When it comes to the preferred method for value-added printing of flexible packaging and labels, flexography is still king of the hill. These days, many flexo printers base their business on narrow web production.

Flexography provides high-quality print while offering speed efficiency, especially for medium to long press runs. Furthermore, the latest servo-based machines are reducing set up times and ensuring job repeatability. This allows the process to be more competitive even on shorter runs, where digital presses have begun to make inroads.

That’s where narrow web converting comes in. Perhaps its greatest advantage is its versatility — the ability to perform many different converting processes in-line. With a narrow web press, you can have multiple print stations while adding stations for laminating, hot foil stamping, rotary die-cutting, flatbed die-cutting, sheeting, perforating, ink jet printing or coating.

Narrow-web flexographic printing has long dominated the label segment. Increasingly, innovative companies are employing this technology in areas such as shrink sleeve and flexible packaging. A recent study by the market research firm LPC, says narrow web converters performing flexible packaging jobs are showing year-over-year growth rates of 9.73 percent. In that study, flexible packaging converters — there are 420 in North America — recorded sales of $23.5 billion in 2016. Labels, by contrast, marked sales of $10.2 billion. Flexible packaging is predicted to eventually make up 34 percent of the total $85.6 billion printed packaging market in 2022, while labels will make up 14 percent.

Narrow Web Platforms Evolve

Narrow-web platforms have evolved into multi process applications, and the number of units in a press line have grown. In the past, the majority of presses were eight colors. Now, with the innovations of expanded gamut printing and the addition of flexo-applied embellishments, it is not uncommon for manufacturers to deliver 10, 12 and even 14 color inline presses.

To understand the market direction for narrow-web converters, Flexible Packaging sat down with representatives of several major producers of narrow web equipment. These include: Paul Teachout, vice president of sales and marketing at Nilpeter; Ludovico Frati, system engineering manager at Bobst; and Matthias Marx, head of marketing at Gallus. Here are their answers to questions about the narrow web market.

What are the most common narrow-web products: labels, shrink sleeves, pouches?

Teachout: The pressure sensitive and glue-applied labels are still dominant in the North American narrow web market, making up more than 80 percent of the market share. The label market continues to grow at a steady 4 percent annually.  Shrink sleeves, in-mold and other flexible packaging applications represent the remaining 20 percent. However, the flexible packaging market continues to grow at a rate of 10 percent annually in narrow web. This growth is spurred by the innovative packaging designs and sustainable substrates currently used to package, preserve and distribute a wide range of consumer products. The current market trends are the shrink sleeve, multi-use and resealable packaging that support the “on the go” consumer.

Matthias: Self-adhesive labels, tube laminates, shrink sleeves, narrow web packaging, even folding carton – the range of substrates and thus, the range of applications that can be printed on Gallus machines is wide. Probably most often produced are self-adhesive labels and narrow web packaging, such as tube laminates.

Frati: In narrow web applications, the most common products are still labels. This includes wraparound, clear-on-clear, coupons and security labels. An important and rapidly growing market for narrow web is also shrink sleeves. Pouches as well as flexible packaging is more for narrow to mid web presses between 500-900mm.

What are some narrow-web press automation features that are in demand from your customers?

Matthias: The new Rotary Die-Cut Unit Quick, as an example, is highly automated, as well as the new Digital Printbar, both introduced at Labelexpo 2019  and shown on the Gallus Labelmaster. The operator has literally has to push a button. For sure, the Gallus Labelfire digital press has a very high degree of automation. Various examples could be named, such as the inkjet compensation, easy workflow integration, color management or the full variable data printing option. Also, the conventional line Gallus Labelmaster Advanced is designed in a way that it is very easy for the operator to use, whether if talking about the automated register control, or the change of the ink chamber which can be done independently or a changeover within 15 minutes.  The Gallus RCS 430, the flagship in Gallus product range, is an outstanding conventional label press which offers the highest standard in the label industry concerning the degree of automation, flexibility and productivity.

