One constant for Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG during its restructuring over the last several years has been its focus on equipment for packaging and label printing. We asked Jürgen Grimm, president of Heidelberg USA, to review what the company has to offer in this space and to discuss what he sees as trends to watch in the packaging market.

When you think about the most successful packaging printers you have seen throughout your career with Heidelberg, what characteristics have they all had in common?

All the successful packaging printers I’ve seen in my career have their process under control, no matter what their process is: coating, a lot of special effects, or volume packaging where productivity is the key. You have to understand what you are doing, and you have to have that process under control. That is the common denominator of all the successful packaging printers I’ve seen around the world.

Please talk about the market for VLF (very large format) offset presses among packaging printers. What makes a packaging printer who has been successful with 40" equipment want to go to something larger?

Again, it’s a question of what you produce and what is the ideal process for it. If you’re printing cereal boxes, you can have your 40" process under control as much as you like, but since cereal boxes are such large things, there’s no way you can be cost effective in 40" production. On the other side, if you have small pharmaceutical boxes, it’s not advisable to have more than 20 or 25 up on the diecutter, because then your makeready on the diecutter gets very time-consuming. So, you’re better off printing a smaller sheet size.

Package size in combination with run length leads to different processes around the world. In Europe, over-the-counter pharmaceutical packaging is completely 29" because the languages make the run lengths much shorter than in the U.S., where the process is completely 40". You’ve got 300 million inhabitants in the U.S., while in Europe, the biggest country is Germany with 80 million. This means that from the same box, you need many fewer boxes in German for Germany than boxes in English for the U.S.

So, the parameters have to come together to make the right decision, and that decision, understanding your process, hasn’t been static. Ten years ago, a VLF machine was considerably lacking in automation. Since Heidelberg entered the VLF market with features like Autoplate plate loading and the Prinect Inpress Control inline inspection system, we now can makeready a 56" machine at the same speed as a 40" press. The 56" machines are now on the same level of automation level as 40" equipment, which they hadn’t been for a long time.

That means you can have much shorter run lengths in the larger format. But it’s a complicated question that can make it difficult to say that this work has to go to this machine, because of all the other factors that play a role in it.

How strong is the demand for inline UV and inline specialty coatings among packaging printers? When you sell presses to packaging printers, do they typically ask for UV and coating capability, or do you find that you have to upsell these features?

I must say I’m impressed—95% of the packaging guys know what they want. They know what the best process is, and then they know what they need. So it’s rare that you’re “upselling” somebody who does plain-vanilla cereal boxes. You don’t upsell him to UV, because it’s just not in his process.

Where it gets interesting is when a customer asks for support and consultancy about whether he can combine processes. For example, can I put a cold foil unit on the press so that I can combine it with UV printing and hot foil applications in one process? Then you have to look at the specific job.

That’s why we have a dedicated packaging center at our manufacturing headquarters in Wiesloch, Germany. We run a lot of tests there for customers like these because very often, nobody can answer the question. If you try to improve the process, somebody has to be first, and this is what we do together with the customer. So I wouldn’t say upselling, but co-developing the process and tailoring that new process to the customer.

What about offset packaging printing in smaller formats and shorter runs? What solutions does Heidelberg offer for these kinds of jobs?

We presented Anicolor zoneless inking technology in a 29" format exactly for that field. Anicolor eliminates a lot of issues with packaging printing such as ghosting and streaking. Another solution for shorter runs in offset is Prinect Multicolor Toolset, a separation process that eliminates the need for PMS colors by matching them within a seven-color inkset.

Getting away from PMS colors is a huge step for the packaging industry. Printing with PMS colors means that you have to change colors job by job, which is a time-consuming process. If you can eliminate this by always printing with the same set of seven colors, you can buy more ink of the same specification, which makes the ink cheaper. It lets you get away from washing over PMS color to PMS color, and it perfectly complements Anicolor, which has superior color stability.

Put them together, and you’re really down to a 10-, 15-, or 20-sheet makeready. Then you're perfectly set up for short runs. And with Anicolor on the 29" Speedmaster XL, you can crank it up and run it at 15,000 sph if you need a longer run. You’re not limited only to short runs as you would be with digital solutions—you’re getting a very nice combination.

Heidelberg is very well represented in folding-carton production, but does it have any plans to develop or OEM-source systems for flexible film packaging as well?

Gallus, which we acquired in full last year, has a daughter company called BHS that produces flexible packaging machines. This is our way into that field. What we are missing in North America is a better integration from the BHS flexible packaging offering to our folding carton offering. Although BHS is very well known in the rest of the world, it never got a strong foothold in the U.S. But we think it has great potential for the future, and the next step, this year and in 2016, will be to get a better overview and inform the market more about it.

Up to now, “packaging” for Heidelberg translated to 95% folding carton. I think with the acquisition of Gallus, we’ll also make a big stride into rotary label production, where Gallus clearly is the technological leader. And now, with BHS, we also can expand our offering toward the flexible packaging industry.

What are your U.S. packaging customers telling you about conditions in the market segments they serve? Is demand up, down, flat, or just impossible to predict?

I think the ones who are in the high-quality niche are very happy. When you’re talking about high-quality beverage, high-quality cosmetics, high-UV and high-foil applications, the packaging plays a much bigger role in the marketing mix for these consumer products. The American economy is recovering nicely right now, and there is a robust demand which goes very much in line with consumer spending. On that end of the market, I see a nice uptick for established niche players.

On the other end of the market, the news in the packaging industry is consolidation, consolidation, consolidation—we all read the news about RockTenn and MeadWestvaco. On the volume side, a structural change in the market is happening. I think it’s partly because their customers are putting so much pressure on delivery time, pricing, quality, and reliability, that at a certain point they’re forced to consider mergers.

There is still another story in short-run packaging. In California, there was an easement in the regulations for smaller food companies, for locally cooked food. Microbreweries are exploding everywhere in the U.S. There are a lot of new start-up businesses like these that need short-run packaging and labels. And that is not as it used to be, with 200,000-impression print runs. It’s local print runs. It’s local beer, local foods, and local packages, and companies within that segment will need to differentiate.

I think that packaging is taking a more and more different role, moving from protection to marketing. Right now I would say that we are already at 95% marketing. A package still has to fulfill its protection function, but the main driver for the shine and the gloss is marketing, marketing, marketing.