SIC 2754

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in commercial printing using the gravure process. Other terms often used to describe current methods of gravure production are "photogravure," "rotogravure," and "intaglio." Examples of products in this industry include magazines, postage stamps, dollar bills, calendars, fine art prints, wallpaper, catalogs, coupons, directories, newspaper advertising inserts, playing cards, postcards, gift wrap, and product packaging and wrappers.

NAICS Code(s)

323111 (Commercial Gravure Printing)

Industry Snapshot

Gravure is a form of intaglio printing. "Intaglio" comes from an Italian word meaning "to engrave;" the word "gravure" is taken from the French and has the same meaning. Intaglio printing methods were developed by carving or engraving an image in stone or metal. In contemporary commercial gravure printing, a reversed image is cut into a thick metal plate wrapped around a cylinder. Ink, applied to the plate and wiped off the surface with a blade, remains in the incised image cells so that when paper is placed against the plate it absorbs the ink and produces a crisp copy of the image.

The contemporary gravure printing process has generally been used for very long press runs on projects requiring superior color accuracy and clarity on thin papers. Gravure is preferred in runs of more than 300,000 copies, like printing weekly or monthly magazines or mass-distributed catalogs. Gravure's primary advantage over other forms of printing is its ability to produce millions of impressions without suffering image deterioration. Gravure can also print a superior image on lighter papers than other printing methods can, since gravure lays down wet ink over dry. Other commercial printing methods lay wet ink over wet ink, which causes the image to degrade more quickly. Gravure's disadvantages include generally higher costs and increased press set-up time.

Catalog and directory printers represented a substantial segment of the gravure market in the late 1990s. Twenty percent of the catalogs and 15 percent of the newspaper inserts published domestically are gravure, according to the Gravure Association of America (GAA). Roughly 26 percent of the gravure industry is devoted to the category of catalog and directory printing, which also includes direct mail catalogs and telephone and business directories.

Approximately 16 percent of the gravure printing industry was devoted to magazine printing. Roughly one-third of all consumer magazine circulation was gravure, as were more than 90 percent of Sunday magazines. In the late 1990s, according to the GAA, 30 magazines were printed gravure, including Family Circle, McCalls, Better Home & Garden, Reader's Digest, Parade, and TV Guide. Another 27 percent of the gravure industry profited from producing advertising flyers, leaflets, and direct mail ad campaigns.

Gravure is also used for packaging designs, such as the printed plastic wrapping around many perishable foods or around beverage containers. Fifteen percent of the gravure's printing market in the late 1990s was devoted to printing labels and wrappers.

Background and Development

The gravure printing process developed from copperplate engraving techniques employed during the fifteenth century. Early plates were flat and needed to be hand engraved. The development of engraved cylinders to replace flat plates led to rotary gravure, called "rotogravure." Rotary gravure presses operate by squeezing paper between the image cylinder and a second cylinder called an impression cylinder. Rotary technology enabled the development of presses with increased printing speeds. A process by which rotary gravure presses were able to print on both sides of the paper was patented in 1860 by Auguste Godchaux, a Paris publisher. A photographic etching technique developed in 1878 by a Czech painter helped simplify platemaking procedures.

Gravure printing was further refined in 1908 when two German textile printers, Ernst Rolffs and Eduard Mertens, developed the "doctor blade." Gravure printing techniques relied on creating height differences between the image and non-image areas of the plate. An image was formed by making small recessed ink cells. The doctor blade assured the removal of excess ink from the surface level and enhanced the quality of reproductions.

One of the most popular items reliant on gravure technology was the Sunday newspaper magazine section. Many magazine sections even used the term "rotogravure" as part of their name. Although gravure newspaper supplements were not suited for up-to-the-minute reporting because of their lengthy preparation requirements, they made color advertising possible.

Despite advances made in gravure technology during the early twentieth century, plate engraving expenses and the length of time required to set up press runs remained problematic. The industry responded with efforts aimed at increasing gravure's efficiency. By the mid-1980s computerized preparation and computer-to-plate (CTP) techniques had cut the pre-press time drastically. Lithography printing and gravure printing were practically equal in the late 1990s in terms of pre-press time. However, the costs associated with gravure were still higher, including costs to engrave and handle the heavy gravure press cylinders.

