Old kid on the box

13 November 2019

The pretty one. The clever one. The sporty one. Just because something has a label, doesn't mean that's all it is. Gravure printing has long been considered 'the quality one', with digital usually labelled 'the quick one' –however, gravure goes far beyond quality, even though that is a fantastic advantage, especially on long runs.

Rotogravure, commonly known as gravure, is one of the oldest and most established forms of printing. Gravure means 'engrave' in French, which helps explain the fact that the process sees large copper-plated steel cylinders engraved with the required design. The engraved elements are called cells, with the deeper the cell meaning the more intense the colour on the print. For each colour required, there needs to be a different cylinder, with each cylinder needing to be submerged in ink, the excess wiped off, then the ink transferred to the desired substrate. Each colour needs to dry before the next one is added.


It's certainly true that the set-up costs of gravure printing are high, with the expertise and technology required to create highly detailed cylinders, but once that has been achieved, the running costs are actually very low. The process is largely automated so labour costs are low and, thanks to the incredible durability of the cylinders, they last for many, many years as long as they are used regularly and well maintained.


It is clear to see that gravure printing is ideal for long-established brands that have long print runs of unchanging packaging, yet perhaps it is fair to say that there are not so many of those brands anymore. Even the most historic brands are keen to keep their packaging fresh, even if new iterations keep their heritage alive.


For experienced gravure packaging consultant John Williams, the advantages of gravure are still valuable, even against a difficult downturn. “The fact is, everyone went over to flexo because of cost,” Williams says. “There's no doubt that flexo is cheaper initially and there is greater flexibility for changing designs and fast turnaround for short and even long runs. But there's something about gravure that means those that stayed have done so because it's exactly what they need and there's nothing to replace it.”


 Quality and skill

Williams shares how the core advantage of gravure allows high-security applications to gain the quality and reliability that is crucial their needs. He continues, “For high-security sectors, the very fact that gravure requires experience and a highly skilled set-up means that it cannot be easily forged. That is an enormous advantage and one that we all as individuals must appreciate. So for Royal Mail, whose stamps are gravure printed, or the Bank of England, that gravure prints our bank notes, less salubrious types being unable to create forgeries is paramount.”


Scratch cards used for lottery tickets and other purposes such as special offers and competitions are also usually gravure printed, again because of the anti-forgery advantage. Williams notes, “Forgeries and copies are far more likely with digital printing due to the very fact that it is quick and easy to set up. Often, this is not a concern, but with high security applications, it's obviously not worth the risk, or the initial saving.”


For Swiss-based global printing machinery manufacturer to the packaging industry BOBST, gravure continues to represent an important part of its portfolio, which includes machines for the manufacture of packaging made from solid board, corrugated board and flexible materials. In 2016, BOBST added two new gravure machines to its range (the RS 5002 and RS 6003), each designed to address specific market segments and resigned its entire gravure range for flexible packaging, a programme which began with the 2015 announcement of the RS 5002 press.


Continued demand

Giovanni Caprioglio, sales director of the BOBST gravure and lamination product line, says, "We see the demand for the gravure printing of packaging growing, particularly in emerging countries. The RS 5002 press is the best opportunity for printers, particularly in Asia, to enter the BOBST world of quality and innovation. It is a robust, reliable, high-quality press. The RS 6002, dedicated to sleeve cylinders, features a concentration of BOBST automation technologies that give it fast set-ups, and it is available at an attractive level of investment. It's extremely flexible in configuration and designed as a high-speed, custom-built press. BOBST offers the widest choice of printing machines available to the gravure packaging printer, all built to our exacting BOBST quality standards."

As one of the world’s leading suppliers of substrate processing, printing and converting equipment and services for the label, flexible packaging, folding carton and corrugated industries, BOBST has a presence in more than 50 countries, runs 14 production facilities in eight countries and employs more than 5,600 people around the world. The company recorded a consolidated turnover of Sfr 1,635 million (£1,385 million) for 2018. BOBST has been involved in the design and manufacture of rotogravure printing presses for over 75 years. Its Rotomec and Kochsiek gravure product lines are well known for delivering productive and profitable solutions to the flexible material and folding carton industries.

BOBST's Rotomec gravure-printing range offers high-efficiency features and waste reduction by electronic line shaft and Registron print register technology, promising to slash production times and greatly cut material wastage. Its LEMANIC presses offer web-fed gravure printing for demanding segments like tobacco packaging, as it addresses the specific challenges of gravure printing on paper or carton board.


 Innovations in the process

BOBST has also recently been working to address one particular challenge of the gravure process, with its innovative M80 short-run gravure press ideally suited to the lower volume demands of its customers. The inking system of the machine, combined with the press’s web width and working speed, results in a minimum quantity of ink in circulation compared to a wide-web conventional press.

“Gravure printing is incredibly popular in Germany, representing over 40% of the packaging printing. Cigarette packaging is also primarily still gravure printed, although hardly any is done in the UK,” says Williams. “Sleeve technology is certainly the direction that gravure is going, with the pressure washer sleeve able to be changed quicker when compared to a cylinder, yet still delivering the quality associated with gravure. I maintain that there is a place for gravure in the current market and always will be; customers and brands will always have different focus areas for how much they want to spend, what element of the packaging or print is most important to them. Not all brands are changing everything all the time and, even when they do want great flexibility, gravure can deliver. I appreciate that it can be more exciting to talk about whatever is changing the fastest, but quality is always king, with the set-up costs of gravure quickly forgotten when there are long-term, long-volume demands that need the precise nature of gravure.”

Williams notes, “Skills can easily be lost so we have to look after them. Not at the expense of value of course, but not for its own sake either. As with so many things, finding the balance is key. I love to talk with my customers to learn what their core values are and to ensure that their packaging solutions adhere to those values in the real world. By understanding how gravure fits in to the packaging value chain, we can know what the best solution is for each application – for today and tomorrow.”

It is interesting to note that digital is usually quoted as being the fastest packaging printing option and, while that can be true when the whole process including set up is considered, once the cylinders are made, the speed of gravure is actually far more impressive. Gravure can generally print at 350m per minute, whereas digital may not even achieve 100m per minute. Plus the resilience and reliability of gravure print quality is second-to-none, even considering likely improvements in digital quality.

There are plenty of boxes that gravure ticks, even though it's not the new kid on the block. It's easy to say that the gravure industry is nearly finished, particularly in the UK, but that's not really true. It may not be growing, but it's certainly valued and necessary.


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