Forty years on
By John Penhallow, Contributing Editor
Published May 31, 2013
There has been much comment in the world’s press to mark the anniversary of the day in 1973 when a packet of chewing gum was adorned with the world’s first bar code. It is hard to imagine a world not only without bar codes and digital printing, but also without mobile phones and without internet – a world where computers were still huge beasts guarded by men in white coats. But this is the world into which the humble bar code was born. The rest, as they say, is history. And GS1, which designs and implements bar code systems and solutions worldwide, has been writing that history for…well, for very nearly forty years. GS1 France is managed by Pierre Georget, and he has some radical ideas about the future of bar codes and about alternative technologies. For him, bar codes have peaked in terms both of applications and technological innovation. The future lies with RFID, he says. So much so that he predicts that in another forty years youngsters will say, “Wow, Grandpa, do you really remember bar codes?” In discussion with your correspondent, Monsieur Georget admits that QR codes when used in conjunction with a smartphone app offer a revolutionary new dimension to marketing. However for him, RFID tags are the future. Their increasing reliability and falling cost will mean that manufacturers and retailers alike will push for them – retailers in particular, according to Pierre Georget, because once RFID tags are on every product in the supermarket, inventory-taking will be child’s play, un jeu d’enfant, there will be fewer lineups at the checkout, probably fewer checkout desks, and shoplifting will become a lot more difficult. To hear Monsieur Georget talk, everyone will win out with universal RFID, and it won’t be limited to supermarket shelves. “The whole apparel industry worldwide is already using RFID extensively, and it is helping to ensure the right production and inventory levels for an industry where fashions change almost by the hour.” Time, of course, will tell if he is right, but other voices believe in the long-term future of the honest, low-tech bar code. After all, would you really want to put even a five-cent RF tag onto a stick of chewing gum? For a simple, if unscientific look at RF technology in Europe, you could do worse than look at the product listings of Labelexpo Europe over the years. In 2005 there were 20 exhibitors showing RFID technology. In 2007, the peak year, no less than 35. In 2009, the number was down to 30, and in 2011 there were just seven of them. If this is tomorrow’s technology, then an awful lot of companies in Europe aren’t responding.
Greener than green
Eire may be known as the Emerald Isle, but for the environmentalist, few places in Europe can be as “green” as Germany. So it comes as no surprise to find that what is being called the World’s Greenest Label is being produced by a converter in that country. Mail Druck & Medien makes 100% filmic PS labels made out of 100% cellulose-based face material and liner, and guarantees that both parts of the label can be composted. This converter also prints digitally using only food grade inks, and converts with laser diecutters to avoid any possibility of contamination. The company is hoping that its greener-than-green labels will be taken up by the rapidly-expanding bio-food sector.
Another ecologically correct producer, not of labels but of labelstock, is Finland-based UPM Raflatac. A recently announced partnership with Italy’s Aliplast will encourage label end users to store their used liner in special bags provided by Aliplast, who will collect and transport the waste to sorting units in Strasburg and Lyon. From there, glassines will be shipped to UPM’s plant in Plattling, Germany, for desiliconizing and recycling into pulp. The used polypropylene liners will go to UPM’s Bruchsal (Germany) plant where they will become one of the raw materials for decking planks and other building materials. Asked (by your correspondent) who pays for all the trucking, UPM replies that all their recycling schemes are designed to be cost-covering, but that end users might be invited to make a “financial participation.”
Cost-covering, important in any business, is a major concern to Europe’s paper industry as it struggles to adapt to falling demand for so many of its products. Packaging materials, and in particular labelstock, continue to be bright spots on an otherwise stormy horizon. This is borne out by the latest financials from Herma, announcing record sales in excess of $325 million in 2012, up 3.5% on 2011. Sales of labelstock accounted for just under 60% of the total, and progressed by a healthy 7%. Sales of labeling equipment were also up, but sales of finished labels were down. Less optimistic is the trend of Herma’s sales in Germany, which is the economic motor of the European Union. Herma’s domestic sales in that country were down 1.9% and this trend was particularly marked in the last quarter of 2012. For Herma, this weakening of the home market was more than compensated by a rise in exports. For Europe’s economy as a whole it is a worrying sign. The worry does not apparently extend to Herma’s management, which went on record as budgeting a six percent sales increase for the current year.
Minimization and recuperation
When it comes to rapping packaging producers over the knuckles, the European Commission is second to none. That august body has just published yet another directive, to come into force next year, requiring packaging and label producers to ensure “…that all packaging shall be suited to recycling, energy recuperation or composting.” Packaging designers are required to build in minimization and recuperation of packaging while still assuring a correct use of resources and adequate protection of products. This seemingly common-sense regulation could potentially have serious consequences for the pressure-sensitive label business if liner is to be reclassified as packaging (at the moment it is not, except in Britain). The international label association FINAT is lobbying furiously to prevent such a reclassification.
Saving food in Russia
Those who remember the Russian countryside in communist days will recall the colossal inefficiencies of central planning in directing agriculture and food distribution. Crops rotted by the roadside for lack of transport, and shelves were empty in the shops. Much has changed for the better over the past twenty years – although not everything. A few years ago your correspondent visited a meatpacking plant in Yaroslavl, where employees were working in suffocating heat. Why no air conditioning, we asked. Too expensive, no money available, replied the works manager. But won’t this meat go bad very quickly? Maybe, came the reply, so we send it out fast to the shops, and what happens then is not our responsibility. If this shows that old habits die hard, there are fortunately other forces at work in today’s Russia. At the recent packaging show Upakovka/Upak Italia in Moscow there was a conference with the theme “Modern technology to reduce food wastage” which examined the improvements that can be made by using modern packaging methods. There was also, recently, a “Save Food” exhibition, also in Moscow, with the same objectives. New legislation in Russia has improved and codified the labeling of foodstuffs, and this has also helped to concentrate the mind of Russian producers, processors, distributors and retailers of foodstuffs. Now if they could only find the money for air conditioning….
Philately will get you nowhere – or will it?
As one of the world’s biggest narrow web press manufacturers, Nilpeter has a reputation for quality, and is perhaps not as well known as it deserves to be for its Human Relations policies. Perhaps it has something to do with being based in Denmark, arguably the flattest country in the world, but Nilpeter’s philosophy is one of equality and of fostering a sense of the company’s responsibility to its staff and to its community. No one at the company’s headquarters has his own office, not even the CEO and owner. Staff turnover is low, and both present and former staff have the use of a dedicated and well-equipped workshop at weekends for their do-it-yourself hobbies. One of the more unusual recent initiatives involving Nilpeter (and also Avery and Raflatac) has been the development of special self-adhesive postage stamps. Philatelists – so it seems – dislike self-adhesive postage stamps because they cannot be steamed off envelopes. Now thanks to a new PS laminate with a double layer of two different adhesives, and a combination press supplied by Nilpeter, Post Danmark can print self-adhesive stamps on paper or filmic face materials, safe in the knowledge that philatelists in Denmark and abroad will be able to steam off stamps to their heart’s content.