In comparison with offset lithographic presses, gravure presses tended to be larger, faster, and more expensive. In the mid-1990s, the cost of an average no-frills American-made gravure press hovered around $10 million, not including additional thousands of dollars spent in buying impression rollers, safety cages, and on-site installation. Other costs associated with buying a new gravure press included "extras" that most shops find to be necessities, such as cylinder-loading, viscosity, plumbing, and duct systems. Gravure presses were, at the time, often more than nine feet wide and more than 13½ feet long.

During the early 1990s, analysts noted uncertain conditions within the commercial gravure industry. Among catalog and directory printers, gravure held approximately one fourth of the market share, and growth in gravure print orders for catalogs was growing at a faster rate than the overall growth rate for catalog printing.

In other areas, however, gravure printers were experiencing decreasing demand as publishers and advertisers turned to other print processes. According to figures released in 1989 by the Gravure Association of America (GAA), annual increases in gravure advertising totaled only 6.0 percent during the 1980s while offset advertising print orders had increased at an annual rate of 13.6 percent. In addition, gravure's market share for inserts had dropped to 8.5 percent from 19 percent in 1982. Among magazine printers, annual increases in page production fell short of increases in print capacity and productivity. This led to increased competition and reduced profit margins.

According to the GAA, gravure Sunday magazine production was 12 percent higher in 1988 than in 1987, but the total number of individual magazines produced had dropped. By the end of the decade, they numbered less than 50, and the 1990s reduced their numbers further. Discontinued magazines included publications offered by the Des Moines Register, Denver Post, Oakland Press, Sacramento Union, New York Daily News, and Newsday.

The fact that total production had not also fallen was attributed to two growing national Sunday supplements, Parade and USA Weekend, both gravure products.

In addition to competition among gravure printers, the commercial gravure industry as a whole faced competition for advertising dollars from television and other printing processes. Trends toward shorter press runs to produce demographic editions of large-circulation magazines and similar trends among catalog publishers toward smaller specialty catalogs lessened the economic advantages offered by gravure's long run capability. At the same time, improvements in the ability of competing print processes to achieve high-quality photographic reproductions further eroded gravure's traditional advantages.

In the 1990s, the commercial printing industry experienced a period of discomfort caused by a series of large acquisitions and mergers, an increase in the cost of paper supplies, and postage rate increases. Gravure, as a subset of the industry, felt these changes keenly since its profit margin relied on an affordable paper supply. In the July 1996 issue of American Printer, 50 percent of the country's top 20 printing firms were involved in a merger. Gravure printers and heatset web plants (another kind of printing used primarily for magazines) were the most aggressive in seeking mergers.

Current Conditions

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, commercial gravure printing comprised less than five percent of the total printing industry in 2000. The industry employed 21,892 people in 2000, compared to 23,126 in 1997. Gravure printing shipments in 2000 were estimated at just under $4 billion—a relatively static figure since 1990. The gravure industry was expected to remain steady into the early 2000s. The surge of digital technology was responsible for a slowed employment rate at the turn of the century, since it required less time and fewer workers.

Trends within the industry toward shorter print runs aimed at more focused markets lessened gravure's advantages and brought increased competition from other print technologies, especially offset. During the late 1990s, computer magazines, weekly magazines, and direct mail prospered, all contributing to a steady overall profitability for the gravure—albeit with little significant growth.

Industry forecasters expect that the highest rate of growth in the early 2000s will be in the catalog and magazine sectors, as direct mail to targeted audiences and school enrollment increase. Globalization of the industry and stiff competition from electronic media were expected to drive the industry toward faster and better quality products than ever before. Technological advances such as CPT and CIP3 were expected to become an industry standard.

