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The Gravure Report.

Contrary to what you might have heard, gravure is alive and well. Although some misconceptions such as high costs and limited run sizes might be heard around the printing industry, ink manufacturers still consider gravure to be a dominating process.

Has gravure lost its appeal as one of the preferred printing processes? Some might say yes, though others will adamantly disagree. Industry personnel that Ink World spoke with are very much in favor of gravure, and are trying everything they can to help gravure stand up to other printing processes.

"To me, gravure is like a sleeping giant," said Richard Dunnington, president of the Gravure Association of America. "It did not have any competition for a very long time. Gravure printers are again working on improving the processes and maximizing its capabilities. We are seeing a major swing of the pendulum back towards gravure."

Disputing Misconceptions

In many cases, it seems that gravure not only has to compete with flexography and offset, but industry misconceptions as well. "Gravure has been hurt by people repeating misconceptions," said Mr. Dunnington. "Gravure is the simplest process but its capabilities are not understood." The most common misconceptions associated with gravure are high prepress costs and the inability to produce short runs.

"The misconception of high prepress costs have caused a lot of customers to abandon the gravure process and turn to flexography," said Robert Brewer, sales manager at W.R. Chestnut Engineering, a Fairfield, NJ-based manufacturer of gravure presses. "This comes from a misconception on prepress costs. With gravure's ability to run line and process on the same cylinder, a job that may require eight colors on a flexo press is typically done in six stations on a gravure press. The misconception about flexography cheapness comes from quotes of 60 cents/square inch to burn a plate--totally ignoring the $500,000 cost of the prepress equipment the typical flexo shop has. When this is factored in plates cost now on the order of $200 a piece.

"One should keep in mind that gravure cylinders can be used many times while the typical flexo plate is used once or twice and then must be remade," added Mr. Brewer.

"While the cost of engraved cylinders is certainly higher than the cost of lithographic plates, that cost is somewhat balanced by the long-run, high-quality capabilities of the gravure process," said Mike Green, vice president of operations, North American publication group, at Flint Ink Corporation. "The Gravure Association is currently exploring new technology options that may make faster cylinder production and shorter run lengths a viable possibility."

Cost factors also depend on the nature of the print job. "If a job is a repeat, make-ready costs are lower for gravure than for other processes," said Gerald McLain, marketing manager of packaging inks at Sun Chemical Corporation. "If it is a new job, prepress costs for gravure tend to be higher because of engraving requirements."

But prepress costs do not have to be an impassable hurdle. "Many gravure printers have discovered methods to reduce prepress costs by using state-of-the-art computer equipment in the prepress area to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the process," said David W. Fletcher, executive vice president and general manager at Progressive Ink Company.

"For publication printing, gravure versus web offset, gravure prepress is more time consuming and expensive," said Liz Scherer, director of publication gravure technology at Sun Chemical Corporation. "But because prepress is a fixed cost in terms of units printed over a long run, gravure is actually more economical."

Related to prepress costs is set-up time. "Gravure, being a simpler process, is quicker to set up, only two to three minutes per station if there aren't any color changes made to 15 minutes per station for a complete washout," said Mr. Brewer. "Flexo requires more skill and precision to properly mount the plates and typically has more stations to set up, hence more expensive downtime. Narrow web presses can be set up far faster than a flexo press."

One of gravure's major attributes has been the ability to print very long runs. "Gravure has traditionally been considered the process of choice for long-run, high-quality printing," said Mr. Green.

But this does not mean that gravure cannot print short runs. "The gravure industry has historically marketed itself as the long run alternative. We must now work to become a viable short run alternative," said Mr. Fletcher. "Because the industry is changing and because of graphic product specific packaging we must change. Of course the challenges from offset and flexo, which are viewed by some as more economical methods, will continue to drive the advancement in the gravure process.

"The perceived difficulty in short run situations is the 'prep cost.' This cost can be neutralized by process improvements." Mr. Fletcher continued, "A key factor relates to the gravure cylinders. For those that use external cylinder suppliers, it is very important that the cylinder supplier 'fingerprint' the press and in turn use the information to develop the most efficient process curves."

In many instances, it seems that the industry just isn't aware of developments made in the area of run sizes. "I am finding that educators, buyers, trade press and even gravure printers aren't aware of just how short gravure print runs have become and the quick turnovers that can be achieved with gravure," Mr. Dunnington explained.

Understanding Gravure

Is gravure a well-understood process? Both yes and no. Those who deal closely with gravure applications are familiar with the process' strengths and weaknesses. "Of course those in the business understand it well," said Mr. Fletcher. "But the gravure community in the U.S. is relatively small. As a result those involved in flexography have only a basic understanding of the difference between the two processes, while the offset community has a lesser understanding of the gravure process."

"Gravure is simpler to understand than other processes," said Ms. Scherer. "But unlike flexo, gravure has not done a very good job of 'tooting its own horn."'

