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On the Past – and On to the Future

By John Burgess

March 20, 2024

As we celebrate AICC’s 50th anniversary, we should reflect on where we came from and where our great industry is headed.

The change in consumer demands and needs has driven amazing technological advances to our industry. Our purchasing habits and patterns are so much different than they used to be, with the metamorphosis from the quaint high street store to the advent of the big-box retail behemoths to the ever-growing presence of e-commerce.

The enhancements required in graphics to catch the eye have followed a similar path. Looking at the product that my company manufactures, when I first got into the industry, a typical anilox had a 165 screen and was mechanically engraved; it was literally a vehicle to transfer a large quantity of ink to a box to satisfy the one-color demands of the time. The doctoring of the anilox was done by a relatively soft rubber roll to ensure effective ink transfer. Then the first of the “graphics” machines were launched in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when converters were experimenting with plate screens high enough that 200- and 220-line aniloxes were required, with single- and dual-blade doctoring systems.

The transition to laser-engraved anilox really gained momentum in the mid-’90s, and then with the need for post-print flexo to compete with preprinted linerboard or litho-lam labels, the average screen count started to tick upward. These days, our average screen count engraved for a typical independent converter is closer to 500 lines per inch rather than 165 lines per inch, as in the past, with many of you now using anilox at 800 line screens and higher.

The speed of printing equipment has increased almost logarithmically, with machines now capable of 20,000–30,000 boxes per hour, and many of the high-graphics machines are equipped with six, seven, or eight print stations. Some of these are now top printers to allow printing on the inside and outside of the box in one pass, and as the graphics have become more complex, there is a need to dry the ink between print stations to achieve the high resolutions required.

The obvious follow-on to this transformation is what is next for our industry. Based on the world’s awareness of sustainability, it appears that the corrugated medium has found its place in society, so where else can this medium be utilized? And what equipment and technological advances are going to be needed to assist in its next iteration?

From a supplier perspective, we are also intrigued to understand how the industry is going to be carved up in years to come. The independent sector is obviously a very vital, profitable, and entrepreneurial sector of the market, but will the trend of consolidation and acquisition by the large integrated companies continue? If it does, will this reduce the innovation we are currently seeing? And let’s be clear, most of the innovation in our industry is driven from our customers, and much of that comes from the independent sector and the need to have a differentiator.

Lots to consider as we drive toward the next 50 years; we are looking forward to the journey.

John Burgess is president of Pamarco’s flexo division and is vice chairman of AICC’s Associate board.