Associated British Foods press ahead with packaging innovation

26 April 2013

Offset printing has long played an important part in the production of food and drink packaging. Gilbert Chow, the global category leader for packaging at Associated British Foods, discusses the key part it plays in the group’s set-up, and the way in which the multibillion-pound turnover business plans to incorporate new press technology to drive future innovations.

As global category leader for packaging at Associated British Foods, one of Europe's largest food companies, Gilbert Chow has an influence that spreads far and wide. The group is a diversi?ed food, ingredients and retail business with sales of £12.3 billion, and 106,000 employees in 47 countries.

Split into five divisions – sugar, agriculture, retail, ingredients and grocery – Associated British Foods aims to achieve strong, sustainable leadership positions in markets that offer the potential for profitable growth, and to deliver quality products and services that are central to people's lives. Among its most popular brands are Twinings (holder of the world's oldest continually used company logo), Kingsmill, Blue Dragon, Jordans and Patak's.

It comes as no surprise, then, to find that Chow has his finger on the pulse of the latest developments in the field of offset and digital printing technology for packaging applications. "Innovation comes from all corners of the packaging sector and that is what makes it a fascinating sector to be a part of," he says. "Developments in substrates, materials and, of course, printing technology enable groups such as ours to produce new and innovative packaging products across our key business areas."

Offset importance

Offset printing technology plays a major part in Associated British Foods' printed output. Quality, consistency and reliability are key for brands such as Twinings, which are built on a reputation for being premium products, and require packaging that reflects this. "The customer rightly expects quality from our products and high-quality print production is imperative in ensuring the packaging does the brand justice," says Chow. "Consistent and quality offset-print output from our reputable supplier base is one way of doing that."

"Quality, consistency and reliability are key for brands which are built on a reputation for being premium products, and require packaging that reflects this."

According to Chow, the group uses a large volume of offset-printed materials, especially in the packs for its Silver Spoon range of sugar. He highlights packaging innovations using paper and board stocks, which have been taking place across the group's converter supply base, but is particularly enthused by the opportunities afforded by other flexible materials. "We are seeing a great deal of innovation in the field of flexible packaging – just look at packs that are easy-open or easy-tear," he says. "These are fantastic innovations that many perhaps don't appreciate but that make life easier for customers while also helping extend the lifespan of products."

Flexible packaging

Chow sees significant growth in flexible packaging but it's fairly safe to say that its production has been restricted to established processes such as flexographic and gravure printing. However, presses from manufacturers such as Muller Martini and Comexi Group are offering converters an increasingly popular alternative.

Spanish flexo press manufacturer Comexi launched the Comexi C18, a press for flexible packaging printing, at last year's Drupa event. The machine combines offset and flexo technology, and is expected to challenge established printing technologies with its fast set-up times, high print quality and ability to print on a wide range of substrates such as PE, BOPP and PET.

This is all carried out with solvent-free offset inks and electron beam (EB) flexo coatings. Comexi is pitching its original configuration, which is based on a central-impression cylinder equipped with six offset and two flexo printing units, at the production of packaging such as shrink sleeves and wrap-around labels.

Elsewhere, Muller Martini and its Alprinta V press models have enjoyed success with many installations in Europe and beyond. The variable-size web offset press range, designed for printing labels and flexible packaging, enables the operator to change the job run-length by a simple plate cylinder or blanket cylinder replacement.

Customer perceptions

"One major challenge we face as a global business is the perceptions customers have of our packaging and its role in the environment," says Chow. "For instance, the move from rigid plastic packaging to flexible packaging often has a positive impact on the consumer. They can make a comparison of flexible packaging to paper products and, therefore, consider it easier to recycle and more positive in terms of environmental impact."

"These are fantastic innovations that many perhaps don't appreciate but that make life easier for customers while also helping extend the lifespan of products."

Moving away from flexible packaging, Chow highlights the importance of taking the full value chain into consideration when sourcing and creating packaging products. "For me, an important issue is the use of a heavier material in packaging to help extend the shelf-life of a product," he says. "Yes, there will be a greater cost of production but this can be quantified in terms of cost benefit. We will regularly speak to our suppliers and if we're using a heavier stock, then maybe we will assess the level of colour print on that product. In rigid packaging especially, the consumer does not benefit from the tactile nature of the packaging in the way they would with flexible packaging, so you can adjust the configuration accordingly. You need to understand your customers and what drives their purchasing decisions."

Future developments

While Chow is an advocate of offset printing technology, he is always willing to adopt new and 'disruptive' technologies if they will help catalyse further innovation in Associated British Foods' packaging lines. "Through our relationships with our supplier base and with manufacturers, we are frequently being exposed to new technologies and the impact they could have on production," he says. "We are looking at the ways in which we can integrate digital into our supplier's production lines and use it to complement existing presses. New press technology such as digital print allows us to start thinking about the possibilities of the new ways in which we can print."

He adds that there are obvious benefits, such as the option of shorter runs or high levels of personalisation: "This enables us to roll out small batches of a product, with packaging that's specific to a region or retailer, which carries details, images or text that differ from the regular version of that product.

"It is often expensive to introduce a new product or new line. But with digital, we can print in smaller lots, which potentially allows us to launch products in a more cost-effective fashion. We are not just talking about folding cartons here; digital is already applicable to products such as labels, but folding-carton applications are coming of age too, which is very exciting.

"In my opinion, consumers are always looking for packaging to fulfil its function in an effective, efficient way. Combining technology such as offset and digital enables us to drive innovation and if we can go some way to meeting those demands then it is, of course, worthwhile."

Associated British Foods are looking to utilise new press technology.
Twinings is among Associated British Foods’ most popular brands.

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