Teachout: The presses being delivered today are driven by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and industry 4.0 automation. Current presses offer complete job save and recall features that allow predictable and repeatable results regardless of operator skill. These are clean-hand solution designs prepared to engage with today’s modern operator who has been raised on disruptive technologies. The entire supply chain and all printing variables are now controlled by the science of flexography and then applied to an automated platform that manages the manufacturing. This allows the automation to become the new lean manufacturing, as all predictable and repeatable human and machine tasks are done through automation. Just like everything else in our world, the press is now a computer that performs a task.

Frati: Automatic registration and pressure control, as well as inline defect detection are increasingly becoming standard features. Printers and converters need new systems to make their production more efficient. Bobst was already ahead in this thanks to automation in job exchange and ECG technology. ECG is a turnkey process that flows from prepress through printing and data storage. 2019, BOBST introduced Digicolor, a print unit featuring the very first closed-loop color system. Color is measured in-line and digitally adjusted on each unit to match the target color. Brand owners can validate the colors online. In combination with REVO, color matching is digitized and guaranteed on any substrate, with any operator.

There seem to be more additions to narrow web presses that combine print technologies to create hybrid presses. What are some of these combinations and what is driving these changes?

Teachout: Combination presses continue to bring added value to many narrow web converters. There are many markets that require extended content information, multiweb features, heavy embellishments for wine and spirits as well as applying decorative effects for more appealing packaging. Nilpeter continues to deliver machines that include flexo, gravure and offset applications all on one platform. This allows the converter to utilize the strength of each process to maximize brand value.

Matthias: Giving flexibility to our customers is the highest aim for Gallus. If the customer requires a digital inkjet unit like the new Digital Printbar on a conventional label press, we can offer this combination. If digital embellishment with high quality is sought, Gallus is able to integrate the Digital Embellishment Unit into the Gallus Labelfire, which is already a hybrid machine system. In another example, two die-cutting units might be included in a hybrid press to create effects that add value to an application. Today`s label business requires flexibility for the label printers and converters in any possible way. Adding digital to a conventional press or a conventional unit to a digital press, doesn`t matter for us. The most relevant thing is to meet the customer`s demand and to give them the highest flexibility as possible.

Frati: Customers require more and more flexibility and efficiency. This is mandatory to be competitive in very short runs. The change comes from market demands of highly customized and very short runs. Hybrid easily combines printing, embellishment and converting for labels (cold foiling, cast and cure, silkscreen, tactile effects and multilayer applications). But it is not the only solution. With IOD/Digicolor the gap between digital printing and “DigiFlexo” printing is very very small.

What are some of the advances in ancillary products used in narrow-web printing, such as aniloxes, plates, screening, sleeve cylinders, inks, coatings and energy curing?

Teachout: The variables in flexography are endless. That’s what makes it such a flexible process. The supply chain of tooling and consumables is extremely important to optimize for your specific environment and product mix. The suppliers remain quite innovative in developing new technologies to keep pace with a very sophisticated market. The combination of ink, anilox, plate and prepress remain the most critical part for the highest quality of flexo print reproduction. Advances continue to be made in plate screening that raise the bar for anilox and ink suppliers to follow suit. Plates are now mounted on gearless plate sleeves that are ideally suited for fully automated presses with automated inking and impression controls. The energy curing systems have also made great advancements with the LED curing technology. These systems allow for instant on and off operation, greatly improving press uptime and reduced operating costs. LED is also a more sustainable solution as there is no ozone emission or the use of mercury vapor lamps.

Frati: UV printing for labels is a standard but today, thanks to the evolution of inks for low migration, lamps for UV radiation measurement and tracking and new, high efficiency LED. UV is also a reality for flexible packaging and food applications. Bobst and FoodSafeUV group are leading this evolution in favor of sustainability.

Are there changes in the substrates, especially films for labels and pouches, that present new challenges in narrow web printing?

