Some things change: in the recent weeks of unseasonably mild, sunny weather, many citizens of Western Europe have changed over to thinking that maybe global warming isn’t such a bad thing after all. However this early spring has come right on the heels of vicious storms and flooding in many coastal areas, and environmental concerns are still high on most politicians’ agendas. The label industry and its suppliers are keenly aware of these concerns. One example of this is Innovia Films in the UK, which has successfully been awarded two ecological laurels: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) Chain of Custody (CoC) certification. The Chain of Custody means that at least in theory supermarket shoppers can be satisfied (or if not satisfied, can demand proof) that the label or packaging on their purchases is linked to legally managed and certified forests. But wait! (you may be saying), doesn’t Innovia make plastic film? Yes it does, but the company is also a pioneer in the development of cellulose-based films – and there’s no point in using rather expensive woodpulp as your raw material if people start accusing you of aiding and abetting the demise of what’s left of the world’s rainforests or driving smallholders out of their ancestral lands. Hence the hype surrounding these certifications.
Recycle that liner!
Netherlands-based label association FINAT has been having a number of good ideas. Its “Young Managers’ Club” is developing fast and seems to respond to a widely felt need. The association’s Technical Congress in Barcelona in March of this year, attended by many young managers, was largely given over to environmental questions. Now FINAT has launched a recycling competition to reward innovative initiatives. There are two award categories: self-adhesive label end users and self-adhesive label converters, and entries will be judged by a jury composed not of label insiders but of experts from NGOs. “Recycling of release liner in particular, whether glassine, PET or PP, is gathering pace,” said Jacques van Leeuwen, chairman of the Recycling Awards competition. FINAT also presumably hopes that the involvement of NGOs will give a more balanced overview of what the industry can and should be doing, over and above the initiatives to save energy and water which, however praiseworthy, are most often seen as just ways of pushing down costs. The winners of the Recycling Awards will be announced at the association’s annual congress in June, which this year will be in Monte Carlo.
All the labelstock producers are at it: devising more and more products specifically designed for one or more abstruse labeling use. Most people will admit that labeling white wine requires something a bit different from labeling the red stuff. But now suppliers are custom-designing materials for hundreds of different uses on the grounds (one imagines) that “If we don’t bring out a product for labeling left-hand-thread widgets, our competitors will and we’ll lose market share.” Take UPM Raflatac, for instance, which has just launched RafFruit, which is designed specifically for labeling “rough food produce like pumpkins and squashes.” There is nothing wrong with this approach, but where will it all end? We all know that the more products you have in your line, the shorter the runs and the higher the cost. And this is not like the automobile industry where the customizing is way downstream. Every time you change the grade on a coater, you lose time, material and money. So before they go too far, let’s hope they stop and think – before we find them making a specific labelstock for straight bananas.
Go west, or south, young man
Two European manufacturers will be joining in the road show “Flex Pack Tech Tour,” a series of seminars starting in March, finishing in June and covering the US from coast to coast. Ink manufacturer Zeller+Gmelin, based in Germany, and press manufacturer MPS from the Netherlands will be joined by Avery Dennison, GEW, DuPont, Karlville and Screen in a bid to spread the word about latest narrow web technologies. During the seminars, MPS will feature its EF multi-substrate press which is especially designed for label production as well as the printing of flexible packaging on unsupported film or carton board. These two European manufacturers will be out to prove that they can do business in the US despite the higher labor costs and unfavorable exchange rate of the Euro zone.
While some press manufacturers are going west, others recently headed south to attend the Label Summit Africa, in Cape Town. The South African label market is small but sophisticated, serving not just its own industries but also many others in all parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Evidence of this is the number of European equipment manufacturers who took part in the tabletop exhibition held alongside the congress. They included MPS, Nilpeter, Nuova Gidue, Omet, Prati and Xeikon.
Thirty years on
Your correspondent recently glanced through the 1985 edition of the show guide for Labelex (now Labelexpo). In an industry where so much has changed, there were many familiar names 30 years ago – including Edale, Mark Andy and Nilpeter – along with other names long forgotten. The question remains, how many of today’s traditional market leaders in narrow web presses will be around even in five or ten years time? Many of them have underestimated the impact of digital print technology. Significantly, all the 30 or more of today’s leading manufacturers of digital label presses come from outside the label business. “Traditional” press makers have repeatedly tried to incorporate digital print modules so as to get the best of both worlds – two examples that spring to mind are Nilpeter with the Caslon unit, and Omet with a proprietary inkjet section. However, even the most charitable of their PR agencies must admit that these have had limited success. Where traditional press manufacturers have succeeded beyond expectations is in harnessing digital technology in their workflow, and in all the prepress and front-end phases. But will this be enough to keep them in business? The leading European press manufacturers do not publish their accounts, but their strategy seems to be primarily about cost cutting. One in five label presses installed in 2013 was digital, according to industry expert Mike Fairley, and although the volume of digitally printed labels is only around 2-4%, in value terms it is probably four or five times as much. This is not good news for conventional press makers. To make a bad situation worse, the recession still has many European countries in its iron grip, and converters who ask their banker for an investment loan are still getting a frosty reception.
Digital and conventional – what happened to M&A?
When label industry historians look back over the past ten years, they will surely ask why digital and conventional press technologies seem to have been like oil and water. No significant merger or acquisition activity has taken place across the divide – with the notable exception of the Heidelberg Saga. This German giant of the printing press business toyed with digital printing long before it became headline news, and then put it on the back burner. Even there, its engineers came up with a creditable digital press, briefly marketed as Linoprint, before being replaced partly by CSAT, the German digital printing company, which Heidelberg acquired in 2011, and partly by Heidelberg’s partnership with Ricoh. The CSAT press became Heidelberg’s Linoprint L model, and its marketing was entrusted to Gallus (which is 30% owned by Heidelberg) in all of Europe except France and a few other countries around the world. For contractual reasons CSAT’s presses continued to be sold and serviced by AP Graphics located in Paris (not to be confused with Britain’s AB Graphics), whose boss, the spirited Patrick Fraenkel had some modest but tangible success in selling CSAT’s range. However, last November, in the latest round of the pass-the-parcel game, Heidelberg sold CSAT to the Franco-American group Markem-Imaje. For Patrick Fraenkel it was one change too many. Today AP Graphics has changed horses, and signed up with INX Digital, part of INX International, the US-based ink manufacturer with many facilities in Europe, and which recently launched its inkjet solution for the labeling market.
“Using one of most famous prepress software systems for digital equipment by Onyx, running the industrial printheads Xaar 1001, and with inline laser diecutting from Spartanics, the INX NW series is one of the most flexible, adaptable, profitable, versatile and easy-to-use solutions for label converters… especially at a very attractive price level for this technology,” says Fraenkel.
Digital label Forum
With some three hundred or more PS label converters, France is a significant market, and over 80 converters and suppliers attended the Forum held in Paris in March. The event was organized by MP Medias, who presented the findings of a survey of French label converters, showing that 60% of converters now own at least one digital label press. The Forum also featured an open and courteous exchange of views between proponents of dry toner, liquid toner and inkjet, and revealed in passing that finishing equipment for digitally printed labels frequently costs more than the press itself. The Forum’s tabletop exhibition was sold out and several applicants had to be refused for lack of space. The lucky few exhibitors included HP Indigo, Xeikon, Durst, Epson, SPG Prints, INX Digital and TMT Labels (agents for Gallus/Rotocontrol).
This being Paris in the springtime, attendees (including your correspondent) enjoyed a leisurely, gastronomic lunch buffet accompanied by a choice of very palatable wines.
Some things, Dieu merci, never change.