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Rewarding innovation

After 21 years leading innovation in the label and package print industry, Federico d’Annunzio has been awarded the R. Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award for 2020.

After 21 years leading innovation in the label and package print industry, Federico d’Annunzio has been awarded the R. Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award for 2020. 

Sponsored by Avery Dennison, the R. Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award recognizes ‘an innovation or idea that has helped transform and progress the label industry across the world’. 

In his constant questioning of the limits of flexography, Federico d’Annunzio follows in the footsteps of Stan Avery’s pioneering spirit and values, and the award is a recognition of that by his industry peers. 

This author has followed d’Annunzio’s career since Labelexpo Europe 1999 – when the Flower flexo printhead was first launched – through to the development of Gidue into one of the world’s leading flexo press manufacturers, and to the sale of Nuova Gidue to Bobst, where d’Annunzio was able to develop his ideas on flexo automation on a broader canvas. 

The Global Achievement Award criteria also specify that the winner must have taken part in industry organizations and events, and d’Annunzio has long been an advocate of wider industry involvement in innovation. In 2007 he was appointed to the board of Finat, the European label association, where he is widely acknowledged to have led a highly successful membership drive and focused on the need for innovation in the industry.

Indeed, a central feature of d’Annunzio’s world view is that cooperation among industry peers – including competitors – is central to moving the industry forward. 

‘My role is not itself innovation, but involving all the stakeholders, including trade show organizers and the media, in the innovation process. Like with Revo for extended color gamut printing and UVFoodSafe to bring UV flexo to the packaging industry [see boxout], it is about involving a lot of players around the problem. Innovation is an industry move, you cannot do it on your own. Innovation is a process which involves a lot of people and technology itself is not enough. And if someone is better than you, let’s involve them. It has to be open, or you do it only for yourself and a few customers.’ 

A Flower blooms 
Federico d’Annunzio began his technology career in a rather unlikely fashion – designing a machine to manufacture LP record sleeves – before settling on the print industry (‘I told my parents it was either the printing industry or the edible oil industry’). After spending ten years as the Italian sales arm for US-built flexo presses, d’Annunzio became convinced that UV would be the future for flexography, which up to then was dominated by water-based and solvent. 

‘I realized that I had to design a flexo printing head built only for UV,’ recalls d’Annunzio. ‘Printheads designed for water-based and solvent presses had to be big and strong enough to contain the power required to dry these inks. With UV flexo we could go much smaller.’

d’Annunzio founded the company Gidue along with Cristina Toffolo and first showed the new technology at Labelexpo Europe 1999.

The print unit d’Annunzio designed was called the Flower because it opens up ‘like a flower’ on press stop, with the anilox, rubber roller and doctor blade assembly automatically disengaged and ready for removal. The print cylinder is held in place by the patented Pitagora 3 x pressure point configuration and is locked from below rather than by guides into the press frame. This means that no print cylinder or anilox pressure adjustments are necessary when the plate cylinder is changed, regardless of diameter. 

The pyramidal design of the Flower imparted a high degree of stability to the press and this became the core technology for the next two decades of Gidue – then Bobst – in-line press designs.

‘In the early days it was the smaller family-sized businesses which trusted and supported me rather than the big groups, and these often grew into much bigger companies. One example is Nuceria, which of course today has grown into a huge package printing group as part of All4Labels.’

Flexo champion
Federico d’Annunzio remained a fervent champion of flexo technology against digital, even when the advent of inkjet appeared to threaten the future of flexo – much as the latter had supplanted letterpress in the 1990s. So while the other major flexo press manufacturers reached out to inkjet engine OEMs to develop hybrid machines, d’Annunzio insisted that if flexo could be brought under digital control, it could in many cases out-compete digital in the short-to-medium run job sector.

d’Annunzio’s believed that ‘digital’ should mean digital control of the press – ‘it would be the digital eyes and fingers of the press operators’, increasingly replacing manual intervention on the press. 

This train of thought led to the development of automated pressure adjustment. The camera system which monitored print pressure was not developed by d’Annunzio or his team, but is a great case study of his innovation strategy at work: bringing in stakeholders and ideas from different disciplines. 

‘I had the idea from the motorway cameras which use number plate recognition. I approached the police and asked them who supplied their cameras, then I asked them to build a camera which would fit onto a flexo press. Quite simply it measures a greater number of pixels when the pressure is too great, and a smaller number when the pressure is not enough. It was then quite a simple matter to send that information to the motors which control the movement of the print cylinders. In fact the same camera also reads color for us.’

d’Annunzio installed his first M5 Digital Flexo press with fully automated print pressure and register control at Adare Haverhill in 2013. Leading that project at Adare was commercial director Daragh Whelan, who was to become a close partner in proving Digital Flexo in the field. Whelan also took Adare as a partner into d’Annunzio’s Revo team looking to implement extended gamut printing. 

d’Annunzio takes a ‘systems’ approach to innovation, meaning that each individual advance serves the final goal. So Revo was not a goal in itself, but a key part of the wider Digital Flexo ecosystem. ECG places responsibility for color management not with the ink kitchen or the press operator, but with pre-press, where it forms part of an automated color management system. Color is monitored by spectrophotometric cameras on the press without operator intervention.

