Kerala’s commercial printing industry grapples to overcome setbacks

Battered but not beaten by the floods

KP Sabu, managing partner at Five Star Offset

Over nine months since floods battered God’s own country, the printing industry in Kerala is still slow and coming to terms with the pace. In August 2018, severe floods ravaged the state, causing colossal loss of lives and infrastructure. The print and media industry was hit too, suffering heavy financial losses not only in terms of physical infrastructure but also business revenue as a whole.

We at Indian Printer & Publisher visited to well-known commercial printers in Kochi to understand where the commercial printing industry stands today in Kerala.

Five Star Offset Printers, Kochi invests in packaging

Established in the year 1991 by KP Sabu, managing partner in the company, Five Star Offset Printers started with a brand new AB Dick machine. The Nettoor, Kochi based company specializes in the printing of textbooks, magazines, calendars, leaflets, brochures, danglers, stickers, postcards, envelops and posters. “Basically, we undertake all kinds of commercial printing jobs. We have complete facility in-house and do not depend on any third-party vendor for our printing needs,” says Sabu.

In 2016, the company realized the potential of packaging and diversified into the segment with converting equipment from Bobst. Currently, Five Star Offset has a Prinect Signastation and a Heidelberg Suprasetter CtP in its prepress section. In its press unit, the company has a Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102 4-color, a Heidelberg Print Master 74 4-color, a Komori Enthrone 4-color, a Komori Lithrone 28 x 40 6-color with coater, an HMT SOM 125G, and UV and aqueous coating machines. The postpress unit has a Bobst Novacut, a Bobst Vision Fold, a Heidelberg Stahlfolder folding machine, a Polar 115 cutting machine, a Perfecta 115 cutting machine, lamination, perfect binding, saddle-stitching and die-cutting machines. In addition, the company has recently invested in a high-speed liner machine and window patching machine from Heiber + Schroeder.

A long-time user of Heidelberg machines, Sabu says, “We are one of the premium customers of Heidelberg as we have their CtP installed here, two 4-color printing machines and also a folding machine. Their Speedmaster CD 102, which we installed five years back, is one of the world’s best offset printing machines and we are extremely happy with their service support as well.”

Commercial print still more profitable than cartons

Going ahead, Sabu has plans to invest in another printing machine and finishing equipment. He is already in talks with Heidelberg and expects to close the deal in this financial year. “Commercial jobs allow more margins so we are more focused on commercial printing than packaging as of now. So, we want to invest in another 5-color or 6-color machine soon,” he says.

Referring to the floods that ravaged Kerala in August last year, Sabu says that business is yet to pick up volume although Kerala’s undying spirit has ensured the people rise above such calamities. He shares that every industry was impacted due to the floods and smaller printers who had no insurance to cover their machinery had to shut shop. First there was implementation of demonetization, followed by GST and then the floods; so all of this has had a severe effect on the Kerala print industry. “Thankfully, our press was not affected during the floods as we have many small lakes nearby and the flood waters spread out there,” he says.

Dearth of training for achieving quality

Apart from natural calamities, Sabu feels the real issue that ails the printing and packaging industry in Kerala is scarcity of people with the right kind of knowledge to work in this industry. “I feel there is a dearth of trained workers in this industry. We have to spend a lot of time training people to achieve high-quality results. Although they have knowledge about machines and printing, they need special training on a regular basis for achieving excellent quality,” he adds.

Finally, talking about the overall printing industry in Kochi, Sabu shares, “There are not many production units in Kochi; all are medium-scale enterprises and hence print volumes are low. However, the printing industry in Kerala is optimistic of a surge in growth. Earlier, all printing jobs would invariably go to Sivakasi but that is not the case anymore. In Kerala, Kochi is the hub of printing. Here in Kochi, we have every kind of infrastructure needed to get the finest printing job result. Be it the latest machinery or technology, Kochi today has everything. There are many small printers in Alleppey, Trivandrum, Kottayam, Kasargod and Calicut who come down to Kochi for their local printing requirements. It is all because Kochi has a lot of facilities and advanced machinery here.”

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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