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Q&A: Nick Coombes

Q&A: Nick Coombes

L&L contributor Nick Coombes has spent almost 40 years in the graphic arts industry and has been involved in the label industry since the first Labelexpo show in London in 1980. He discusses with Andy Thomas-Emans what changes he has seen in that time and predicts a renaissance for the mid-web format first developed in the 1980s and 1990s. 

L&L: When did you first start writing about the graphic arts industry?
Nick Coombes: I joined the industry in 1977 having worked for Anglia Television in London for four years – prior to that I was teaching at a school in Sevenoaks. I was appointed Advertising & Publicity Manager at Geliot Hurner Ewen (GHE) – one of a number of family owned and run agencies that were prominent in the post-war years. Edlon Machinery, Graphic Arts Equipment, Smyth-Horne, and Oscar Friedheim all fell into the same category of selling and servicing imported machinery for overseas manufacturers who were not directly represented in the UK. My first task was to coordinate GHE’s participation at Drupa 77 – I had three months in which to do it, and at that stage had no idea what Drupa was nor what I’d let myself in for. By the way, next year will be my 11th (I swore I’d stop after 10), and a rough estimate tells me I’ve spent around four months of my life at that event over the past 42 years.

L&L: What are your main memories of those early days?
NC: Exhibiting at Drupa so early on proved a blessing, albeit an exhausting one. It showed me the whole industry in one place and gave a clear impression of how all the elements related to each other. Remember, we’re talking about the time when litho had not long taken over from letterpress in the commercial print market, and flexo was not considered a quality print process at all. Digital, in the shape of Benny Landa’s Indigo, was still 20 years away. GHE’s manufacturing principals were mostly in the bookbinding and print finishing sectors and had sadly fallen the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in 1945. So, from 1977 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I travelled frequently to East Germany to visit the Leipzig Trade Fairs and the Perfecta, Zirkon, Planeta, and Brehmer factories. The latter, under Communist rule was rebranded ‘Leipzigerbuchbindereimaschinenwerke’, or LBW for short, which of course meant something totally different to a cricketing Englishman. Those days of travel into the DDR were a revelation to anyone from the West. You knew you were always being watched and that your hotel room was bugged – and any misdemeanor would reflect badly on your business. You had to report to the police station on arrival and departure and stick to a pre-agreed travel itinerary throughout. I could write a book on this period in my life, such was the impact it made and appreciation it gave me for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted at home.

L&L: How did the fall of the Berlin Wall change your direction in the industry?
NC: Initially, there was a mild euphoria at the new-found freedom that the DDR-based manufacturers would enjoy and this came to fruition at Drupa 90, when for the first time East and West German companies were able to co-exhibit on a supposedly equal footing. The joy was short-lived however, because the state subsidies that had featherbedded the manufacturers under communist rule were never likely to be sustained in the harsh reality of the capitalist West, and although set up to protect the interests of the DDR companies and workers, the ‘Treuhand’ agency eventually sold most to their western competitors and closed down the old companies. From my point of view, having started my own consultancy business in 1979, it was clear that I needed to broaden my scope from the commercial market and move more into the package print field. I’d already begun this in the early 1980s, and prior to that had been in touch with the folding carton market through my association with Planeta, which became part of KBA, now Koenig & Bauer.

L&L: When did you first visit Labelexpo and become involved in the narrow web market?
NC: I attended the very first Labelexpo when it was held at The Horticultural Halls in London. It was about this time that I first started working with Gallus, who were represented in the UK by Edlon Machinery. This was the period when rotary letterpress reigned supreme in the quality label market, and any aspiring narrow web house had an R160B or similar. In those days, before Gallus acquired Arsoma, the Swiss company’s flexo offer was the American brand Comco – more of which later, but from first-hand experience with both over many years I can scarcely imagine a less likely partnership. In fact, when Gallus set up its own operation in the UK at the beginning of the 1990s, having by this time taken over Arsoma as its flexo arm, both Comco and Edlon Machinery needed to fill a void and it was at this time that I began to work closely with the Cincinnati-based manufacturer, and carried on doing so until it was sold by its owner Mark Herrmann to Mark Andy in 2001.

L&L: When did you start to focus on narrow web and labels?
NC: I’m not sure there was an obvious start point. My work in print for packaging had become more time-consuming throughout the 1980s as my contacts with the bookbinding and print finishing markets declined and finally came to an end with the sad demise of GHE in 2003. By this time, most of the other aforementioned agencies had also disappeared or undergone major restructuring. Your question is interesting in that to many people at that time, narrow web equated to solely to labels. I was lucky working with Comco, because they could see, even at that stage, that the growth potential for self-adhesive work was limited, and diversified their production into other markets.

L&L: Was there a clear distinction between labels and other printed packaging in those days?
NC: Absolutely. And not just between those two categories. There were very rigid demarcation lines between print techniques and the markets they served, with very little crossover. Remember, there was once a whole sector dedicated to business forms that doesn’t exist anymore, and nor does much of its hardware. It was only when computer technology in all its facets became more commonplace that manufacturers realized the need to diversify their machine portfolios. Mark Herrmann saw this and moved his production into the field of flexible packaging and folding carton production. Initially adapting the Comco Commander series label press, and then after seeing how successful this was, developing it into the ProGlide MSP (Multi Substrate Press), he challenged both CI flexo technology and sheet-fed offset in one go – and enjoyed major success with both in the USA, where there are many ProGlides still in daily operation some 30 years after they were built.

