10 February 2020 Finishing

Highcon aims to catch the rising tide for change

Highcon has been associated with impressive and intricate creative packaging until now. But changing markets and a new approach mean that the Israeli digital finishing company is in the right place to be part of the move to agile production in packaging.

A Highcon is a must have, not a nice to have, says Shlomo Nimrodi. As he has been CEO of the Israeli company since June last year, this is hardly surprising. However, the argument is based on industry logic coupled with developments in the company’s technology.

The logic is that the trend towards shorter runs and fast turnaround that is driving demand for digital printing in the carton market also requires a digital means of finishing those sheets. If it is impractical to run a conventional litho press with five or more colours for short runs, it is equally impractical to make a die for short run production.

If there is interest in Heidelberg’s Primefire and Landa’s S40 there should be interest too in Highcon as the logical finishing partner. Benny Landa is a common factor, founding the company that bears his name and as a major investor in Highcon. Virtual Packaging in Texas runs both a Landa S10 and Highcon Beam. The company specialises in short run boxes for product testing. For a company like this, a Highcon is indeed a must have.

The Highcon technology combines laser cutting with a digital means of creating a die on demand within the machine. A polymer is extruded to a backing sheet and hardened by UV. This is then good to run for cartons, how many depending on a number of factors, but enough for short production runs.

“The company’s target is to digitise the last step in the manufacture of boxes,” says Nimrodi. He was appointed in June at the behest of Landa. Aviv Ratzman, Highcon's founder and CEO until that point, became and continues to be chief marketing officer.

The company was founded ten years ago and made its first appearance at Drupa in 2012. By Drupa four years ago it had taken an impressive stand filled with highly creative folded cartons and pieces that sparked the imagination, but perhaps not as many orders as the business would have liked. It was a nice to have product.

Nimrodi is in charge to change that. His links to business development run deep. “I have had a career in building high tech companies,” he says. This included being part of the IPO team at Indigo and then leading the merger with HP. Working in software in Germany followed and then to head the centre of entrepreneurship in the state of Israel. Until Benny Landa got in contact in April last year with the support of one of the largest venture capital companies in Israel.

With the Landa presses coming to market, a finishing partner was essential. And at Drupa this year the aim is to show machines which work, which can be shipped, installed and put to productive work. “In 2020 it’s about manufacturing agility,” he says.

And in 2020 that is transforming the production of both cartonboard and corrugated boxes. It is driven by two major dynamics, says Nimrodi. Brand owners want to differentiate themselves via their packaging, meaning shorter runs, impactful design and fast to market. Nor do they want capital tied up in stocks of preprinted boxes that may have to be ditched. And as brands are in the spotlight for their sustainability strategies “the result is pressure on the supply chain,” he says.

His second trend is the continuing development of larger digital presses, pushing from commercial print into packaging to meet the demands from the brands. Highcon is knocking on the doors of these medium to large companies in folding carton and corrugated, explaining: “If we can eliminate the need for a die plate using polymer, there is potential for a huge saving through a big saving in set up time and expense.”

The digital finisher should have a beneficial impact too on more traditional cutting and creasing platens by freeing these from the awkward efficiency sapping short run jobs. There is increasing pressure too from brands to be able to turn a job the same day.

This will position Highcon neatly for what is expected to be rapid growth in online purchasing of cartons, what is currently known as web to pack. Highcon is already present in Packly, the Italian online business and at Packlane, its US equivalent. Smaller and start up brands need packaging and many have discovered that the larger groups are cautious in dealing with these businesses, let alone able to cope with the small quantities required.

As the start up sector flourishes, there will be a consequent increase in demand for digitally printed – and finished – packaging. In flexible packaging companies like EPac are addressing the sector though without the online interface, and others in carton conversion or corrugated are putting together propositions involving digital print. “The trend that we first saw in 2012 and have seen in the last few years is now reality,” says Ratzman.

