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From pack to print – a tale of two industries

Friday, 20 September 2013
By Simon Enticknap

Two trade show this year highlighted the fortunes, dynamics and destinies of two different industries. Auspack in Sydney highlighted all that is new and shiny in the packaging market, while PacPrint in Melbourne showed the printing industry at its finest. The differences and parallels reveals a lot about how these two markets are faring and what the future holds. Simon Enticknap (pictured) reflects on the important lessons to be learned.

Before PacPrint, there was Auspack. The packaging show in Sydney was a sizable event, drawing about 300 exhibitors and a crowd of around 6,000 visitors over four days (compared to 140 exhibitors and 13,000 visitors over five days to PacPrint). There are obvious synergies between the two events – packaging is an important market for print providers and one of the main growth areas in recent years – but it is the differences between them that are most revealing.

The Auspack show is mounted by the Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association (APPMA), and so the equipment focus is largely on the materials handling aspect of packaging rather its print production. Nevertheless, the print-related exhibits that were on display were interesting and even the non-print equipment was instructive.

The key difference between the machinery on show at the two exhibitions is that, for the packaging sector, automation is king. Because of the volumes involved and the speed of processing required to keep down costs, practically every action involved in weighing and picking and filling and sealing and transporting packaged goods has to be done by machine. Packaging machinery employs robotics to a degree rarely seen in the printing industry.

Packaging at this level, typically post-print, is done on an industrial scale and the focus is on making the machinery do it faster, more accurately, more reliably and smarter than ever before. This is an arena in which humans are simply no match.

Of course, there is automation in the printing industry as well. The big web offset sector has become increasingly robotic with major plants using automated guided vehicles for tasks such as transporting reels of paper. It is now possible to run fully-automated systems from the platesetter to the press that will perform multiple plate changes with no human intervention – apart from telling it what to do.

In terms of software, prepress, MIS and web-to-print systems are all highly automated these days by necessity. The whole point of having an online ordering system is to let the machine do the order-taking work so your business can be open all hours. Adding automation before a single image is produced helps to drive efficiencies, eliminate bottlenecks and maximise the profitable running of the available equipment.

Increasingly too, this is flowing through to the operation of the production equipment as well. It was interesting, for instance, to see at PacPrint how Canon’s addition of Océ’s Prisma front-end to its production equipment is now offering operators the ability to run practically a hands-off print room across different types of equipment and presses – managing job loads, calculating optimum run times, and monitoring paper volumes, all via a screen at a central command desk. Very Star Trek.

Digital presses, in particular, are pretty much designed to manufacture printed products from end-to-end with no human intervention, although what happens to the finished item off the back of the press is still more than likely to require the services of a bipedal hominid of some kind.

In reality, the implementation of automated systems in the printing industry is rather piecemeal. With some notable exceptions, most print companies are a mix of manual and machine operation. In part this reflects the status of print as an industry. Packaging and processing – the art of filling and boxing – makes no bones about the fact that it is part of the manufacturing sector, the all-important end bit that stands between manufacturers and retailer. Printing, however, is more ambivalent.

On any given week, I hear experts telling me that printers need to adopt a more manufacturing mindset and eliminate process inefficiencies through the application of more automation. The next moment I’m told that printing must move away from its manufacturing roots and become a service industry in which the production of ‘things’ is secondary to the need to deliver a service. In practice, printers tend to fall between two stools. Such is the nature of print.

A helping hand

So how far would you go to automate your press room? For instance, would you employ, so to speak, a robotic arm to pick up boxes or bundles and plonk them down in another location? No? Chances are there will be a European backpacker prepared to lift and carry for a few shekels a day. But will the backpacker work non-stop 24 hours a day (you might have to find three of them)? And will they work without ever getting tired or, worse of all, possibly suffering a work-related injury?

An interesting demo at Auspack from Ferrostaal was a high-speed palletising robot, billed as the fastest of its kind in the world, suitable for lifting items off a conveyor belt and stacking them neatly on a pallet or in a carton. Such robots are capable of performing thousands of lifts per hour without ever slowing down or needing a rest break. While mainly targeted at packaging applications,Carsten Wendler at Ferrostaal said there had been interest in the robot arm from printers as well.

Carsten Wendler at Ferrostaal said there had been interest in the robot arm from printer as well.

Ferrostaal says this system is ‘plug-and-play’, able to be delivered, installed and working on the same day. It comes with a colour touch-screen control that allows operators to store and recall different bundle and pallet sizes, while the gripper enables variable size items to be handled without changing any mechanical parts. Wendler said the ROI on the robot is attractive compared to manual labour.

Certainly, for any printer needing to palletise or pack regular-sized bundles at high speed, the idea of a robot doing the work is an interesting proposition. Whether there is a role for robots in the print industry on the same scale as in the packaging sector is doubtful though.

The digital lag

While the packaging sector leads the way in terms of robotics, in other technology areas it is the printers who forging the way ahead.

Anybody from outside the print industry who attended PacPrint could be forgiven for thinking that the industry is dominated by digital presses of one type or another. Offset, flexo and gravure technology was pretty thin on the ground despite accounting for the vast majority of the print items produced throughout the industry. Partly this is due to the logistical difficulties of exhibiting these mature technologies but it is also indicative of the mindset of the industry.

Printers are focused on the future and that means digital; it’s where the truly innovative technology, the processes and systems which have never been seen before, are emerging. It was notable that PacPrint featured a number of new digital technologies that were making their debut, and not just in Australia but worldwide. That’s why people go to such shows – to see what’s coming up.

