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Whether it's labels or labelling, the secret of success is all about bringing to the table efficiency, design flexibility and service, especially for the multinational customer, writes Pauline Covell

An ability to supply solutions geared to rapid reaction and productivity in packaging lines and the supply chain drives today’s most innovative label systems manufacturers and label converters.

For example, the customer’s constant need to improve line efficiency has been incorporated into the design of Harland Machine Systems latest rotary pressure-sensitive labelling system, the Enterprise, which is particularly suited to the beverage market, where the ‘no label’ look dominates. Available with up to six labelling stations as standard, it operates at 1000 packs/min says sales manager Des Dunleavy.

Flexibility comes from ease of format change and of particular interest is the auto-change system, which means it can automatically alternate between label heads, thus eliminating downtime. “Although this could be used to change to a different label print, in practice it is used to refill the labels on the run. It’s a speed thing,” he explained.

Complete product changeover times have been cut by the use of quick release change parts and recipe product management and, crucially, the equipment is also able to handle the high-speed application of thin or ultra-thin film labels claims the company. With up to 40 product platforms available, which can be continuously rotated, cammed or motion controlled, it is designed to perform a multitude of accurate label placements. Versatility is also achieved by the label head mountings, which provide for radial movement and positioning of heads. A line has recently been sold to a major French company, revealed Dunleavy.

A completely different and innovative direction in label application, announced by the company at the end of 2003, “has not moved at the pace we would have liked”, he admitted. The vision is that labels would be printed, cut by laser and applied in line at the packer filler. “One of the big issues is that you can’t print as fast as the die cutter can operate. It is a limiting factor, but we still believe it’s the future.”

With 70% of sales through exports, Harland Machine Systems is conscious of the need to be able to supply blue chip companies worldwide. “We are in the process of looking to open up our distributor network in the USA and agency/distributor network in Europe. We are also looking at opening an office in China this year,” reported Dunleavy.

It’s a philosophy echoed by label major Skanem where one third of business is with multinationals. Size and geographical spread is clearly important these days for the successful label supplier.

“We can print at one site for a customer,” said multinational sales director David Harrison, “but more often we print in several sites and deliver to about seven sites for one multinational.” With 10 converting operations throughout the UK and Scandinavia the policy seems to be paying off. “Our multinational business grew by 18% last year,” he revealed.

But to continue that growth Scanem has to follow its customers’ business. “We want to go further East and South. There is a strategy being worked on right now.” It is understood that this is likely to follow the company’s proven path of growth through acquisition, rather than development through start-ups. “Whereas growth in self adhesive labels across Europe is 3%, in Eastern Europe – the Czech republic, Poland and Hungary – that rate is 20%,” he said. “And in Russia it is 27%. The multinationals are setting up there and we have to be where our customers are.”

Innovation can take many forms. “We try to offer our customers a value package. That could be a special logistics system, for example SMOI – Supplied Managed and Owned Inventory. Here we make the label requirement once a month in big batches,” explained Harrison. “We would ship them to the customers’ warehouse and we ask them to tell us when they use them.” The company is invoiced on use, which allows it to have flexibility and labels there when they are needed. It also means that Skanem can produce the runs in efficient lengths.

On product innovation the company believes in what it calls adaptive technology. “This is basically stealing an idea and using it on a label,” explained Harrison. Examples include some of the metallic effects now produced by the company. And it also believes innovation can deliver clear cost benefits. “In our wet wipe reclosure labels, for example, we devised a special break in the cutter die that stopped the label being pulled off the pack. This not only saved pounds over the traditional method that used a strip of hotmelt applied to the pack, but also increased sales in the wet wipes market many times. The customer could see the financial benefit.”

Scanem also invested in a digital HP Indigo press at Hobro in Denmark last December. “Conditions have not been right before, but we had a business opportunity in Denmark to enter the frame,” he said. “If one of our companies in the UK or Scandinavia wants something digitally printed we can now do that. It is what being part of a group is all about.”

As part of a strategic programme to boost productivity at its production facility in Boston, Lincolnshire, supplier of both self adhesive labels and labelling systems Norprint Labelling Systems has recently invested more than £1M in Mark Andy narrow web flexo technology – two new eight-colour LP3000 lines, fitted with UV lamination equipment. Managing director Alex Evans stated: “The only way to compete is by investing in the latest technology, and we believe this has raised the benchmark for label productivity.”

