While flexible packaging in India is dominated by rotogravure printing, CI flexo has made significant inroads in the past decade. Our series on these two technologies explain the relative advantages of each even as we continue to bring out the converter’s views on this subject.
Rotogravure and flexographic printing are well established in the flexible packaging printing segment with each having its own share of advantages and disadvantages. The rotogravure printing process was first used in publication printing and the nature of that business was usually a one-shot long run. Thus because of the high cost of cylinder-making, it earned the reputation of being a high cost process from the publication industry. Hence, rotogravure printing with its higher first time cost had to be justified over a longer run and gave rise to the maxim ‘Rotogravure is a process for long runs.’
The prepress cost
Unlike publication printing, packaging consists of multiple production runs. This point plays a vital role while comparing prepress costs. In flexo, the prepress cost is associated with each run. Whereas, in the case of rotogravure, the prepress cost is incurred only on the first run. Since gravure cylinders are robust and can be easily cleaned and reused, they only require storage – there is no prepress cost involved in successive print runs. The length of each run is relatively immaterial in comparison. But after a few successive reruns, the cost of rotogravure is actually lower in comparison to flexo.
Another factor is the digital nature of rotogravure and the fact that almost all rotogravure cylinders are made using the computer driven electro-mechanical process where the scale of cost increase from basic line work or text, up to fine process tone work is minimal. The cost of rotogravure cylinder engraving is essentially based on size and area and there are a large number of high-technology and even robotic engraving facilities available.
The same is not true with flexographic printing where there is a much broader range of difficulty in producing flexographic polymer plates and hence the cost involved. The scale in plate cost alone can range five times considering a rubber plate up to a high-end photopolymer.
Printing on gravure versus that on flexo
Another factor to be considered is the print quality, which is clearly better in rotogravure as compared to flexo, though there have been many improvements in flexo especially the use of digitally imaged flexo plates which in turn have led to a significant improvement in the print quality that ‘match gravure.’ Rotogravure is a process that can inherently print both solids and process tones within the same image carrier with ease. Flexo, because of its ink delivery systems cannot usually or as easily do this without a huge compromise in quality. “As far as technology is concerned, everybody would agree that gravure delivers better results. Again, you can’t compare technologies. Every technology gives you a different print result,” says Mohammed Nadeem, chief executive officer at Paharpur 3P.
The investment for rotogravure printing presses is generally a tad lower compared to CI flexo presses, which until recently could only be imported. The CI flexo capital investment is more intensive as compared to gravure. “Because there are more gravure press makers in India and the technology has been Indianized. We don’t see comparable CI flexo press manufacturers in India. Thus, if you wish to use a CI in India, you have to import it. The import price of a good CI is one and a half times that of a gravure press. In Indian conditions, what are the benefits of adopting flexo over gravure? If a gravure press user moves to CI, it means that he is moving one step back on technology,” according to Nadeem who is a discerning and committed gravure converter.
Over the past two decades, CI flexo has made a lot of progress, and especially so in the last four or five years. However, there is still a drastic difference in terms of graphics quality between the two technologies. “You pay twice as much in capex [for CI Flexo], but you get less in terms of graphics,” asserts Nadeem.
Rise in demand for CI flexo
Over the last 15 years, investments in CI flexo presses and digital imaging technology for flexo plates (partly because of narrow web flexo presses) have grown in India. But flexo’s detractors say some of these older presses are sitting idle at converters’ factories. Others have invested in newer technologies say over the past 5 years, but have actually been able to migrate their customers from rotogravure to flexo. Of those who haven’t, many end up running surface printing pouches for oil.
The implication is that few converters have actually succeeded in adding value to flexible packaging with CI flexo. “Though there has been a lot of improvement from where flexo was 5 years ago to where it is now, my main point is that gravure and flexo are two different technologies. Why do you insist on changing from gravure to flexo? Because for me to migrate from gravure to flexo, there has to be a benefit in the supply chain. If a customer particularly wants me to deliver jobs printed using a flexographic press, I will not hesitate. But, if he want me to adopt flexo just so that I can give him a price relaxation, what’s my benefit? I will have to spend twice the price of gravure for purchasing the CI and if there are any perceived benefits or savings in the customers’ eye, then I pass that on to him,” explains Nadeem. In the US or Europe, he says, every premium job is always printed on gravure. Anything that is run of the mill, is being done on flexo.
“You also have to see what your market is and where you are focussed as a convertor. If you’re focussed on that oil market, then that makes sense for you. But, if you’re focussed on value add, then the need for equipment changes. Even though you make one statement that applies to all, flexo struggles when it competes with gravure,” says Nadeem.
Gravure printing preferable over flexo
When talking about the US market, Nadeem says flexo is very prominent although it hasn’t displaced gravure. The larger convertors in the US retain a fair share of gravure presses. “The company I worked for in the US some time back used flexo presses. But, what were we printing? We were printing one to four color sandwich wraps for the QSR (Quick Service Restaurants) chains with rudimentary graphics. We set it up, we ran it and we never changed over. Those flexo machines ran fast. However, the jobs that we’re doing today at Paharpur 3P, they’re unique, their print requirement is different. They’re not the kind of jobs that remain the same for 20 years,” he says.
On its gravure presses, Paharpur 3P prints even 20 kilograms of PET or BOPP, which means that the company needs to ensure that set up times are not longer than the run time. The company has reached a point in its expertise and speed where it gets the same advantage from a gravure press on the set up and run time that one could get with flexo, indicating that most of the effects that one gets on gravure cannot be obtained on flexo. “Though there are sectors and segments for flexo to prosper, I believe digital is going to be the solution going forward,” Nadeem says.
Paharpur 3P doubles production capacity
Paharpur 3P’s objectives are not top line driven. The company doesn’t believe in adding more machines just to inflate the top line and fill up the cost incurred for adding those machines. It believes that such a step would undercut the value of the industry. “Our purpose of growth is to grow with our customers. If a customer who used to buy ten yesterday buys twenty today, we have to add machines. So, yes we’ve doubled up and we’ve added a tremendous amount of capacity in recent months,” says Nadeem.
The year 2018 was a busy one for Paharpur. Apart from the new Pelican gravure press added last year, Paharpur 3P purchased two Nordmeccanica laminators that were added a couple of months ago. Four new slitting and rewinding machines from SP Ultraflex were purchased. A pair of pouching and spouting machines from Totani and Dah Bah were added and several from Indian manufacturer Galaxy Packtech. The company also installed a third Daetwyler cylinder making machine.
Last, but not the least, Paharpur 3P is now one of the first convertors in India to proactively employ female employees in operational jobs on the shop floor. The company is an Equal Opportunity Employer. For 2019, the company plans to launch some new and exciting proprietary and patented products, which are in the process of being commercialized.