Narrow Web Printers Find Big Opportunities in Flexible Packaging
The flexible packaging sector has been one of the biggest opportunity areas for narrow-web label converters in recent years and among label converters considering moving into the sector, interest is only increasing.
In fact, each year, Austin, Texas-based LPC, Inc., a packaging industry marketing communications and research firm, tracks average run sizes across printed packaging sectors — labels, flexible packaging, folding carton and corrugated — and the sector with the highest contraction rates year over year has been flexible packaging.
“There comes a tipping point where it isn’t economically viable to produce a small run size on a traditional flexible packaging press and this is where the label converter, with a fleet of narrow web presses on their production floor able to print on unsupported film substrates, steps in and can build a profitable business,” Jennifer Dochstader, managing director and co-founder of LPC Inc., says. “Contracting run sizes and narrow-web press advancements have created an ideal solution for this niche of the market.”
Furthermore, she explains that digital press adoption rates remain highest in the label-printing industry, which has created significant excess capacity on conventional narrow-web presses as label converters have migrated portions of their small to medium-sized jobs from their conventional presses to their newer digital assets.
Therefore, Dochstader calls it a “perfect storm” of excess capacity on conventional narrow-web presses, creating a tremendous opportunity for label converters who are well-versed in the production of unsupported film applications, and want to find new applications to run through these conventional assets.
“Pouches and shrink lend themselves to narrow-web production because of all the different flexible packaging formats,” she says. “We see job sizes contracting the fastest in these two segments.”
Inland Packaging, which maintains facilities in La Crosse and Neenah, Wis., along with Downingtown, Pa., once fully concentrated on label printing. However, it began to offer flexible packaging options in early 2016 with shrink sleeves following later that year.
Jackie Kuehlmann, director of marketing and inside sales for Inland, explains the company has always been very connected to the printing and packaging industry and understanding the market is a big part of what has allowed it to successfully invest in its growth.
“We started to have more discussions with our customers and prospects about alternative packaging options and saw store shelves begin to change as well,” she said via email. “We determined that there was an opportunity for Inland to provide these other label and packaging options to our customers while continuing to provide them with the standard labels that they had always received from us.”
Inland recognized early on that shrink sleeves and printed roll stock were quite different from its existing products and that resulted in somewhat of a learning curve for those in the company.
“The materials have different requirements,” Kuehlmann says. “They behave differently and the up-front processes (art preparation, warping, etc.) would not just fit into our current models. Recognizing this, we determined that an acquisition would be the best option for us. In 2016, we acquired a small flexographic printer that we had a long working relationship with. They had the right equipment, knowledge, and customer base to allow us to bring printed roll stock into our portfolio. We were then very quickly able to add shrink to the list.”
Catherine Haynes, director of digital solutions and training for flexographic solutions provider All Printing Resources, says printing companies are always looking to expand what they can do for their customers, and by providing more than just one or two products that a customer might need, it sets up the company for greater success.
“The key to making a change is getting in with the suppliers to the industry,” she says. “For instance, for those getting into shrink, [partner] with the material suppliers so you understand the requirements and you can backwards trace through your equipment and capabilities to ensure you are not setting yourself up for a challenging implementation or a lot of troubleshooting.”
She explains printers need to limit downtime and have strong press efficiency to be successful.
“I think it’s always good to diversify and challenge yourself to [go into] new markets,” Haynes says. “It makes you a better printer. It’s all about the ability to better serve the customer. For example, if you’re printing the labels for a bottle, and then you can also print the shrink for that same bottle or a group of bottles, you’re becoming more valuable.”
Over the past five years, manufacturers of narrow web presses have risen to the challenge of developing presses to run down-gauged film substrates.
“Optimal web tension and web temperature control are critical in printing and converting unsupported film substrates on an in-line press, versus the traditional central impression wide-web flexible packaging press,” Dochstader says. “Companies like Nilpeter, Gallus, Mark Andy and OMET are manufacturing presses that are capable of producing excellent results and matching what can be done on a wider web central impression machine.”
Haynes says the newer equipment capabilities have been a big driver in allowing diversification by printing companies, especially those that moved from just labels to other narrow-web flexible packaging solutions.
“It seems to me the press manufacturers are really trying to expand the breadth of what their presses can do, [such as] being able to physically run materials you perhaps weren’t able to run on an older piece of equipment and potentially use a new ink system that would also lend itself more so towards shrink as opposed to a standard label-type application,” she says.
An Introduction to Operations
If a narrow-web company is considering entering the flexible packaging market, Dochstader says that in addition to addressing its technical production abilities, the company’s sales force also needs to be educated on the new product.
“Selling shrink sleeves and pouches is very different than selling pressure-sensitive labels, so companies are finding opportunities in niche areas like promotions and product launches,” she says. “These run sizes can be extremely small and a brand will look outside their traditional wide web supply channels to a quick turnaround solution and this is exactly where the narrow web label converter can step in.”
Haynes says there is a learning curve for a company entering a new printing segment, starting with some growing pains to optimize the ink and use the presses correctly. Plus, marketing and selling these new services takes some time.
“You have a sales team that’s used to selling labels but now they have to think a little differently in who they approach and how they approach [them],” she says.
Many of Inland’s customers were already utilizing shrink and flexible packaging, so they were very pleased to hear that the company was adding it to its offering, and once the decision was made, the company went to work quickly.
“Because we acquired a new facility we were able to hit the ground running, but over time have migrated these products into our existing processes and systems where it made sense and developed new processes that allow us to be extremely efficient in the production of all of our product types,” Kuehlmann says. “We still utilize different prepress, manufacturing, finishing, and QA processes for shrink sleeves and flexible packaging as those products require it.”
Additionally, Inland’s marketing team knew these changes to the market were coming and underwent a re-brand from Inland Label to Inland Packaging prior to entering this segment, which helped set the company up to better communicate to prospects that Inland Packaging not only supplies cut and stack, pressure-sensitive and in-mold labels, but that it supplies shrink sleeves and flexible packaging options as well.
“Inland decided to include these products in our portfolio because our current customers were looking to add them to theirs,” Kuehlmann says. “It made sense for us to be able to service all or most of their label and packaging needs. The benefit for us is that we can be the single supplier for many of our customers, which provides additional opportunities for growth. Minimizing vendors for our customers simplifies things for them and allows them to take advantage of the technical expertise of the Inland team across their product lines.”
Today, Inland continues to see brand owners adding shrink sleeves and flexible packaging to their product offerings and consumer demand for products in these packages continues to increase as well.
“While we do not think shrink and flexible packaging are going to replace traditional labeling methods, we do expect that we will continue to see growth in these segments,” Kuehlmann says.