Meanwhile self-adhesive label supplier Harlands Labels has completed the installation of its new MPS 330 press. The additional capacity will increase flexibility and compliment existing combination printing equipment.” The nine colour press provides flexibility, offering cold foil blocking, embossing, de-bossing, multi-layer labels, and combination screen and flexo printing, said Harlands’ managing director Ian Wright. “Harlands has traditionally been involved in the production of more complex print jobs and this new equipment will further enhance our ability to handle this type of challenge.”

Innovation can also mean the way labels are engineered into different products. For example, Ditone Labels, part of the Boxes Group, is currently primarily a supplier to the health and beauty and pharmaceutical sector but, as managing director David Stevenson points out, “our business is based on specialisation. We have many products that are particular to us; our core business is about the engineering of products rather than particular markets.

“The word innovation has in the past been synonymous with a gismo that can change the world, but now it could be a way of not only doing a good job but also taking the cost out.” For example, the company was supplying a customer with labels for very short runs. As the relationship grew “we went into a warehouse that was full of directly printed cans for all their products. I think it was really to keep their printing department going,” he recalled. Now the company uses Ditone wraparound labels and the printing department no longer exists.

“Just recently I took a call from a Belgium brewing company enquiring about the same sort of self-adhesive wraparound labels. So we could be in the beverage market too. Our customer base does change on the basis of specialist products.”

Other added value engineered specialist products include Extensia, the company’s version of the leaflet label. “Ours has an overlaminate to stop it getting greasy,” says Stevenson. The company also offers innovative solutions such as a neck collar which, because of a dry peel adhesive, can be applied by a labeller instead of by hand. Rather than sticking it just sits over the neck. “We also have Tac-Tag. This has an adhesive in two places. It sits on the pack like a sail. The design offers the ability to advertise special promotions on, say, products from overseas without having to cover up the existing labels”.

Stevenson is clear that the future will include a significant offering in the security arena. Methods will include the structure of the laminate and adhesive, ink content and micro mistakes. “Developments will make it become reasonably easy to interrogate the label”, he says.

Security and anti-counterfeiting is a top priority too for pharma specialist Kenilworth Products. Managing director of the Irish based company Gary Saul says: “There is a wide range of solutions – inks, holograms, small defects; with pharmaceuticals it is extremely important that users have the right product. We are very competitive, produce high quality, safe and secure labels.” The company recently moved into a new facility occupying 5500m². “It was a substantial investment,” added Saul.

Improvements in productivity and a reduction in the total cost of ownership are claimed with another machine launch. During Pack Expo in Chicago last year Pago and B&H Labeling Systems introduced the Marathon XL, a fast roll-fed machine featuring SMARTdrive, claimed to be the industry’s first all-electronic drive train. With a servomotor-driven feedscrew and container stabilisation features, it handles containers from 8oz to 3 litres at speeds up to 650 containers/min.

The advanced in-line design is said to simplify operations, maintenance and changeovers by using fewer moving parts and digital automation. With SMARTdrive, five independent servomotors communicate on a high-speed digital bus to synchronise component operations such as label feeding, cutting, gluing and container transport precisely. Eliminating the gears, belts and chains found on traditional labellers, SMARTdrive is claimed to improve labelling accuracy over the life of the machine.

Pago and B&H guarantee labelling defect rates of less than 0.05% and with its all-electronic, servomotor-based design, it is said to achieve the fastest changeover in the industry by eliminating machine adjustments – less than 15 minutes from one full production speed to another, including the replacement of change parts.

Meanwhile Catchpoint has announced further developments in its innovative web/liner free self-adhesive labels launched last year at the Total exhibition. They include an increase in the choice of label shapes, the speed with which they can be coated and labelling run speeds.

In the most recent test runs, it has been possible to produce samples of release coatings and adhesive, which are UV cured. With these developments, Catchpoint labels will be available with the option of permanent or peelable solutions. The company is currently working with companies in Europe and the US to modify a variety of applicators to suit the concept. Trials in the USA are working to produce shaped labels as well as butt-cut barcode labels using the process. Initial tests have indicated that runs of up to 200/min reports the company. In the UK Sessions of York, the first licensee, has been working as a development partner researching the application and printing opportunities.