Commercial Printing, Gravure

SIC 2754

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in commercial printing using the gravure process. Other terms often used to describe current methods of gravure production are "photogravure," "rotogravure," and "intaglio." Examples of products in this industry include magazines, postage stamps, dollar bills, calendars, fine art prints, wallpaper, catalogs, coupons, directories, newspaper advertising inserts, playing cards, postcards, gift wrap, and product packaging and wrappers.

Industry Snapshot

Gravure is a form of intaglio printing. "Intaglio" comes from an Italian word meaning "to engrave," and "gravure," taken from the French, has the same meaning. Intaglio printing methods were developed by carving or engraving an image in stone or metal. In contemporary commercial gravure printing, a reversed image is cut into a thick metal plate wrapped around a cylinder. Ink, applied to the plate and wiped off the surface with a blade, remains in the incised image cells so that when paper is placed against the plate, it absorbs the ink and produces a crisp copy of the image.

The contemporary gravure printing process has generally been used for very long press runs on projects requiring superior color accuracy and clarity on thin papers. Gravure is preferred in runs of more than 300,000 copies, like printing weekly or monthly magazines or mass-distributed catalogs. Gravure's primary advantage over other forms of printing is its ability to produce millions of impressions without suffering image deterioration. Gravure can also print a superior image on lighter papers than other printing methods can, since gravure lays down wet ink over dry. Other commercial printing methods lay wet ink over wet ink, which causes the image to degrade more quickly. Gravure's disadvantages include generally higher costs and increased press set-up time.

Background and Development

The gravure printing process developed from copperplate engraving techniques employed during the fifteenth century. Early plates were flat and needed to be hand engraved. The development of engraved cylinders to replace flat plates led to rotary gravure, called "rotogravure." Rotary gravure presses operate by squeezing paper between the image cylinder and a second cylinder called an impression cylinder. Rotary technology enabled the development of presses with increased printing speeds. A process by which rotary gravure presses were able to print on both sides of the paper was patented in 1860 by Auguste Godchaux, a Paris publisher. A photographic etching technique developed in 1878 by a Czech painter helped simplify platemaking procedures.

Gravure printing was further refined in 1908 when two German textile printers, Ernst Rolffs and Eduard Mertens, developed the "doctor blade." Gravure printing techniques relied on creating height differences between the image and non-image areas of the plate. An image was formed by making small recessed ink cells. The doctor blade assured the removal of excess ink from the surface level and enhanced the quality of reproductions.

One of the most popular items reliant on gravure technology was the Sunday newspaper magazine section. Many magazine sections even used the term "rotogravure" as part of their name. Although gravure newspaper supplements were not suited for up-to-the-minute reporting because of their lengthy preparation requirements, they made color advertising possible.

Despite advances made in gravure technology during the early twentieth century, plate engraving expenses and the length of time required to set up press runs remained problematic. The industry responded with efforts aimed at increasing gravure's efficiency. By the mid-1980s, computerized preparation and computer-to-plate (CTP) techniques had cut the pre-press time drastically. Lithography printing and gravure printing were practically equal in the late 1990s in terms of pre-press time. However, the costs associated with gravure were still higher, including costs to engrave and handle the heavy gravure press cylinders.

In comparison with offset lithographic presses, gravure presses tended to be larger, faster, and more expensive. In the mid-1990s, the cost of an average no-frills American-made gravure press hovered around $10 million, not including additional thousands of dollars spent in buying impression rollers, safety cages, and on-site installation. Other costs associated with buying a new gravure press included "extras" that most shops find to be necessities, such as cylinder-loading, viscosity, plumbing, and duct systems. Gravure presses were, at the time, often more than nine feet wide and more than 13 1/2 feet long.

During the early 1990s, analysts noted uncertain conditions within the commercial gravure industry. Among catalog and directory printers, gravure held approximately one-fourth of the market share, and growth in gravure print orders for catalogs grew at a faster rate than the overall growth rate for catalog printing.

In other areas, however, gravure printers experienced decreasing demand as publishers and advertisers turned to other print processes. According to figures released in 1989 by the Gravure Association of America (GAA), annual increases in gravure advertising were only 6 percent during the 1980s while offset advertising print orders increased at an annual rate of 13.6 percent. In addition, gravure's market share for inserts had dropped to 8.5 percent from 19 percent in 1982. Among magazine printers, annual increases in page production fell short of increases in print capacity and productivity. This led to increased competition and reduced profit margins.

According to the GAA, gravure Sunday magazine production was 12 percent higher in 1988 than in 1987, but the number of individual magazines produced dropped. By the end of the decade, they numbered fewer than 50, and the 1990s reduced their numbers further. Discontinued magazines included publications offered by the Des Moines Register, Denver Post, Oakland Press, Sacramento Union, New York Daily News, and Newsday. The fact that total production had not also fallen was attributed to two growing national Sunday supplements, Parade and USA Weekend, both gravure products.

