Posts Tagged ‘label converting’

  • What can be automated… will be automated – Print21 magazine feature

    At a time when the graphic arts is enthralled with the seeming miracles of solid-state digital technology, the importance of mechanical processes in the printing industry can often be overlooked. Putting marks on paper was only ever half the story. Transforming the printed material into useful, saleable products is arguably of more importance. Patrick Howard travelled to the Swiss city of St Gallen to ask Ferdinand Rüesch of Gallus, one of the most significant machine builders in the industry, about the state of process control and the company’s venture into folding cartons.

    From his vantage point at the centre of Swiss machine manufacturing, Ferdinand Rüesch has a unique perspective on the technical and economic forces shaping the label and packaging industry. As an experienced mechanical technologist, he is convinced that increasing levels of inline finishing and automation will continue to define the way labels and folding cartons are made. I recently went to visit him in St Gallen, a historic town in Switzerland, where his family has been making complex and sophisticated production machines for almost a century.

    A robust, pragmatic individual, Rüesch is the third generation in charge of the family-owned company and has spent a lifetime designing, building and perfecting label presses that are among the most sophisticated inline manufacturing and converting lines in any industry.

    He is a staunch advocate of inline processing, convinced—to transform a well-known motto —that “everything that can be automated, will be automated”.

    He brushes aside any suggestion that the advent of digital imaging will have an adverse impact on the Gallus range of presses. Despite the number of companies entering the market, he believes the Gallus brand has its own unique appeal. It builds on a tradition of precision engineering and innovation. The list of Gallus innovations and ‘firsts’ is impressive, such as an early patented rotary screen to the original servo-controlled presses in the 1990s.

    No room for digital

    Gallus label presses incorporate all manner of imaging technologies from flexo to screen and UV rotogravure to offset printing and hot foil embossing. Constructed in a unique modular format, the different imaging units are swapped and changed with ease to ensure maximum flexibility. But despite the current rush into the sector by companies with digital imaging technology, Rüesch is not about to add any of its own digital imaging modules to the system. Rather he is content to leave the development of digital label printing to Heidelberg, Gallus’s 30 per cent shareholding partner, which is introducing its new Linoprint inkjet at drupa.

    As he points out more than once during a highly convivial interview with himself and Niklaus Amacker, Gallus marketing, at the Gallus HQ, there is more to label converting than putting marks on paper. It involves multiple manufacturing processes that are rarely used in commercial mainstream printing. No matter whether the essential printing process is flexography, lithography, gravure, digital inkjet or toner, UV dried, heatset or cold, imaging the substrate is only the beginning of the process. The rest of the manufacturing procedure—coating, perforating, cutting, creasing and folding—is the true transformative process.

    In Rüesch’s terminology, during the process of converting a roll of substrate into a label, the web passing through the press is “kissed, squeezed, pressed and hit”. It is subjected to drying, UV or otherwise, with the whole process taking place in variable temperatures and humidity. The way substrate winds through a sophisticated label machine is a very complicated business. Controlling this process is one of the core skill sets of Gallus.

    Pictured: Ferdinand Rüesch(left) and Niklaus Amacker at Gallus HQ in St Gallen.

    The company’s presses ranges from the highly automated Gallus RCS 330/430 with the last word in sophisticated process control, to the successful Gallus ECS 340, an entry-level press with a unique granite core. All can be recognised by the variety and sufficiency of the inline processes they employ. It is Ferdinand Rüesch’s belief that inline is the way of the future. “Inline is our defining position,” he says.

    Getting into folding cartons

    Long recognised for its high-end label presses, Gallus is using this drupa to demonstrate to the world its progress in the folding carton market. Following the 2006 takeover of German press manufacturer, BHS, it has undertaken a technology integration and development of a Gallus brand for folding cartons. In the process, the Swiss company is transferring its sophisticated process control, which is the hallmark of its label presses, to the larger, more robust world of carton production.

    “They make strong machines and know how to make big rigid machines. We know how to control the web,” says Rüesch. “It’s better if growth is organic, but sometimes it is necessary to buy what you require.”

    He maintains the two companies brought complementary skills to the venture; Gallus with its industry-leading knowledge and experience of controlling the tension of webs, BHS with its heavy engineering background and expertise in constructing large presses suitable for folding cartons.

    Folding carton production requires a very different system than that for labels. The substrates are heavier, the run lengths longer and the presses very much bigger. This is what BHS in Weiden, Germany, specialised in, but it needed the web handling expertise of Gallus to develop its inline processes.

    Gallus is now bringing to market three folding carton machine systems: the Gallus CCS 510 and Gallus ICS 670 for high-end quality cartons as well as the Gallus Intro L/XL for low-budget products. According to Stefan Hagn, marketing and product development at Gallus Folding Carton Business in Weiden, Germany, visitors to the company’s stand at drupa were able to see the state-of-the-art Gallus ICS 670 in operation. It showcased a new gravure printing unit that can be integrated at any point in the system, giving printers the choice of water- or solvent-based inks. Drawing on traditional Gallus expertise, it has an ingenious lead that shortens the web run considerably. In addition, the press was printing with a new HiDef flexo system as well as rotary screen printing and cold foiling in a single pass.

    This proved the first chance many local printers had to assess the Gallus expertise in inline folding carton production. It is likely to broaden the debate on the virtues of a complete one-pass production system.

    Business is business

    Gallus has enjoyed strong growth for a number of years, often while other sectors of the industry reeled from the effects of the economic downturn. Its order books and production remained largely untouched by the GFC but that is starting to change.

    “There is long-term uncertainty about the Euro. We now have tough credit conditions where people are very careful about lending money. Label makers are the last in the food chain, they are putting off decisions, especially in Europe” says Ferdinand Rüesch.

    Because Europe accounts for 55 per cent of Gallus’s output, the dire state of the continent is having an impact. This is giving greater impetus to the company to look further afield to Asia, where it has recently opened an office in Singapore. Its business plan is to open its own offices in important markets to deal directly with customers. It has offices in USA, UK, Scandinavia, Brazil, Mexico, India and Australia. In other parts of the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia, it is represented by Heidelberg. “This works very well for us,” says Rüesch.

    Currently Gallus is a company of 590 people with an annual turnover of 201 million Swiss francs in 2011.

    Talking to the family

    Gallus label presses have long enjoyed the reputation of being the quality benchmark of the industry. It is something Ferdinand Rüesch prizes but he is aware it carries its own potential problem. He is at pains to stress that while a Gallus label press is as good as it gets, it is not unaffordable. To his way of thinking, quality is always affordable because of the value it delivers.

    The cachet of the Gallus brand has taken on a life of its own. There is an international users group, an informal club of owners facilitated and encouraged by the company. Apart from sharing technology tips and problem solving it deals with larger issues. In label converting, as in other parts of the industry, there is a generational change underway as owner-operators explore possibilities of selling, merging, getting out or finding a partner to take on the running. The informal Gallus family is one way whereby companies can find the right partner and locate like-minded companies around the world. According to Ferdinand Rüesch, the foundation of the ‘Gallus family’ is the trust built up between the company and its customers over many years.

    “You cannot buy trust, you can only earn it over time. We have done that and will keep on doing it,” he says.

    In the cold, bright air of a St Gallen spring morning with its sense of tradition and stability, it is easy to understand how Gallus customers around the world have come to rely implicitly on the company’s reputation and Swiss engineering quality. Their trust is well-placed.