Here is a brief outline of current trends and the future outlook, focused on pressure-sensitive labeling, from industry experts AWA Alexander Watson Associates.
Label printing: a new definition
The changing face of label printing is a reflection of the changing nature of the brand owner/consumer market. An increasing range of variable information print requirements are now everyday requirements — for example, high-resolution barcodes for product authentication and tracking, and personalized or ‘limited edition’ packaging.
For primary packaging applications, it is a fact today that converters’ presses are being required to produce more than one type of labeling or packaging format — pressure-sensitive labels, but also sleeve labels, wraparound labels, flexible packaging laminates, tags, and even folding cartons — on the same equipment. Today’s analog presses are often coupled with digital print stations, and such in-line combination label presses can achieve, in just one pass, every possible combination of screen, letterpress, flexo, offset, hot/cold foil blocking, digital print, and matt or glass varnish finishing. The printer can also add value for brand owners with thermochromic, photochromic, holographic, and other on-press/ink-based haptic/optic processes.
Narrow-web, rotary presses continue to dominate the production of pressure-sensitive labels in the established North American and European markets, and investment in this technology base is also strong in developing regions such as South America and India. However, there are regional variations. In Europe, while all available printing processes are utilized, flexo is the significant leader. Digital print already additionally constitutes 25-30% of pressure-sensitive label conversion in Europe, and is growing.
In North America, as in Europe, almost all printing processes are used in the conversion of pressure-sensitive labels, with flexo the choice of over 90% of pressure-sensitive label converters. Combination presses using flexo alongside in-line processes such as screen, inkjet, foiling, etc, now account for around 40% of the market; and around 50% of converters now employ digital print as standard. Asian converters are more fragmented in their printing process choices. In South East Asia, rotary narrow-web presses are used less than in Europe and North America, accounting for around 60% of usage, and are primarily letterpress-based, although investment in flexo is now growing rapidly – particularly UV flexo, in combination with other processes such as foiling, screen, and digital print. Investments in stand-alone digital presses are also noted. In India the flexo process, particularly UV flexo, is beginning to take hold, with strong investment, following European trends; and the market is well supported by European press producers. In China, global end users/brand owners are now establishing their FMCG product portfolios locally, so there is a needs for the print standards provided by narrow-web flexo. However, Chinese printers and converters are reluctant to invest in new presses, in the face of high costs.
Trends and opportunities
In general, pressure-sensitive label processes are now showing every indication of the characteristics of a maturing product. Today, they represent a 40% overall share of the global label market. Growth rates in developed markets are slowing, and generally forecast to exceed slightly the growth in GDP.
Penetration levels in the key end-use market sectors are already high, and, of course, developments in new or different end uses are increasingly impacted by competition from the existing and emerging alternative labeling and packaging formats. Cost pressures, industry guidelines and environmental legislation, are also an increasing consideration.