Gravure printing and the change of packaging

With the use of the ECG, about 90% of the Pantone colours can be achieved in print
With the use of the ECG, about 90% of the Pantone colours can be achieved in print, and thus of course many of the brand colours as well (Source: Björn Kammertöns)

The third President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Gustav Heinemann, once quoted: “He who wants to change nothing will also lose what he wants to preserve”. While this certainly did not refer to package printing, this are of industrial production has been subject to a major change in the last two to three years and therefore has had to face new challenges. However, this change also offers new opportunities for the classic printing processes such as flexo, gravure and offset.

Changing demands on packaging

Certainly, the dominant issue in this process of change is sustainability. In General, brand manufacturers are increasingly strive to reduce the use of materials to a maximum and at the same time to raise the use recyclable materials. However, this must not be done at the expense of barrier properties, good logistics capability and easy handling for the consumer. In addition, there is also a change in consumers’ buying behaviour and the so-called “Customer journey”.


For example, a survey by the opinion research institute Forsa on the question “What are your resolutions for 2023?” resulted in the following: The most frequent resolution is to reduce and avoid stress (67% of respondents). But already in second place, together with the desire for more time for friends and family, is the resolution to behave in a more “environmentally and climate-friendly” way. Conversely, this means that environmental friendliness of packaging gained a certain priority in term of consumption behaviour.

However, one thing can already be considered certain: The concept of the “Unpacked shops” has obviously failed because it is not suitable for everyday live. Although this idea was basically well-intentioned in view of the very high rate of about 70 kg of packaging waste per person in Germany, most of these shops were not successful and have already been closed down.

What does this mean for package printing?

In principle, as long as packaging is used, package printing will remain important. However, this does not mean, that everything will remain the same, as packaging manufacturers will also have to face the changes in market demands.

This already starts with the substrates used. There is a passionate debate about whether “paperization” – replacing plastic with paper and cardboard – or striving for better recyclability of plastics is the better solution. Depending on the products to be packaged, both approaches have their respective advantages and disadvantages. The only thing that is clear is that both the familiar and the tried and tested also have to rise to the challenge.

For example, in 2021 Mars Wrigley launched a pilot project with German retail chain Edeka. A variety of the Balisto snack bar was tested wrapped in paper packaging in order to reduce the use of plastic. Currently, only monofoils are used for primary packaging in this product segment.

Unpacked shops
The concept of the “Unpacked shops” has obviously failed because it is not suitable for everyday live
(Source: Björn Kammertöns)

For package printers, this means adapting to other substrates or even a greater mix of materials. Depending on the market, it is also quite conceivable that different materials are used for the same product. The challenge is to meet this demand from brand owners. This also means being able to process the required materials without any loss in print quality.

Many package printers have specialised in only a few materials and material combinations and thus serve specific customer and product segments. In order to work as efficiently as possible, this approach was and is quite sensible. But this also involves a certain risk in case of material substitutions and new competitors arise. However, to a large extent, such substitutions depend on the requirements for required barrier properties, on material prices or the final prices for the respective packaging.

Effects of the “Customer journey”

Furthermore, the question arises to what extent the “Customer journey” changes and affects the significance of graphic packaging design. This new term refers to the prototypical “journey” of customers in shops (on- and offline) and depicts the different touchpoints of potential customers with a product. Therefore, the “Customer journey” is the path taken by the customer heading for the final purchase of a product.

Online retailing for non-food prod has been a constant for years. In comparison, interactive trade with fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) is rather low. The reason for this are the deep-rooted habits of consumers to buy things for daily use often spontaneously as well as the desire to check the freshness of food directly at the shelf before buying. Nevertheless, the turnover with food in online retail has grown from 618 million Euro in 2014 to 3.9 billion Euro in 2021. However, it should also be noted that the jump of about 1 billion Euro from 2019 to 2020 is also due to the restrictions during the Corona pandemic (Source: Statista). However, as the pandemic subsides, it is also apparent that consumers do not appear to be fully returning to previous purchasing habits, but rather that this trend is continuing.

However, if we look at the total turnover of FMCG goods, which amounted to approx. 260 billion Euro in 2021, we see that stationary retail trade is still by far the most important sales channel and will certainly remain so. This is a positive sign for the importance of graphic packaging design. Because as long as the purchase decision is made at the point-of-sale, packaging will remain an important medium of communication. In the smallest of spaces, they have to perform a multitude of tasks: Attract attention, differentiate products, establish brands and awaken consumer desires.

In order to fast reaction to changes both in the market and among consumers, brand manufacturers are striving for ever shorter delivery times for their packaging. As a prerequisite for short-term adjustments in design and information on the packaging, stock-keeping is minimised, which reduces the number of individual quantities ordered accordingly.

For package print shops, this means ever smaller print runs. For the classic printing processes, such as flexo, gravure and offset, this means to work continuously on optimising set-up times. The associated target is to keep the actual production time of the presses as high as possible. However, there are physical limits to these efforts, as press make-ready cannot be fully digitised or automated.

New market players and digital printing

This setting ultimately calls digital printing onto the scene. Although this process has been ridiculed in the field of package production for a long time, in some areas it offers a real alternative. Particularly with regard to fast response times and short print runs. The trend towards digital printing is not bypassing the press manufacturers. While HP with its Indigo series was the only pioneer in digital package and label printing for a long time, many manufacturers of conventional presses – such as Bobst, König & Bauer and Gallus – now offer digital solutions. In addition, this is not limited to the field of narrow web label printing, but relates also to the wide web area up to 1600 mm.

