Bernhard Grob has spent a productive lifetime at Edale working through the golden years of the narrow web industry – and particularly pioneering flexo press sales in the old Soviet Union. Now he has written a new book detailing these fascinating experiences.
L&L: What year did you enter the narrow web label industry?
Bernhard Grob: I entered the narrow web label industry in January 1987, having moved from Switzerland to the UK to join Edale. My focus was to expand its export sales, which at the time were 5 percent, by setting up direct export sales and a distributor network. Being a ‘St Galler’, I knew of Gallus, but the narrow web label industry was totally new to me. Drupa 1986 was the turning point. I approached a number of exhibiting UK companies with the view to offer them my services and bring my young family to my wife’s home country. I received a number of positive replies, mostly from companies involved in labels, and the decision to join this industry was made with a fast-track learning of this exciting sector and especially flexography.
L&L: What were you doing before that?
BG: Having gained a degree in pre-press during a four-year apprenticeship as ‘Schriftsetzer’ in the late 1960s to early 1970s at the print college in St Gallen, I spent a few years in printing companies, experiencing the move away from lead typesetting and letterpress printing to film-based pre-press and offset printing. Being involved from the start of the pre-press revolution taught me that technology and constant learning would be crucial for my future development. Moving to Zurich a few years later as head of pre-press and proof-reading, I got involved dealing with advertising agencies, gaining an insight into how printing was perceived from a different perspective. This attraction meant further years of studies with Swiss diplomas in Advertising and Marketing to get a job in this field. After some time in advertising and publishing, with a stint working in Paris, where I met my English wife-to-be, the move into marketing for a multinational manufacturing company was a logical progression, dealing internationally with a strong focus on exporting worldwide.
L&L: In the mid-1980s letterpress was still the dominant technology in Europe for high-end label applications. Was it a serious challenge for you to promote flexography to narrow web converters at that time?
BG: As I started life in the printing industry when letterpress was the dominant process, I knew flexography as a similar but simpler process, mainly used for low quality package printing. However, Drupa 1986 already indicated that flexo was a printing process to be watched, because pre-press companies such as anilox, photopolymer plate and ink manufacturers saw great potential in a lower cost printing process by developing products to enhance print quality. The higher production speed of flexo presses was an additional advantage for ever-increasing label volumes versus the much slower semi-rotary and rotary letterpress machines. Therefore I was convinced that flexo, especially in the label industry, had a tremendous future and I was ready for the challenge of doing all the necessary ‘mercenary’ work, in close collaboration with key companies in this field, to promote flexo, besides promoting an unknown press manufacturer to the world.
L&L: How did you view the early development of UV flexo compared to water-based and solvent-based flexo for narrow web presses?
BG: Solvent-based ink, with all its environmental issues, was the norm and, may I add, nasty for the people working with them. The introduction of water-based inks was as important as the novelty of sliced bread or instant coffee. One article in my book, written by a flexo printer, dwells in more detail on this issue. Water-based inks, along with advances in anilox and photopolymer plates and more refined flexo presses, were key to the gradual and then rapid growth of flexographic printing. I remember the first UV flexo ink test prints we conducted from an Australian ink manufacturer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, promising already the next level in flexo. This development was no surprise as UV inks were already successfully used with letterpress.
L&L: Your early focus was on the ‘developing’ markets of eastern Europe and Russia. How much of a challenge was it to sell narrow web flexo there?
BG: : I go back to when it was the market of the Soviet Union until the end of 1989/90. While working in Switzerland in the 1970s for a company exporting 95 percent worldwide, I was part of a sales strategy meeting when the European sales manager mentioned that the company should now put a foot into the Soviet markets, in anticipation that communism would fall one day. GEC Milan 1987 was my first exhibition to promote flexo presses. I met, out of the blue, a Hungarian customer whom I asked how could I explore sales into a closed Soviet market? He took me straight to the stand of Brueder Henn, a well-established Austrian trading company selling MAN Roland offset presses into Soviet bloc countries. This became my first and most important decision and distributor appointment, leading to flexo press sales prior to the collapse of communism and, later, to our most successful distributor. In these early years, we were selling a ‘flexo philosophy’ as being the new and future printing process where huge profit margins and a quick return on investment was possible. Many such first flexo press investors were not printers but business people who spotted an opportunity where their money could grow quickly. Many such stories are highlighted in my book.
L&L: What changes have you seen in these markets since the 1980s?
BG: Of course, the collapse of communism was a historic step, opening huge economic opportunities. My company benefited from this enormously by having an already active distributor in all the newly formed countries of the former Soviet Union. This led us to become the number one flexo press supplier in Russia by the 1990s. No surprise then that Russia was my most visited country, documented by several stories in my book. Many countries from what is now called CEE (central and eastern Europe) have quickly reached standards equal to western Europe and contributed strongly to the growth of the label industry. Eventually, global label printing companies formed partnerships or set up their own production sites to benefit from the strong growth that followed, expanding their global supply chain strategy accordingly.
L&L: What about other global markets you have sold into?
