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Embracing Disruption

By AICC Staff

July 30, 2018

First there were live plays, then radio, then film, then television, and today, streaming video, mobile devices, and a wide range of other ways of viewing entertainment. The introduction of each new method didn’t replace the prior options; today consumers can still view live plays as well as enjoy the myriad other forms of entertainment based on their interests and preferences.

The world of print production today is a corollary. While new printing options have continually emerged and will continue to do so, those in the industry feel there is likely to still be a place for some of the tried and true print production methods. It’s not an “either-or” environment, but an “and” environment, as digital printing continues to grow in popularity.

What Customers Want

Customer packaging needs and demands run the gamut from plain brown boxes to high-end packaging with multicolored graphics and specialty coatings. One has not given way to another—what customers need is based on their product, their brand, and their pocketbooks, primarily.

We need only look to the world’s largest internet company by revenue, Amazon, for an example of a very successful company that continues to do just fine with plain brown packages printed with black ink. What’s inside those packages and on the shelves of brick-and-mortar retailers around the country, though, is where consumers are seeing increasingly high-quality, creative, and high-impact packaging solutions—from the boxes that carry the products to the point-of-purchase (POP) displays designed to attract shoppers, pique attention, and drive purchase decisions.

Cost, turnaround, and the ability to support product and company brand tend to be the big three drivers in print production decisions.

In the packaging industry, flexo and litho are generally still considered to be the dominant options for packaging and POP displays, and they remain go-to sources for customers looking for cost-effectiveness and quality. Digital is emerging and can offer some cost-efficiency, but it’s not yet quite there in terms of the ability to support high-end graphics. Digital also offers quick turnaround, another top customer demand.

Machine capabilities also drive selection along the continuum from digital to flexo to litho and back, says John McLeod Jr., president and CEO of Lone Star Container in Irving, Texas. Lone Star’s strength, says McLeod, is that it can handle everything from flexo through very high-end litho printing. The company has three litho presses and offers seven- and eight-color aqueous coating, UV coating, spot-UV, and other capabilities. But, at the other end of the spectrum, he says, there are still customers looking for very basic brown box packaging printed with one color that reads “this side up.”

Over the past decade, says McLeod, the number of companies with four-color flexo capabilities has grown. “A lot of companies would go ahead and take advantage of that third and fourth color with their packaging—we’ve seen a lot of that.” In the last five years, he says, “we’ve seen a few more of those companies make the jump from four-color flexo into five-color-plus, which for us means litho.” That’s the kind of evolution that occurs among customers as they get bigger and their needs change.

Cost, turnaround, and the ability to support product and company brand tend to be the big three drivers in print production decisions. Vendors have an important role to play in helping customers understand and navigate available options to best meet their needs.

Cost, Turnaround Time, and Graphic Quality Are Top Demands

Cost remains a top-of-mind consideration for many customers, says Stacy Buening, executive vice president and general counsel for Philipp Lithographing Co., in Grafton, Wisconsin.

Buening: “Over the last decade, customers have become more cost-conscious in their litho purchases.” They are, she says, “continuously seeking lower-cost alternatives and cost-saving measures while being careful not to compromise the high quality of the litho.” It’s not clear, she says, whether cost-cutting is a factor of the economy or simply a natural progression. It is, though, the reality that printers such as Philipp find themselves in.

Flexibility and innovation are key to remaining viable and competitive, she says. “We embrace the challenge to improve our operations, understand and manage our own internal costs, be innovative, and think outside the box so we can grow together with our customers.”

Philipp, says Buening, considers itself to be a large-format “insty-print” supplier. “Fast is what we do.” Customers, she says, “have been always looking for quick-turn solutions but, with the rise of digital, the industry is even more concerned with speed to market.”

Digital is trending, says Buening, primarily because of benefits in speed and quality. But, she adds: “There are few who will argue that the quality of digital rivals that of litho. And, with advancements in technology and an experienced team, we at Philipp can and are prepared to produce litho labels on the same quick turn, and with the same speed-to-market approach, as digital.”

Building strong relationships with customers and, in some cases, partnering with others to meet customer needs can be a viable way of staying in touch and remaining relevant.