"New gravure presses can outperform three older presses," said Mr. Dunnington. "But some gravure printers have not kept up with what is available. Gravure's strengths include stability, ability to print with a wide range of inks and on a wide range of substrates. It is also a much simpler operation versus flexo."

Understanding gravure includes understanding the different gravure processes. Narrow web and wide web gravure are often grouped together, which also creates misconceptions.

"Most people who claim to have gravure experience remember what the process was like 15 years ago versus today," said Mr. Brewer. "They fail to take into account the differences between wide web gravure and narrow web gravure. Narrow web gravure is much shorter in set-up -- both time and costs -- and has the ability to do short run, quick turnaround jobs at a level of quality flexo printers can only dream about."

Standing its Ground

Gravure's biggest attribute versus other printing processes is print quality. "Gravure has been considered the highest quality printing process, but offset has made gains and the print fidelity of flexo, heatset and offset has improved," said Ms. Scherer.

"Print fidelity gives gravure the edge over any other printing processes, and offers advantages in terms of the ability to lay thicker ink films and ink metering," said Mr. McLain. "In packaging we use a lot of catalytic coatings that require controlled temperatures. A lot of the flexo equipment does not have the ability to control web temperatures. Printers must be able to control web temperatures for applications such as barrier coatings. Sometimes certain web temperatures are needed for certain applications."

"The gravure process still offers outstanding print quality relative to the other print methods," said Mr. Fletcher. "Gravure can be affordable to customers if managed efficiently and still provide a clearly defined 'higher level of quality' to the customer."

Ms. Scherer said gravure has many benefits over web offset in publication applications, such as "better economy on long runs, better consistency and color control, can run on poorer quality/less expensive paper, total waste over the run is shorter than gravure, and wider web widths and variable cut-off," she said. "While offset has certainly made improvements in this area, the newest web offset press still cannot come close to the productivity of the fastest, widest gravure press."

Gravure also offers advantages in terms of its ability to print on a wide range of substrates. "Offset and gravure printing are considered to be premium quality," said Kent Shah, vice president and chief technology officer at Color Converting Industries. "However, offset is not suitable for printing on non-porous substrates, which makes gravure a preferred process for many flexible packaging applications.

"The choice of gravure ink formulation is wider than flexo since the plate material has limited compatibility with a variety of solvents," continued Mr. Shah. "Therefore, there is a narrow resin choice for the ink formulator."

Another strength of gravure is its ability to print metallics. "Gravure particularly excels in metallic labels," said Mr. Brewer. "The flexo printer is forced to use hot stamping, which is a slow, cumbersome process, but gravure can print metallics in line with no reduction in speed."

"Gravure lends itself to extremely long run lengths, with exceptionally high quality color reproduction on coated stocks," said Mr. Green. "Unlike the visible dots created by the screens used in conventional offset printing, the cell configuration in gravure printing is invisible into the 65 percent solid range, producing a much more photographic image."

Looking Ahead

As gravure continues to develop and make strides to keep ahead of other processes, ink manufacturers must look into developing inks to help maximize these improvements.

"Water-based inks have been less popular for gravure applications due to problems with hazing in non-image areas," said Mr. McLain. "Sun Chemical has developed a water-based printing ink that will print as well as solvent-based gravure applications--MP-VI."

New developments in gravure technology could lead to an increase in demand and uses for gravure. "There are a number of factors which are going to make gravure more competitive," said Mr. Dunnington. "We have seen new presses that are less expensive and are competitive with flexo. We are finding alternatives for copper and chrome. This would eliminate hazardous waste problems, reduce capital costs and the change economic factors in favor of gravure. Lead-times are decreasing and the negative mindset toward shorter runs are being removed."

"In the next 5 to 10 years. I expect the price of engraved cylinders to continue to drop, while the total cost of flexo plates continues to rise," said Mr. Brewer. "This will not only close the cost gap between gravure and flexo, but may actually make flexo more expensive than gravure. In addition, new and less expensive registration control systems are being developed for gravure presses, bringing the cost down and improving the accuracy. The continued advancement in quality and the lowering of costs should lead to increases in gravure's market share."

"We are optimistic when it comes to the future of gravure," said Mr. Fletcher. "Gravure has been around a long time and will always be a viable printing process for those customers that demand high quality."

GAA Convention to Focus on Personnel Issues

The Gravure Association will hold its annual convention and Golden Cylinder Awards April 4-7 at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, Alexandria, VA. This year's theme is "The Next Generation of Gravure.

The focus on April 4 will be "Learning to Manage the People and Process Issues of the Next Generation." "Color and Customer Issue of the Next Generation" will be the focus on April 5.

"One of the messages that is going to be presented at our convention in April is related to personnel," said Mr. Dunnington. "There is going to be a major turnover that will affect the entire industry--printers suppliers and even ink makers. We must work on the issues surrounding this turnover before they become a crisis. Why should we care about this? Simply the success of any technology is determined by the people operating it."
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Author:Hess, Jenn
Publication:Ink World
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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