My copy of Webster’s gives nine definitions of quality. I like: “the degree of excellence which a thing possesses.” This definition includes two concepts: “defect free” and “possessing exceptional characteristics.”
While all grades of paper can produce defect-free printing and most can produce quality, only some grades can produce truly exceptional print quality.
Uncoated woodfree papers can produce top quality for some applications. These grades include the premium opaques and text and cover grades with high brightness, high smoothness and excellent formation. However, for applications where exceptional quality is required, customers want colours that pop, plus exact sharpness and definition. Generally, this means coated woodfree papers—coated freesheet.
For coated grades the top of the line is Premium #1 coated, followed by #1, #2 and #3. When we get to #4 and #5, we are typically looking at wood-containing or groundwood grades, often called LWC or lightweight coated. The #4 and #5 grades are reserved primarily for magazines, catalogues or retail inserts.
A combination of market forces have converged to provide an unusual set of challenges for printers and buyers of high quality print. Higher manufacturing costs and competition from imports has led to paper mill consolidation in North America, meaning fewer local coated paper producers and thus fewer choices. There is almost no coated woodfree capacity left in Canada, and the top five producers in North America account for 95% of North American capacity.
For Premium #1 coated grades, Grade Finders lists only a few North American options: Utopia Premium from Appleton Coated, McCoy from Sappi, Centura from NewPage and Mohawk 5010. All of these have brightness in the range of 94 to 96 and are available with recycled content.
Overall, printing papers have been experiencing declining demand, and hence declining capacity. Year to date demand is down 8.8%, yet #1 coated prices have remained stable, and prices for high volume #3 web are up nearly 15%. However, mill costs have gone up even faster than prices. Imports from offshore are down 23%, due in part to a weak U.S. dollar and high transport costs, and this has helped keep markets tight. And if oil prices fall, the American dollar will remain weak and energy costs will decline making North America more attractive to exporters in Europe and Asia, while also reducing some pressure on North American mills. These factors will ease the pressure on prices.
Real high quality printing
To confirm my view of quality, I turned to Louise Kralka, vice-president sales at commercial printer Phipps Dickson Integria in St-Laurent, Quebec. I wasn’t surprised that she had a slightly different take.
Pre-engineering is key to high-quality printing, suggest Kralka, noting the best products require collaboration between printer and buyer. The paper is important, but there is no one perfect grade. Make sure the stock conveys the right message. “It might be 100% recycled, uncoated,” Kralka explains. Stressing the importance of the printer/buyer relationship, she notes “This is not commodity printing.”
Jack Miller is senior consultant North America for Pira International, a leading supplier of strategic, marketing and technical consulting in paper, print and packaging. firstname.lastname@example.org