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A world without packaging

By John Penhallow, Contributing Editor | October 14, 2013

A symposium with this provocative title took place recently in Belgium. Among the speakers was Bruno Ponsard from the Montreal Institut des Emballages et du Génie Alimentaire (non-French-speaking readers should note that Génie has nothing to do with Aladdin’s lamp, it just means technology). Ponsard pleased his listeners by confirming that “a world without packaging is a pure utopia,” and going on to say that “too often, packaging is considered as garbage, now we have to prove that it is in itself a solution.”  Thierry Varlet of France Emballage stressed that all packaging must be functional. “We need to move to an economy where the functionality of packaging – protection, information and recyclability – are all respected. But we need to keep a sense of proportion: household waste in France certainly includes a lot of packaging, but it represents less than ten percent of total waste.”

He also criticized ecotaxes (yes, we have ecotaxes, along with income taxes, property taxes, wealth, corporate and value added taxes) saying that some companies are now paying more in ecotaxes than they pay for electricity. “Waste products are not waste at all,” he concluded, “they are valuable resources.” In his native Brittany, he said, three hundred industrial companies and research centers have joined the Breizpack network, promoting wherever possible cradle-to-cradle solutions for waste packaging. No less than thirteen Breton label converters are members of this network.

Export successes
Your Europe correspondent, you will not be surprised to learn, is something of a Euro-chauvinist, and it is always a pleasure to write about old-world press manufacturers who win new world clients. England’s Edale is a case in point. Against stiff competition, this medium-sized manufacturer has just sold and installed an eight-color flexo press in Mexico. The customer is Mayapack Impresos SA de CV, based in Toluca, Mexico.  This company is a leading PS label printer producing high quality work for the cosmetic and healthcare sector. Edale’s Export Sales Director Bernhard Grob, says, “This is a very important installation for both Edale and also Romexsa, because Central and South America are growing markets for us, and having Mayapack as a reference site for potential customers to visit a live production site, is a big advantage.” During 2013 Edale has had many other export successes, installing machines in Algeria, Argentina, Thailand and South Africa.

The wheelbarrow of Fortune
France has more of an industrial base than Britain, but that is not saying much. France even has a Minister for Industrial Renewal, whose job seems to be mainly to tour the country stirring up apathy. Most of France’s industry today is in the sector called Agro-alimentaire (although the country also does a nifty line in nuclear power stations, and still manages to export lots of cars). It nonetheless comes as a surprise to many people to learn that France is a major exporter of wheelbarrows. Haemmerlin exports to Eastern and Western Europe, and even to Africa and Asia. The secret, says CEO Bernard Haemmerlin, is skeletally lean manufacturing and aggressive materials purchasing.

Nobody could compare a narrow web press to a wheelbarrow (perish the thought), but the rude good health of many of Europe’s label press manufacturers certainly owes much to these two virtues. Such is the case with Gallus, whose presses are manufactured in Switzerland where most things cost more (and some things cost a whole lot more) than in neighbouring European countries. Having your own unique currency and not belonging to the European Union has drawbacks too, but Switzerland’s industries are keeping their heads well above water, and label press manufacturer Gallus is ringing up the export successes. One of its most recent was the installation at Label Art of one of the new Gallus hybrid flexo lines at a plant on the outskirts of Dublin in Ireland.

The new Gallus just installed at Label Art is something of a juggernaut, over 20 meters long and weighing 16 tons. Into this length it packs UV-flexo, rotary screen, hot and cold foil and embossing stations, plus two die stations.  To maximize flexibility, the company has specified ten flexo heads and four screen heads, even though the line cannot accommodate all of them at one time.

Underestimated threats
Taking the long view, most strategists think that the label industry worldwide is not doing too badly, particularly when compared with the succession of killer punches which have knocked much the printing industry to its knees. Technology breakthroughs are opening up new niches for label converters: digital, linerless, LED curing and do-it-yourself labelstock are just four of the areas offering new opportunities. But what if there is something hostile lurking in the wings? To get an idea of a possible hazard, think back 40 years or so (easier for some of us than for others) to a time when glass bottles were frequently direct-printed, and plastic bottles scarcely existed. In Europe today, direct printing on glass has gone the way of the dodo, as labels have been seen to do a much better job.

