Not all print wanderers get lost - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Sahil Rao of Akruti Offset in Pune, who also helms Unbox Packaging, says, challenges bring changes, positive or negative. “They also bring up new customer needs. Print will remain a necessity.” We need to stay in tune with the times, he tells Noel D’Cunha

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25 Jul 2021 | By Noel D'Cunha

In 2017, I had met a print CEO, who told me he had recently read the book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, a book by Charles Duhigg, which explores the science of productivity.

He had said, the 2016-published book, replete with tales, allows the author to pick out replicable feature in those narratives for the readers, to understand why, in today’s world, managing how you think rather than what you think about can transform your life.

“All the positive things boil down to buzzwords such as lean, nimble, flexible, innovative and disruptive, while the negative veers towards mindless routines, mechanical thinking and the need for certainty,” he had said.

In 2017, Unbox Packaging, a relatively new, year-old vertical of Pune-based Akruti Offset, had won four national awards for innovative packaging. Sahil Rao, who entered Akruti, the commercial print firm, owned by his father, Girish in 2016 had started the new vertical, which focused on customised packaging boxes.

When I spoke to Rao recently, he said he had not read the book, but he did read books with a theme similar to Duhigg’s. But he asked, why would anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? “Mechanical behaviour and fear of uncertainty is not the way to go,” he says.

Rao says, he set out with an ambitious objective of creating packaging that was out of the ordinary. “I used paperboard with a focus on design and quality to produce packaging boxes, but they were handcrafted.”

Since then, Unbox Packaging has been offering personalised luxury, successfully serving many businesses and individuals around the country. Rao says, “We bolstered our rigid-box making facility with equipment such as V-grooving, sample maker from Aoke, gally making, corner taping,  and have set up an eCommerce website that allowed users to customise a box as per his or her need, and we added value. The orders would be delivered within 24 hours.”

1. This kit was created for a cosmetic company, which was used for PR gifting 
2. Gift box for a rummy company

The brand dabble
Rao says, he always wanted to launch his own products, designed and manufactured using interesting paper and paperboards, highlighting the new vertical’s core business, but the growing saturation of readymade gifting boxes, gave rise to new avenues apart from packaging.

“Our quest for a new product culminated in the launch of Lumo, a table lamp made from paper and wood – under its debut brand DoBeDo. “Lumo is inspired from origami art and has marble design printed on it,” Rao explains of the new brand launched late last year.  

At first, the brand name sounded unusual. However, Rao has an explanation: “We wanted to create an experience where everything looks easy to use, easy to buy and easy on your pocket. Our products aren’t very expensive and you don’t need to think twice before buying it. If you look at Lumo, you can see that it has a very simple design; nothing too fancy, but elegant.”

Akruti factfile

  • Established in 1994
  • Location Pune
  • Speciality Brochures, coffee table books and magazines
  • Equipment Komori Lithrone S 29, Heidelberg SORSZ with Alpna curing system, post-press binding machines, Kodak CTP, GMG ink optimiser
  • Turnover Rs 10-crore
  • Employees 44 

1. This packaging was created for a JK Tyre brand to show their new air pressure monitoring device
2. Wedding box made from handmade golden stone (mica) paper

The lockdown woes
Rao’s father Girish set up Akruti 21 years ago, with the majority of its clientele coming from the real estate industry. “Fortunately for us, the market really boomed in Pune, and helped us become what we are today,” he says.

He however says that the last 14 months though were difficult days, it could still achieve 60% of its average turnover of Rs 10 crores. “We had to take care of our employees to keep them safe from Covid-19 and at the same time keep the business running smoothly. Our team really put lot of efforts to get things back to normal.”

Akruti specialises in brochures, catalogues, magazines, diaries, calendars, coffee table books and all the other commercial printing items, with a typical print run of 3,000 to 4,000 sheet per job (six to seven jobs per day consisting of three to five sets per job). The pandemic’s first lockdown reduced that to around 2,000 sheets, and the lockdown phase, thanks to the second Covid wave, resurfaced. “We have always been catering to high-end print jobs from the clients so
around 90% of our jobs are with embellishments, being equipped with equipment that can decorate printed sheets. We don’t see a great challenge when it comes to value addition since it creates a little less competition for us,” says Rao.

1.  This packaging was developed for a premium chocolate manufacturing company. All the boxes were made using ITC card
2. This box was made for an established cosmetic company

Crisis-led packaged demand
The Covid crisis however did set the stage for some rapid response and developments, and for companies such as Akruti, led to entering new segments of packaging. “Yes, with Unbox, we were already in the packaging segment and as the food industry picked up post lockdown, we gained a lot of traction in the number of orders – it doubled,” says Rao.

