Industrial Labels

By Catherine Diamond | October 4, 2011

Designed to ensure our safety, industrial labels must combine extraordinary toughness with efficiency and consistency.

Though it might not seem that industrial labels and modern architecture have much in common, their guiding principle is the same: form must follow function. A label used in the industrial market does not have to sparkle. It has to withstand.

Labels that are manufactured for the industrial market are subject to both natural and man-made elements: heat, water, UV light, extreme temperatures, toxic chemicals, grimy fingers, and so on. At no point can these labels become illegible or unstuck. In some instances, these labels are so important that they must be regulated to ensure quality. Simply put, these labels keep people safe.

They also keep records. Industrial labels are often used to identify individual products and to track large numbers of them. In the event of a recall, identifying labels enable product manufacturers to distinguish safe products from, say, questionable products – quickly.

Because industrial labels are so common, they're a bit hard to define. Generally speaking, they're used to identify a product, track, relay information, or to instruct or warn consumers about a product's proper usage.

Customer requirements
Though industrial labels are used in a variety of markets – including lumber tags, outdoor labels for livestock fencing and gates, bathtub and shower stall labels, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units, caution and warning labels for machinery and equipment, wiring diagrams, and a host of others – many of the customers' requirements are the same.

"Typically, you can easily deal with the performance specifications of the label – must it hold up to cold, heat, rain, sun," says Randy Wise, president and CEO of Century Label, located in Red Oak, TX, USA. "Beyond that, though, they want it fast and they want it cheap. It's a utilitarian thing for them. They have to use it and it has to work."

Lori Campbell, chief of operations for The Label Printers in Aurora, IL, USA, adds that those requirements aren't always as easy as they sound.

"For some industrial applications, the machinery or whatever they'll be labeling may not be in pristine condition," she says. "[Customers] generally want an overly aggressive adhesive that will stick through the dirt and gunk."

Dwane Wall, president of Creative Labels of Vermont, says that in his experience, industrial customers "want special adhesives to perform in bizarre circumstances and do strange things."

Campbell adds that there is a major benefit to working with customers who are focused as much on utility as cost, and that is that they are generally "open to a better way to build the mousetrap."

"They're always looking to improve, whether on price or performance," she says. In the industrial market, she adds, the decision-making and application development tend to be driven from an engineering standpoint, as opposed to a marketing standpoint. Because of that, "We find that the tolerance level for evaluating an alternative is a lot higher in the industrial market than in, say, the consumer or prime label market or the pharmaceutical market."

Print options
Much like husbands, industrial labels do not have to be handsome, but they do have to be reliable, year after year. In order to ensure quality (and some semblance of aesthetics), certain processes and print ranges are used more than others.

According to Nick Van Alstine, president of Macaran Printed Products, Cohoes, NY, USA, the company's industrial label production typically "requires specialty diecutting, laminating, zone coating, sheeting and screen printing for medical devices, recreational equipment and appliances."

John McDermott, president and CEO of Label World, located in Rochester, NY, USA, adds that "the slice of customers that we have are doing basic, middle-of-the-road labels. Basically, they're using anywhere from one to six colors. The technical requirements aren't very challenging."

Kirk Icuss, president of Consolidated Products Inc. (CPI), Knoxville, TN, USA, says that approximately 75 percent of his company's business is for the industrial market. As a result, the company has grown to meet the needs of its industrial customers.

A warning label from Consolidated Products Inc.
"We have a pretty wide range of options for industrial customers," he says. "We've been a traditional flexo printer for 23 years� We really cover the gamut as far as color. We introduced a digital label press to our customers in the last few years, and that technology was in response to where the industry is going. Everyone is trying to reduce inventory and improve quality and drive down cost. Digital printing has helped us do that for our industrial customers."

Campbell agrees that flexo printing is the primary method used for her industrial customers.

"We do some digital and some rotary letterpress, but the bulk of industrial labeling here is flexo," she says. "There's a high degree of variable data, such as sequential numbering, model numbers, etc., so we may have a flexo with a digital print unit to provide the variable data."

Inventory and tracking
The variable data to which Campbell refers has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, thanks in part to the country's largest retailer: Walmart. Back in 2003, Walmart announced that it was going to require its top 100 suppliers to implement radio frequency identification (RFID) tags into their pallets, cases and cartons by 2005. What the company had to learn the hard way was that the cost of that technology, and its efficiency, was not yet ready for the mass market.

According to a report from Advanced Market Research ("RFID in 2005: The What Is More Important Than The When With Walmart Edict"), the costs to consumer package goods manufacturers far outweighed the potential benefits. The cost of the tags and readers themselves, in addition to expenses associated with implementing the technology, as well as generating and analyzing the information they track, amounted to millions of dollars. And during a recession, no one wants to pass along those costs to consumers. It appeared that, once made aware of suppliers' doubts about reaching this goal, the company re-evaluated.

The reservations that arose in 2003 still seem to be alive in today's industrial label market. Walmart, it seems, may once again heavily influence the RFID segment. As recently as July 2010, the company announced its plans to use RFID tags to track individual pairs of jeans and underwear. According to The Wall Street Journal, the removable tags on individual garments would help in-store employees ensure that shelves are stocked with every available size, and that that inventory is closely watched.