In the late 1990s, according to the GAA, 30 magazines were printed gravure, including Family Circle, McCalls, Better Homes & Garden, Reader's Digest, Parade, and TV Guide. Gravure was also used for packaging designs, such as the printed plastic wrapping around many perishable foods or around beverage containers. Fifteen percent of the gravure's printing market in the late 1990s was devoted to printing labels and wrappers.

In addition to competition among gravure printers, the commercial gravure industry as a whole faced competition for advertising dollars from television and other printing processes. Trends toward shorter press runs to produce demographic editions of large-circulation magazines, as well as similar trends among catalog publishers toward smaller specialty catalogs, lessened the economic advantages offered by gravure's long-run capability. At the same time, improvements in the ability of competing print processes to achieve high-quality photographic reproductions further eroded gravure's traditional advantages.

In the 1990s, the commercial printing industry experienced uneasiness caused by a series of large acquisitions and mergers, an increase in the cost of paper supplies, and postage rate hikes. Gravure, as a subset of the industry, felt these changes keenly since its profit margin relied on an affordable paper supply. Gravure printers and heatset web plants (another kind of printing used primarily for magazines) were the most aggressive in seeking mergers.

By the late 1990s, gravure had made tremendous strides to overcome its high cost of set-up, lengthy cylinder engraving process, and environmentally unsound ink solvents. However, offset presses, which were the competition, improved quality, turn-around time, and ability to print longer runs with better quality. Pre-press costs were about equal for offset and gravure process by the late 1990s, but gravure cylinders were still substantially more expensive. Plates for an offset press can cost as little as $200, while a typical gravure cylinder cost $1,000 to $1,200.

One of the most significant challenges the commercial gravure printing industry faced in the mid-2000s was competition from a printing process known as flexography, or flexo. A key strength of flexo is its ability to integrate printing into dedicated conversion lines, making a finished product in one pass. In addition, flexo offers special coaters that are added to sheetfed and web press lines that allow spot varnishing or overall application of a pearlescent or metallic effect material, resulting in eye-catching options for packaging. By the mid-2000s, flexo had overtaken gravure in the flexible packaging industry. Its advantage over gravure was mainly cost since for single runs, it was cheaper to run flexo than gravure. Gravure relies on using an engraved cylinder, rather than plates, which makes short-run work inefficient. However, gravure maintained its reputation for producing better quality over flexo, and so held its own in the magazine and catalog market into the mid-2000s.

Gravure and flexography both maintained healthy positions in the U.S. printing industry in the mid-2000s. Gravure was still the process of choice for long-run printing jobs, as well as those that required sharp color contrast, although technological advances in flexo were improving its position in this area. The advantages of flexo included low expenses and the ability to print on thin and extensible films, two qualities that propelled it to dominate the North American packaging industry. The differences between the two processes, however, were shrinking. Gravure had begun making strides to improve its pricing as well as its ability to handle thinner materials, while flexo saw improvements in print quality.

In the mid-2000s, according to the Gravure Association of America (GAA), gravure printing accounted for roughly one-third of all consumer magazine circulation and more than 90 percent of newspaper Sunday magazines, including Parade and USA Weekend. Gravure produced 20 percent of the catalogs and 15 percent of the newspaper inserts in the United States. Gravure was also used to print a variety of packages and wrappers and products such as gift wrap, tissue products, wall coverings, and floor coverings.

Current Conditions

By the late 2000s many companies were adding digital functionality to conventional printing lines such as gravure. Printers were no longer necessarily committed to a particular technology, and increasing numbers of printers used a combination of gravure, lithographic, flexo, and/or digital printing to produce the best product efficiently.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 288 U.S. establishments involved in commercial gravure printing in 2007, as compared to 336 in 2005. The industry employed 17,131 people in 2007, down from 20,262 in 2002. Total value of shipments for the commercial gravure printing industry reached $4.0 billion in 2007, according to Census Bureau figures.

Despite these figures, some felt that gravure was on its way out in the printing world. According to an October 2009 article in Print Week, "The competition for gravure comes from today's high-speed, high-pagination web offset presses." Although gravure still had an advantage in its better handling of lightweight papers and greater flexibility of page formats, the author of the article called gravure "a bit of a dinosaur" and predicated a dead end for its position in the printing industry. Others, however, saw a brighter future for gravure. Mike Impastato of Flint Group told Ink World that, despite the fact that flexo continued to dominate the packaging sector, "gravure does continue to enjoy a consistent market share that has remained level over the last several years--a trend we see continuing for the foreseeable future." However, the slow economic conditions of the late 2000s were taking its toll on the industry. According to Dennis Sweet of Sun Chemical, advertising was a large part of printing's business--especially newspaper insert advertising, for gravure printing, and "the economic downturn, combined with the struggling newspaper and magazine industry and the poor health of many retailers, ... all contributed to the challenges of 2008." These challenges were expected to continue until the economy started to recover.

