While the event focused on the growing relevance of digital printing, flexo certainly had its presence felt. The partner fair included companies like Anderson & Vreeland, Flint Group, and FLAG–all of whom provide flexo supplies to the labels and packaging industry.
In a presentation entitled, “Digital and Flexo: Friends or Enemies?” TLMI president Dan Muenzer explored the role of both technologies, and whether they can co-exist. In a word, yes, they can. And Muenzer added, “Digital is an absolute friend, it’s not either or. There’s a place for both, just like in the label industry and the 2,500 converters that are out there, there’s a lot that digital can do that flexo can’t and there’s a lot flexo can do that digital can’t.”
Although flexography maintains a bigger installation base and substantially more market share, digital is growing. According to Muenzer, digital label printing increased by 8.5% in 2017 compared to 3.9% for flexo.
Prior to being announced as TLMI president, Muenzer referenced much of his past experience in dealing with flexo and digital. He also has the requisite knowledge from his TLMI member companies and how they operate in both spaces.
Many companies who don’t utilize digital printing properly miss the short-run capabilities of it. They might only see the opportunities in variable printing campaigns for companies like Coca-Cola, but there are countless brands who will need a small quantity of labels.
“There are advantages to both, and the key is to figure out how to work them together,” Muenzer said. This could include running each as standalone units, catering to different applications and niches. There is also the trend toward hybrid printing, where inkjet units complement flexo presses.
“Successful companies treat digital differently, and they have a different mindset,” said Muenzer. “Big and small companies can fail or succeed equally. The size of the company makes no difference.”
Muenzer referenced several label converters who have found success utilizing digital and flexo, albeit in different ways. Smyth installed digital and became profitable within the first 30 days because the plant was focused on digital printing. Meanwhile, Multi-Color–the second largest label printer in the world–did not open up a digital plant but created digital divisions to focus on the technology.
Consolidated Label, a TLMI member that has won the “Best Managed Company Award” for 14 straight years, keeps digital and flexo separate, and Columbine Label runs the two technologies side by side. Columbine boasts almost 2,000 customers, of which 600 represent craft breweries requiring small runs.
In addition, the industry is also exploring how to attract the next generation of printers. It is no secret that the current generation will retire at some point, and new technological advancements will require more training and a new talent pool.
Here, Muenzer added, is another area where digital printing can aid the print industry. “Our members are finding the addition of digital–as a complement to their presses–is helping them attract a younger workforce,” he explained. “It’s attracting the millennials.”
When seeking employees to work with digital, Muenzer said that it’s critical to hire for mindset first, as companies require minds who are on the leading edge of the technology. Prepress is also seen as a more important aspect than even the press operator, as managing files is critical due to an increased number of jobs.
Muenzer praised Xeikon Café North America for allowing difficult topics like this one to be discussed. ““We have to figure out how to facilitate these discussions. It’s a growing, exciting market with room for everything,” he concluded.
TLMI: By the numbers
TLMI, which stands for the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute, Inc., is a technology-agnostic organization that welcomes members who either print labels or provide supplies that a label printer will ultimately use.
According to Muenzer, there are 2,500 label converters in North America but only 7% belong to TLMI. However, that fraction represents 65% of the label revenue. Overall, the organization has 350 member companies.
TLMI has recognized an overlap, where newer forms of printing are taking place among TLMI members. About 80% of the members are label converters, and the remaining 20% specialize in other forms of package printing like flexible packaging, shrink sleeves, etc.
“It’s a growing industry and an exciting place to be,” Muenzer said of the label converting space.
Muenzer cited TLMI’s “strategy” as one of its main benefits to members, as knowledge sharing and collaboration are key pillars of the organization. TLMI has established a strategic plan that is meant to answer key industry topics like sustainability, workforce recruitment and finance. The organization also has a long-term vision for the labels and packaging industry, to go along with its 3-5 year goals and objectives.