Shrink Films

By Michelle Sartor | August 31, 2007

To attract consumer attention, more companies are using the coverage area and interesting visual appeal of shrink films.

With the ability to offer 360° of graphics and information on consumer products, shrink films have been growing in popularity as a decorating option. They can offer different visual appeals than pressure sensitive labels and other packaging offerings, which many brand owners find beneficial. Beverage products are a main driver of shrink technology because of the nature of the containers, but other areas are also involved in the push for shrink use.

Photo courtesy of Plastic Suppliers
Some industrial type products are using shrink. Kyle Norris, president of Arizona Label Systems in Phoenix, AZ, USA, says, "We are involved with beverage, lotions and some industrial applications. I don't know if people are aware, but most batteries that you purchase are actually packaged with graphics using little shrink sleeves. We kind of consider that an industrial application. The battery has to seal in any battery acids, but they also need decorative graphics to show branding and eye appeal for the buyer."

Shrink can provide full body coverage to containers, and it can do so with oddly shaped packages. Séamus Lafferty, president of Stanford Products LLC, a company that engineers and builds finishing equipment for shrink sleeves in Salem, IL, USA, says, "Its ability to offer 360° decoration from top to bottom on complex container shapes, its suitability for a wide range of products and its applicability to tamper evidence and twin pack promotions serve to make it extremely versatile."

Why is this important? Attracting customers is a main reason. Norris says companies choose shrink "for the unique ability to shape the graphics around a contoured, unusually shaped container that would grab attention from conventionally shaped containers."

David Love, general manager at Seal-It, a division of Printpack, in Farmingdale, NY, USA, agrees. "When customers make their buying decisions in seconds, manufacturers have to project their best image and that is one of the many advantages of shrink labels. With 360° image area, top to bottom coverage, glossy film, 10-color graphics, and the ability to conform to most shapes, it's no wonder that shrink sleeve labels have the best advantage."

Hollis Cobb, special projects manager for J.R. Cole Industries Inc., a company that prints shrink sleeves in Charlotte, NC, USA, says, "Shrink is a relatively new method of container decoration. For years shrink bands have been used as a tamper evident vehicle, but in recent years shrink sleeves have made inroads as a prime method of package decoration. Marketing people like the large 'billboard' surface that shrink sleeves permit to tell their story in brilliant color. Also, shrink is able to compete very favorably with pressure sensitive from a cost standpoint due to a lower material cost."

The Seammachine SM 10 from Stanford Products
John Murray, sales manager at Plastic Suppliers Inc., a company that makes shrink films in Columbus, OH, USA, believes shrink is becoming more popular in narrow web. "When we first started, most of it was in gravure. Now, flexo and narrow web are growing in popularity. A lot more people entered into the shrink market because they could do it with narrow web flexo presses."

Cobb agrees. "In the early days of shrink, the print method of choice was rotogravure due to the large volumes involved in most applications. At J.R. Cole we do not have a rotogravure capability, but due to major improvements in UV flexo printing and UV flexo/screen printing in combination we are able to compete favorably with rotogravure both in terms of print quality and ink lay down, and certainly in terms of cost per thousand. Then too, rotogravure is considerably more expensive when it comes to making copy changes due to the cylinder costs."

According to Lafferty, growth of shrink is somewhat dependent on geography. "Shrink sleeve labels account for only about 5 percent of the global market for labels, but if you look at growth rates, they are in the double digits in South America, Eastern Europe and China. Growth rates in general are less in the more developed markets of Western Europe and North America. As for its popularity in the narrow web industry, this is where Stanford is seeing most of the growth. Narrow web label printers are looking at shrink sleeves for two reasons: 1) they are being forced into shrink by their existing customers who are moving away from the more traditional approaches to labeling and 2) they believe it to be a higher-margin label with less fierce competition," he explains.

The growth of shrink may be having an effect on the use of pressure sensitive labels. Cobb says, "The manufacturers of shrink film material say that shrink bands as a method of container decoration is growing at a rate of 23 percent per year. We do not know what this represents in terms of takeaway business from pressure sensitive, but it surely is impacting it to some degree."


Because demand has been growing in the area of shrink, several new offerings have come to the market. Plastic Suppliers has created EarthFirst PLA film, a shrink film made out of corn, from NatureWorks' resin.

Photo courtesy of Plastic Suppliers
Murray explains, "We enhance it and turn it into shrink film. It's very innovative and meets sustainability objectives. It's a totally different shrink film with different properties. It shrinks at a very low temperature, which in turn means that you can turn down the tunnels that are used to shrink the labels. The film is rigid so you can apply it very fast. The film is also stable to 104°F compared to 84°F." Being stable at higher temperatures can save on costs since companies may not need to transport the products in refrigerated trucks, depending on the climate and time of year the products are being shipped. EarthFirst PLA film is compostable and meets the needs of Wal-Mart's plan on sustainability.

