It’s hard to kick off with anything except the global pandemic right now. In your experience, how have packaging printers been affected?
Unlike commercial print, which has been highly impacted by the pandemic – I’ve read statistics saying business in that area is expected to decline 20-25% – many packaging printers serving FMCG brands have fared well. Many have seen significant growth, driven by panic buying among consumers. There’s been huge demand for things like toilet rolls, flour, paracetamol and cleaning products. I know from recent articles that P&G has been producing products at record volumes to meet the demand. I’ve talked with a few friends in the pre-press industry and they’ve been saying they’re really busy. Many are of course working from home, but our industry is used to working like that – it has been working with virtual collaboration tools for years.
You’ve had a long career in packaging. How has ECG factored into it?
I worked for P&G for close to 30 years, as a principle scientist in R&D package development. I worked on all the different P&G businesses in corporate package development, focusing on printing and decoration technology, and innovation. And I was very heavily involved in the strategy the company was developing towards ECG printing.
Why is ECG of particular interest to brands such as P&G?
Much of it came from diversification. Brands have diversified their products a lot in the past five to 10 years, and this diversification lead to a proliferation of SKUs, and thus a reduction in the size of production runs. There was this shift, from the mass market to focusing on specialized communities and individuals. There are more single people in the world, more elderly, more city-dwellers, more vegans, and brands are trying to better meet their needs or areas of passion.
This requires printers to be flexible, agile, and able to produce quality to demand, or just in time. Which is where ECG came in. ECG creates efficiency and capacity benefits. And those efficiency and capacity benefits are equally suited to meeting the sudden increase in demand we’re seeing now.
So is packaging still important even when demand is so high?
Yes, because packaging has become an essential part of branding and marketing. Brands still have this drive to really stand out on shelf and be distinctive, and they’ve focused so long on how to make the packaging part of the overall user experience. At P&G we used to talk about winning at the first moment of truth. If you can simplify your base printing processes, or reduce the number of stations you’re using for ink, as you can with ECG, you can employ some of the more specialized print processes to help you stand out more. You’ll see a lot of smaller players breaking into the market using some of the newer printing techniques like digital printing; but as their marketing grows, along with their volume, they need to expand that capability into more conventional printing processes.
Which brings us back to ECG – and to flexo. Why is flexo so effective as a vehicle for ECG and all its benefits?
ECG can be used with a number of printing processes, but flexo has specific advantages that support its use, including lower-cost plate technology and a focus on automation, which reduces set-up times.
The latest flexo plate designs have been moving towards more reduced product run lengths, as well as greater automation to help reduce the set-up times and waste. It’s also prompted a significant step forward in improving the capacity and the quality on press.
So where’s ECG heading?
I’ve seen ECG growing over the last five to 10 years, and I’m certainly hearing of more and more multinationals taking interest and building it into their corporate strategies. I don’t have numbers, but companies are definitely pushing in that direction.
The supporting technology – in pre-press, plates and imaging – has evolved hugely over the last 10 years too. And that’s helping to make it look even more interesting.
So is flexo still well-placed to serve brands in the new environment sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic?
There probably has been a reduction in the number of different products produced by companies at the moment, to make sure they meet the larger volume demand as fast as possible. But the e-commerce segment is only continuing to grow, and that growth will accelerate, and we’ve moved towards disposable cups and other packaging that minimizes consumer interaction. So flexo is well-placed. All those FMCG companies doing well right now are predominantly using flexible film or corrugated cases for packaging, most of which is printed flexo.
Flexo is a mature versatile printing technology. It generally needs a lower capital investment than others. It offers a faster set-up, is cost-effective, and can print in good register on to thin gauges of flexible films at high speeds. So it’s probably going to be the print technology of choice for many FMCG companies.
Finally, what trends can we expect from brands in terms of diversification when the world once again establishes a regular rhythm?
Personalization is definitely one. They’ll be making things more specific for individuals, but also more appealing to communities. And moving towards having very flexible print production. Lots of companies will want to move increasingly to production systems where they can produce to demand. Where they could, for example, design the main elements of the artwork to be fairly standardized, and then add things in certain areas to make it more customized or adapted for SKUs.
So we may see more development of hybrid-type approaches – combinations of flexo and digital that meet those flexible print production needs, and enable companies to be even more flexible.
Paul Baker is a packaging consultant to major brands and runs Print Management Consultancy (PMC)
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