Gravure Rolls Up Its Sleeves to Do Battle with Flexo

What's the hottest trend in narrow web printing today? Presses that are competitively priced, use lightweight sleeves, offer fast changeovers for short runs, and utilize electronic line shaft technology. No, we're not talking about flexo here. State-of-the-art gravure presses are taking center stage.

An intensive effort has been made by most gravure press manufacturers to develop faster changeover and setup technology, says Dick Chesnut, president of Chesnut Engineering (chesnuteng.com). “Of recent interest, particularly in narrow web, is adding gravure stations to existing flexo label presses, giving these lines a new capability. Gravure printing can produce shiny metallics, bright fluorescents, and opaque base coats, as well as do in-line cold seals and laminations easily. The combination of gravure with other print processes, while adding to the capability of existing presses, also serves to introduce the process to traditional flexo printers,” Chesnut says.

“For many years,” says Wally Nard, president of Novaflex (novaflexinc.com), “gravure presses were over-engineered and expensive. For a time the trend was toward a system in which the trolley was removed automatically and reinserted. Today, with lightweight gravure sleeves that can be removed quickly, the gravure press has been simplified for easy change-out of lightweight cylinders or sleeves.”

Adds Nard, “With lightweight gravure sleeves, gravure presses can incorporate sleeve removal through the side of the press much like modern flexo presses. There is one exception: Gravure sleeves are much more durable for continuous reuse, whereas the current flexo sleeves have to be replaced every two to three years, adding costs to the flexo process. With the removal of sleeves out the side, the gravure color stations can be located closer together, reducing the total web path and material waste during setup. This also sets the stage for short-run gravure presses that are between 18 and 40 inches wide. Very fast changeovers are now possible.

“In the past,” Nard continues, “engraving costs were so high, they limited gravure to very long runs. This is not true today. The prepress cost is about the same as flexo. The remaining issues are press startup, color matching, and repeatability from run to run. Here, gravure clearly has the edge. High print quality and repeatability are definite advantages of gravure for the packaging buyer.”

Reports Kaku Kohli, director at Kohli Industries (kohliindustries.com), “Due to the ongoing battle between flexo and gravure presses, gravure presses have gone through many changes — a greater presence in the narrow to mid-web industry; quick and easy job changeovers, which are a must for short runs; and the new servo drive system, popularly known as the electronic line shaft [ELS] drive, that has reduced the web length in the gravure press — a big benefit for reduced waste.”

“Gravure presses are noted for their tight registry and high speed,” Chesnut continues. “ELS does eliminate the need for a web compensation system, which has some drawbacks to the process. ELS shifts the print by moving the position of the rotogravure cylinder. For gravure applications, ELS is still rather early in the game. As time goes on, no doubt more benefits of this technology will surface.”

Chesnut says the relentless pressure to reduce prices has brought about the advent of Internet auction bidding for printed labels and packaging materials. “While this trend has produced a number of negative side effects in the industry,” he points out, “it does open up the door for the converters to look at this technology carefully and decide which process they need to utilize in order to meet their objectives. This may benefit gravure in some ways, since it is a cost-effective process. Many label printers can no longer overlook the benefits [gravure] can provide.”


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