Joe Foster of Foster Packaging does short run and mockups on Indigos.

When it comes to packaging print though, it’s the total opposite. Nearly all the print on show at Auspack – and there was a lot of eye-catching examples on all types of boxes, bottles and bags – was produced using conventional methods (I’m loath to say ‘analogue’, a term which is used erroneously as a catch-all for anything ‘non-digital’) – flexo, gravure and offset. By and large, digital print in the packaging sector means marking and bar-coding, typically in just one colour – black.

Even so, the small amount of digital print – in the sense that most printers understand it – that was on show at Auspack was among the most interesting. For instance there was Foster Packaging specialising in packaging mock-ups and short runs using an HP Indigo press. Managing director Joe Foster is clearly something of an innovator when it comes to pushing the limits of what is possible with digital packaging. He claimed that the only substrate he’s not be able to put through an Indigo is nylon – and there are ways around that hurdle too. The samples he showed at Auspack looked first-class but he was a lone trail-blazer.

Elsewhere, the likes of Label Power and Label Print Systems were demonstrating the latest Memjet-powered digital printers from ColorDyne Technologies. On the Label Print Systems stand, the narrow web ColorDyne Technologies CDT-1600C was printing full colour self-adhesive labels measuring 275 x 98mm at a rate of about 1 per second. The quality is certainly good enough and the cost per label is about 20 cents each. A run of 500 labels then is going to take about 10 minutes to print and cost about $100 in consumables. The A4 sheetfed version, the CDT-1600S, was equally as impressive and offers a wider variety of applications beyond labels and tags.

Blink and you’ll miss it: The Colordyne printers on display at Auspack and PacPrint highlighted the cross-over potential of high speed digital inkjet production.

Such production numbers are not likely to concern serious label-makers but they might interest their customers, particularly if they only require short production runs and don’t want the hassle of keeping large quantities of labels in stock. This is a shift that happened in other print markets years ago as end users discovered they could produce their own in-house colour much more easily and cheaply themselves, thank-you very much. Printers were forced to respond as whole markets disappeared before their eyes; either they got on the digital bandwagon or they went looking for other things to print.

Judging by the vast array of gravure/flexo/offset packaging on display at Auspack, that transformation hasn’t happened to any large extent in the packaging market. Maybe it won’t, but the technology is there, at the right quality and the right price, for it to take place.

The Chinese gorilla

There was another noticeable difference between the two exhibitions: China. Not so long ago, it seemed as if every piece of major equipment shown at PacPrint came with its own Chinese clone, typically available for a fraction of the price. This year I saw hardly any Chinese-made equipment compared to previous shows. In fact, remarkably, I probably looked at more UK-manufactured equipment this year from the likes of Morgana, ABG and Autobox than I did equipment from China. Who would have predicted that 10-15 years ago?

There are a number of theories as to why this should be so. China Print, held a couple of weeks before PacPrint, is now a major drawcard for the region, pulling in over 180,00 visitors over five days (compared to 314,000 over the two weeks of drupa) so perhaps that distracted attention away from the Australian market. It may also reflect the changing technology focus at PacPrint. The fact that there is now such an emphasis on digital print and processes excludes the Chinese equipment manufacturers as a matter of course.

In contrast, the Auspack show had about 50 companies based in China and Taiwan exhibiting directly at the show, and that’s not counting those companies with local representatives or local companies with off-shore manufacturing. China now produces nearly 40 per cent of all the packaging machinery manufactured worldwide, quadrupling its output since 2006 to over US$18 billion. The next largest manufacturer of packaging machinery is Germany at US$7.5 billion.

Most of this Chinese machinery is to meet booming domestic demand but clearly there is an export market too, as shown by the number of exhibitors of both machinery and packaging services at Auspack. Some of the Chinese-manufactured pack samples on display were undoubtedly of a very good quality, as can be seen any day of the week on your local supermarket shelves. With quoted lead times of about 4-6 weeks and, presumably, extremely competitive pricing, Chinese-manufactured packaging (as well as from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand) is the 800 pound gorilla in this market.

Packaging supply chains are complex beasts though in which price is just one element. There is reliability of service too, as well as quality control, regulatory compliance and product consistency. Sometimes, depending on the packaging, it is better for the packaging supplier to be close to the producer in order to reduce transportation costs. Chinese packaging companies are also competing in a fast-growing domestic market, one in which labour costs are likewise going up which puts pressure on pricing.

It was interesting then to see the solitary Australian packaging printer exhibiting at Auspack, Van Dyke Press based in Sydney. Specialising in packaging products such as the peelable lids found on pots of noodles or dips as well as in mould labels for the likes of margarine pots and ice cream tubs, Van Dyke Press addresses a very specific market segment. It caters particularly to the local margarine and butter industry – FMCG items that cannot be easily imported. It’s a market which, unlike clothing or electrical goods, is not going to shift wholesale offshore and which requires a dedicated, responsive packaging supplier close at hand.

Is it a niche? To the extent that it is a very targeted product range, then yes, of course. But it is still a very big niche; run lengths are into the millions and there is an ever-changing demand for new products.

It just goes to show that, whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, if you have the right product mix and stay close to your customers, there will always be a demand for locally-produced print and packaging. The message to printers that emerged was to go out and find that sweet spot, and then hang on to it for dear life.

Simon Enticknap is the Editor of Print21.