Deviation from the straight and narrow
Deviation from the straight and narrow
With the relentless progression of digital printing, traditional methods need to remain relevant to survive. Dave Howell delves into the future of narrow-web printing, which historically has been a mainstay in the label-converting sector.
Narrow web, perhaps more than any other print sector, has felt the seismic changes taking place in label converting. The traditional long print run is giving way to far shorter run lengths, with brands and design partners looking to converting suppliers for bespoke solutions to meet diverse consumer demand.
Neil Falconer, managing director at PrintFuture, says: "If you look at the industry as a whole, narrow web has been focused on the label sector where the technology is well developed and caters to the needs of brand-owners. Digital has of course continued to make an impact on this sector. What has happened is that a number of hybrid technologies, which have components of off-set, gravure and digital in response to changing demand, have come into the market. Over the last five years, it is clear that there has been a reduction in colour run lengths, which is itself a reaction to increasing product ranges that converters have had to accommodate."
Narrow web is under pressure; regulation continues to be a moving target in the food and pharma sectors, and security and innovative packaging add up to a changing landscape for narrow web. However, the sector is nothing if not robust. Converters are able to react to trends and meet demands, often by developing hybrid approaches to their machine output, which is where digital’s power is seen.
Falconer says: "If you look at the print-press vendors, they are all producing narrow-web digital-print presses to feed an increasing demand across the marketplace for these services. I think average run length now is less than 5,000ft. For brands, it’s all about reducing inventory, and having the option to print on demand to feed their supply chains at minimal cost. They all want to use variable data and imaging on their labels, which is where digital is providing services. Low waste when using digital is why brands are so attracted to it. It’s able to print on demand with minimal waste, which of course also reduces costs."
Offering customers more choice and variety is how narrow web will maintain its importance in the label-converting sector. Businesses such as Eticom, Mexico, have recently installed a Xeikon 3300 narrow-web label press and understand how they must be flexible and versatile to ensure their business’ sustained profitability.
Jesus Ramirez, owner of Eticom, says: "Adding the Xeikon 3300 offers us a number of benefits. Xeikon presses are relatively new in the Mexican market, so that alone sets us apart. In addition, this new press gives us the ability to take advantage of a wider web width and larger format size with virtually unlimited repeat length. It requires no priming and can print on a broader range of substrates than our existing digital presses. It blends in perfectly with our established, installed base of digital and flexo presses, delivering the same high quality. That allows us to mix and match jobs across multiple presses for optimum load balancing."
The Xeikon 3030 digital colour press is also being adopted by Canada’s Access Labels. The company’s head of business development, Robert Sams, says: "From our location in Atlantic Canada, we provide a robust product line and the high level of our service that customers have come to expect. To keep pace with the needs of this loyal customer base, and to help us grow into new markets, we needed to move into digital."
Earlier this year, Cenveo invested $3 million in two narrow web Nilpeter FA-4* presses, two EyeC Vision inspection systems and ancillary finishing equipment. This investment follows a multimillion-dollar purchase of HP digital presses in 2015.
Mike Burton, chief operating officer at Cenveo, says: "We are making ongoing strategic investments in our label business to serve the growing need for high-quality prime labels in a variety of industries such as the pharmaceutical, food and beverage, health and beauty, and other consumer goods industries. We’re building on our existing world-class platform to offer incomparable quality and speed to our customers."
The move towards digital is clear to see right across the industry. The recent introduction of the Kodak ULTRASTREAM, which will be shown at this year’s drupa trade fair, is a good example. The machine has prints with a resolution of 600×1800dpi at up to 150m a minute on the widest variety of paper and plastic substrates.
Another converter using advanced print technology to meet customer demand is Impackt Etiquette in France. The company has installed a seven-colour, DSI digital UV-inkjet press from SPGPrints. Company founder Michel Potelle says: "Our clients expected shorter production runs and lead times. That was driven by service requirements, such as the need to deliver just-in-time and the growing interest in professional packaging from artisan businesses. Furthermore, there was potential in luxury markets, which increasingly wanted to communicate quality by means of transparent labels."
Jules Lejeune, managing director at FINAT, says: "When you look at demand over the last two decades, there has been a rapid emergence of high-end, film-roll-label applications as a vehicle for PDID applications. Since the middle of the 1990s, annual consumption of these materials quadrupled – doubling over the past decade – and in 2014, film rolls represented about 25% of total self-adhesive materials consumed in Europe."
FINAT conducted a study, which found that digital production represented 10.7% of the total aggregated sales revenues of all participants. Digital sales revenues averaged 17.7% for the entire respondent group that had digital presses.
Lejeune says: "Out of all the printed packaging sectors, the flexible packaging industry has been more impacted by run-size contractions than any other. European brand-owners in the food industry report that job sizes have gone from millions of units to hundreds of thousands of units over the past five years, and continue to go down. As flexible-packaging run sizes decrease, opportunities open up for label converters with narrow-web presses." Lejeune says that 27% of polled converters already use traditional flexible-packaging applications."
Other notable findings from FINAT’s study showed that the difference between planned digital technology investment in inkjet (54%) and toner-based (46%) was small; 30% of converters are planning investment in at least one press or other equipment; more than 50% of participants planned digital press investments in inkjet; and more than 20% of converters use sleeves, flexible packaging or in-mould methods.
The study found that the global labelling sector continues to see a steady decline in average run sizes. FINAT’s most recent survey asked respondents to break down run sizes according to the end-use vertical for conventional and digital jobs. Conventional printing remained the clear leader in the food and beverage sector. It is also interesting to note that digital run sizes for eight out of 11 sectors fall within a range of 266- 769m a job.
Lejeune says that of all the non-self-adhesive markets, adoption rates among European converters remain highest in the sleeve sector. The study showed that 40% of surveyed companies are already active in sleeve printing, while an additional 20% indicated they are very interested in entering the market. Western Europe is the globe’s second-largest consumer of sleeve labels after Asia, and the region’s projected growth rates over the next five years for sleeves is estimated at 2-3% a year.
"One out of five surveyed converters is already active in printing in-mould labels," Lejeune says. "While the technology has an estimated 2% share of the labelling market worldwide, in-mould continues to be a growing technology as new application opportunities open up in the food, beverage, personal care and nutraceutical sectors."
The European in-mould market is projected to grow by about 2-3% each year for the next five years, according to Lejeune. More than half of all survey respondents indicated that they are not currently active in the in-mould space, and that they have no interest in pursuing printing and converting in-mould label applications in the future.
Other growth areas include the European stand-up pouch market, which is expected to grow at 5.5-6.5% a year over the next five years. Lejeune says that this is "more than twice the projected volume growth in the region’s flexible-packaging sector as a whole".
When it comes to the future of narrow-web printing, Lejeune says that companies need to be innovative to stay relevant. This means that companies need to find new print techniques and effects, as brands aim for distinctiveness on the shelf. An extended colour range of up to seven colours is now common, as are new print finishes that use screens or foils. There will always be a need for longer print runs across the narrow-web converting sector, as key brands will buy these services, but the trend is for shorter, targeted print runs.
The rise of digital is showing the industry that flexible output can meet highly changeable market conditions. Driven by consumer demand, regulation and brand communications within a crowded marketplace, narrow-web converters will need to remain adaptable if they are to remain relevant to their brand-partners.