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?
Brands have been diversifying their products a lot for the past 5-10 years, and this diversification leads to a proliferation of SKUs, and thus a reduction in the size of production runs. These days they need printers to be flexible, agile, and able to produce quality to demand, or just in time. Which is where ECG comes in. ECG creates efficiency and capacity benefits.
Where is this drive for diversification coming from?
A lot of it is down to how powerful packaging is. It’s become an essential part of branding and marketing, with brands focusing on how you make the packaging part of the overall user experience. There’s also been 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.
And does diversification necessarily mean brands need more technical print processes?
Yes, because they still have this drive to really stand out on shelf and be distinctive. 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.
Is it just large brands driving this diversification? Or is the impetus coming from brands of all sizes?
The diversification is definitely happening across the bigger players, but also in some of the smaller brands too. They’re often looking for a niche in the market in which to make their mark. Diversification is an opportunity for them to stand out on shelf and be different to others. 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 flexo press manufacturers have been very aware of these market trends. 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, given this brand demand for diversification?
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.
Finally, what trends can we expect from brands in terms of diversification in future?
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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