Narrow Web Europe

Press on regardless

By John Penhallow | March 31, 2009

Take a trip round the websites of the principal manufacturers of conventional label presses in continental Europe and you will experience a deafening silence on the subject of new presses sold since the start of 2009. This may be a sign of discretion on their part. The overwhelming evidence, however, is that label converters here have almost unanimously decided to shelve their investment decisions. There are exceptions. Germany’s Töpfer Kulmbach is one of them. This major converter of sleeve, foil and wet glue labels, with annual sales of over $100 million, is investing massively in a new plant due for completion in the fall of this year.

The new facility, according to owner-manager Rainer Töpfer, “will house new offset and gravure machinery, as well as new finishing equipment, to further upgrade our quality and ensure the future of our company and of its 430 employees.”

Silicone Value

Silicone represents only some 5 percent of the material cost of labelstock, but in these hard times every cost element is coming under scrutiny. Germany’s Wacker Silicones reckons it has come up with a winner.

Its latest silicone systems, says Technical Service Manager Hans Lautenschlager, enable this expensive raw material to be spread more thinly onto the release liner. The silicone also contains an anti-misting additive, which enables coating machines to run faster. Hard-pressed labelstock manufacturers are said to be sitting up and taking notice.

RFID tags tap new markets

Bathroom and kitchen fittings seem an unlikely new field for RFID tags, but Hansgrohe, the company that puts its products into a substantial part of Europe’s bathrooms, now uses smart tags to control its workflow, and in particular to ensure that before products are sold, all necessary parts are present and correct in each kit.

The RFID based system links all stages of manufacturing, including inventories and re-ordering. The bad news from a smart tag manufacturer’s point of view (UPM in this instance) is that the quantities used are modest – around 200 to 500 tags per day. This development is typical of the European smart tag market, which, having failed to break into the large-volume unit labeling business, is going after low-volume, high-tech options such as the one introduced by Hansgrohe. Whether it will encourage your plumber to turn up when expected is quite another matter.

Mind your language

The phrase “Any language you like so long as it’s English” may (generally) work in North America, but each of Europe’s 70 or more languages is jealously guarded by some nation or region for whom it is part of the cultural heritage. This diversity is a major headache, particularly for brand managers who must pack two languages onto any product sold in Finland. For little Belgium, population 10 million, three languages are the legal minimum for all products.

When it came to test marketing a new drug Europe-wide, a major pharmaceutical group had a headache nothing could cure, until CCL Label in UK came up with a 48-page booklet label giving essential medical information in no fewer than 43 languages. The language patchwork of Europe means label converters are faced with much shorter runs (and higher costs) than their counterparts in North America; but it also gives a boost to booklet and fanfold labels, as well as digital label printing.


CCL recently acquired German label converter Eltex (specializing in making high-tech PS labels for the automotive and household appliance sectors), but the global downturn has not yet seen many mergers, acquisitions or disappearances among Europe’s 3,000 or so label converters. With many of them undercapitalized and only marginally profitable even before the crisis, some measure of concentration in the industry is almost certain to come about over the coming 12 months.

Bopack, a well run and profitable company among market leaders in France, Belgium and Holland, has recently divested itself of its labeling systems division (bought by fellow Belgian Zetes). It is rumored that Bopack’s very substantial label converting division is also up for sale, and that both German and American suitors are showing interest.

Digital developments

Back in 2000, Stratus Martin Etiquettes in Limoges, France, was the first PS label converter in France to install a digital press. Since January 2009 the company has been beta testing HP’s new WS6000. If the tests are conclusive, Stratus Martin will shortly confirm its purchase of the new press (an investment of over $1 million) to increase its capacity to handle short order, short run business.

HP appears to be one of the few narrow web equipment manufacturers to be making headway in Europe in the first quarter of 2009. Apart from the new press at Martin Etiquettes, Germany’s Etiketten Reissner recently installed an HP ws4500 and Rako (Germany) Eshuis and Geostick (both Netherlands) are reported to be beta testing the new WS6000.

Other European digital label news must include the new showroom and sales office set up by EFI Jetrion in Ratingen, Germany, in cooperation with its local partner Chromos. The two companies’ joint initiatives included a European Open House event held in early April to demonstrate the Jetrion 4000’s capabilities to prospects throughout Europe.

Belgium based Xeikon, the “we try harder” of the narrow web digital print business, is not standing still: Its 3300 label press, a new design launched at Drupa 2008, was recently installed at Welsh label converter Borble. Managing Director Barry Griffiths praised the speed and the print quality of the new press: “Pin-sharp images, whether it’s text, photos or detailed security features.”

Another Xeikon customer in the UK, NSD International, has succeeded in coupling an inline UV flexo unit to its digital label press. NSD’s David Hedley reckons this is a “world first,” which is proving its worth mainly in adding metallics, varnishes and fluorescents to the basic four-color digital process. Unlike HP, Xeikon uses the dry toner electrophotography imaging process, which is more heat sensitive, but does not require the substrate to be coated or corona treated before printing.

Linerless labels

After so many disappointing developments over several decades, the headline “Breakthrough in linerless labels” must rank as one of the more boring headlines (along with “Small earthquake in South America” and “Worthwhile Canadian initiative,” to name but two). But after the slow encroachment of linerless into the wine label market comes news that a major cosmetics group, France’s Yves Rocher, has abandoned pressure sensitive in favor of linerless for all its secondary labeling.

Production manager Pierre Bouchet sees two advantages in the move: “As a highly eco-sensitive group, we want to reduce packaging waste. The absence of any release liner means that for this labeling operation we cut our waste by a staggering 97 percent. We also reduce storage space, by having 50 percent more labels per roll, and of course we can cut our costs. This is a good example of doing good by being smart.” Labeling equipment for the new line, provided by Domino, is said to be giving trouble-free performance.

Eastern Europe

While label consumption in Western Europe has slowed almost right across the board, some small items of good news are coming in from farther east. Giant food concern Nestlé has confirmed its intention to expand operations in Poland, investing around $20 million there in 2009. The company’s sales in Poland grew by 11 percent in 2008, and it plans further acquisitions this year. This will be grist to the mill of Poland’s label converters, who are also profiting from a weak zloty to boost label exports to neighboring countries, most notably to Germany.

Further east, Cadbury, which owns two production plants in Russia, is less sanguine. Russian sales of chocolate and chewing gum, both of which Cadbury produces, are down. Sales of vodka (which it does not produce) are holding up well, however. Whether this is a sign of the times is hard to say.

Association news

FINAT, the Europe based label association, is preparing for its 2009 annual congress, to be held in Antalya, Turkey, in June. The Turkish label association, which is co-hosting the event, last year set itself the ambitious target of topping the one thousand delegate mark for the first time ever. Alas, recession has intervened and even some regular attendees have decided that to be seen between the golf course and the deep blue sea (not their main reasons for attending, of course) might just conceivably send the wrong message to customers, employees and bankers back home. Fortunately for FINAT, this is a minority view, and the delegate count, though below expectations, will be “respectable,” according to the association.

While it is unkind to say that the German label association VskE is run “by engineers, for engineers,” it is not entirely untrue. Its next congress, set for the end of April in Zurich, will discuss inline coating, the challenge of IT, prepress technologies, process standardization for flexo, and the economics of turret rewinders. In fairness, it must be added that there will also be two sessions on self-motivation and creativity. No golf, though.