A third opportunity that Highcon believes is open comes from commercial printers looking to diversify away from an existing market into one that holds more promise. “It means that we are looking selectively at players in this area where we can add most value to these companies that are undergoing transition of this sort,” says Nimrodi. This requires a different approach. “Packaging is all about production efficiency and explaining the figures. With commercial printing it is more of an emotional sell, and these companies tend to pay less for the equipment.”

Ratzman points out that for many of these businesses there is another factor in Highcon's favour, namely the difficulty that print and packaging businesses worldwide have in attracting labour. No recruit wants to babysit a large lump of metal every day. The Highcon has a digital age feel to its operation, not quite in the Landa class perhaps, but without die plates to lock into position, much of the grunt work has been taken away. “Youngsters do not want to run platens,” he says. Operating a laser beam should have more appeal.

The product range has undergone a revamp, increasing speed and offering greater flexibility for both cartons and corrugated. The second generation machines are ready for market. The Beam 2C is the version for corrugated, feeding either from a pallet or from a continuous stream to link directly to the growing number of inkjet presses targeting sheeted corrugated applications. Waste is stripped away to leave finished cut outs for boxes or point of sale displays. The first of these was installed at an Australian print group Orora at the end of last year to ensure that what is shown in Düsseldorf is ready to go.

Other early customers for the corrugated Beam 2C include Thimm Group in Germany while other Highcon users extend to French packaging group Autojon and American Greetings where, although not a packaging business, there is a huge saving from side stepping the die making process and in storing and retrieving the plates.

“Every card design they come up with needs a new plate,” says Ratzman, “so there’s a huge incentive to use polymer for creasing and the laser to cut. The business has been acquired by a private equity firm that is hard nosed about looking for any kind of saving and they realise that using digital finishing is the best way to cut waste.”

Highcon calculates that with the new Beam 2 range of machines to be introduced at Drupa, there will be a payback in around two years or less where the digital machine can take up to 40% of the jobs that previously had to be processed conventionally. Equally there are numerous hard to quantify savings: the ability to print on demand, reduce warehouse and storage cost, improved ability to handle shorter runs, the need to compromise imposition and print efficiency in order to use a standing die forme.

This is not an instant turnaround: the plates still need to be made in the device and it takes time to apply and dry the polymer. On a smaller format, a fast changeover chase and repeated use of standard die formes, may be faster.

With Highcon there is a consumable to be purchased in the form of the polymer and also the die sheet to which the polymer is applied. At first both creasing lines and die sheet had to be discarded every time. Now the die sheet can be reused up to five times before it needs to be replaced.

The latest software update Version 14, available on the new machines as well as the Euclid 5 range which is due at Drupa, improves set up times and introduces features that have been requested by existing customers to be able to produce more complex boxes, for example.

“We have also seen a need for the machines to handle a wider substrate range, up to 4mm in corrugated for example,” Nimrodi adds. This plays to Highcon's strengths. Its laser cutting system creates less stress on the material than a conventional platen, so enables higher quality displays to be produced. Customers want both cutting and creasing quality in their boxes, he explains. “One of the largest corrugating businesses in the US is manufacturing displays and put all styles of cut and creasing through their paces, conventional as well as digital. Highcon scored the best result.”

This helps retain strength in the box, which is less important in the US where customers buy on weight than in Europe where light weighting is considered an important part of the effort to reduce carbon footprints.

It all starts to add up, the market trends, the industrial background, sustainability. All will drive demand for shorter run, less wasteful forms of fibre based rather than plastic based packaging. Highcon is currently alone in offering the equipment to address these issues, though there are unsubstantiated rumours of a combined laser and digitally applied creasing matrix coming from the Masterwork stable in China. It is as Nimrodi says, less a nice to have product than a must have product.

“I came here because I believe this is an industry where transformation needs to happen.” If all goes to plan, Highcon will be at the heart of the transition.

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Shlomo Nimrodi joined Highcon as CEO in June to ensure the business is ready for the transformation of packaging to more agile means of production. “The company’s target is to digitise the last step in the manufacture of boxes,” he says.

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