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Food for thought

May 7, 2010

This month’s letter from Europe starts with a short dissertation on British food. Readers who have lived or worked in Britain can skip the next paragraph.

There have been huge advances in British food since the days of over-boiled vegetables and stodgy steak-and-kidney pudding. But some quintessentially British products have come through the past half-century unscathed and unchanged. Among them is Marmite. For those who do not know, Marmite is a vegetable spread, roughly the color and consistency of axle-grease, which generations of British children have clamored for, spreading it liberally on their bread and often their faces.

Now comes news (if you skipped, you can start reading again here) of a novel label for this venerable product. Denny Bros., makers of Fix-a-Form labels, has developed a multi-page re-sealable back label containing a unique code and web address concealed under a scratch-off panel. Just for the record, the label slots in to Marmite’s current advertising campaign in which the manufacturers describe their star product as “horrid … noxious gunk,” and invite consumers to come up with even more loathsome epithets. This kind of anti-advertising, like Marmite itself, is probably too British to work anywhere else.

It is a view widely held in France that the North and West of Europe are efficient, hardworking and honest, while the South and East are slow, sun-loving and corrupt. Like most generalizations, this is largely but not entirely untrue. It is perhaps least true of Poland, the one European country to have come through the recent economic crisis almost unscathed. The tens of thousands of Poles made redundant last year in the factories of Ireland and Britain have returned to their homeland bringing new skills. As already noted in this column, brand owners are still shifting West European production to Poland, and partly as a result, that country’s industrial production rose by nearly 10 percent over the year to February 2010 (the corresponding figure for the US was +1.7 percent). So far Poland’s label sector is mostly homegrown and home owned (although CCL and Skanem are both present). Watch out for some gentle M&A activities when other label majors start examining the potential of Poland.

Further East the heavyweight economy is still Russia. Total retail business in Russia declined by 6 percent in 2009, but is set to more than rebound by the end of this year. As in the West, major Russian retail groups are own-branding more and more products, and they are increasingly important customers for locally made packaging and labels. Although not in the same league as Walmart, Russia’s top four retail groups all had 2008 sales in excess of $5 billion. With “traditional” retail channels (small traders, street markets) still accounting for more than two thirds of total retail sales, there is plenty of room for the “modern” Russian retail sector to expand, even if it means squeezing out a lot of babushka outlets.

From Birmingham to Barcelona

The UK packaging show IPEX (May 18-25 in Birmingham, England) is not the focus of attention for Europe’s label business, and few narrow web equipment manufacturers will exhibit. An exception is HP Indigo, and Indigo founder and industry pioneer Benny Landa is the first winner of IPEX’ newly created Champions in Print Award. The award honors Landa, who has spearheaded the development of digital offset color printing technologies, and whose first digital press was launched at IPEX 1993. Another exception is Xeikon. The Belgian digital press manufacturer will be using IPEX for the world premiere of its 3500 press, with web width up to 512mm (20") and speed, according to the manufacturer, of nearly 20 meters per minute with 1200 dpi resolution. At the same time the company is launching a new toner, which is approved for indirect and direct food contact. Questioned by your correspondent, Xeikon’s Frank Vanmeenen said, “We’ve sold several of the new generation 3500 presses, but as to the identity of the buyers, my lips are sealed until the official launch at IPEX. At Labelexpo in Chicago, we will have an additional announcement regarding the Xeikon 3000 family, but again I cannot say more at this moment.” North American readers who can’t make the trip to Europe will find both these companies flexing their muscles at Labelexpo Americas in Chicago in September.

