Comarbel moves to expand its niche

Comarbel moves to expand its niche

Recent investment in presses from Nilpeter and HP Indigo has allowed Colombian converter Comarbel – only printing labels since 2005 – to tackle higher quality work. James Quirk reports

Bogota-based Comarbel’s move into flexo label printing in 2005 is representative of the boom in the technology in Colombia at that time. Seven years later, flexo’s prevalence in the local industry has created a highly competitive market – one in which Comarbel, with recent investment in presses from Nilpeter and HP Indigo allowing it to tackle higher quality work, is well positioned to thrive.

Brothers Rodrigo and Juan Carlos Arbelaez, manager and assistant manager respectively, have a keen sense of their company’s position in the market. Comarbel’s early years were spent focusing on smaller brands, targeting work that could be effectively carried out by its first flexo presses, and which was not being handled by the country’s largest converters.

The apprenticeship has now been served. Comarbel is combining its new technology with a range of value-added services in order to target bigger brands with higher quality work and increased productivity.

Flexo move

Comarbel was founded in Bogota, the country’s capital, 30 years ago by the brothers’ father, Rodrigo, who imported steel for distribution in Colombia and exported typical Colombian products to expats living in the US.

When Rodrigo’s sons joined the company in 1996, Comarbel began to dedicate itself to importing prime materials and paraffin, which was used in cellophane paper production. The material was sold to offset printers. When customers started requesting BOPP, Comarbel began importing and selling the material in 2001.

Wanting to begin in-house production, and encouraged by the increasing local demand for the technology, the company decided to diversify into roll to roll flexo printing in 2003 – thereby not competing with its offset clients, to whom it continued to sell materials.

‘Between 1999 and 2008, Colombia, previously dominated by offset, had the highest growth in any flexo market in Latin America,’ says Rodrigo Arbelaez. ‘Between 1999 and 2003, it was an explosion.’

A separate division was created and the brothers began studying in earnest, gathering information from books, trade magazines and exhibitions, and seeking advice from industry suppliers. Rodrigo attended training courses in Mexico and the US.

‘The learning curve was very hard,’ admits Juan Carlos Arbelaez. ‘Many flexo converters already had printing experience with offset technology. Our offset market knowledge helped us, but we had no previous experience in printing. It took us four years to reach the point where we felt really confident.’

After two years of initial study and preparation, Comarbel installed its first flexo press in 2005, an 8-color machine with 16in web width and lamination, cold stamping and die-cutting capabilities, plus inline inspection from Erhardt + Leimer. Each print station is equipped with drying units, the final of which is UV curing. In 2008, a second machine of the same specifications was installed.

Self-adhesive labels were the first to be produced, followed quickly by shrink sleeves, for which Comarbel installed equipment from Karlville. More recently, the company has begun wraparound label production.

‘With those first two presses, we targeted brands with smaller consumption, who we felt were being overlooked,’ says Rodrigo Arbelaez. ‘The tactic worked. With this knowledge under our belts, we wanted to move into higher quality markets.’

The desire to compete in higher quality markets lead to the installation last year of a servo-driven 8-color Nilpeter FB 3300 flexo press with a 13in web width, equipped with UV curing throughout the print stations, die-cutting and inline inspection from BST.

‘We were looking for a servo-driven press which would run more efficiently and produce less waste,’ explains Juan Carlos Arbelaez. ‘Previously we had been unable to produce full UV labels, so this was also important. The Nilpeter press was bought in order to increase productivity and to start serving bigger brands. Because of the competitive nature of the Colombian market, it is important to be able to offer added value.’

Rodrigo Arbelaez says Comarbel was also keen to reduce its reliance on smaller brands whose orders could be erratic in length and regularity. The company routinely processes around 175 different jobs a month.

Food and beverage represents Comarbel’s biggest end user sector, at 40 percent of production. Cosmetics follow with 30 percent, and household goods take up the majority of the remainder. The company is seeing particular growth in the cosmetics and beverage sectors, while shrink sleeve applications are also on the rise.

Comarbel houses 89 employees at its 2,200 sqm facility. Running two shifts, it had a production capacity of 220,000 sqm a month before the recent addition of the HP Indigo digital press.

Other equipment includes an offline inspection rewinding system, which operates at 250m/min. Two slitter rewinders of 50in web width, running at 300m/min, handle BOPP for the materials division as well as flexo-printed labels. Self-adhesive labelstock is mainly supplied by local manufacturer Arclad.

Adding value

Having installed more advanced technology, Comarbel has set its sights on offering value-added products and services to its clients in an effort to differentiate itself in its competitive local market. ‘We are working to educate the brands and to position ourselves as their partner, not just a label supplier,’ says Rodrigo Arbelaez. The company works with design agencies to accompany brand managers through the whole process. Digital pre-press services are also a target for the near future.

Comarbel has also begun to target environmental sustainability as a further added-value offering to its clients, developing a line of compostable shrink sleeve labels. ‘We were keen to show our customers that we can offer a more environmentally friendly solution,’ says Juan Carlos Arbelaez. ‘Again, we are aiming to differentiate ourselves.’

Comarbel does not export its labels – an emerging middle class in Colombia has fuelled a rise in local demand. But export is planned for the future, with Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean all likely targets. ‘We want to go where the big guys aren’t going,’ says Rodrigo Arbelaez.

Comarbel also aims to benefit from the recent free trade agreement established between Colombia and the United States. The Arbelaez brothers see potential for labeling niche local products intended for export, in a similar fashion to their father’s business 30 years ago. Some of the company’s clients already have plans to export to the US, including a manufacturer of exotic soft drinks.

This article was published in L&L issue 5, 2012

James Quirk

James Quirk

  • Latin America Correspondent