BG: The Pacific Rim became the second most important export market and we supported Labelexpo Singapore from the start, demonstrating flexo and screen printing machines. This led to many press installations in Singapore and other countries in that part of the world, progressing into China in the mid/late 1990s. The Middle East, Latin America and Africa followed, with India starting to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century, gaining ground after a slow start.
L&L: Edale has always been a strong champion of producing packaging (particularly cartons) as well as labels on narrow web flexo presses. Why did you develop that strategy while other press manufacturers focused mainly on the PS label market? Is there an ideal press width for producing packaging?
BG: When we first exhibited in Moscow, self-adhesive labels did not exist, hence novelties were welcomed. Visitors grabbed these new self-adhesive labels from the stand and stuck them all over the place outside the exhibition. Then, quite unexpected, a scary police officer visited our stand, telling us to stop distributing such labels immediately. Instead, however, Russia had a big demand for packaging material, to replace plain paper with printed packaging for things like butter wrappers, sausage skin (casings) and wet-glue vodka and beer labels. But label presses were too narrow. Based on our strategy as a bespoke niche press manufacturer, we decided to launch a 510mm-wide (mid-web) flexo press which led to instant success. Later, we added in-line flatbed die-cutting and creasing modules to enable single pass folding carton production; so the same press could produce reel to reel packaging, reel to sheet wet-glue labels, folding cartons and of course, in the future, also self-adhesive labels. As we were the first label press manufacturer with a mid-web flexo press for packaging, folding carton and labels, this unique solution became a worldwide success, especially after we exhibited it at Drupa 1995. Being the first and being different paid off once again for my company.
L&L: Edale was an early pioneer of the hybrid digital/flexo press. How do you see hybrid technology developing in the future?
BG: : Following Drupa 2000 where Indigo’s Benny Landa launched digital printing in a big way, we decided that our company was too small to develop our own digital press, but that there was an opportunity to be a perfect engineering partner to digital printhead suppliers, to design and build their web transport platform, to incorporate their inkjet heads/module, getting a well-proven digital press. These initially digital-only partnerships developed further into digital hybrid presses, with flexo, screen and all sort of embellishment and finishing options being added. Once more, being first paid off and put the company ahead of other label press manufacturers. Today, there is a market for both, hybrid and digital-only presses, with basic converting features becoming standard as with conventional label presses. Printers want their bespoke press configuration to suit their needs best and, to maximize their productivity with the objective to achieve optimum profit margins in an ever increasingly competitive environment.
L&L: Taking a wider view, what are the biggest changes you have seen in the narrow web label and packaging market over the last 30 years?
BG: Starting with the earlier mentioned technological changes in flexo, the expanding range of labels and now also packaging applications, substrates and the many niche solutions outside the common label industry, such as printing conductive inks for RFID, keyboards, mobile phones and white goods products – just to mention a few. I remember once judging the World Label Awards when a new category for technical labels was introduced and I had to explain to other judges that it was not the dot gain, print quality and registration accuracy to look out for, but the innovative aspect of the label function.
The change from mechanical to servo-driven presses was a major technological step. Despite the fact that servo was already successful in many other industries like automotive, aerospace and machine tools, adopting it to web printing and converting required further development and an additional set of skills by recruiting software engineers. Once more, my company was at the forefront in this development thanks to our involvement in bespoke machine design which required servo well before it became a must for label presses.
Globalization and the importance of the supply chain, amalgamations, succession planning from the many first-generation label pioneers, and getting involved in out-of-the-box opportunities in new technologies, applications and solutions which did not exist, are other aspects I enjoyed and still involved in, and following closely
In conclusion: I am convinced that the narrow web industry with its many innovative people and companies will continue to play the most attractive niche role within the whole printing industry.
L&L: What are your main interests outside the packaging machinery industry?
BG: : Having spent a considerable amount of time travelling the world for 30 years I was looking forward to spending more time with my wife and our two wonderful grandchildren. Also discovering the pleasure of gardening and nature; travelling more frequently to my home country, Switzerland, not just for the annual skiing holiday; and, last but not least, using my experience, knowledge and connections in my new capacity of BMGrobConsulting.
L&L: You are about to publish a new book on your experiences in the label industry. Can you tell us something about that?
BG: A business friend who knew of my travel journals I have written over 30 years encouraged me to write a book, not knowing what it involved. When I started the book it was not too daunting, however, it soon became obvious that it would be a major task. It also became clear that I wanted industry figures to contribute to give a wider view on the three decades from their individual perspective. The overall intention was to summarize a golden area of the narrow web label and packaging industry, with its many global, political, economic and social influences and changes. The book expresses my personal experience and wonderful memories from all over the world as a snapshot of my extensive travels. The book, ‘Destination – Travelling the world for the printing industry’ has been designed by a student from the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication of Reading University, UK, and it will be printed by Xeikon on its digital Sirius press and finished by Mueller Martini. The book will be available in early Spring as a limited edition. It is not for commercial sale but donations are welcome and will be used to support young people within the graphic arts industry, with Reading University as the main beneficiary.