50th anniversary of RK and Matsuo Japan

15 September 2020

Whether we ‘tweet,’ e-mail use Facebook or Instagram in the 20th year of the 21st century information and requests are electronically conveyed or relayed often in seconds to virtually anywhere in world. No one would deny that communicative methods were slow pre-fibre optic, when letters were hand written or typed out but there were some advantages in the pre-digital world of 1970. Business letters, legal documentation and processes were composed with more thought, relationships gradually were built up over time together with trust, cooperation and an appreciation and understanding of how business could be conducted in far-distant countries and how culture and circumstances shapes us as individuals and nations.

 People also read newspapers and took note of what was in the them. In 1970 a short piece of news appeared in the pages of the Times newspaper on the K Hand Proofer designed and developed by RK Print Coat Instruments. This was spotted by one of the founders of Matsuo Sangyo in Japan, who then sent a hand written letter for more information. Within a matter of months Matsuo undertook market research, took delivery of a K Gravure Proofer together with an interchangeable Flexographic Proofing head and became the sole distributor on November 10th 1970 for RK Print Coat Instruments colour communicative proofing devices for the flexographic and gravure print processes and coating systems.

Over the course of the last half-century the way in which most businesses operate and the very products that are produced, presented and marketed have of course changed. Products once regarded as – ‘At the cutting edge’ - in time became commodity items. More often than not these were then replaced by other products or goods that could be made more efficiently than in the past using new or improved processes, materials, consumables and technology. All of these new and often highly visibly branded goods being bought and sold to more and more affluent consumers in many more countries than before encouraged consumerism and became an important engineer of growth and development in print and packaging products – after all everything has to be contained, protected and presented well.   Few countries have a more grounded and deserved reputation for ‘presentation’ and innovation than Japan.

Japan is home to one of the oldest existing printed works in the world, the Hyuakumanto Darani (Mantras of the Million Pagodas, produced in 770 of the Christian era. Printing with moveable type was introduced into Japan very early on. Today and despite the fact that Japan was and still is amongst the innovators of automation and IT the Japanese are voracious readers with one of the world’s leading capita consumption for newspapers, books and periodicals. Japanese packaging is regarded by many as being a work of art and is certainly in a class of its own. The packaging industry is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is derived from Buddhism and Shinto, which recognises the spiritual essence of nature and the beauty in humble objects including print and packaging. Materials and colour take on precise meanings and attention is paid to ensuring colour is displayed accurately and that the package enhances the whole overall purchasing experience.

Matsuo Sangyo have recently set up a TECHNO Division to enable research and development into new areas associated with energy efficient products and materials. This includes but is not limited to: solar cells, fuel cells, optical films for flat panel displays and nano-technology.

In recent years the printed electronic market has been attracting attention. RK Print Coat Instruments are active in the aforementioned markets having supplied bespoke high-tech VCM pilot and production systems for latent imaging, solar reflective films, fuel cells, batteries and much more. The market for printable electronics that RK are also involved with increasingly makes use of print processes such as flexography, gravure and digital/digital/flexo hybrid and other technologies. Printable electronics is viewed as a high growth achieving market that provides enormous opportunities. So, it is therefore fitting and appropriate that RK Print Coat Instruments space saving colour communication or proofing devices such as the FlexiProof, the K Printing Proofer, the K Control Coater and other quality control and product development tools are on site at the Tokyo branch of Matsuo Sangyo, enabling customers to view and trial materials on.

With regard to package printing in Japan the growth of flexible packaging very much mirrors the changes in lifestyle that affect consumers in many other countries. Consumers want packaging that is more convenient, that protects and preserves food for longer; that is easier to store and use and ideally with re-sealable enclosures. In Japan the snack food sector, eating on the go and deli-products are the areas for flexible packaged food that exhibit the fastest growth rates.

With regard to printing, gravure has long been the dominant process for publication and package printing throughout much of Asia, partly due to the fact that print/packaging runs tended to be long runs. Higher press speeds, low waste; a wide tonal range, ability to print on a broad range of substrates and colour stability are amongst the advantages of the gravure process. For added value work, inline operations are well suited to gravure. Cold seal, PvdC, varnishing, laminating and sheeting can generally be carried out on a well spec machine and at high speeds. 

One of the most important considerations that is often pointed out that as there are fewer variables to contend with a direct print process such as gravure is ideal where print operator skills may be in short supply.  Many packaging and converting plants throughout Asia have been purchasing packaging (and décor) gravure presses in large numbers in recent years as regional economies expand, populations grow and consumers have more available in the way of spending power. According to manufacturing numbers the Asian flexible package printing market stands at around 80 percent gravure and 20 percent flexo (the numbers are virtually reversible for the US and Europe). In Japan there are purportedly 500 gravure plants in operation. In Europe, by comparison there are 350 plants with gravure or with a combination of multi-print processes, gravure and flexo. 

Strangely enough for a country that is looking at issues of sustainability and eco-management solvent gravure has up until recently been widely employed, especially in the label market for sleeves and wrap around labels. The conservative nature of many Japanese businesses has meant that processes, materials and consumables that are employed successfully in countries overseas sometimes take time to catch on. Water-based inks are an example and so to is flexography, which is now engaged in a catch up in Japan with gravure. Interestingly the Japanese invested heavily in digital press technology, 1500 digital label presses and are at the forefront with developments in automation, etc.

Food, beverage and manufacturers of packaging must take care to balance both form and function, but sometimes it’s easy to get carried away. In Japan, almost every food item is wrapped, even fresh vegetables are frequently not once but sometimes two or three times in various tray laid plastics. When items are checked out at the supermarket till items may again be double bagged to ensure that hot and cold or chilled produce are kept separate. All of this may once have seemed laudable but there is an increasing backlash with regard to over-packaging and packaging waste that either cannot be recycled or requires special disposal methods. Sustainability and material reduction strategies are likely to impact on countries that extensively rely on plastic materials and/or support plastic/chemical industries. Fibre based packaging solutions, paper or synthetic paper containers and even bottles made from wood fibre are beginning to make an impact in Japan. Various material and consumable developments will impact on how products are printed and packed.

In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that in Japan print runs are going to follow the route practised by many brand owners and packaging technologists in the US and Europe. Design and pack format changes will be made more frequent for differentiation purposes so as to keep consumers interested in new or revitalised products. This development is likely to benefit processes such as flexo with its inherent short run advantages and the processes ability to output high quality print on polar, non-polar and specialised surfaces. Undoubtedly testing devices, quality control and equipment that enables composite structures, bio-based and compostable materials to be trialled, printed and converted are bound to play an even greater role in ensuring packaged, labelled and decorated products are safe to bring to market, look presentable and function effectively. This includes colour communication devices both for flexo and for gravure as well as pilot coating and production systems.

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