Some industry prognosticators foresaw more consolidation and merger activity among printers, as well as a continuing challenge for gravure to remain viable in the face of competition from the more flexible and often more cost-effective offset printers. But industry forecasters expect that catalog and magazine production will continue to rise more markedly than other industry products on into the year 2000 and beyond, due to increasing U.S. demand, especially in the business sector.

By the late 1990s, gravure had made tremendous strides to overcome its high cost of set-up, lengthy cylinder engraving process, and environmentally unsound ink solvents; however, offset presses—the competition—improved quality, turn-around time, and ability to print longer runs with better quality. Pre-press costs were about equal for offset and gravure process by the late 1990s, but gravure cylinders were still substantially more expensive. Plates for anoffset press can cost as little as $200, while a typical gravure cylinder cost $1,000 to $1,200. The future of gravure technology within the publication industry is unsure. Gravure technology may move away from traditional commercial printing and become reserved for operations in which it is undisputed master—like decorating vinyl wall and floor covers. As of 1999, the biggest challenges to the industry were cost-effectiveness and timeliness, in addition to the strong need for niche marketing.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest gravure printers operating in the United States was Quebecor Printing, Inc., a multi-billion dollar Canadian firm whose U.S. headquarters were in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1998, Quebecor had annual sales (including non-gravure commercial printing) of $3.8 billion, 170 locations, and nearly 28,000 employees. Quebecor produced Sunday newspaper magazines—including Parade and USA Weekend —andretail inserts. The company's major advertising clients included Sears, Dayton-Hudson, Montgomery Ward, Radio Shack, and Woolco-Woolworth. Quebecor also printed catalogs for L. L. Bean, and magazines including Time, Reader's Digest, and People.

In late 1994, Quebecor signed an additional agreement with USA Weekend magazine to print 17 million copies a week of its regional editions until July 2004. Despite its heavy involvement in gravure printing, however, Quebecor's primary classification was under SIC 2752: Commercial Printing, Lithographic.

Founded in 1971 in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, by entrepreneur Harry Quadracci, Quad/Graphics was the largest privately held printing company in North America—with 18 plants, 11,000 employees, and $1.4 billion in annual sales. Quad/Graphics, in the late 1990s, operated 12 Cerutti-built gravure presses in two all-gravure printing plants—one in Lomira, Wisconsin, and the other in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Both shops were 100 percent direct-digital engraving. Quad/Graphics prints Lillian Vernon and Hanover Direct catalogs, as well as mass-market magazines such as Newsweek, Time, and Wired.

R. R. Donnelly & Sons Company, of Chicago, posted 1998 sales of more than $5 billion and had more than 36,000 employees in its 50 facilities. The third largest commercial printer worldwide, Donnelly was the largest catalog printer in 1998 and the largest magazine printer in 1999. Its sales are mostly comprised of catalogs and magazines, in addition to other products such as inserts and books. Donnelly's products were produced in a 100 percent digital production process.

America and the World

The printing industry was only behind Germany in product exports as of the late 1990s. Gravure's popularity increased faster in Europe during the late 1980s than in the United States. Large gravure presses capable of all-at-once production were used to print magazines in a single print pass. Popular weekly news magazines featuring topical issues, televisions listings, and celebrity news required regular press runs of several million copies. In Europe, gravure was successfully used to print much shorter press runs of only 150,000 copies, as opposed to the 300,000 to 500,000 copy minimum practiced in the United States. Analysts noted that the European gravure market did not need to weather the same bottom-line, cost-conscious mentality as many American companies.

Some industry watchers noted that U.S. printers and publishers were poised to succeed as agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) increased the viability of exporting U.S. printing abroad and increased U.S. copyright protection. Also, U.S. printers looked forward to reaping the advantage of having American English as the world's standard language of trade, science, and commerce.

Research and Technology

Lawson Mardon Packaging's Marcel J. Pilon, in a presentation at theGAA's 1996 Annual Convention, pointed out that gravure is the process of choice—and had better results than other methods of printing—when the job required a lot of florescent ink, extremely tight registration, printing on foil, or extremely long runs. In these areas, gravure still had an edge on litho, but industry reports at the end of the 1990s indicated that competing processes were closing the gap.

