Exploring Opportunities In Narrow-Web Flexible Packaging and Shrink Sleeves
For label printers, modern narrow-web presses can offer a gateway into the expanding markets for flexible packaging and shrink sleeves. Although the label market is healthy and growing, label converters with narrow-web presses that can print on unsupported film can expand their customer base by adding flexible packaging or shrink sleeve capabilities.
For example, if a shop already prints on unsupported films for bottle wraps, it can explore what it would take to print and convert flexible materials into short runs of small pouches, wraps, or sachets.
Flexible packaging is popular because it responds to today’s mobile, multi-tasking lifestyle. Many pressed-for-time consumers like the convenience of picking up a “grab-and-go” single-serve tuna pouch, cheese stick, bag of almonds, or energy bar and eating at their desks, in their cars, or in the park.
According to Ron Sasine, principal of Hudson Windsor, a firm specializing in retail packaging strategy, retailers care less about how a product is packaged than how quickly it moves off store shelves.
“If products packaged in pouches start to move quickly, retailers favor that option,” he says.
One reason why pouches may be beneficial at retail is the strong visual appearance they can provide to brands. Color graphics on packaging films can provide a modern or sophisticated appeal.
“Fully wrapped shrink labels on water are highly favored because it gives the perception of efficacy and performance that a conventional adhesive paper label doesn’t communicate,” Sasine says.
Dan Muenzer, president of TLMI, an association representing the North American label industry, reports that some label manufacturers already generate a portion of their revenues from flexible packaging and shrink sleeves. According to a 2018 TLMI survey of label manufacturers, label companies now get about 8% of their revenues from flexible packaging and 3.5% from shrink sleeves. These numbers are slightly up from the 2017 results.
Why the Transition Makes Sense
Some companies that print pressure-sensitive labels for bottles now use narrow-web presses to print on the films used to create full-bottle wraps. Bottle wraps are a popular form of labeling because they eliminate the extra steps of printing and applying both a front and back label. Plus, the wrap is easy to remove before the bottle is recycled. The films used to make bottle wraps help the graphics pop and don’t peel or smudge in the same way paper labels are liable to.
Once press operators learn how to print on thin, unsupported films, they can start creating simple, small forms of flexible packaging such as wraps, pouches, or sachets for products including baked goods, snacks, candy, or sample sizes of other products.
Shrink sleeves, meanwhile, are also increasingly popular and can be produced via narrow-web flexo presses. They are full-coverage bottle wraps in which the printed film is heated to conform to the shape of the bottle, which allows for decoration of the entire surface of the label.
Alpine Packaging in North Versailles, Pa., currently makes small runs of bottle wraps for regional dairies that offer different flavors of milks, teas, and juices. It also makes label wraps for janitorial products.
“We’re not doing shrink sleeves yet, but we’re looking into it because we do a lot of labels for craft breweries,” Jan Lehigh, co-owner of Alpine Packaging, says. “Most still use labels, but some want shrink sleeves too. We want to be able to accommodate them.”
Alpine Packaging also uses its narrow-web press to print cookie wraps for a local bakery that distributes individually wrapped cookies for sale at amusement parks and other locations where consumers might want a quick snack. The printed wraps keep the cookies fresh and protected and let consumers know what type of cookie it is.
“There is definitely growth in the demand for flexible,” Lehigh says. “All markets seem to have a need for some type of flexible packaging. We have a lot of requests for packets, as well as different types of pouches.”
She says customers come in with very detailed specifications for packaging on many different types of products. For example, printers might be asked to make everything from soap packets for a car wash to sealed wraps for a granola bar.
Expect New Challenges
Printing on unsupported film is different than printing on paper. “The tension is the most difficult challenge of flexible packaging film,” Lehigh says, explaining that the film may stretch as it goes through the different rollers of the web press.
Muenzer, whose background includes experience in the label and flexible packaging segments, explains that printing can often be the easy part, with challenges occurring at later stages in the process.
“The more difficult part comes when it’s time to convert the printed film into a sealed pouch or wrap that will meet the performance requirements of the product manufacturer,” he says.
Printers should understand how to create different multi-layered, laminated constructions and seaming that is durable enough to keep the contents of the package from leaking.
Muenzer states that from a sales perspective, flexible packaging can also be a challenge, as printers will have to learn to compete with a different pool of manufacturers and sellers.
“A lot of flexible packaging is food-related,” he says. “Many food companies don’t buy traditional labels, and most beverage companies aren’t doing flexible packaging.”
Chip Fuhrmann, senior VP of sales and marketing at AWT Labels & Packaging, a producer of labels and packaging with locations in Minneapolis, Minn., and South Elgin, Ill., says buyers of flexible packaging use different terminology than label buyers. Plus, printers must learn about factors that aren’t related to the print quality, such as how the package will be filled, transported, and stored.
He says printers may be expected to know about specifics such as the OTR (oxygen transmission rate) and MVTR (moisture vapor transmission rate) so they can recommend packaging film structures that will protect the freshness of the product. Another key attribute to be aware of is the impact altitude can have on the integrity of a flexible package. When a packaged product is transported over high altitudes and the sealing layer isn’t durable enough to withstand the pressure of the expanding air within the package, small pinholes can emerge in the sealing layer, resulting in the product going stale during transport.
Exploring Shrink Sleeves
Moving from printing bottle wraps to shrink sleeves also involves a learning curve, Lehigh says, due to the printed label shrinking to conform to the shape of the package, resulting in the potential for distortion of text and graphics.
AWT has been producing shrink sleeves for approximately five years. Mike Boeshans, production supervisor, explains that understanding the various materials is a key aspect of shrink sleeve production.
“A big part of the learning curve is being able to identify the correct raw materials that are going to perform the way you need them to for that particular operation,” he says.
The shape of the bottle also plays a big part in determining what percentage of the film is shrinking and how that will affect the ink, cold foil, or other special effects printed on the sleeve. He recommends partnering with suppliers to work through production challenges ahead of time, so they don’t create issues for customers.
“It’s not just about working with suppliers, but also about working with the bottlers,” Ted Biggs, VP of manufacturing for AWT, says. “You have to understand which process bottlers plan to use to shrink the sleeves onto the bottle.”
Do Your Homework
Label companies that want to expand into flexible packaging and shrink sleeves should be prepared to do some homework.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” Lehigh says. “Be patient and expect a lot of trial and error.” She notes that some label companies have established R&D departments to help them learn how to create perfect shrink sleeves.
Modern narrow-web presses enable package printers to serve innovative new brands that are developing niche categories of products that may be too small for big brands to cost-effectively pursue, Sasine explains.
“When entrepreneurs can buy smaller runs of professional-quality packaging at a decent price, it can help them get their products to market and achieve lift-off with consumers,” he says.