Narrow Web Europe

Decline and fall

By John Penhallow | April 7, 2017

It is said that the decline of the Roman Empire began when the emperor and his court started spending more time in-fighting than on running the show. Much the same thing seems to have happened, on a rather smaller scale, with the Ecocis reprocessing project. Taking over a failed paper plant near Grenoble, France, in 2015, the newly formed Ecocis looked like the answer to a recycler’s prayer. Powerful backers were Springwater Capital, a European investment fund specializing in turning around failing companies, and the publicly owned Banque Publique d’Investissement (BPI). Local authorities threw in an extra $5 million of taxpayers’ money for good measure. Ecocis, so the plan went, would be a major recycler of bottom-of-the-range used papers, including colored papers and PS liners, which it would pulp and sell worldwide. Production started in the summer of last year, with Veolia providing the transport logistics from widely scattered waste paper collection points. By the fall, rumors started leaking out that all was not well. Both the main investors started calling in their lawyers and uttering tight-lipped “no comments” to the press. In mid-October, the curtain came down on Ecocis, and the receivers went in to pick over what remained, which wasn’t much. To go from a starting capital of over $20 million to bankruptcy in a matter of months may not raise eyebrows in America, but in slower-moving Europe it makes headlines. France’s Le Monde newspaper reported that the BPI would pursue Martin Gruschka, the entrepreneur behind Springfield, “to the end of hell and back,” calling him a second Bernard Madoff. Gruschka denies all wrongdoing but admits, “We take our share of responsibility.” There had been errors, he said, but nothing illegal.

Result: 60 employees out of a job, the company up for sale (but no takers so far), and another failed attempt to get a paper recycling plant off the ground.

March 2017 saw the launch of another recovered paper venture, this one financed and managed by Austrian paper machinery giant Voith, in cooperation with the Boston Consulting Group. The new initiative, in California, is called MerQbiz as a nod to the Mercury, the winged messenger of the Roman gods. The innovation for this project lies in its ambition to become the eBay of the recovered paper industry, creating the world’s first digital trading platform for recovered paper. Like many other virtual marketplaces, the MerQbiz will assess and guarantee the probity of sellers and buyers and (a big plus) the quality of the merchandise. This will bring it close to the “perfect market” that economists dream about, with a high level of security for goods, logistics and payments. The trading platform is already up and running; how (if at all) it will encourage the recycling of unloved liner waste remains to be seen.

Only Here for the Beer?
Munich is well known for many things, including the infamous 1938 agreement, and the famous annual Oktoberfest. It is also the location for the 20–year old converting show ICE Europe, which will open its doors very shortly, bringing together 430 exhibitors from 28 countries. Label converters visiting the show will find very few press manufacturers – Bobst and ETI Converting being the honorable exceptions – but many specialists for conventional diecutting (Kocher+Beck, Wink and Spilker to name but three) and for curing systems (GEW, IST Metz and Heraeus). By the time readers get to see this issue of L&NW, the ICE Europe show will be over, but whether before, during or after the show, the Munich beer will be as good as ever and always worth the visit.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice
It’s strange how the same word when translated can take on a completely new flavor: in English the word “apprentice” is neutral in a business context (musically, of course, it conjures up that scene from the Disney film). Here in France nobody wants to be an apprentice, despite government efforts and tax breaks to encourage the practice. In Germany, Azubi, as they are now called, are present in every industry, labels not excepted. The Schreiner Group, for example, has around 1,000 employees and over 10% of them (including the CEO) started as Azubis. At any given time the group has around 50 young employees taking part in this tightly controlled training scheme.

