Label Stock: Paper vs. Film

By Talar Sesetyan | July 18, 2005

Substrate variety and quality are greater than ever, and films are showing their muscle.

The market for label stock continues to grow and evolve amid fierce competition. The vast number of technological changes in the industry has created a surge in substrate requirements, from improved heat sensitivity and faster run speeds to enhanced print receptivity.

Films are showing uncommon strength these days, making a move into the variable information printing and tamper evident technology sectors.

And, of course, the fight for shelf space remains to be one of the biggest driving forces of growth in the industry.

Growing market
As technology continues to evolve, product performance becomes a crucial attribute in substrate selection. "Things have to work," says Jim Williams, director of sales and marketing, Polyonics Inc., Westmoreland, NH. Williams says that as prices of certain electronic items decrease, manufacturers are looking for less expensive materials to label their products with, but that they still have to work. "The materials have to withstand the rigors of all manufacturing processes. Otherwise, if the labels don't work, why use them?" he adds. Substrates must now withstand a more rigorous set of requirements related to heat sensitivity, faster run speeds and print surface requirements.

Bryan Baab, sales and marketing director for Ritrama, Minneapolis, MN, says, "We're getting a lot of converters out there asking for specialty constructions. Converters are looking for a unique construction for a label to set them apart from the ordinary. For example, they are asking us to do specialty top coatings, or specialty lamination of two films."

A powerful factor in today's marketplace is price. The recent economic slump is closing the gap between paper and film prices even further. According to David Hoag, sales manager for Arjobex America, Mundelein, IL, "Paper, in the last five to six years, has been really depressed. Pricing on paper probably is in the area of where it's been 20 to 25 years ago, because of overcapacity, imports and to some degree technology. Technology today is lessening the need for paper. This makes the price of paper drop even more, because there is less demand."

Price is a big issue particularly for the low-end markets. Andy Woodward, president of Channeled Resources/ Maratech International, Chicago IL, which buys defective materials and reprocesses them into usable substrates, says price is the biggest factor for his customers. "A lot of markets we sell to are low end, so durability is not so much an issue. We don't get into the high speed dispense labels where film is the substrate of choice due to its increased durability characteristic."

Also resulting from the current economic downturn is the re-engineering of labels. John McNamara, market development representative at FLEXcon, in Spencer, MA, says, "Some people have loosened their specifications for labels, or they re-engineer the ones they have," demonstrating the driving power of price.

Yet another factor driving the label market is customer support. In a market where label printers are demanding more flexibility from their vendors and seeking nimble vendors who can adjust to their rapidly changing schedules, customer service becomes an issue.

Lori Davis, executive vice president and co-owner of Contract Converting, Greenville, WI, says the company's ability to make decisions quickly and to adjust production has been a valuable asset to customers. According to Davis, Contract Converting, which specializes in pre-slit non-pressure sensitive tag and label stock, maintains flexibility in its scheduling to anticipate changes and rushed needs. "We believe so strongly in quality and service," she says. "Because we're a small privately held company we are better able to respond to the needs of a small label converter."

Malcolm Collins, marketing manager for Raflatac Inc., Fletcher, NC, sees the demands of the converter to be vast. Although customer service is important, it doesn't stand alone. According to Collins, converters need consistent quality, reliable service, technical support, competitive pricing, and rapid product development. "Raflatac's success lies in the basic principle that we supply the customer what they want, when they need it, at a competitive price, and of a high, yet consistent, quality, in performance and convertibility," he says.

Film substrates from FLEXcon

Film is big
Today, film is definitely in the forefront of the label stock world. Peter Hunderup, global market manager for labels at Dupont Teijin Films, Hopewell, VA, says film presents lots of advantages over paper. These include durability, thermal stability, the tear resistance, chemical resistance, and strength. Hunderup also points out that film works well in high speed printing environments. As for aesthetics, he says, "you can get much brighter, much crisper graphics on film than on paper."

"Polypropylene has found significant growth in the clear no-label look for glass bottle applications," observes Dave Constantine, senior product chemist for FLEXcon. "Substrate manufacturers are developing mono-axial versions of PP that provide more conformability and offer excellent dispensing characteristics.

"Polyester has experienced growth in the durable markings sector because of its ability to resist chemicals, abrasion, and harsh environments. There have been significant increases in demand in the outdoor power tool, lawn and garden, and automotive labeling segments. Here, UL and CSA requirements have necessitated a chemically resistant film that remains legible for the long term.

"One of the next big trends is printability on film label stocks without topcoatings. Film manufacturers and ink suppliers have been working on this for a while and it is only a matter of time before it becomes widespread. Due to the constant downward pricing pressures in the industry, this is one of the areas where cost can still be reduced."

Hoag of Arjobex says a lot more applications are moving to film at the expense of paper. For example, bar coding has made the thermal transfer and direct thermal markets huge, contributing to the growth of film. "Film adds a lot more product capability that you just don't get with paper, and pricing now has gotten to the point where there is not that significant a gap as there was a number of years ago."