Other areas of shrink are being improved. According to Norris, "Film manufacturers have developed very high shrink films capable of shrinking to extreme contours with percentage shrinks achieving 75 percent plus. Printers themselves are becoming creative with printing on the films — metallics, matte surfaces, offset gloss surfaces, and such."

Jim Imburgia, director of operations for The Control Group in Norwood, NJ, USA, says, "The inks and software have come a long way. Materials have also gotten better over the years. Presses are more capable of handling the sensitive material than they were before."

Lafferty believes innovation is a continuous process. "Equipment innovation for the production and application of shrink sleeves is ongoing, and the film manufacturers are ever improving the shrink properties of their films. As the shrink percentage of the film increases, then the shape of containers that can be decorated with shrink sleeves becomes more exotic and attractive for the consumer."

Common industries

Shrink is being used in many consumer areas, with beverage and food leading the way. Murray says, "Beverage containers are some of the most popular containers to decorate with sleeves."

According to Lafferty, "Shrink sleeve labels are used in all segments of the label market including food and beverage, health and beauty, pharmaceutical, and household chemical. Shrink sleeve labels appear to be exceptionally popular in the dairy and drinkable yogurt markets. Even in those parts of the world where shrink sleeves are still relatively new, the dairy and yogurt markets appear to be a driving force."

Cobb believes that the beverage market and the household products market have already been targeted by manufacturers of shrink sleeves, and that the personal care market and the food markets may be next.

"Any package goods company using a package that is cylindrical in shape could potentially decorate that package with a shrink label. Speed of application is certainly an issue — we can produce shrink sleeves in individual form or in rolls, but the application speeds do not approach pressure sensitive," he says.

Espoma plant products with shrink labels produced by Seal-It Inc. of Farmingdale, NY, USA, a division of Printpack Inc.
Norris doesn't see limits on what kinds of products can use shrink, though he says companies can design packaging that makes better use of it. "Many products that are conventionally labeled can be shrink sleeved, but in order to fully take advantage of the shrink sleeves, it is very advantageous to develop a new container that would show a large amount of shape or contour."

Dirk Edwards, director of marketing at Multi-Color Corporation, a company mainly involved with shrink in the beverage market segment and based in Sharonville, OH, USA, says, "Common industries include beverage, food, HBC, and household. Products that require several changes to their information content (promotional activities for example) prefer 360° impactful graphics, or ones that are not visually pleasant benefit most with shrink sleeve. Also, product containers made out of rigid plastic or ones seeking out the no-label look prefer shrink sleeve."


The most challenging part of using shrink film is getting the graphics to appear in the desired manner on the finished product. Choosing the proper application is important. Edwards says, "The biggest challenge is the stretch factor of the sleeve. Heat shrink labels can stretch up to 20 percent and are primarily used in beverage. Greater than this 20 percent, shrink sleeves are used."

Imburgia believes that distortion, inks and printability cause the majority of issues. He says, "Most of this is overcome by being persistent in R&D and being willing to take the time to trial different solutions."

Norris sees equipment capabilities as causing some problems. "The biggest challenge is that the majority of the presses (narrow web) are not particularly suited for the web handling requirements of shrink sleeve, particularly on unsupported films," he says. To remedy the situation, Norris says converters need to modify an existing press or invest in a newer, more modern press design.

According to Lafferty, many of the traditional challenges associated with shrink sleeve labels have been dealt with. "The equipment has become more sophisticated and capable for every step of the process, from the printing press through to the various pieces of finishing equipment. When this is combined with the fact that the films, inks and seaming solvents are now more refined than ever, new entrants to the production of shrink sleeves have a less steep learning curve than did the 'pioneers' eight to 10 years ago."

He warns that this doesn't mean shrink production is easy. "New entrants should not underestimate the knowledge required to successfully handle every step of the production process, from prepress to finished sleeve. As the market grows and becomes more sophisticated, so too does its demands for ever more complicated container shapes, for greater efficiency in the production process and for lower unit label costs," Lafferty explains.

Future growth

Shrink has been gaining popularity, and those involved believe it will continue to grow. Seal-It's Love says, "Shrink film is in its infancy. We see many new markets and manufacturers using it and the reasons are that their sales have doubled and tripled when they convert to shrink sleeve labels."

Edwards says that a TLMI study puts the growth rate at 7 percent for shrink film labels. Imburgia agrees that growth is on the way. "It is one of those product extensions that the market has received well and is becoming more popular. From what we see, it could be an aggressive growth over the upcoming years."

As long as brand owners are looking to differentiate themselves on the shelf, shrink will be a viable option. Norris says, "Retailers and manufacturers are constantly looking to offset products from the competition. Shrink sleeves give them an opportunity to do so with very little investment in new technology."