The Label Printers has had inquiries about producing RFID labels, "but its just been in the tire-kicking mode," says Campbell. The primary barrier for customers? "It's the cost and the infrastructure," she says. "It's not just my supplier who has to have the capability, but I also have to have the infrastructure in place to capture this data. I need additional folks in my supply chain."

"Our customers and the products that we find ourselves best at are the highly compliant products," says Icuss of CPI, which is an integrator of RFID labels. These include "anything that requires agency approval, like UL (Underwriters Laboratories), which takes us into durable products, polyesters and other films, durable ink constructions, and so on. Our focus is on the compliance end." CPI also has made a significant investment in doming, a process used to create domed labels for many industrial brands and durable goods.

According to Icuss, industrial labels are a combination of decorative, durable and down right informative.
"In many applications, it's the label that contains the serial number, the identification of the actual product," he says. "It IDs that product down to the serial number, model number, model information, the day it was manufactured– all the information that's necessary during the life of that product."

He adds: "The label itself has to be affixed permanently; it has to meet certain requirements. A label that's applied to a washing machine, for example, can't be affected by anything that's used in a washing machine. So it must be resilient to bleach, cleansers, etc. Many industrial applications are for retail products like ranges and refrigerators, so the label for the point of purchase is also decorative."

Available substrates
When working with customers in the industrial market, knowing which substrates and films are available is crucial to meeting their needs. So how do converters keep up? The answer, it seems, is communication. "We try to keep our finger on the pulse of the materials industry," says Icuss. "With recent cost increases and with the economy in general, its really important to stay out there with their supply base. It's important to make sure you're on the cutting edge."

Not staying on the cutting edge, according to McDermott, can cost you business. Now more than ever.

"[Customers] generally have a pretty good purchasing function," he says. "And they're happy to put you out to auction. There are 10 guys any day who'd be willing to take the work."

The shop floor of The Label Printers, Aurora, IL, USA.

McDermott adds that regular, face-to-face visits with suppliers can keep converters from becoming overwhelmed by options. "When you consider that there are three different components to the label, when you start putting it together � there are a couple of hundred facestock options, maybe 100 different adhesive options, maybe 30 or 40 liner options – you've got an incredible amount of permutations possible."

Dwane Wall, of Creative Labels of Vermont, adds that simply working with people you trust can make all the difference. "When a new application or request comes in, I'll just rely on my vendors to guide me in the right direction," he says.

Converting challenges
Though industrial labels aren't typically complicated constructions, converting them doesn't come without some challenges. Most often, the biggest challenges are in regard to waste and to the inherent nature of industrial environments: They're dirty.

"Sometimes labeling lines are not always as clean as you'd like them to be," says McDermott. "Finding the right adhesive is sometimes a challenge. I can think of one customer who was putting motor oil in bottles, and in the filling line, they'd get some microscopic particles on the bottle itself. Trying to get a label to adhere in that environment can be a problem."

Van Alstine adds: "Some of the challenges include diecutting and stripping difficult materials and shapes, sheeting and handling as the product exits the press, maintaining a dust- or static-free atmosphere, tension controls on press with difficult materials, ink adhesion, etc."

Because these labels have to withstand some extremely harsh environments and irritants, the materials involved aren't your run-of-the-mill paper and ink.

"Some of these industrial labelstocks get really exotic," says Wise. "You really need to control your waste and set-up times. You can throw a lot of money in the trash really, really fast."

Icuss agrees. "Highly compliant products require specialized materials, and they're costly. Waste becomes a huge factor in that work."

According to Campbell, however, the economic challenges presented in the industrial market are more of an external force than an internal one.

"Just about everybody can manufacture these labels," she says. "They're not multi-color, complex constructions for the most part. Which means that your competition is that much more prevalent, and finding ways to differentiate yourself is that much more of a challenge."

Consumers are grateful for labels, whether they know it or not. They instruct us how not to use electrical appliances, and help prevent us from overdosing on medicine or eating spoiled foods. Earlier this year, nearly 670,000 packages of Sudafed were recalled due to a double negative on the label ("Do not not divide, crush, chew, or dissolve the tablet."). Though it is not up to converters to edit for proper English, it is their responsibility to ensure the reliability of the label. And there are agencies in place to be sure that they do.

"There is a process that is used to qualify materials and constructions and print methods with an organization like UL," says Icuss. "The material manufacturers would have those raw materials qualified and approved, and have them qualified for our exact application within UL."

So what does it take to be considered compliant? Paperwork. Lots of paperwork.

"It can become an administrative nightmare," says Campbell. "It can be very labor intensive to fill out all these forms and document the absence of certain materials. Some of the regulations are well and good, but when you're down to the label itself, some of the more hazardous materials are specks on the back of a fly."

Campbell also adds that having a variety of materials that are approved by UL at the ready for your customers can be quite costly.

"It's a case of looking out there at all the possible applications and deciding, as a converter, as a standard place to start, which to get approved," she says. "The more surfaces you have tested, the higher your cost of having this material approved. And if you have a customer who wants a particular surface that isn't approved, you have to get it approved."

Though the administrative and logistical requirements of the industrial market can present some interesting and costly challenges, the industrial market is robust.

"I think the industrial labeling market as a whole has been kind of brushed aside in favor of the more glamorous, high-end labeling," says Campbell. "At the end of the day, the industrial market is a great market to be in. They're nest-builders. They're not going away, and once you understand the requirements, they're very easy to work with. Its nice, even-keeled work going through your system. And it's consistent work."