Now just suppose that digital printing could come up with a way of printing directly onto all kinds of bottles: labels would be eliminated, and bottlers would simplify their processes, reducing costs and inventory. Fortunately for the label business, high-speed digital direct printing onto round surfaces is a tricky business that nobody can do – or can they?

At the Drinktec exhibition in Munich in September of this year, a German company called Till demonstrated a new direct-to-shape digital decoration system using Xaar 1001 print-heads. The Till system is designed to print high-resolution images, text and variable data onto any cylindrical container, be it glass, plastic or aluminum, and so it is claimed, cost-effectively and at industrial speeds. These machines are capable of handling volumes from 10 up to 600 bottles or cans per minute (equivalent to 36,000 per hour), and with all the advantages of digital, i.e. almost zero set-up time and the ability to produce very short runs at low cost. If the Till/Xaar prototype proves to be a winner it could put a spanner in the works of plans to expand pressure sensitive label’s share of the container decoration sector.

Another bottle-decoration idea which has been around for a long time is the linerless label. Printing linerless labels is not the difficult bit. It’s applying them to the product that gets inventors scratching their heads, and they have been scratching them for a very long time. At Labelexpo Europe 2013 Italian labeling specialist Ilti, in partnership with two other Italian companies, Ritrama and Prati, demonstrated its brand new linerless labeling product, operating at speeds up to 450 bottles/minute and able to apply both linerless and PS labels. According to Ilti’s CEO Tarcisio Scapinelli, the labeler can apply labels down to 55 microns, and the triumvirate of Ritrama, Prati and Ilti is working on modifications to double the speed of application.

Laser or Razor
Diecutting digitally printed labels is a headache. Some converters can get away with conventional magnetic dies, which are fine if your customers are happy with just a few sizes of rectangular labels, but if they’re not, well you lose on the converting many of the advantages you gained by printing digitally. Two main diecutting options are available. One is to use digitally controlled razor knives to incise the face material. This is the solution adopted by several of the makers of low-cost digital label lines. The other involves lasers, which appear to cut but in fact burn away the face material. Both solutions require fine-tuning, but once they are properly set up they work accurately until the labelstock is changed. Both also suffer from slow speeds, although technology is catching up with that of digital printing. The big difference is the investment: any label converter wanting to buy a typical laser diecutter from Italian manufacturer SEI, for example, will not see much change out of $100,000, with top-of-the-range units costing several times as much. Even so, speeds are stuck at around 30 meters/minute for a simple shape, or half that for a complex one. One of Italy’s best-known converters, Pixart, has installed a laser diecutter from SEI to complement its two Epson digital label printers. In France, where a converter using a Xeikon press recently opted for a laser diecutter from SEI, the manufacturer plans to sell at least five units this year. Working in partnership with EFI, SEI Laser says it has developed a converting line which can print four colors and diecut in line, at speeds up to 60 m/minute.

Marathon Man
Trade magazines are running out of superlatives to describe Mike Fairley who, since he entered the label business in the early 1970s, has risen from expert, to guru, to super-guru. The Grand Old Man has just recently encapsulated the last two hundred years of label history into an article for FINAT. Speeding through the paleolithographic era of label printing, Fairley notes the growth of the self-adhesive label from around 7% of all labels in the 1970s to around 40% today. Since the start of the 21st century, the hitherto dominant paper substrates and flexo technology have been edged aside by digital printing and the development of high-quality filmic materials. Fairley notes how a label converter’s investment decisions are now influenced by environmental concerns almost unheard of fifteen years ago. Other considerations troubling the minds of label converters, Fairley reminds us, include getting the right management information system, weighing the merits of on- and off-line finishing, understanding LED curing, and deciding whether or not to move into package printing.

Whatever the label-related problem, Mike Fairley can be relied on to have at least one answer. And if the problem is having too many retired people in Europe and not enough working ones, well, maybe he has the answer to that as well.
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