Exploring Label Industry Opportunities
While other print markets have to contend with declines or plateaus as the physical products they once thrived on producing turn digital, it seems there has never been a better time to be a label printer. The label segment continues to demonstrate consistent growth across multiple markets, and label converters have been able to leverage the latest printing technology to expand beyond traditional labels into new worlds like shrink sleeves and flexible packaging, which are also exhibiting high demand.
With Labelexpo Americas returning to Rosemont, Ill., (Sept. 25-27) packagePRINTING reached out to leading analysts of the label market to gain insights into the key trends driving the industry’s success.
Digital Goes Mainstream
Compared to the other packaging segments, the label industry has been the clear leader of the pack regarding digital printing adoption. Though it still accounts for a very small share of total printed label output, the technology has become a commonality throughout label printing plants. And since its introduction more than 20 years ago, label converters now have more digital printing options than ever before, based on both electrophotography and inkjet technologies, standalone and hybrid configurations, and a wide range of products, from entry level to very high production systems.
According to Bob Leahey, associate director for Keypoint Intelligence, a market intelligence firm serving the digital imaging industry, digital label printing technology has advanced to a point where there are options available for any type of printing environment. For example, he says the quality of table top label printers has become increasingly impressive and useful for both print service providers and small manufacturers. Meanwhile, standalone inkjet and EP printers and hybrid inkjet/flexo presses continue to open the door to new possibilities for established label converters.
“Digital has filled in almost all of the possible spots for being helpful in the marketplace based on both electrophotographic and inkjet technologies,” Leahey says.
As EP and inkjet printing continue to mature and become more advanced in their capabilities, Leahey explains the playing field has leveled between them, allowing label converters to select the right press for their environment, without being concerned over sacrificing quality.
“On the inkjet side, it’s now a full 10 years of color digital in the label industry, so that’s way past the point of being new,” Leahey says. “Inkjet has not penetrated as far as EP, which has been in the market much longer, but inkjet’s print quality is generally excellent and people are not apologizing for inkjet anymore.”
Leahey added that there are advanced inkjet systems now, some that are the third generation of printers from the same vendor, and these products are now fairly well known and widely installed.
“We have people who are working with their second or even third inkjet printer now,” he says. “So they’re
experienced, not only in terms of printing but also in terms of marketing.”
In addition to the technological advancements in digital label printing, brand and consumer trends have supported the growth of the technology. Specifically, Ellen Kriz, an industry analyst with market research firm Freedonia Group, says the increase in short-run work, along with digital printing’s ability to generate variable print has led to its gain in popularity in the label market.
“The key driver is digital’s usefulness for short runs,” Kriz said in an email. “Package designers can more easily customize the label to make their brand pop off the shelf and to offer short-term promotions. It’s expensive to produce highly customized labels all the time, though, so hybrid presses are useful for producing base labels on longer runs and then adding some customization with the digital press.”
Automation and Efficiency
While pressrooms of the past relied on the craftsman-like skills of their press operators, today’s label printing environments are leaning on an increased level of equipment automation. With servo-driven print stations, cameras that monitor registration, and machine-aided changeovers, label presses are increasingly able to run efficiently with reduced operator intervention, bringing some of the advantages of digital printing to a conventional process.
“Flexo has been able to borrow from digital,” John Nelson, a commissioning editor for market intelligence firm Smithers Pira, said via email. “Besides integrating inkjet modules, newer flexo presses are including a greater amount of automation to streamline processes like changeovers. This also extends to plate preparation.”
The majority of flexographic press manufacturers have debuted highly automated platforms in the past few years, including BOBST, Gallus, Mark Andy, MPS, Nilpeter and OMET.
While all of these suppliers have made an effort to make their presses more automated and efficient, each manufacturer offers some varying features.
For example, BOBST has touted its Digital Flexo Process, which it states provides the advantages of digital printing on a flexographic platform. This is achieved through the platform’s ability to change jobs without stopping the press.
