LATERAL THINKING IS THE KEY

NICK COOMBES, one of P&PM’s European correspondents, talks to MIKE PFAFF about his new job at Gallus and asks him how he sees the carton market emerging from the current worldwide malaise.

MIKE Pfaff has long been acknowledged as a world authority in carton converting, having for many years run his own consultancy business as well as spending time with Comco, latterly a division of Mark Andy. His recent appointment as president of the Gallus US Carton Division marks a new phase in the career of this approachable expert. Here’s how this industry expert sees the future of global carton production.

Caption: According to Mike Pfaff, newly-appointed president of Gallus’ US Carton Division, Gallus is the best placed manufacturer to meet the changing expectations of carton converters as they emerge from the global recession.

Nick Coombes (NC): You’ve had 25 years in the business, why Gallus, and why now?

Mike Pfaff (MP): I’ve always been a proponent of web-fed carton production, which has traditionally had a greater degree of acceptance in the US than elsewhere, particularly Europe. The ability to print and convert inline at high speed and with fewer operators has always made sound economic sense to me, so with the merging of BHS medium-web know-how into the Gallus Group, which is pre-eminent worldwide in the narrow-web market, I saw an opportunity to develop into the carton market with cutting-edge technology. The Gallus range now covers most short- and long-run carton market requirements from small format pharmaceutical boxes to larger formats produced on 60” presses.

NC: We’ve heard of the imminent demise of sheet-fed offset carton production for years – do you think it will ever happen?

MP: No, I suspect it won’t because of the size of the companies that have a vested interest in the technology, both printing and finishing, but I do believe there’ll be a shift in emphasis in the market. If you compare the quality of flexo printing now with 10 or certainly 20 years ago you can appreciate the strides it has made and will continue to make. Offset, to many, will always be seen as the premium technique for flesh tones, vignettes and so on, where a greater degree of subtlety is required, but flexo lays a heavier weight of ink and its colours retain vibrancy throughout the print run, so it depends on the work you’re doing. Crucially though, it’s an inline process that needs one pass from blank board to finished box. In a global packaging market where contracts are won and lost on fractions of a cent, cost is a major driver.

NC: What’s your view of the carton market at present – how well do you think it’s coping with the economic downturn?

MP: Globally it’s at best flat and in some places down. Usefully, demand overall for printed packaging continues to grow as the so-called third world economies move into the consumer age. It’s also not an area of print to be challenged by the Internet – you still need physical packaging to wrap goods, virtual won’t do! What Internet shopping is doing is having an influence on packaging trends, but the real competition to cartons still comes from plastics, which still outsells paperboard substrates because it shouts loudest. Paper-based substrates have a great story to tell, but need to make more noise about it. Wood is a renewable resource that’s also recyclable, and forests are CO2 consumers – plastics can’t make such claims.

NC: How do you advise carton converters to improve their performance?

MP: The keys are flexibility and efficiency. The current market is probably as price sensitive as it’s ever been, so every converter needs the capability to go out and fight the price wars while retaining the capacity to respond to tight lead times and the growing trend towards short-run work. Stripping costs out of the production chain is crucial, whether it’s substrate, ink or plate usage, labour or any other component, from design and blank laydown to floorspace required, the end cost is dependent on the weakest link. That’s why the ability to do many processes in a single pass is such an advantage. Over the years I have developed a variety of production models that compare processes – they are often real eye-openers when I show them to established carton houses.

Caption: Optimised for carton converting, the ICS 670 uses Gallus’ new EVA (Easy Value Added) platform. Optional modules include screen, hot and cold foil, and laminating, as well as holograms for security applications. It has proven HiDef flexo print units.

NC: How is the new job going, or is it too early to say?

MP: Well, I’m very excited at the opportunity it offers me. I might be new to the company but I’m well connected in the market and this can only make acclimatising much quicker. What I like is the company’s commitment to folding cartons. We have an entire division dedicated to this sector, complete with engineering, administration and R&D facilities.

Mr Rüesch, our owner, really has a passion for printing, both label and folding carton, which I find refreshing and attractive. The chance to shape the approach of a world-class company like Gallus is a challenge anyone in my profession would love to have. Having competed against Gallus in the past made me realise how formidable its equipment is, and the chance to work with machinery of this stature was one I just couldn’t pass up.

NC: What do you believe you can bring to the Gallus brand?

MP: Experience and contacts to name two things. I know the market, the customers, and the suppliers, which is invaluable to any company. Sales of this type of equipment are often long, drawn-out events, with a host of ancillary suppliers that need to be coordinated to achieve a successful sale delivered on time and on budget. I also have a technical background (in
die-cutting), which helps to put converters at ease. Aside from this I can raise the company’s profile through my close working relationship with trade media and the presentations I’m asked to give by various industry bodies.

NC: What are your short-, medium-, and long-term goals for Gallus’ Carton Division?

MP: In the short term we need to re-establish a consistent revenue stream. We have fared reasonably well through the downturn but, like most, we’d like to see a backlog emerge again. There are a number of really promising projects in the pipeline that we are confident will go ahead in the next one or two quarters. For the mid and longer term, our focus is on understanding and meeting our customers’ requirements. We have press platforms that address short-run, value-added and high-volume needs, so we feel we’re well positioned to help most, if not all, converters accomplish their goals.

NC: What will the carton industry look like after this recession is over?

MP: Probably much like it did going in, albeit with fewer players. Fortunately, the market for paperboard packaging is mostly recession resistant, like food, beverages and pharmaceuticals. These products still get purchased in recessionary times and some, in fact, actually grow in demand. I’m thinking of cigarettes and beer, for example.

Caption: The Intro is a versatile modular system that can be adapted for carton, liquid packaging and flexible packaging requirements. Capable of running water-based, solvent or UV inks, it’s capable of 600m/min on web widths from 560 to 1 650mm.

 NC: Which way forward for the carton converter in technology terms – flexo, offset or digital?

MP: It’s hard to say with certainty because all processes have their strengths. Often, converters seem simply to revert to their own comfort zones. Flexo printers buy more flexo presses, offset printers buy offset. For many it’s the normal fear of change, perhaps accentuated nowadays by constant worry about the economy. I think a more important point is press design – meaning web-fed or sheet-fed. It’s hard for me to imagine the current cost pressures abating. As folding cartons are increasingly relegated to commodity status, the market will continue to demand lower prices and spot availability. So, it stands to reason that the more efficient way of producing cartons will win out. In nearly all cases, a web machine beats a sheet-fed, given today’s technology. It simply uses less paper, less labour and is faster to the finish line.

NC: How do you view the competition of CI presses?

MP: There is no doubt that both CI and inline flexo have benefitted from technological developments in recent years that allow both to produce high-quality cartons at high speed. Leaving physical size comparisons aside, although they can be the determining factor, where the inline press scores heavily is in its flexibility. It accepts ‘add on’ processes more easily, can be re-configured to suit changes in demand and offers more drying/curing options. It’s all about size and associated costs: the smaller the first, the lower the second. In the final reckoning, as an old die-cutting man myself, I’m happy to say that the inline press fitted with rotary die-cutting is a far more proven technique for carton production than CI.

NC: Are you optimistic, pessimistic or plain phlegmatic about the future?

MP: Optimistic, of course! We live and work in an industry where the customer wants more for less and needs it faster than ever before. An associate of mine once said: ‘There are only three things our customers demand: Free, Perfect, and Now!’ No printing technology delivers that, but the technology we have at Gallus just might be closer to that carton buyer’s nirvana than anything else!


 

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