Label association FINAT is much concerned with apprenticeships and with the shortage of young women and men entering the label industry. In particular, it wants to improve the image of the print shop, too often seen as being peopled by inky fingered men wielding spanners. To counter this, FINAT’s Jules Lejeune asks, “Our challenge is to make such career opportunities an attractive proposition. In this era of social media, instant and all-embracing information, and global person-to-person contact, how can we attract young talent to the down-to-earth world of labels?” Part of the answer was given at a meeting in Berlin in January set up jointly by FINAT and the German label association. The meeting brought together young people from across Europe who have recently joined the label industry, and several experienced professionals, with a view for defining how best to promote the image of the industry. Another FINAT initiative is the Young Managers Club, which addresses the many second and third-generation managers in family-owned label businesses around Europe. The club’s regular meetings, usually held in desirable locations, attract up to 40 “under-forties” to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Much water has flown under London Bridge since label guru Mike Fairley could qualify as a young manager, but what he lacks in athletic prowess he makes up for in his experience of every aspect of the label business. Mike has been the moving spirit behind the Label Academy, a series of books linked to tests and online learning, leading to an examination. So far, more than a dozen have been published covering various aspects of the label business. Mainly aimed at skilled technicians or middle managers, they have apparently been seized on by CEOs anxious to find out how much they have forgotten about the industry and its workings.

Something to Celebrate
Dutch label press manufacturer MPS is seldom out of the news in Europe. If its sales team is paid by results, the champagne must have been flowing when UK’s Reflex Labels signed for a total of five 8 to 10-color flexo presses, complete with all the bells and whistles. With six sites (all in the UK), Reflex is one of that country’s biggest label converters. Shorn of the marketing hype, it seems that Reflex liked the robust design of the MPS presses, the fast make-ready and the fact that they are suitable for printing and converting linerless labels. The presses all came with hot-foiling units from Pantec, so maybe a few champagne corks popped in Switzerland, as well. MPS has also recently reported sales of flexo presses in places as far apart as Ras el Khaimah in the UAE, Poland and Iran.

Pharmapack Paris
It would have been impossible to throw a brick at this show without hitting a label or packaging converter. CCL, France’s second biggest label producer, had a surprisingly modest booth, but its sales manager Paul Julia was not modest when telling your correspondent about the group’s pharma label division: “CCL has dedicated pharma label plants all over the world – 29 in all. Last year our group acquired the German company Eukerdruck, which specializes in the notices that accompany each box of medicines. Our pharma division in Europe has been significantly strengthened by this acquisition. On the equipment side, we have a lot of digital presses – all HP Indigos – because in pharma, as in other markets, the average order length is decreasing year by year. However, most of our business is focused on a ‘total supply chain’ concept. We work at several levels in the industry to ensure maximum security and robust and flexible serialization,” Julia said.

Almost every exhibitor at the show was announcing innovations linked to serialization or other safety ideas. Schäfer Etiketten, for example, showed its multi-page booklet labels with bar codes printed not just on the label but also on the counterfoil – a simple idea apparently loved by hospitals where traceability is a life-and-death imperative.

Schreiner MediPharm has a history of smart inventions to increase safety and simplify procedures in hospitals and medical facilities. At Pharmapack 2017 the company put forward its range of tamper-evident closures. According to Hildegard Mock, marketing manager, Schreiner MediPharm is “an undisputed leader in specialty and smart pharmaceutical labels both in Europe and the United States.”

Other label converters at the show included France’s number one, Autajon, UK’s Denny Bros, and US-based Multi-Color Corporation.

The main feature on display at the Avery Dennison booth surprisingly had nothing to do with labelstock: it was the TT Sensor Plus, a smart label device about the size of a metro ticket that is designed to control and record temperature fluctuations. Attached to a carton or pallet of, for example, a temperature sensitive drug shipment, it can be “read” with a smartphone to give a minute-by-minute graph of temperature variations taken place over the period of transit. Already launched in North America, this nifty device, equally useful for food shipments, has only recently made its debut in Europe.

The show attracted around 400 exhibitors and 5,300 visitors, but perhaps the most significant news came during the conferences of which there were no less than 35 over the two days of the show. The presentation by Michael Urso, head of packaging pharma at Atlantic Zeiser, was particularly relevant to the label business. His subject was “late stage customization” – a trend that involves pushing serialization downstream from the label or packaging converter to the contract packer, who will often be in the country of final distribution. This is in order to comply with the standards and directives in force in the country or region in question. Michael Urso’s conclusion is that, without neglecting the importance of printing, the key ingredient for tomorrow’s pharma labeling and packaging will be the end-to-end data management of the distribution chain.

This year’s Pharmapack in Paris had plenty of French exhibitors and a good number of Italian firms. More surprising was the overwhelming number of German companies and the very few British ones.
Another case of fog in the English Channel? Or an early symptom of Brexit?