According to Rao, packaging and label printing are seeing a great boom in Pune. “Food Packaging seems to be a high growth market in future.”

What the reason for the demand? There are many, but one thing that the pandemic has done is it has spurred entrepreneurship. “While I do not have the exact statistics, the government’s financial packaging has made it easy for would-be entrepreneurs, rather than those who are debt-laden, to get funding,” says Rao.

While one can see strong growth in retail and warehouse businesses, reflected in the eCommerce activities, there’s been a notable increase in health care establishments too. While the second wave has hit in terms of infectivity and mortalities, in terms of supplies of day-to-day requirements for sustenance, has not been impacted. “I was talking to a restaurant which was allowed to stay open as a takeaway outlet, and he told me that the restaurant’s special – Triple Szechwan – is a big hit. He delivers close to 100 orders a day, of the dish that cost around Rs 300. That’s just one of the items on the menu,” he says.

1. This box was created for a real estate company’s brochure which showcased the luxury apartment on Marine Drive by ABIL & Versace Homes
2. This box for a footwear company called Chappers to showcase their royal footwear 

Continue the dream
In 2017, when Rao initiated Unbox, he had said, “My main idea is to cater to everyone and not necessarily have to be B2B, it can also be designing a box for a wedding. Even if the order is just five boxes and it is customised then we will do it.”

He had added, in future, we want to expand our products to places such as Goa and Delhi, where there is a niche market for services that aren’t saturated. “That vision is still alive,” he says.

Rao’s optimism is drawn from the experience of the past downturn, which saw high-profile companies such as Airbnb, Disney, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Uber among others emerge. “Challenges bring changes, positive or negative. They also bring up new customer needs. For most businesses print requirement, convention or digital, long-run or show, will remain a necessity. We need to stay in tune with times.”

And staying updated and upgraded has always been its goal at Akruti. “Getting new technology in the house and provided clients with our finest print jobs has always helped us make the brand we are today,” says Rao.

Akruti has automated its Komori press (LS 429) with X-Rite EasyTrax, an ink tracking hardware which reads the colour bar and shows the correct ink density required allowing the operator to manage the ink flow. The company is in the process of automating its post-press with technologies from Morgana (digifold machine) Sheridan (three-knife trimming and pinning). “It will eventually add to our profitability and faster turnaround,” says Rao.

The Komori LS 29 + coater press

The company was also the first in India to adopt the green plate processing technology from Kodak, the Sonora plates, besides investing in GMG ink optimisation software for better print results. All the pre-press is done in-house with the Kodak Trendsetter CTP firing plates powered by Kodak Prinergy.

Rao is conscious of the sustainability requirement. “We have tied up with vendors which recycle the plates, make-ready laminates, inks and other waste materials. But the biggest impact that we have done is using the processless Sonora plates. It saves at least 50 litres of water per day, completely eliminated the use of harmful chemicals, and saved close to 1,500 units (kWh) per month.”

Going forward, Rao says, he’d like to be optimistic and hope for the best. Akruti has been long enough in the business, and Unbox isn’t a start-up anymore. “We have a firm understanding of where our roots are, and what we can deliver. All, we and our team need to do is, think really creatively and design our products in a way that it can tell a story, and we’d be on our way,” concludes Rao.

Unbox factfile

  • Established in 2017
  • Location Pune
  • Speciality Luxury packaging consisting paper and paperboard.
  • Equipment V-Grooving, Aoke sample maker, gally making, and corner taping kit
  • Turnover Rs 2-crore
  • Employees Eight


Girish Rao  - At a glance

Girish Rao (r) with son Sahil Rao

How did you unwind during the pandemic?
Listening old Hindi songs, playing cards and chatting with family members.

One phrase you heard during the pandemic months?
Stay home, stay safe.

Which film or web series you saw?
Web series Special Ops on Hotstar.

Once the pandemic is over, where will you vacation to?
My favourite place, Goa.

Favourite snack?
Nachos with dip.
Favourite book?
You Too Can by Prakash Iyer.

Your adda in your city?
Hotel Vaishali, FC Road.

One historical thing about the city you live in no one knows?
Badminton game began in Pune. In the 1860s, it was adopted by British Army Officers stationed in India. The officers took the game back to England where it soon became very popular.
One print job you love?
We did a pop-up brochure for a real estate firm which had a lot of complicated tasks in press and post press. I feel very excited that we could successfully deliver it.
Who is on your speed dial?
My wife.

One print innovator from history you want to meet?
One phrase, you utter at least once a day?

I want to do innovative work, everyday.