L&L: Was this the beginning of mid-web for non-label applications?
NC: Yes. Up to this point we had seen a gradual increase in web width in the label market from typically 7in (180mm) when I started in the early 1980s, to a more usual 13in and 16in (330mm and 410mm) today. But these are still essentially narrow web, and while modern presses are way more sophisticated than their predecessors with all kinds of added value options and even more colors than before, the future growth as I see it will come from the next sector up in terms of size. The Comco ProGlides that were selling well in the 1980s and 1990s were mostly 26in (660mm) presses and wider, and this is the where I see the likes of Omet succeeding with their VariFlex series as a modern-day equivalent. It’s interesting, that having virtually ignored that market sector for almost 20 years since it acquired Comco, Mark Andy is now making a determined effort to re-enter it with its P9 press. As the saying goes: ‘What goes around – comes around.’

L&L: Why did it take so long for mid web presses to take off and now become mainstream at Labelexpo?
NC: I think there are a number of underlying points here and more than one question to answer. First of all, and this is something of a wild generalization, the European market has always been about quality and the US market about volume. So, rotary letterpress for labels and sheet-fed offset for cartons, with rotogravure for flexible packaging, was how we did it on this side of the pond. For many years, the American market was less interested in quality, so flexo, both CI and in-line, was an accepted and well-used print process. The advent of computerization in the form of CtP began to change all that, coming as it did with the advances made in ink technology, UV curing, anilox rolls, and all of the elements that together have brought flexo to the high-end production process that it is today. I hate to harp on, but Comco, with its HD Club, was doing much of this in the 1980s, and I feel has never been given the credit for being such a pioneer. 

The reluctance of Europe, as the other main developed market, to accept in-line flexo for flexible packaging and folding cartons largely stems from its historic base of the major competitors in technology – CI flexo (think Fischer & Krecke and Windmöller & Hölscher to name but two in flexible packaging) and sheet-fed offset (Koenig & Bauer, MAN-Roland, and more recently Heidelberg for print, and Bobst with off-line converting). None of these was likely to concede market share without a fight, and in any case their technology was under a program of continual improvement and innovation, so in-line flexo was effectively trying to push water uphill.

But I suspect it has been the change in consumer buying habits that has brought about a rethink among converters. Shorter run lengths and JIT delivery has had a major effect on the production floor of all who produce printed packaging, and the advent of digital print technology has acted as an accelerator. As wide web press manufacturers develop narrower configurations, so the narrow web technology manufacturers look to go wider. What they are all searching for is maximum flexibility and cost-effectiveness, and the reason this is relevant to Labelexpo is that the potential growth in flexible packaging (and cartons) is far greater than for labels, however successful this market has been in its own right over the past 50 years. In fact, I’ve long believed that the Labelexpo brand is a double-edged sword – highly successful but also limited by virtue of its name.

L&L: What do you think the future holds for narrow and mid-web label and package printing?
NC: A very bright future indeed. If you’re going to be involved in any area of print these days, it has to be packaging. It’s the only sector that has not been adversely affected by the internet, and in fact has benefitted hugely from online shopping (think Amazon). It doesn’t matter whose stats you choose to illustrate the point, printed packaging is growing fast and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Yes, we have issues with plastic pollution, and this is neither the place nor time to discuss the matter, save to say that the major problem is not the production of the product but its disposal/reuse, and that’s where governments need to devote their resources. Think of how much of the global market is becoming brand-aware and moving into branded goods for the first time, and how large those populations are. One simple stat to make the point: the middle class in India, that is those with ‘new’ money to spend, outnumbers the entire population of the EU. I deliberately chose not to use China as an example – but you get my drift. 

Talking to the many machinery manufacturers that I come across and work with, all are diverting their attention towards the developing markets because the likes of North America and Western Europe are mature, well stocked, and offer little real growth potential. In recent years I have seen and been involved in development work in Asia – and from the Middle East to China is one big area. In fact, of course, it’s far from one area, and this is where the astute manufacturers are learning to hone their products and marketing approach – what works in India won’t necessarily work in Malaysia or Indonesia, and China is a market all of its own. And don’t forget the potential of countries in South America and Africa. True, they have their various issues, but they also have growing demand, which provides opportunities for technology manufacturers. I’m very optimistic about the future of package printing and would recommend any young person considering a job in commerce to look closely at what this industry can offer as a long-term career. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in graphic arts – and still do.

L&L: And away from work? 
NC: If you ask my wife, she’d say I don’t have a life away from work. I’ve always been a keen sportsman, with cricket and golf as my main loves. These days I’m too unfit to play one and too busy to find time for the other, but in younger years both were great providers of exercise and social life. I’m still a member of MCC so enjoy my days at Lord’s cricket club, and also a member of Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club, which is only 10 minutes from my home and one of the best links courses in the UK, if not the world. Louise and I have two beautiful Golden Retrievers, Tetley and Boris, who provide us with the daily fresh air and exercise that we otherwise might not get. She and I were born and brought up in east Kent, so our recent house move to Ringwould, between Deal and Dover, is more like coming home, and it’s been good to hook up with old friends. It’s also an L&L stronghold down here, with Mike Fairley and Andy Thomas-Emans both living within 10 miles of us.


Andy Thomas is strategic director of Labels & Labeling.

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