Variable information printing has been a driving force in the growth of film. Hoag says, "You come up with top coated film products, like a Polyart product, or other coated-one-side products that print very well from a thermal transfer point of view, again with the performance capabilities of film vs. paper, and you're seeing film dominate." Polyart prints, converts, feels and looks like a coated paper, but offers the strength and durability of a plastic film. It resists tearing, water, grease and certain chemicals, and a special clay coating allows ink to dry faster by absorption as well as oxidation. From a performance point of view film is again favored, because in warehouse type of environment and where a lot of handling, and shipping is involved, durability is an issue. And, of course, film is typically favored in hostile environments."

Specialty coatings can be put on film to make it just right for every application and use. Williams of Polyonics says that as a specialty coating company they will coat film with the right kind of printable coatings to match the demands of any company. "We specialize in the adhesives and coatings to provide a new label material to the converters. You can really change the nature of a plastic film by putting a different coating on it."

The demands and expectations of label manufacturers are for topcoats that are more durable and printable with various print methods (screen, flexo, offset and digital) and inks (water base, solvent base and UV cure). Guy Leigh, director of sales marketing for Dunmore Corporation, Bristol PA, says the company is starting to hear more customers ask for digitally printable films. More label printers are interested in digital printable films that have good shelf life and a high quality of printability. Leigh explains that digital printing can be more cost effective and faster for short run jobs; it also allows the printer to have the flexibility to run many different jobs in sequence with minimal changes to the press.

Dunmore is in the process of completing its product offering for digital printable films, including PVC, OP, PE and PET.

With the continued emphasis on clear labeling and the no-label look, Avery Dennison's Fasson-brand BOPP sales are experiencing growth. Kevin Foos, product manager, Avery Dennison, Painesville, OH, says, "This growth can be highlighted by some recently re-packaged brand names such as Miller Genuine Draft, Bud Light, and Dawn and Joy dishwashing detergent."

Procter & Gamble has switched its entire product line for Joy, Dawn and Ivory from cold glue to PS. P&G is currently using clear BOPP as the front labels for Joy and Dawn and as the base ply for the back of these labels.

Terry Baker, director of sales, labels, for AET Films, New Castle, DE, says the demand for OPP films used in labeling applications is also growing at a healthy rate as existing markets continue to grow and new markets begin to develop. "Advances in hot-fill and barrier PET technology have allowed for the substitution of PET in place of glass and cans, and subsequently the use of OPP film as a label stock in place of paper and direct decoration," he says.

Raul Pintor, marketing manager, Trespaphan America LLC, Greensboro, NC, recognizes the volatility of the label market. Pintor says, "There is no doubt that market is requesting savings in raw materials, short runs, and better service from this industry."

Trespaphan, with a strong presence in the label market in Europe and Mexico, and growing in North America, is offering a broad variety of films to meet the challenges of the changing market. For example, for the in-mold-label market, Trespaphan has developed the EUH 75, a plastic film, that is both environment friendly and recyclable. EUH 75 is designed for applications where clear and bright graphics are essential, as in promotional items.

Among substrates growing in popularity among narrow web converters today is DuPont Tyvek, a nonwoven known for its durability and printability. "Because Tyvek is corona and antistat treated, ink forms a very strong bond and adhesive layer with all types of printing," says Jack Collison, research associate with DuPont Tyvek. "The fact that Tyvek has a very open surface will allow ink to penetrate creating a link with the fibers. Most inks dry in a very timely fashion, usually faster than on other synthetic substrates, but not as fast as on paper." Collison adds that uncoated Tyvek has a neutral pH, and therefore exhibits little aging.

The new look of P&G's Dawn and Joy dishwashing detergents. Label application changed from from cold glue to pressure sensitive using Avery Dennison's Fasson brand clear BOPP.

Paper substrates
Although not experiencing the rapid growth of the film market, paper is nevertheless holding its own in the industry. Offering excellent printability, lower heat sensitivity, higher recycling characteristics and superb diecutting ability, paper still stands strong. The development of wet strength papers, which can be used on water and juice bottles, have also allowed paper to maintain its strength.

Ray Mackura, technical support manager, Avery Dennison, Painesville, OH, says that qualities converters look for in a paper substrate depend on a variety of factors. "Qualities are dependent on (1) the application being considered: stiffness, dispensability, strength, basis weight, ink adhesion; (2) the "look" that is trying to be achieved: gloss level, smoothness, brightness, color, opacity, ink holdout for color matching; and (3) any secondary print methods being used: thermal, laser, ink jet, date stamping."

These demands have changed over the years with improvements in print quality, converting speeds, and application speeds. Emphasis is shifting toward higher process line screen, crisper line art, brighter, blue-white paper shades, with no loss in strength or the other physical properties necessary at higher line speeds.

Mackura says, "Balancing excellent paper strength characteristics with smoother, glossier sheets for printing is the key to enabling the converter to compete with and overtake traditional offset and rotogravure printed applications."

Additionally, improvements in paper coatings chemistry and increased knowledge of the interaction between these coatings and ink chemistry have led to products that work across more print processes than before.