Digital Process. By the late 1990s, digital engraving technology was helping to overcome one of gravure's traditional problems—lengthy cylinder engraving time. Direct digital engraving methods used laser technology to etch cylinders without making an intermediate film copy of an image. Reportedly, by the mid-1990s all gravure shops used digital engraving for some portion of their work, and by 2000, digital technology was expected to dominate the industry. Getting rid of the film step in the printing process removed a large cost component, saved time, and also reduced waste and the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. Max Daetwyler Corp., of Huntersville, North Carolina, developed one of the first complete digital systems, using a laser to engrave on a non-reflective metal alloy. Lasers could cut 25,000 to 30,000 image cells per second.

Coming into focus at the close of the century was the use of coatings in packaging web presses, due to the quality and protection of the finished product. Press manufacturers were designing coating-equipped machines, in addition to manufacturing retrofits. Industry forecasters suggested that coatings offered a company a bigger competitive edge than digital technology, primarily because there was less competition—most companies had coating capabilities inferior to the available technology.

Environment. The 1990s saw a great deal of research into improving the environmental impact of gravure because of U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance issues, the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and the Clean Air Act Amendment. Traditional toluene-based inks, which were strictly regulated and rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP), were slated to be phased out by water-based inks. However, the technology was still in a developmental stage. Promising developments included mixing acetone, a non-hazardous but flammable sub-stance, with water to increase ink drying time and multicolor press runs that used a water-based ink as only one of the colors. One study noted that in a typical four-color (cyan, yellow, magenta, and black) printing run, if a water-based ink were used just for the yellow component, toluene emissions would be reduced 35 percent. Full-color water-based printing was not a reality in the late 1990s.

Competition Online. Many short-run publications were complemented by material on CD-ROM or on a Web site. Referenced in the February 1997 Publishing & Production Executive, a study of 1,000 U.S. consumers commissioned by the Printing Industries of America (PIA) found that only 21 percent of those surveyed thought that electronic media would replace print. Many felt that electronic and print media would remain independent methods of information. The advance of electronic media into the short-run market, however, could be a driver to encourage printers to expand into electronic publishing or to take over increasingly large segments of what has been traditionally gravure's domain—long, multicolor press runs.

Going into the late 1990s, industry leaders appeared in agreement that long-run magazine and catalog publishing was unthreatened by electronic publishing—at least for the next decade. Many industry giants, like Quebecor and Quad/Graphics, welcomed digital publishing by advertising their services online and using Web pages as marketing tools.

Further Reading

"A Commitment to Gravure Excellence." Gravure, Fall 1996.

"Austrian Machine Corporation." Cranston, RI: Austrian Machine, Inc., 1997.

Chorvat, Bill, et al. "Waterbased Inks: What Are the Real Issues?" Gravure, fall 1996.

"Electronic Media Not Likely to Replace Print." American Printer, July 1996.

Hobson, Garnett. "Package Printing Technology Change with the Times." Gravure, winter 1996.

"Hoover's Company Capsules" Hoover' Online, 1999. Available from .

Kirby, Gretchen A. "1996: Looking Back—The Year in Review." Publishing & Production Executive, February 1997.

Lamparter, William C. "A Coat of Many Colors." AmericanPrinter, March 1999.

——. "Web Press Wonders." AmericanPrinter, May 1999.

"Printing Press Operators." 1998 Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1999. Available from .

"Quad/Graphics Breaks Ground in Martinsburg, WV for First All-Digital Gravure Printing Plant." Gravure, winter 1995.

Quad/Graphics. "Quad/Graphics: Who Are We?" Company brochure. Pewaukee, WI, 1997. Available from .

Quebecor Printing USA Corp. "Quebecor Printing USA Corp. Company Overview". Boston: Quebecor Printing USA Corp., 1997. Available from .

Robbins, Scott. "Gravure and the Environment." Gravure, Fall 1996.

"R. R. Donnelly & Sons Company." Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, October 1999.

"Tracking the Trends." American Printer, July 1996.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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