 million in 2015. This makes it a very small David up against a Goliath like Esko, with its global workforce of 1,500 employees. Esko, still based in Belgium (where else?) claims that nine out of 10 retail packages or labels are made using its solutions for creation, design and printing. Little David has however just recently scored a major hit, signing a contract with Shanxi Yuncheng Plate Making Group. The Chinese group has ordered several hundred licenses for PackZ units, as well as other cloud-based software. Hybrid’s Olivier Moeyersoms, interrogated by your correspondent, would not reveal how much the deal is worth, “But it’s by far Hybrid’s biggest contract ever,” he says. Commenting on the technological leap that separates these products from the previous generations, van der Schueren notes: “The majority of existing workflow systems are constricted by being modeled on outdated core technology or architecture. Hybrid’s Cloudflow is a web-based portal solution that has been built from the ground up with none of these inherent limitations in functionality or flexibility. It meets perfectly the needs of businesses that have to link multiple locations via a highly efficient interface.”  Van der Schueren’s is definitely a name to watch out for – despite the fact that nobody outside Northern Belgium can pronounce it properly.

Japanese digital press maker plans macro sales for its micro technology
Konica Minolta’s decision to choose France for its first overseas installation caught many people, including your correspondent, by surprise. K-M will be extending its “financial and strategic” alliance with MGI, a Paris-based manufacturer of digital hot-foiling and varnishing machinery. It is not clear where this leaves K-M’s long-standing partnership with IIJ in Cambridge, England. However, it is evident that K-M believes it has a technical edge over other makers of inkjet heads and intends to push its bizhub PRESS C71cf narrow web digital press for all it is worth – which could be quite a lot. K-M’s medium term strategy involves expanding global sales of its digital printing equipment to $3 billion by 2020 – and this expansion will be driven mainly by growth in the industrial label and package printing markets. This optimism is in part due to K-M’s printheads, which use a technology known as micro electro mechanical systems (MEMS). This involves the formation of a tiny mechanical system on a substrate, such as silicone or glass, requiring sophisticated micron-level micro-fabrication technology. K-M uses this MEMS manufacturing technology to make the high-definition, high-precision nozzles and ink channels of its inkjet heads.

Technical specifications agreement
There has been little comment in the trade press on ISO DTS 18614. This is probably because technical specifications do not make for exciting reading. However, the recently agreed upon international spec for self-adhesive labels has been a long time coming, and should make life easier for both label converters and their customers. The original initiative came from IKEA and other end users, and was eagerly taken up first by the German label association VskE and shortly after also by FINAT. Klemens Ehrlitzer of  VskE, Ulli Nägele of Herma and former FINAT president Kurt Walker were among those who gave freely of their time and knowledge in preparing the final agreement. FINAT’s Jules Lejeune describes the document as “a measured and relevant specification that combines the application-specific needs of the brand owner with the expertise of the self-adhesive label industry.” Details can be downloaded free of charge at http://standards.iso.org/iso/18614

Stan and deliver
Most people, even in Europe, noticed that the United States held an election in 2016. Fewer people around the world sat glued to their TV to hear the results of another 2016 election, this one in Uzbekistan. The election was sparked by the death of Islam Karimov, the strongman president who had been in power ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the birth of the five Central Asian countries known collectively as the “Stans.” The Uzbek election campaign lacked the pizazz and clash of ideas of the American version, and the winning candidate, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, promising widespread reforms, scraped home winning just 89% of the vote.

A decade ago, the Uzbek print and packaging markets, along with those of the rest of Central Asia, did not show up on Western radar screens. But the Uzbekprint show in the fall of 2016 attracted a handful of Western equipment makers eager to put a foot in the door of this country of 31 million people, said to be home to no less than 1,800 printing companies. Omet, the Italian label press manufacturer, was one of those exhibiting at the show, held in the capital, Tashkent. Omet’s local representative Mr. Vladimir Vorobets was upbeat, saying, “The development of the local food industry has created an increasing demand for packaging such as labels, flexible packaging and cardboard. Uzbek potential customers showed a lot of interest and curiosity in the newest technologies and production possibilities offered by Omet and other international exhibitors. They were attracted especially by Omet’s innovations in flexo, offset and combined printing technologies.”

Germany’s PrintPromotion GmbH also chose the city of Tashkent for its recent three-day seminar, aiming to bring local print engineers up to speed on modern technologies. Before readers of L&NW rush off to invest in the Stans, they should note that Uzbekistan ranks only 87th out of 190 in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” index (easily beating Tadzikistan at 128th). As for the squeaky cleaniness of business cultures, Transparency International ranks Uzbekistan a dismal 153rd out of 168 in its “Corruption Perceptions Index.” That’s maybe why most label equipment suppliers prefer to wait a bit, at least until Mr. Mirziyoyev gets his eye in.

Living off the fat of the land
Every day seems to bring more stories, many of them true, about contamination due to label and packaging inks and adhesives. Sometimes it seems as if everything we touch can turn round and pollute us. However, the one thing nobody complains about, at least not in terms of pollution, is money.

The Roman emperor Vespasian has gone down in history for coining the phrase Pecunia non olet, or money does not smell, after he introduced the world’s first – and only – tax on urine. No such dubious renown can be attached to Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada, but it was on his watch that Canadian banknotes were said to have a concealed “scratch and sniff” patch to release the distinctive smell of maple syrup. Now the same Mr. Carney, a Canadian citizen, is Top Dog at the Bank of England, and is masterminding the shift from paper to plastic banknotes. But some people say there are traces of animal fat in the new notes, and this has caused uproar in vegetarian circles. The new notes are printed by De La Rue on a synthetic substrate supplied by Innovia, a UK producer whose main business is making films for labels and packaging. Innovia has confirmed that there is “a trace of tallow in the polymer pellets used in the base substrate used.”

The Scottish government (which prints its own bank notes) has been quick to affirm that “Scotland’s notes contain no tallow.” If you think all this controversy seems a far cry from the label business, then think again. The Innovia Group has just been acquired, and as you must have read a few pages earlier in this issue of L&NW, the acquirer is none other than the world’s leading label group, Canada-based CCL.  There is no truth in the rumor that the next batch of UK banknotes will smell of maple syrup.