The same can be said about innovations such as Ink on Demand, introduced at the last Labelexpo Europe show. Ink on Demand eliminates ink trays and chambered doctor blades, keeping just 30 grams of ink in the print unit. 

This in itself is interesting enough, but the full benefit of Ink on Demand is seen when matched with the HAL color mixing and dispensing unit. This automatically creates Pantone colors from 14 basics inks – a lighter and darker shade of each ECG color – using only the 30g dose of ink in each print unit. 

Beyond labels
Another area where d’Annunzio was thinking ahead was his firm belief that narrow web converters should also be converting flexible packaging – and even cartons – on in-line presses. Indeed, he was pushing Labelexpo’s management to turn the exhibition into a package printing show targeted at label converters – which is what it has now become.

The idea of producing flexible packaging on a wider (mid-web) in-line press had of course been around for some time, epitomized by Mark Hermann’s Comco ProGlide MSP (multi-substrate) press. But Hermann’s main target for the press was flexible packaging converters, not label converters – which was why he decided not to show the press at Labelexpo. 

As early as 2004 d’Annunzio developed the 730mm-wide Unipro press for the flexible packaging market, with a plan to launch it at both drupa and Labelexpo, and with label converters firmly in his sights. This was one project which did not succeed commercially, but the general idea proved to be a sound one. 

In an interview with this author at that time, d’Annunzio also talked about the suitability of mid-web flexo for carton converting. That development never really took off, mainly because of the limitations of in-line die-cut/creasing compared to flatbed. 

d’Annunzio remains upbeat: ‘The key breakthrough for cartons will be linked with digital – or digitized – die-cutting. Currently you have to stop the press for half an hour, but that roadblock will go away and there will be more interaction between the printing and converting line.’

d’Annunzio believes the in-line move will come not from the carton industry, but from the label converter – as happened with flexible packaging. 

‘There are many advantages to go from the roll compared to a sheet. Another advantage we have is the high cost of carton materials. In the label industry, where the laminated substrate was very expensive, we had to be obsessed with waste saving and not having too many people involved in production. This is our culture – and it’s more interesting for the carton industry than the flexible packaging industry where the cost of waste is far less.’

Digital future?
When Bobst finally embraced digital label printing technology, d’Annunzio took the opportunity to fully integrate Digital Flexo technology into the Mouvent digital print engine to create a new, higher level of automation.

‘With the DM5 integration, the digital automation of the analogue processes – flexo, die-cutting – supports the fully automated digital flow of a hybrid press, eliminating production bottlenecks during job change-overs, so one click, one job.’

Despite his evident enthusiasm for the DM5 hybrid concept at Labelexpo Europe 2019, d’Annunzio still does not see digital as necessarily the future of label printing. 

‘Digital will not be main driver if it is only digital print and that goes into a big bottleneck. These super-fantastic digital presses can do jobs in a short time but then lose three times more in the process of coming to that order. Brand owners want cost reduction and flexibility, and digital printing is just one part of the whole cost. The only real advantage of digital printing is the convenience, not the cost.’

d’Annunzio believes that without full digital integration of the supply chain, analogue will continue to win on cost most of the time. ‘If you have an ECG machine where you don’t change the inks, and where you reuse plates four or five times the cost of the plates alone will be much less than the cost of inks in digital. The battle between analogue and digital will only have only losers if you do not fully digitize the flow. And when I talk about digitizing the flow I mean the connection between companies.’

For d’Annunzio digital integration means the ‘agile interaction between brand owners, converters and suppliers based on fully transparent, objective data exchange.’ This means far more than the digitization of a press or the use of an MIS within the converter’s plant – although both are key components. It is nothing less than complete data transparency based on an agreed, industry-wide data set. d’Annunzio’s next project is a software consultancy which aims to establish just such a trusted data framework between all players in the packaging industry supply chain.

‘In five years a brand owner will be able to “see” all the converters in the world. To see what machines they have available; to see how each converter is performing against an agreed set of metrics; to see whether they are an ethical company towards their employees or their suppliers and customers – have they been to court for example?; what products do they produce – for example which companies produce piggy-back labels with four layers; to see what are their sustainability initiatives. All these things can no longer be hidden as the private information of one company. This will be a performance-driven, and not a legacy-driven, world.’

Although this may seem a daunting or frightening prospect, d’Annunzio sees it driving positive change for converters. ‘For example up to now converters have invested a lot in sustainability but have not been rewarded for it. Now they will be rewarded for their efforts because everybody in the supply chain will immediately know about their sustainability investments.’

Although he will be focusing hard on this new project, d’Annunzio will remain engaged in driving innovation at Bobst. It will be fascinating to revisit this interview in five years to see how d’Annunzio has influenced both press automation and, potentially, a revolutionary new way for companies in the label industry to do profitable business with each other.


Andy Thomas is strategic director of Labels & Labeling.

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