Meanwhile, the Gallus Labelmaster has drawn attention due to its modularity, providing a flexographic platform for converters to customize depending on their needs.
Mark Andy’s Performance Series P7 has incorporated multiple servos in its print stations, and has implemented the QCDC (Quick Change Die Cut) system into its in-line diecutting system for even more efficiency.
In addition to MPS’s Automated Print Control (APC) option on its EF flexo press, which provides automated servo control throughout the necessary print settings, the press also offers substrate versatility, allowing converters to produce many varieties of packaging.
The Nilpeter FA is another example of highly automated print stations that are constantly monitored by the press and adjusted if need be. Additionally, it features Nilpeter’s Clean Hand Technology and is controlled by a mobile tablet.
Ease of operation has also been a benefit in OMET’s XFlex line, particularly in its latest iteration, the X6.0. The press features OMET’s Flexo Direct-Drive technology and a gearless concept that improves registration and boosts speeds.
Looking Beyond Labels
Within the label industry, there are specific sub segments that have proven to be strong areas of growth. These include pressure-sensitive labels, in-mold labels and even non-traditional label applications, such as shrink sleeves and narrow-web flexible packaging.
Kriz explains that since pressure-sensitive has become the most prominent label format in the industry, she doesn’t expect to see much change in the demand for this format. However, she states that pressure-sensitive labels are widely used for secondary label and shipping label applications, both of which are expecting strong growth.
Additionally, she explains that as certain specialty label formats emerge, pressure-sensitive can expect additional growth opportunities.
“Pressure sensitives are strengthening their hold on the market due to their suitability for a variety of specialized label formats like extended content labels and RFID-enabled labels,” she says.
In-mold labels, Kriz says, are more restricted in the applications they can be used in, but for certain types of packaging, they can be ideal options for catching the consumer’s eye.
“Applications are limited for in-mold labels, but they are among the fastest growing label types as technology improvements expand the range of suitable container types,” Kriz says. “In-mold labels are also particularly useful for unusually-shaped containers, which are increasingly used to make products stand out on the shelf.”
In the rapidly growing flexible packaging segment, narrow-web printers that have been typically focused on labels have been able to enter the space due to an increased demand for short-run work. In a July packagePRINTING article, Richard Black, business development manager for flexographic product and service provider All Printing Resources, explained that narrow-web printers that have customers in need of short-run flexible packaging are in a good position to win those jobs, as they have likely already gone through the necessary approvals.
“From a brand standpoint, if a company has a need for suppliers of lower-volume flexible packaging jobs and their existing flexible packaging vendors are unable to produce them economically, brands and packaging buyers have a built-in vendor solution with their preapproved, pre-vetted narrow-web print vendors,” Black said at the time.
The narrow-web flexible packaging trend will be addressed at Labelexpo in multiple sessions, including “New Markets: The Rise of Printing on Demand,” scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 2 p.m., and “Unlocking Flexible Packaging Opportunities for Label Converters,” which will be held Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 10:30 a.m.
Finishing: In-line and Off-line
As efficiency in production becomes increasingly important, finishing and embellishing printed labels has become just as essential as the printing itself. One of the ways this is being addressed is through in-line finishing processes that can help converters streamline their label production to the ideal scenario of raw label stock entering the press and a roll of finished product on the other end.
This trend is particularly evident in the hybrid press models that have drawn attention throughout the industry. For example, hybrid label production presses such as the Mark Andy Digital Series HD, Gallus Labelfire 340, OMET XJet, Nilpeter Panorama Hybrid, MPS EF Symjet and Fujifilm Graphium all offer a variety of options for in-line finishing and converting.
“There are always a certain number of label converters that want to do everything with a digital printer to get a finished product out,” Leahey says. “We have true hybrids that put flexo stations in-line with inkjet. We also have ones that put finishing in-line with a standalone label printer. Again, converters have more digital options than ever before, in terms of both printing and finishing.”
In addition to in-line finishing and converting platforms, advancements in both conventional and digital off-line finishing solutions have provided more options for label converters to offer their customers.