Frati: Substrates are changing, driven mainly by sustainability and recyclability concerns. This brings new challenges especially for single layer barriers and ink-substrate compatibility. For Bobst, this is instead a huge opportunity thanks to the high level of competence not only in printing but also in coating, extruding and vacuum metallization.

Teachout: The current narrow web platforms are ideally suited to meet the growing demands of the flexible packaging market. The web transportation systems and supply chain of variables are all prepared to meet the current application needs and growth. The challenge that the narrow web market still faces is not that of the future but that of the past. We still have a history of producing large amounts of waste in our liners and waste matrix. Converters are determined to reduce these concerns by applying new techniques in labeling and production in an effort to be ‘landfill-free.” I am proud to say that our converters and suppliers are aware of this global concern and are taking actions to improve it for the future.

Narrow web printing has long been dominated by the flexo process. However, we are hearing more and more about digital printing making inroads. What is digital’s current impact and what are the prospects for its future?

Teachout: The proliferation of digital technologies continues to grow. It is an ideal solution for short run, multi SKU and variable printed offerings. It has quickly changed the short run landscape of the conventional press. Conventional presses used to have a good day if running eight or 10 jobs per day. The new digital offerings can easily double that. This has allowed the capacity of the conventional presses to open up. Converters are now enjoying the benefits of both worlds. The conventional presses are no longer bogged down by short run work and converters have now seen increased profitability by utilizing them for longer, more-profitable production. They have also enjoyed the short run delivery and speed to market that the digital technology has provided their customers. The two technologies are a perfect complement to each other and both have an exciting future together.

Frati: Market requests for labels, flexible packaging and folding carton are going in the direction of shorter runs and higher customization. For labels, if a very a high level of automation is not adopted, the only solution is the combination of flexo and digital. We at Bobst always believed that digital printing was one possible way but not the only one to get there. This is why we developed solutions to fully digitize the flexo printing process. Today thanks to “DigiFlexo”, IOD/Digicolor for inline closed loop color management and Mouvent digital printing, Bobst can offer highly effective solution for short and very short runs.

There are concerns about a shortage of trained people in the printing workforce. How are press manufacturers designing their machinery
to adjust to this fact?

Frati: It is not only a matter of a shortage in trained personnel. It is also a metter of repeatability and consistency of the product worldwide. To make it possible, all process parameters and variables must be under control. The only way to make this possible is through automation and close-loop control systems. As a consequence, this requires less need for operators skilled in the process. The operator of tomorrow is not an expert in printing, but an expert in automation.

Teachout: At Nilpeter, we have made addressing the workforce crisis one of our core values.  We have designed our new FA platforms to be a clean-hand technology operation to engage with a modern press operator. The workforce challenge is real. With the current unemployment rate, we can see that anyone who wants to work is working. We have to stop looking for employees that do not exist, let alone flexographers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates 7 million open jobs in our country, and 600,000 of them computer-related. The universities are graduating 50,000 students a year with these related skills. So, we know where and what the workforce is going to be. We design our presses to appeal to this level of next-generation workforce. Our presses will address the workforce challenge and provide a very sophisticated technology-driven solution for our customers.

What features does your company offer on its presses or in its services that differentiate you in the market?

Matthias: “Powered by Your Trust” is the Gallus motto at Labelexpo Europe 2019. Our customers can trust in Gallus to run a successful label business. How? By giving our customers flexibility in any way, automated presses, reliable high print quality and all above, the trust to invest in a label press that is an investment for the future.

Teachout: At Nilpeter, we pride ourselves on the diversity and sophistication of our offerings. From simple prime labels to high-end wine and spirits. There are many different offerings that allow our customers to run multiple web applications for multilayer constructions to running wine labels with inline embossing, foil stamping and tactile coatings. We are also a custom designer to meet many challenging unique brand applications. If it can be done, we will find the best way to do it.

Frati: Bobst is the only press manufacturer in the world capable of offering a fully automated process control and data exchange for printing and process optimization (printing registration and pressure, color management, job changeover, remote production supervision and data analysis for process optimization and predictive maintenance.)