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Pack to Australia with home-grown gravure – Print21 magazine article

Sunday, 10 August 2014
By Simon Enticknap

That’s right, it’s a headline with gravure in it. You don’t see too many of those in Print21. Working against the accepted wisdom that only major multi-nationals and overseas printers can afford to invest in gravure presses, an Australian family-owned print business in Melbourne is looking to make a name for itself in the highly-competitive flexible packaging market. Simon Enticknap investigates.

On being told that an Australian packaging company had installed a new gravure press, my first reaction was akin to one of those incredulous folk in the Jeep ads (Gravure? You bought a gravure?). After all, it’s not something that happens every day. Any day, in fact.

In all my years of writing about new printing equipment I’ve seen countless grey photocopiers, innumerable silky-smooth offset presses whirring away, massive newspaper presses and heatset presses, complicated-looking label presses combining any number of processes, even the occasional screen printing line. But gravure? Like the mythical unicorn, it was rumoured to exist but was rarely sighted. Even at trade shows, gravure was like the long-lost cousin of the printing family, renowned for its high quality and work capacity but regarded as something of a relic in these short-run, instant print on-demand times.

Of course gravure still exists and, in some markets, has actually been expanding in recent years. In Europe, where gravure has a long history of being used for publishing and catalogue work, there has been something of a decline in line with media shifts to more online consumption, but packaging print is a different story, particularly in Asia, where demand for gravure presses has been on the rise.

Again, this growth is in line with market changes; as the Asian economies develop and become more consumer-driven, the demand for high quality packaging increases. Gravure plays a major role in meeting this demand. In Japan, for instance, where the packaging is renowned for being of the highest quality, gravure print is the dominant process. Elsewhere, too, gravure is more prevalent than its long-term rival, flexo. The European Rotogravure Association (yes, the process has its own industry body) estimates that there are 500 packaging gravure plants in India alone. Some estimates suggest that, throughout Asia, gravure accounts for 80 per cent of flexible packaging output compared to 20 per cent for flexo. In the US, it’s the other way round.

Locally, Australian packaging companies have tended to follow the lead of Europe and the US in making flexography the dominant process. Partly this is due to the size and nature of the local market which generates much smaller packaging volumes. Flexo has also long claimed a cost-advantage over gravure, particularly for shorter packaging runs. In recent years too, flexo suppliers have done a tip-top job in selling the quality improvements in flexo print, to the point where flexo is now regularly described as having ‘gravure-like’ and ‘offset-like’ qualities.

In response, gravure equipment suppliers have developed presses that offer shorter make-ready times, more automation, reduced waste and lower energy consumption. Cylinder preparation has become faster and cheaper, to the extent that some advocates now suggest there is little difference between gravure and high definition flexo in terms of overall costs.

On one point there is no debate however: if you want the highest quality, then gravure is the way to go.

The local hero

For many Australian businesses, however, the biggest problem has been where to go to find gravure print, especially if they’re not big multi-national companies or major exporters. The answer, in many cases, has been Asia. Certainly the phalanx of Chinese packaging printers lining up to display their wares at trade shows is hard to resist. The quality of the brightly-coloured samples looks enticing and no doubt the price is very attractive too. True, it might take a bit longer for the finished product to arrive and, if something goes wrong, it’s a long way to go for a reprint, but for many Australian businesses wanting to use gravure quality packaging going offshore has been the only option.

Until now.

The man responsible for this particular gravure headline is Phillip Rolls of Melbourne-based packaging company, RollsPack. The family-owned business, operating since 1985, has been predominantly a flexo house up until now, specialising in the production of tamper-evident bags such as courier satchels as well as food packaging. The recent installation of a new gravure press, however, is set to usher in a whole new era for the company and, in the process, open the door for many more Australian companies to gain access to the benefits of gravure print.

Getting into the gravure: Phillip Rolls, RollsPack MD (front, centre) and members of his management team (from left): James Luttick, factory and operations manager; Anna Angelovski, national sales manager; Gerard Taylor, CFO; Mike Morgan, technical/QA manager. (Absent: Lidia Taneski, internal operations/purchasing manager.)

Like many in the printing industry, Rolls has seen the gradual drift of Australia-produced packaging offshore. In part this has been driven by the decline in the manufacturing base; as companies move their production facilities into Asia, so the packaging follows suit. The result is the slow erosion of any local packaging capacity to meet the demands of Australian manufacturers. While large multi-nationals are well-catered for by the likes of Amcor, local SMEs who need and want to source their packaging locally face a dilemma. For many of these businesses, access to high quality gravure work has been out of reach, unless they were prepared to look overseas.

With the installation of the new press, Rolls hopes to attract precisely those local producers who may not have the packaging volumes to suit an Amcor but who nevertheless want the shelf appeal that gravure offers.

