Trending Content

Looking Forward in the Corrugated Industry

By AICC Staff

February 2, 2017

The independent packaging industry has seen many changes and continues to evolve to meet customer demands. We sat down with industry veteran John Burgess of Pamarco’s flexo division to ask about the state of the industry, some of the biggest challenges, and what to expect going forward.

BoxScore: How have you seen the uses of corrugated printing evolve since you began in the industry?

Burgess: To get a clear picture, you’ve got to look at it from two angles: how the corrugated industry has evolved and how boxes have evolved. Boxes began as a functional item; they were intended to protect something, not to sell a product. If you look at a corrugated box from years ago, it was made from highly absorbent paper and was very low in terms of graphic content—maybe a “This Side Up,” a logo, or a certification from the manufacturer. The graphics were one or two colors at most. From our standpoint as a supplier, it was all about providing relatively low screen anilox, doctored traditionally by rubber wipe rolls, rather than the now more widely used doctor blade chamber manufactured from aluminum or carbon fiber and a laser engraved anilox designed to transfer a thin film of ink.

Absolute Chambered Doctor Blade and Pamarco Anilox roll in a typical corrugated preprinter.

Today’s box not only fits a protective function, it’s also a means of marketing the product inside of it. Since the mid-’90s, we have seen the rise of the wholesale and warehouse approach to consumerism, where most products are displayed on shelves with a simple price tag; in other words, the graphics on the box are the selling point. This means that those graphics have had to go from very basic one- and two-color designs to preprint quality graphics for point of sale. In order to maximize the quality and still manage to create the revenue-yielding product, there was an attempt to replicate preprint by using post-print equipment, but the combination of a porous medium and older printing equipment with inadequate registration and color control made this very difficult. The result was the development of the modern multicolor post-print machine that we see in today’s corrugated operations.

Today’s box not only fits a protective function, it’s also a means of marketing the product inside of it.

BoxScore: What have been the biggest changes in the processes used in corrugated printing?

Burgess: The single biggest process change is that presses now have to be capable of a rapid job changeover. Multiple jobs per shift must be run, which means that setup and breakdown times for jobs have to be minimized through better wash-up and plate-mounting systems. Many of these new flexo machines have increased from one to two colors up to five to eight colors in order to cope with the variety of printed work that customers are requesting. This includes very complicated graphics that have to have multiple color stations in order to achieve the graphic look that the designers want on their boxes.

Another notable change is that along with better graphics, the demands on the paper quality have also increased. The paper and the board have to be very consistent and have low-ink absorption characteristics. This shift has brought about the advent of in-between station drying by IR or hot air to prevent smearing of the ink. Rather than just transferring thick ink films onto an absorbent material, the call for high graphics has driven changes throughout the industry, from the printer all the way back to the corrugator: better board, better paper, better sheet, better machines. The quality of all of these pieces has had to increase exponentially.

BoxScore: How has new technology affected both the uses and process?

Burgess: In the same vein that this shift has meant quality improvements in machines and paper, it has meant advances in their other components as well. By 1998, almost all rolls produced were engraved by laser into ceramic—partially owing to the rolls’ durability, but also because graphics were being propelled upward. As the anilox improved, all other components, such as the plates and the inks, also had to be enhanced to maintain the highest quality of graphic reproduction.

BoxScore: How has preprint changed the game for corrugated printers?

Burgess: Preprint was introduced into the U.S. market in the ’80s and ’90s after successful implementation in Europe and the Far East. Preprint is designed for long-run jobs, although the latest machines entering the market have been adapted to perform smaller runs as well. The initial investment in a press is higher than in a post-print machine, but the ability to print directly to a well-​calendared paper with low absorbency that is corrugated after print can produce exceptional graphics.

Because of these changes, post-​printers are now looking to run near-preprint graphics on the new multicolor machines. This is done by using high-screen anilox and corrugated board with high-holdout liners in very tight registration, but at a lower cost than preprint.

I’ve been asked many times if I perceive digital as a threat to corrugated. In short, my answer is no. I see them as complementary technologies, not competing ones.

BoxScore: How has the sophistication of this market space affected OEMs and suppliers?

Burgess: OEMs have had to completely redesign the machine they’re manufacturing to become more efficient. There are now five- to eight-color machines being sold on a regular basis when, less than 10 years ago, there were virtually none. Anilox rolls started at 165-line screen; now we are producing many at 1200- to 1400-line screen for the point of sale

and wine box markets.

The fixed-frame machines produced today allow for multiple jobs to be set up at a time and offer the ability to switch from job to job without stopping the press. The presses are running faster, but they are built so much better than earlier presses, so that damage and wear on the anilox is less frequent. Although there are fewer machines, the net change in anilox roll demand is very small because there are now many more print stations per press. In addition, some manufacturers are designing equipment that will hold multiple anilox rolls on a turret in the same print station to aid with job transition.

BoxScore: What are OEMs and suppliers doing to adapt to this ever-changing environment?

Burgess: I think the biggest adaptation is that you can run small quantities and still make money. The idea that there is no minimum quantity to make a job worthwhile means that you can run a job for only an hour; you couldn’t do that in the past. Today, with modern presses and the ability to set up several jobs at once, the process is far more flexible. There is now the ability to create subtle changes that make the box more current: offers, price notifications, competitions, seasonal aspects, and so forth. It’s making the process more adaptable for the manufacturer, the customer, and in the end, the consumer.

BoxScore: With the rise of high-end corrugated and the increasing demands for better quality, how do you see the future shaping up for this industry?

width=300Burgess: The next big wave is digital. I’ve been asked many times if I perceive digital as a threat to corrugated. In short, my answer is no. I see them as complementary technologies, not competing ones. The digital revolution has driven flexo to improve, and I think that it will continue to do so, because digital is relatively slow. In terms of print runs, digital offers hundreds of boxes per hour compared to flexo’s offering of thousands.

The current emphasis on digital means that more and more companies are investigating and purchasing, which could take capital away from spending on conventional print equipment. Machine manufacturers, however, are very busy and are investing in plants and machinery to speed up deliveries, which is just another indication of the buoyancy in the market today.

BoxScore: Do you see any effect on the flexo side of the business? Market share ? Crossover? Changes?

Burgess: I think that corrugated box manufacturers are now being recognized as real printers—not just rubber stamp printers. We’re also seeing an increase in FTA and AICC attendance and membership. Another notable change is collaboration among converters. The consistency that these converters can offer to customers through an alliance is driving the flexo process to improve and stimulating the acceptance of high-quality graphics in the marketplace. It’s reassuring for the customer to have multiple resources for disaster scenarios. The other major wave currently in the market is the sale of many independents to the larger integrated converters. I think there are many schools of thought as to the overall impact that this will have on the market.

BoxScore: Do you have any closing comments?

Burgess: The industry is continuing to evolve and become faster and more flexible. The equipment that is now coming in from the Far East is enabling converters to enter the flexo market at a lower cost. This is creating a whole new set of clients for people selling components, like ourselves, and giving the end user more options for purchasing high-quality boxes.

Post Tags