Rather to the organizers’ surprise, the first Digital Label Summit, held in 2009, was an outstanding success. Unsurprisingly, they intend to pull the rabbit out of the hat again this year, in the same venue in Barcelona, Spain. The ubiquitous Michael Fairley will be on hand to open the proceedings, and the two-day June event will end with a crystal ball session where panels of senior managers from press manufacturers, converters and brand owners will attempt to peer into the future of this exponentially expanding sector of the label business.
Spain is also the choice for label association FINAT’s annual congress, with “Creativity and Innovation: The Way for Tomorrow” as its theme. The congress’ main objective will be to help converters as they move from “manufacturing oriented” to “solutions oriented” strategies. The event will be followed by a repeat of last year’s highly popular football (=soccer) match.

If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em

This column recently reported on microchip enabled pills. New surprises are in store from the sorcerers of printed electronics; one of their latest wheezes is an adhesive shelf covering for use in supermarkets. This smart substrate measures the weight of product remaining on the shelf and sends a warning when any given threshold is reached. Simple? But that’s only the start. The latest ideas in electronic food labeling include doing away with the substrate altogether, and printing directly onto food so as to track and trace anything from meat to Marmite. Whether that one will get past the FDA is another matter. These and other wonders were food for thought at the recent conference on printed electronics in Dresden, Germany. It may come as a surprise to the label and packaging industry that scientists are also giving much thought to… wait for it… edible electronic substrates. These will most probably be transparent so you won’t be able to see you’re eating it. And as for recycling…

Such flights of fancy are being kept airborne by totally down-to-earth companies and research institutes such as Hewlett Packard, Cambridge University and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute. Less famous but highly focused is the UK company Faraday, whose managing director, Laurence Hogg, addressed the same Dresden conference on the subject of printed electronics and consumer packaging. Hogg believes that electronics will change the world of product marketing in ways we cannot yet dream of. “Whatever problem you face, it’s likely that the most advantageous solution is waiting to be unearthed within the mind of a great academic,” he says. “This is why we do our detective work with one foot in academia and the other in industry. We know what practical innovations are being made in the world’s finest universities – usually long before the commercial world does.” Hmm, maybe, Doc.

David Brown created the research company Canatu, based in Finland, to develop low cost, high performance “smart” films using carbon nano tubes. He told the Dresden conference about his work with DuPont and others to bring revolutionary new ideas to the production stage.

Warren Jackson, principal technologist with Hewlett-Packard, looked at roll-to-roll manufacture of printed electronics substrates, and in particular at the latest advances in identifying and curing the defects inherent in blending rigid electronic components with dimensionally unstable substrates in continuous roll-to-roll production.

National label shows

In Europe, surprisingly, there have been few attempts to set up national or local label exhibitions. A UK Label Exhibition was planned for February 2010 but apparently failed to materialize, (or was so low key that your correspondent failed to hear about it). In Spain, however, the Labeling Innovations 2010 event did take place (in Barcelona, April 14-15).

The event was staged by low-cost show organizers Easy-Fairs. It was billed as “Southern Europe’s very first show devoted exclusively to solutions in labeling, coding, traceability and RFID.” The 120 exhibitors were mostly local firms, and included leading Spanish label converter Sinel, and the provocatively-named Etiquetas Macho. International groups CCL, Domino, Videojet, Avery Dennison and Markem-Imaje also took part. While the show was going on in Barcelona, Easy-Fairs was also holding a packaging and labeling show in Warsaw, Poland. These low-budget regional shows scarcely compete with the international Labelexpo Europe in Brussels (next to be held in the fall of 2011) but are evidence of the increasing interest in, and profit from, the label business throughout Europe.

Return of the acquisition

M&A business in Europe, as well as worldwide, has been sharply reduced over the past year, and it is with pleasure that we read that Filtrona, the British maker of a range of plastic and security products, has acquired the family-controlled Welsh label converter BP Labels. Filtrona’s packaging and security product businesses mesh well with those of BP Labels, which specializes in security labeling chiefly for the pharmaceutical sector. This is a relatively small-scale acquisition – worth just under $7 million, scarcely more than a banker’s bonus these days – but it is gratifying to see that investors still see the label business as a source of long term profitability.