Some looked to technological developments to help gravure hold its own. For example, a 2009 Paper, Film & Foil Converter article touted the use of lightweight "sleeves" in place of the steel cylinders normally used in gravure printing. These sleeves provided benefits in terms of changes that could be made quickly, thus supporting shorter runs, and in ergonomic terms: a gravure sleeve weighed about 10 to 15 pounds, as compared to the tradition steel cylinder, which weighed about 500 pounds.

Industry Leaders

Quad/Graphics, Inc. of Sussex, Wisconsin, was one of the largest privately held printing companies in North America in the late 2000s and one of the largest printers of weekly magazines in the United States. The company printed catalogs for companies such as Bloomingdale's and Victoria's Secret, as well as periodicals such as People and Newsweek. In 2007, Quad/Graphics entered into a multimillion dollar agreement to become the exclusive printer and prepress provider for the 65 L. L. Bean catalog titles. With 11,000 employees, the company posted sales of $2.0 billion in 2008 and had 10 plants in the United States that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Another industry leader was World Color Press (formerly Quebecor World Inc.), a multibillion dollar Canadian firm whose U.S. headquarters are in Boston, Massachusetts. World Color printed advertising inserts, books, catalogs, direct mail, magazines, telephone directories, and Sunday newspaper magazines, including Parade and USA Weekend. Total company revenue for 2008 reached $4.0 billion with 22,400 employees.

R. R. Donnelly & Sons Company, headquartered in Chicago, posted 2008 sales of $11.5 billion and employed 62,000 people. The company became the largest commercial printer in the United States with its 2004 purchase of Moore Wallace, a leading printer of forms and labels.

America and the World

The printing industry trailed only Germany in product exports in the mid-2000s. Gravure's popularity increased faster in Europe during the late 1980s than in the United States. Large gravure presses capable of all-at-once production were used to print magazines in a single print pass. Popular weekly news magazines featuring topical issues, televisions listings, and celebrity news required regular press runs of several million copies. In Europe, gravure was successfully used to print much shorter press runs of only 150,000 copies, as opposed to the 300,000 to 500,000 copy minimum practiced in the United States. Analysts noted that the European gravure market did not need to weather the same bottom-line, cost-conscious mentality as many American companies.

Research and Technology

Digital Process.
By the late 2000s, digital engraving technology was helping to overcome one of gravure's traditional problems--lengthy cylinder engraving time. Direct digital engraving methods used laser technology to etch cylinders without making an intermediate film copy of an image. By 2009, almost every gravure shop used digital engraving for some portion of its work. According to the Gravure Association of America, gravure was the first printing process to employ a totally digital environment, and every week brought new reports of companies installing digital printing presses. Eliminating the film step in the printing process removed a large cost component, saved time, and also reduced waste and the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. Max Daetwyler Corp., of Huntersville, North Carolina, developed one of the first complete digital systems, using a laser to engrave on a nonreflective metal alloy. Lasers could cut 25,000 to 30,000 image cells per second. In 2009 Integrated Book Technology (also known as IBT Global) installed an integrated on-demand digital production line-- the first of its kind in the United States--at Books International's plant in Dulles, Virginia. The new technology allowed the company to print an on-demand order of a single book.

Coatings in packaging web presses was used increasingly in the twenty-first century due to the quality and protection of the finished product. Press manufacturers designed coating-equipped machines, in addition to manufacturing retrofits. Industry forecasters suggested that coatings offered a company a bigger competitive edge than digital technology, primarily because there was less competition as most companies had coating capabilities inferior to the available technology.

Environment.
There was a great deal of research to improve the environmental impact of gravure in the 1990s because of U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance issues, the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and the Clean Air Act Amendment. Traditional toluene-based inks, which were strictly regulated and rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as volatile organic compounds (VOC) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP), were slated to be phased out by water-based inks. However, the technology was still in a developmental stage. Promising developments included mixing acetone, a nonhazardous but flammable substance, with water to increase ink drying time and multicolor press runs that used a water-based ink as only one of the colors. One study noted that in a typical four-color (cyan, yellow, magenta, and black) printing run, if a water-based ink were used just for the yellow component, toluene emissions would be reduced 35 percent.

Competition Online.
Although digital and online printing were gaining in popularity in the 2000s, few people in the industry believed that electronic media would replace print. Long-run magazine and catalog publishing was generally unthreatened by electronic publishing. Even short-run publications appeared to embrace digital technology, as many short-run publications produced complementing material on CD-ROM or on a web site. Some industry giants, like Quebecor and Quad/Graphics, welcomed digital publishing by advertising their services online and using web pages as marketing tools.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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