According to Mackura, a common question in the paper label market is: "How can we consolidate inventory and still compete in the higher end graphics part of the market?" He explains that the increase of supplier-to-supplier partnerships is growing and providing opportunities for innovation and problem solving, instead of looking at an issue from one perspective. This results in helping the converters and their customers by bringing a team effort into the game, from substrate through dispensing/filling line suppliers and everyone between.

Consumers like films
Corey M. Reardon, principal of AWA, Alexander Watson Associates BV, headquartered in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with an office in Chicago recently published a report on the self-adhesive market which reviews key market and material trends. His study found that there is a continued trend toward film stock, particularly for applications for consumer products, such as cosmetics, health and beauty aids and beverages, where aesthetics and shelf appeal are important.

"In bad economic times, brand positioning becomes more important," Reardon says. "As a result, the label becomes an integral part of the retail strategy in terms of what pops out in the retail shelf for consumers to pick. That is driving the trend toward film face materials. On the other side of the coin, what is also being driven, which is actually a threat to self-adhesive film materials, is the growth in shrink sleeve, as an alternative labeling technology to self-adhesive, in terms of its aesthetics and other characteristics that shrink sleeve offer. So, we're seeing a high growth in shrink sleeve labeling and in many cases it's displacing self-adhesive labeling — enough that it's a trend that needs to be noticed."

Although Reardon maintains that price is still the consumer's number one priority, he also says that price must be linked to value. An important factor is the value the label can convey value to the consumer, who is always balancing the price/value equation.

"Converters are continuing to look for inventory reduction — looking to stock fewer types of products on their floor," says Constantine of FLEXcon. "In addition, they are looking for higher throughput: They want products that will run faster and better through their process, which results in improved efficiency and more profitability.

"In an industry faced with ever-increasing production costs and corporate consolidation, the demand for competitively priced substrates has never been higher.

"OEMs and end users are demanding substrates that will conform and adhere to an increasing variety of shapes and materials such as contoured bottles, complex curves, rough and textured surfaces, painted metals, powder coated surfaces," Constantine says.

Among the many advantages of film are aesthetics and durability. "You have a large variety of films, such as clear films, which allow you to produce clear labels for the no-label look. You have the durability of films, for example, in health and beauty products, where the actual label has to withstand quite difficult environmental conditions, like sitting in a shower for a long time. Paper label won't hold up here. Also, film label offers characteristics such as cleanliness. Lack of paper fiber, contamination for cosmetics or pharmaceutical products. So, in markets where strength, durability, cleanliness, and aesthetics are important — like health and beauty, house hold chemical, pharmaceutical, beverage — you see a lot of film being used," says Reardon.

VIP applications are today are the largest product group in terms of self-adhesive labeling. Reardon defines these as primary product labeling, variable information printing labeling and functional and security and promotional labeling. "VIP today is the largest group with over 50 percent of the market share of all label applications. And, although that's primarily a paper market, you're also seeing a growth in the use of film in this area where durability is critical."

Reardon believes the that the PS market will continue to grow at the expense of older applications. "I think self-adhesive still is and will be the most versatile labeling technology. There is a tremendous scope of continued growth in replacing glue applied labeling, which is still a prevalent labeling technology. There is some threat for primary product labeling in terms of shrink sleeve. Now, whether shrink sleeve is a more of a fashion trend or whether it will be a sustainable labeling technology in the future, that's yet to be seen. I think it will be. It offers some other advantages such as incorporating temper evidence into the label, that you can't get with a self-adhesive. It also provides you a full 360-degree surface for information and graphics which self adhesive can't provide. So it has some inherent characteristics that give it some advantages over self adhesive and will continue to grow. But it won't penetrate the market to the point where it will be the demise of self-adhesive. Self-adhesive will continue to grow, and is still is one of the most flexible technologies available today."

A rapid pace
The consensus is that the market for film is growing at a rapid pace and will continue to do so because of the growing applications for film. Todd O'Reilly, global business manager at UCB Films, Cumbria, England, sees a strong future for film. "Less excess packaging makes for a promising future," he says. As excess packaging is taken out from products, more information needs to go on the label directly on the product. The need for product information and warning information have been a great drive for the label market, because it means that each product now needs four or five labels.

Moreover, O'Reilly says, "You'll see more and more technology being built into labels: for example, the smart labels. I see film having a big role in this process."

Hunderup of Dupont Teijin Films agrees. "Film is going more toward value and use," he says. "It's not just a single raw material anymore. It's becoming more of a combined effort" involving suppliers, converters, and label customers.

Hunderup also says that "inkjet printing is just starting to make in-roads. It still hasn't fully hit the label market, but there is definitely interest in films that can be printed on inkjet printers."

He adds that film will make inroads because of the value it provides, not price. "A polyester may be more expensive than a paper from the material side, but if you add in the efficiencies of running bottling machines faster, the overall systems cost may be lower with a polyester liner than it is with a paper liner, because you have less down time and you're using faster line speeds. So it's a bit deceiving to look at just the materials cost. You need to look at the entire system cost."

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