But the doors to new market segments are also opening up for analogue printing processes. For example, Comexi has launched a central cylinder offset press that can also print on film substrates, which for a long time was the sole domain of flexo and gravure printing. Whether this new technology will ultimately fulfil the expectations associated with it is not yet clear, as there are simply too few machines installed in the market compared to flexo and gravure presses.

Alongside new printing technologies, more and more companies are entering the market to fill this gap with their products. They are making it their business to supply start-up companies as well as large FMCG brand owners with packaging produced with fast delivery times and at short print runs. Such companies have one thing in common: a high degree of digitalisation, especially when it comes to order acceptance (Online shops) and data handling. This is strongly reminiscent of online suppliers from the commercial and advertising sector such as Flyeralarm. This makes these companies of particular interest for small suppliers and start-ups in the FMCG area. But they can definitely also arouse the interest of big branded companies, notably when it comes to test markets or seasonal products, for example.

In digital printing it is not yet possible to process all substrates and substrate combinations. In particular when it comes to finishing with metallic and special-effect inks and various varnish combinations, flexo and gravure printing are still almost exclusively the first choice. In addition, digital printing still has disadvantages in terms of print quality. Whether this is acceptable in favour of fast delivery times and small print runs can only be judged depending on the respective product segments.

Is print quality still the holy grail?

How much brand owners are willing to tolerate in terms of print quality and colour deviations will largely depend on the “Customer journey” and the related changes in regard to new touchpoints with the respective products. In addition, there is probably also some experience already gained with digital printing or printing in the extended colour gamut (ECG).

Apart from online retailing, the touchpoints (contact with the product) in general have become more diverse. In the past, they included not only the point-of-sale (mostly retail) but also advertisements or spots in marious media. In the meantime, social media channels gained increasing importance and in particularly the role of so-called influencers.

n 2021, Mars Wrigley launched a “paperization” pilot project for the Balisto snack bar
In 2021, Mars Wrigley launched a “paperization” pilot project for the Balisto snack bar with German retail chain Edeka
(Source: Björn Kammertöns)

For example, a survey conducted in 2021 by German consultancy Faktenkontor and market research company Toluna together with the Institute for Management and Economic Research showed, that within one year, 21% of over-16s have bought a product at least once because it was advertised by a YouTuber. 18% of respondents followed the advice of Instagrammers and for 17% of respondents, influencers from other channels caused a certain purchase decision. This means that more and more purchase decisions are already made before even entering the shop. This also applies to products that are not on the shopping list, but are rather bought intuitively.

Therefore, parts of the marketing budget available for brand manufacturers, which so far was mainly invested in the design of the packaging, is now flowing into other marketing channels. This raises the question of how much print quality and finishing is necessary to reflect the rules of semiotics and the expectations of the product. Or to put it another way: where are cutbacks possible without sales figures suffering?

The relevance of this thesis is also reflected by the increasing interest of brand owners in topics such as printing with expanded colour gamut (ECG) and other standardisations. They are therefore prepared to make certain concessions in order to save costs and become faster. Therefore, package printers should consider whether there are more pragmatic approaches to achieving a certain level of print quality and at the same time increasing efficiency. This is especially true against the backdrop of ever faster delivery times for short print runs.

Will package gravure suffer the same fate as publication gravure?

 The answer to this question is probably definitely no. Because in contrast to publication gravure, there is no digital substitution in packaging gravure. This is because packaging cannot be digitised. In publication gravure, for example, the large catalogues that were a matter of course in most households for many decades disappeared in the course of digitisation. Packaging, and thus also packaging printing, still have a high status and will maintain this in the future.

But the challenge remains to address the market’s demands for fast delivery times and short print runs. In this context, topics such as printing in expanded colour gamut (ECG) cannot simply be ignored, but gravure printers should dedicate themselves to this project and seriously evaluate whether and how ECG printing can be implemented. Flexo print shops are much more open to this topic and offset printers are also promoting the possibility and advantages of ECG printing.

Should it perhaps prove impossible to implement standardised ECG printing, it may well make sense to look at the colour sequences of the existing job portfolio and harmonise them if necessary. For, although technically not absolutely necessary, when creating the separation and sequence of colours, the rule still often applies that the colours to be printed together should, if possible, be applied directly one after the other. It is critical to note in this context that in prepress it is often not taken into account whether this significantly increases the make-ready times of the press.

Increasing standardisation can also be of interest to brand owners. We are talking here about gravure standards such as GraCol in the USA. Even if this is by no means an easy path, there are certainly possibilities to combine ink series and substrates and establish a corresponding standard. However, in order to use this in a meaningful way in the end, corresponding cylinder and print parameters would also have to be defined for each standard. These generic colour profiles could then be used in the central reproduction division – and ultimately independently of the printer.

However, it will not be easy to get the industry to take such an initiative on its own, because the idea of competition is still all too powerful for that. Although the issue is not really about competition among gravure printers, but rather competition with other printing processes.

Such initiatives could be launched by an association like the European Rotogravure Association (ERA). Various workgroups could be dedicated to the question: What can the gravure industry do to meet changing market demands? Theoretically, it could even go so far that the standards that are developed are checked for compliance by the ERA and the respective print shop receives the respective certificates. This would then be a similar working model as Fogra has established for offset and digital printing.

These proposals certainly do not claim on completeness as there is still a lot of detailed work to be done to solve further problems. But one thing is certain: those who do not want to change anything will lose what they want to preserve!