Sterling Print House in Kochi adds automated converting equipment from Robus

From commercial print to carton packaging – just in time

Venugopal Nair, Sterling Print House, Kochi
Venugopal Nair, Sterling Print House, Kochi

When I talked to Venugopal Nair on the phone a couple of weeks ago, he was almost apologetic about having entered packaging which he doesn’t yet find as fascinating as commercial printing. He says there are two kind of people – romantics and rationalists and that he, being a romantic loved and enjoyed being a commercial printer in Kerala – a place of kindness, and good medicine and not just literacy but where the citizens buy and read books.

Born and brought up in Mumbai he threw up a lovely job there and went to Kerala thirty-five years to start a print business in Kochi. He found success and joy in commercial printing and in our brief conversation on the phone he said that since becoming a packaging printer he misses seeing the smile of an author or publisher receiving the first copy of a well-printed and bound book.

Although commercial printing was and is threatened everywhere, according to Nair, in Kerala it was expected to continue for a good while longer – perhaps another ten to fifteen years of printing directories, magazines and books.

However, Sterling which had several sheetfed offset presses, a web offset press and extensive folding, finishing and binding equipment including a PUR perfect binder for commercial printing, decided several years ago that it was time to begin producing both monocartons and litho-laminated micro-fluted cartons. He added an autoplaten die-cutter from Autoprint and started building up his packaging business.

Sterling RMG 920 5-color plus coater press installed in 2018
Sterling Print House in Kochi installed its RMGT 920 5-color plus coater press in October 2018

Nair seems to have decided that his fourth RMGT press, a 5-color sheetfed press with a coater in the 92 cm format installed in October 2018 would be a good workhorse for printing monocartons and litho-laminated carton packaging. A fully loaded presses with straight printing in 5-colors and a convertible perfector, it has a Heber and Schroder coater for aqueous and UV coating, with an IR dryer with hot air knives.

A multiwave LED curing system that can cure conventional UV inks was also retrofitted in the extended delivery after the press was installed. The press has automated cleaning and setting systems and a modern console with a huge screen receiving live images from three cameras and a spectro drive for quality control of printed sheets.

Handling paper and board up to 6mm with a maximum sheet size of 920 x 640 mm, its a good press for a commercial printer looking to get more deeply into packaging.

Less than five months after the installation of the new press, came the Covid-19 pandemic. Nair says that in his view, the good and literate people of Kerala with the most comprehensive public health system in the country, simply over-reacted to the Covid-19 protocols.

Of course the sudden lockdown was out of the citizen’s hands but when it came, there were no more directories and functions, no more magazines and the book shops had to close. This moved him to more quickly consolidate the packaging business and leverage the production of the new press by looking to add automated converting equipment.

The built in China diecutter installed at Sterling Print House incorporate several automation features designed by Robus Engineers. Photo Sterling Print House
The built in China diecutter installed at Sterling Print House incorporate several automation features designed by Robus Engineers. Photo Sterling Print House

Nair was visited by Robus Engineers’ Prem Anand who explained at length the MHC 1060 automatic die cutter to him and the Advance folder-gluer which are both produced in China but with automation features designed by Robus.

At first Nair wanted to see the machines in action, but after several hours of explanation and discussion he decided at the first meeting itself to buy the 7,000 sheets an hour die-cutter with a maximum size of 1050 x 750 mm and the Advance folder-gluer. Both were installed in the first half of January 2021, and are according to Nair, performing as expected.

Impressed by the performance of these machines, he ordered and installed a Robus 3-ply corrugator and laminator from for litho laminated cartons. Apparently the converting equipment has been working well and has transform the company into a productive and competitive carton printer in the region.

Robus converting learning curve

We asked Nair about Sterling’s learning curve in packaging converting and how the company has mastered the new equipment so quickly. He says that because of the pandemic while some employees went back to their towns and villages, on the other hand, many skilled packaging resources were repatriated from the Middle East back home to Kerala.

“We realized quickly that commercial printing and packaging have nothing in common,” he says. But we have been very successful, because we recruited the right highly skilled people and returnees who were available for our autoplaten die-cutter, folder-gluer and laminator.”

The folder gluer installed at Sterling Print House
The Robus Advance folder gluer at Sterling Print House

Some of us are dazzled by the intricacies of lock-bottoms and window patching and brand colors and others are clearly not. Venugopal finds rectangular boxes boring and they are (other leading carton manufacturers have also confessed at the lack of challenging designs) and there is a need for more interesting cartons and shapes.

Also there is a need for more interesting packaging buyers – perhaps those who want to push the envelope on sustainability or active or connected packaging – and who take more joy in their product and its transformative outcome than just the timely deliveries of the containers.

It’s clear that commercial printers who moved into packaging before the pandemic are much better placed than those who have seen their life’s work come to a sudden halt in the lockdowns and the extended pandemic.

Those who saw the writing on the wall earlier, and began committing resources and putting some of pieces into place like a bigger multicolor press with a coater or some automated converting equipment have a head start and can be more decisive in their investments now.

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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