“We’re out there to support the SME suppliers to the supermarkets and other markets,” he explains. “There are a lot of them who are not getting serviced well enough and that’s what we’re trying to do, to offer that quality and service to them.”

Winning on time

On the phone, Rolls comes across as a passionate and determined advocate for local manufacturing. Rather than accept the inevitable – that local suppliers cannot compete against low cost overseas companies – he has decided to take them on at their own game. The key advantage he holds compared to overseas suppliers is in lead times.

While many overseas suppliers promise quick turnarounds, the reality is often very different. Australian companies buying overseas may have to compete with US and European buyers with their much larger volumes. The result is that the work has to be fitted in when it is convenient and there is less urgency to get it done. Add on the fact that once the work is completed, it then has to shipped out to Australia, and the result is that a typical turnaround from order to delivery is 8-12 weeks. With the installation of the new press, RollsPack is now offering local customers a four-week delivery time on its gravure print. That’s a big advantage for local suppliers under pressure to get their products on the supermarket shelves as quickly as possible.

Many local suppliers also operate on a just-in-time basis, only holding sufficient stock to meet their immediate needs. Again, that’s much easier if there is a secure, reliable supply close at hand.

Then there’s the question of quality. While acknowledging that much of the work being done in Asia is of a very high standard, Rolls says he has also seen product arrive for clients which has been “totally unsatisfactory”. By that stage, of course, it’s often too late to do anything about it. With RollsPack, however, customers have the assurance of dealing with a local source which is accessible and verifiable, and where the supply chain is much shorter.

“We’re trying to partner with our clients as best we can,” says Rolls. “Our primary concern is to try and make an Australian product and engage with the Australian workforce and services.”

Elephant in the room

Phillip Rolls is enough of a realist to know that for all the fine talk about supporting Australian business, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of sourcing their packaging, client sentiment is hugely influenced by price. It is, he says, “the elephant in the room” in any discussions with clients who talk about sourcing locally-made packaging but who eventually go overseas, prepared to turn a blind eye to work practices and production methods that would be unacceptable in Australia.

“That’s the challenge we’ve got,” he says. “We don’t make a big fuss over it. We just have to move on and see how we can do better.”

Nothing exemplifies this attitude better than the investment in the new press. Moving from a flexo-based operation to gravure, although a major step, has been a smooth transition so far, says Rolls. The company undertook extensive research overseas to see similar machines in operation and to assess the quality of the final product. Staff have been retrained on the new press and although Rolls says the company is still an “infant” when it comes to gravure, the process of bedding in the press has gone well.

He is reluctant to divulge too much information about the new press, although he says it has been specified to meet “Japanese packaging standards”. The bare details are that it is a nine-colour press with dual-sided printing for 5/4 up to 8/1 colour splits, running a maximum web width of 1,000mm with a variable repeat length and a top speed of 250 metres per minute. It uses an electronic line shaft with Sumitomo drives, shaftless bi-directional unwind and rewind, and a gas drying system. It is also a much cleaner press environmentally, says Rolls, than gravure presses of old or compared to some of those he has seen operating overseas.

Waiting for digital

Even with the new press still getting up to speed, Rolls says the need to assess new technology is never-ending and constant.

“Technology can change traditional businesses over night so we’ve got to keep an eye on where technology is going in our industry.”

Much of the talk in packaging circles these days is about where digital technology is going. Rolls says that when he first saw the Indigo presses 20 years ago, he thought “This is our future”. Today though, it is a future that is still waiting to come to fruition. Although the quality of digital print is good, he says, the production speeds and web widths haven’t progressed sufficiently to make it a viable proposition in his line of work for anything but the shortest runs.

So for the moment, it is gravure, one of the oldest print processes, which is bringing innovation to the local packaging market. It might sound counter-intuitive in today’s digital age but it’s a move backed by sound local knowledge and a determination to match it with the best in the world. Certainly Phillip Rolls has no qualms about making such a bold move.

“I sleep well at night, I don’t worry about what I do. I just trust what I’ve seen and learned, my gut feel, and I feel this is the way we need to go and we’re doing it.

“Who knows,” he adds, “we might buy another one if it all goes well.”

One Response to “Pack to Australia with home-grown gravure – Print21 magazine article”

  1. April 21, 2015 at 9:45 pm,


    Good day.I am happy to see gravure in Australia as my trade is gravure.Over years we in South Africa have being through number of printing stages.In the late 80s we were still etching cylinders ,early 90s we moved to engraving which involved scanning from drum to a copper cylinder,now we are direct to cylinder.With all the ribbon imbalance that comes with gravure our company has invested in a ribbon imbalance system that reduces problems and gives stylus x3 engraving life.I would like to now how the plant is running with new press and what problems occur,maybe i can help.My expert field is pre-press,engraving, galvano,chemicals and production .In trade for 23 years.

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