A Freedonia Group forecast from May expects the demand for printed labels to rise 3.2% per year through 2025. The organization found that “printed labels will benefit from the increased utilization of labels for advanced product promotion, which will drive the use of more appealing, 360-degree coverage and more complex, high-quality graphics.”
Freedonia Group says that it expects flexographic and digital printing to continue expanding in the market. “While digital will capture share from flexography in shorter runs, label printers will increasingly use flexo and digital in combination to take advantage of flexography's cost-effectiveness for longer runs and digital's for shorter runs,” says a statement from the research company.
Kimberly Flynn, senior marketing manager for Hammer Packaging, A Fort Dearborn Company, says that personalization is being used in addition to digital printing on both a large and small scale. Furthermore, she adds, “We have seen more customers taking advantage of our customized printing and finishing techniques — using enhancement features such as metallics and foils and various coatings (matte, soft touch and tactile) to entice consumers to pick up and purchase their products.”
This expected increase in demand to entice consumers begs the question: How do brands ensure that the labels they use meet their goals? To answer that question, we need to take a look at how upcoming trends in labeling and label technology impact the supply chain. Because, to steal an adage from English teachers, “The whole comprises the parts.”
As much of the world recuperates from the pandemic and strikes out on a return to “normal,” some trends that received a boost from COVID-19 appear that they’re going to stay. One of those is e-commerce.
Some companies, like Hammer, say that the rise in e-commerce and the consumer behavior stemming from that hasn’t greatly affected aspects of their business. “Labeled products are used for products sold in stores and online,” says Flynn. “We are continuing to see continued growth in our flexible packaging segment, such as pouches and flexible packaging, which might be attributed to increased online shopping, as these formats are more easily transported.”
Inks used on labels, however, have seen a dramatic change due to e-commerce. “The requirements for labels and the inks printed on them are changing rapidly,” says Sun Chemical’s Dennis Sweet, vice president — NWTL, commercial, Rycoline and distributors direct. “The e-commerce shift involves a significant increase in the handling of packages, in transport, in warehouses and often in returns — so, the inks and labels on the primary product packaging, also on the outer shipping boxes or pouches, must be designed to withstand this handling, as well as a range of environmental conditions.”
In other words, choosing the proper ink products for your labels can have a definitive impact on consumers. Whether that impression is good or bad depends on the choice made.
When it comes to trends in label technology, there’s one that stands out: sustainability. Grant Gerke has written over the past few months about how wash-off label technology is helping brands like Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters produce a clean-label look while also delivering more rPET material to the supply chain. Linerless back labels are helping South African Breweries’ Flying Fish beer brand reduce material waste by 51%. Of course, the end product doesn’t just “happen.” There are a number of components that go into any label (because the whole comprises the parts), which means that any shifts in products affect the entire supply chain.
For example, Sun Chemical’s global technical director of sustainability, Nikola Juhasz, says that the right inks are needed to complement labels that are being designed for circularity through such means as recycling and composting, as well as through the use of bio-renewables and recyclable materials in their construction.
“Inks must be designed to go together with the labels, with the application and the eventual end-of-life process in mind,” Juhasz says. “This means that the inks must provide all of the required functionality in use and then must also conform to the end-of-life process intended for the package and label. Depending on the specific application, the ink may need to stay on a label and survive without bleeding in the caustic wash step of a mechanical recycling process, or it may be specifically designed to wash off in that wash step in a form that can be filtered out of the wash. If the package and label is meant to be composted at its end of life, the ink must be compatible with that composting process.
“Inks can also deliver high bio-renewable content to lower the total carbon footprint contributed by a printed label,” she adds. “While the percentage of ink is small on a label, the collective amount used across the industry is sufficient to facilitate meaningful reductions in carbon emissions if brands and converters demand it.”
Juhasz also says that there are new crystallizable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) shrink sleeve technologies that allow PET sleeves to be recycled together with PET bottles to improve the yield of PET flake in mechanical recycling. These sleeves have to be printed with washable inks that can be removed and filtered so as to create higher-quality material (uncolored flake) at the end of the recycling process.
Conversely, “Floatable polyolefin label technologies rely on a density separation in recycling to allow the sleeve or label to be separated by floating in the wash process while the underlying bottle or container sinks,” she adds. “In this case, the inks should stay on the labels through the caustic wash, so that there is no contamination of either the wash water or the container material to be recycled.”
So, a brand’s choice of label has a direct impact on the ink, which has an impact on sustainability goals.
And your printing needs affect both your label and ink choices. For example, on-demand printing — which is printing on a small scale through the use of a hand-held or barcode label printer, among others — might be more appropriate for certain labeling needs. “Improving business efficiencies is very, very key, and what we've all seen in the last year with the pandemic is that we have to help the business, even in small steps, become much more efficient and become much more agile,” says Toshiba America Business Solutions’ Jessica Bernardo, senior product marketing manager of label print solutions. She goes on to add that investing in the right hardware and making fine-tuning steps along the way can also help decrease material use and improve sustainability.
Sweet sums much of the sustainability issue up by saying that converters are left dealing with multiple different technologies to accommodate the various criteria for specific press needs. The components needed for high-speed production, LED technology and to deal with difficult substrates along with specialized needs for low-odor and low-migration inks takes up limited storage space and often creates waste from ink that is not used in time.
How To Deal With It
For its part, Sun Chemical has created a means to address the aforementioned problems. “Sun Chemical has addressed these issues with its MX12 dispenser technology that allows the converter to choose the type of ink needed by using a single base system with different let down vehicles,” he says. “This solution reduces inventory and extends shelf life since photoinitiators are not part of the base but instead, part of the letdown.”
And investing in the right printing hardware isn’t something that needs to be done in a vacuum. “By approaching us, we can make recommendations,” says Mina Lee, senior product line manager, label and receipt printer solutions at Toshiba America Business Solutions & Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. “And we have a group of application providers that can help out, and then also media partners because it kind of all has to go together.”
Flynn agrees, “There are exciting new developments in sustainable packaging every day, but finding the right chemistry that works with your product is critical. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so our expert engineers work with customers to thoroughly test all solutions and ensure they meet the customer’s expectations, as well as the guidelines enforced by governing bodies for recycling and sustainability.”
All of it simply means that starting a conversation sooner rather than later about a brand’s goals can help deliver those goals without as many headaches. As Flynn says, “The sooner brands can bring us into the conversation on trends and new ideas, the better we can be positioned to respond quickly.”