It’s not uncommon, says McLeod, for a customer to start out with a flexo-printed box and then, as their product grows, or as they move into new avenues, they may upgrade to three- or four-color flexo—may jump all the way into litho. “Their packaging evolves as their distribution channels change,” he says. Lone Star is well-positioned to grow with them and to remain nimble in terms of moving along the continuum from flexo to litho, depending on the project and the specific need.

McLeod acknowledges, though, that as companies try to cater to more niche audiences, print runs are coming down—a trend that lends itself to “this new catchword: the digital revolution.” McLeod predicts that as customers become more aware of their flexibility to customize long print runs with niche-​focused designs that demand shorter runs, digital may become more enticing.

Lone Star has been doing digital for some time, he says. “We started a digital department about 12 years ago, before it was really popular.” He’s seen demand increase, he says, to the point where it has “kind of stressed the department we have in place right now.” Recently, McLeod says, Lone Star has added a low-volume flatbed digital printer that allows it to do more low-volume jobs.

Customers looking for high quality, though, will still find that litho best meets their needs, says McLeod. “Digital is catching up, but it’s not there yet.” But, he says, he continues to monitor customer demand and is prepared to shift as they do. “When we start seeing customers begin to say, ‘OK, that quality of print is OK for me,’ we’re going to be looking seriously at having to jump further into the digital capability.”

“We embrace the challenge to improve our operations, understand and manage our own internal costs, be innovative, and think outside the box so we can grow together with our customers.”

— Stacy Buening, executive vice president and general counsel, Philipp Lithographing Co.

Staying the Course and Offering Options

For printers focused on packaging and POP, the ability to meet a wide range of customer demands related to cost, turnaround, and graphic quality is key.

Understanding what customers need in terms of budget, as well as brand, can lead to conversations and creative workarounds. “I consider myself a student of not only our industry, but of print,” says John Kelley, president of Dusobox, in Orlando. It’s a firm that was founded in 1951 by Kelley’s grandfather, John L. Dusseault.

The North American market, says Kelley, “hasn’t focused on process and improvement to the level of, say, Western Europe, if you will.” Focusing on process and improvement, he says, can help drive costs out of systems. A lot of people, he says, have “jumped on the digital bandwagon because they haven’t really understood the printing process.”

Kelley says that strategic partnerships with very high-end printers around the country and investments in the most advanced flexo technology and digital technology available allow them to offer many options to customers—to work with them to find the right options for their needs. Dusobox has G7 certification and, he says, “We can say to a brand, ‘We’re going to put you in the most cost-effective print execution method for your graphics.’ ” That might mean, he says, starting in digital and then moving from there to litho. If volume keeps growing, then they might move to flexo, or flip the flexo-litho equation depending on how the growth of the actual SKU goes.

A focus on process and efficiencies is important, he says: “The more we focus on process and efficiencies, the more we can bring greater value to the brands as far as creativity and color.”

At Philipp Lithographing, says Buening, a focus on large-format printing will remain their niche. “That is not to say that consolidation won’t make sense for, or that digital will never have a place at, Philipp, but for now, Philipp is content without the disruption,” she says. “Philipp will remain solely focused on, and dedicated to, its large-format printing niche.” It is, she says, this format and the company’s hesitancy to jump on trend bandwagons that have helped to make it a success.

At Dusobox, Kelley has invested in digital, but he is still focused on providing the highest quality possible for customers in the litho and flexo spaces, as well.

“The more we focus on process and efficiencies, the more we can bring greater value to the brands as far as creativity and color.”

— John Kelley, president, Dusobox

“I think in many respects flexo is actually creeping into some of the litho spend with some of the advanced presses,” he says. But, he adds: “The ability, from a creative standpoint, to do coatings and textures and things like that just isn’t going to be possible in a flex-printed sheet.” Kelley points to soft-touch finishing as a good example of this.

From a digital standpoint, as customers learn about options they have for customizing shorter runs with a level of quality that they feel fits their needs, at a price point that’s within their budgets, their needs will evolve. Their print vendors will need to evolve as well.

Flexo and litho, says Kelley, still represent go-to choices for the majority of corrugated customers. “Everybody gets caught up in it, but I think there are still major investments going on in offset presses. The value proposition in the corrugated space is still as strong as it ever was,” he says. “Is there going to be a migration in some of these different areas? Yes.” But, he says, flexo and litho aren’t going away.

LinLin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based in Wisconsin. She is a frequent contributor to BoxScore.