Look at any shelf in any store and you will see folding cartons. According to market forecasts, this popular form of packaging is set to enjoy further growth – especially when produced sustainably.

The WEIG Group is one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of cardboard and folding cartons. In Emskirchen in the German region of Franconia where the folding cartons are printed, die-cut and finished, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG is represented with three Speedmaster machines. We paid a visit.

"We have been able to significantly increase the number of sheets printed. We now use our three HEIDELBERG Speedmaster machines to print more than 15 million sheets a month.”

Stefan Leonhardt, Managing Director of WEIG Packaging

The print shop of the folding carton specialist WEIG Packaging GmbH & Co. KG in Emskirchen is a lively place. The printing presses are humming, and the air is warm and smells of ink. At the heart of proceedings: a HEIDELBERG Speedmaster XL 106 with 21K, currently the world’s most productive sheetfed offset printing press in terms of output. The machine is busy printing packaging sheets for coffee capsules, which it spits out one after another – at impressive speed. “We use it to print 21,000 sheets an hour,” says print shop manager Maik Schäfer with considerable pride. Together with his team, he ensures that each print job runs smoothly and the quality of the packaging meets the highest standards.

With around 10 percent more output, the Speedmaster XL 106 with 21K lowers unit costs and makes businesses more competitive. The higher print speed also reduces the amount of energy used per printed sheet.

WEIG, an international group headquartered in Mayen in Rhineland-Palatinate, serves the food and non-food sectors of the European folding carton market with its branch WEIG Packaging, which is based in Emskirchen, Bavaria. It also has divisions for recycling and cardboard production that serve the regional corrugated board market in South America and the global gypsum plasterboard industry. WEIG Packaging specializes in packaging and cardboard products like folding cartons and tubes, most of which are made from recycled paper. From packaging for colored pencils, coffee filter papers, champagne bottles and candy to screws, nuts and bolts, WEIG Packaging’s products are a ubiquitous part of everyday life. The tobacco cabinet is the only place you will not find them. “We don’t serve that segment,” says Stefan Leonhardt, Managing Director of WEIG Packaging.

An all-around package

At the Emskirchen site, three HEIDELBERG printing ­presses churn out folding cartons five days a week in three shifts around the clock. A HEIDELBERG Speedmaster XL 106 with 21K was installed here recently. Stefan Leonhardt uses the printing presses under an equipment-as-a-service (EaaS) model – once upon a time, it would have been called “leasing”. In 2018, WEIG Packaging became the first company in the industry to opt for the “HEIDELBERG Subscription” business model. To date, Leonhardt is extremely satisfied with the all-around package.

“In addition to supplying the hardware in conjunction with Munich Re, our partner, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, provides us with consumables such as inks, printing plates and offset blankets – and, above all, its expertise.” This means WEIG Packaging saves resources in the print shop and in procurement – and HEIDELBERG also takes care of printing press servicing and maintenance.

“When something breaks, it is important to know that things will be up and running again as soon as possible,” says Stefan Leonhardt. “HEIDELBERG’s rapid response times ensure that this is the case.” In many cases, predictive maintenance and the continuous evaluation of various machine parameters allow faults to be identified and rectified before they even become apparent at the printing press itself. This helps to prevent unplanned and expensive downtime.

WEIG and HEIDELBERG have also worked together to optimize operational procedures, print job planning, and printing press usage and settings. “This has reduced set-up times by around 25 percent in recent years,” enthuses Stefan Leonhardt. “The result is more efficient production – we have been able to significantly increase the number of sheets printed. We now use our three HEIDELBERG Speedmaster machines to print more than 15 million sheets a month.”

Stefan Leonhardt emphasizes the importance of analyzing the data generated in production, such as production KPIs and machine availability. “We are connected to HEIDELBERG, and data flows in both directions.” The partners hold monthly meetings at which they evaluate the printing activity, examine the KPIs, and work together to find reasons and solutions if productivity was lower than it should have been. Stefan Leonhardt and his team are always looking to the future: “Continuous improvement is our guiding principle.”

According to Stefan Leonhardt, no other company in the industry can boast such high average print speeds as WEIG Packaging. “We always print at maximum speed, which allows us to serve our customers quickly and flexibly.” Among other things, this is thanks to a high degree of automation, which the company intends to increase further over the coming years. The WEIG Group is already taking its first steps into the future: Unmanned conveyor vehicles zip around the shop floor in Emskirchen, deftly maneuvering around barriers and coming to a halt when someone accidentally gets in their way. They are responsible for collecting the printed sheets from the printing press and transporting them to the next stage of production. WEIG Packaging has also upgraded the banding machines it uses to secure its packaging – what used to be a manual task is now semi-manual. “There is no alternative,” says Managing Director Stefan Leonhardt. After all, the packaging industry has been hard hit by the pervasive skills shortage: “We are looking for seven trainees this year alone.” For the future, this means it is essential to automate as many tasks as possible, and not just with regard to the printing presses.

A focus on the environment

Environmental awareness enjoys top priority at the WEIG Group. “Customers are demanding sustainability, and this is accompanied by regulatory pressure at a legislative level,” explains Stefan Leonhardt. The WEIG Group enjoys a near-unique position in this respect, because it has two dedicated divisions that recycle and produce the cardboard it needs for its folding cartons.

“Over 90 percent of the carton we print here in Emskrichen is recycled – and produced in-house,” says Leonhardt. The company handles an impressive 900,000 metric tons of recycled paper every year: “We use 700,000 metric tons in our own production and we sell the remaining 200,000 metric tons.” But recycled cardboard cannot be used in all applications – packaging for medical products and food that comes into direct contact with the box must be made from virgin fiber-based board, for instance. This market accounts for 10 percent of WEIG Packaging’s business volume.

As Stefan Leonhardt points out, however, the company’s wider aim is to comprehensively replace plastic and virgin fiber-­based board with recycled products in the future. Among other things, this means keeping a close eye on potential opportunities. One example: At hardware stores, WEIG’s product developers kept encountering screws and light bulbs in virgin fiber-based packaging. “Totally unnecessary,” as Stefan Leonhardt puts it. “You could just as easily sell them in recycled pack­aging. We often approach the respective companies with specific product suggestions.”

The WEIG Group is also committed to reducing its carbon footprint. Developing lighter packaging is one way of achieving this. “A grammage of 400 gsm is typical,” says Stefan Leonhardt. “Using a 350 gsm board for the same purpose already represents a decent saving. The end product is cheaper, the production process uses less energy, and the lighter weight means we use less diesel for transportation.” The WEIG Group also takes care to ensure that its trucks never do empty runs. The shuttles between the plant and the warehouse at the Mayen site are already electric. For Stefan Leonhard, this is just the beginning: “We are currently testing the feasibility of going electric across our entire vehicle fleet.” And the waste heat ­generated by the WEIG Group’s production is fed into the district heating network for the town of Mayen.

Growth is the goal

The WEIG Group was unable to escape the impact of the geopolitical situation and the resulting high energy prices in 2022. “In particular, our cardboard production uses a lot of energy,” explains Stefan Leonhardt. “And that meant huge costs.” But the situation has settled down again, and the Group is now looking ahead with confidence to its future growth path.

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