The label market – the shift towards digital
Q&A with Andy Cook, Managing Director of FFEI
Is the labels market changing? In what way?
The Labels market is changing dramatically, it’s revolutionary not evolutionary. The drivers for this are the influx of new digital devices in all areas of print not just labels. This has reset the expectations from buyers in terms of quality, quantity and service from convertors. The key challenge to convertors is the need to understand and adapt to a new brave world within an economic downturn, in a way that changes their business models, workflows and machinery. They are becoming print service providers not just convertors and are under constant pressure to meet the demands of more frequent, smaller orders.
What are current challenges/trends in labels market?
Advances in digital and analogue printing along with new software are best described as being focused on ‘sustainability’ at all stages of the supply chain. Environmentally: Optimising use of materials and energy, reducing waste. Financially: Optimising customer services, ordering, business systems, prepress, printing and finishing.
The trend for shorter runs will continue to grow, combined with the need for reduced lead times, greater flexibility and consistent measureable print quality. These are the biggest drivers for investment in digital technologies. Brands are now able to utilise digital print to react very quickly to market trends. This has led to regular seasonal variants in many products across most sectors. Scents, flavours, franchises, all drive changes in SKUs and lead to smaller more frequent print runs.
However, in order to remain competitive convertors need to invest in digital technologies.
How are your customers adapting to overcome these issues?
Customers are adapting by introducing digital presses (and in many cases their second or third presses are inkjet rather than toner) and complementing that digital offering with modern prepress tools and workflows. Prepress tools such as our RealPro Toolkit can introduce significant cost savings in both digital and traditional prepress tasks for flexo, offset, screen and gravure by optimising and structuring object editing, colour/ink handling, trapping, pre-flight and step and repeat. FFEI’s RealPro Workflow provides automation between web and business systems structuring the flow of data throughout the business for pre-flight, soft and hard copy proofing, colour management, ink mapping and delivery to CTP or digital output.
How has the proliferation of SKUs affected run lengths? How does this affect label converters?
It has made them shorter in volume, but there is also a drive to keep price per label the same regardless of run length. The key challenge is to make the smaller run profitable but also manage the complexity of administration, prepress and printing of complex orders. Workflow is key to achieve this, for example RealPro workflow allows all the components of a SKU to be held and archived in one job even if the settings, layouts and colour management is different for each SKU.
How are marketing trends affecting substrate choices? What trends do you see?
As a digital print technology provider, the key demand we are seeing is the ability to print on a very wide range of challenging substrates with excellent adhesion, scratch and chemical resistance and light fastness. The market has seen suppliers offering substrates specifically for digital, and jobs are now being designed for a specified substrate for digital from the outset. FFEI’s inkjet technology uses corona treatment in conjunction with inter-colour pinning and our adaptive screening technology. The UV curable ink we use provides one of the best light speeds available.
Why do you believe that more label converters are moving toward digital solutions? What are the main draw factors?
It would depend on their personal situation, the application and customer base. Some will outsource short run work. Others will continue on flexo because they can scale up to longer runs. But the trend seems to be to offer a range of solutions from digital to flexo to offset to provide the maximum range of services to the customer.
It is clear that most new investments are intended to reduce cost, waste and increase efficiency. So digital is always considered, but the challenge for converters is to adapt to handling an entirely new print and business process. Our market data indicates that of all the narrow web presses being purchased there is a significant and growing proportion that are digital.
How can converters benefit from digital capabilities like variable data for text/barcodes; best before dates; track and trace; QR codes, etc.?
The issue with variable data is when and where in the supply chain the data needs to be applied. Often it is at the packing plant, where coding and marking technologies are dominant for track and trace, along with best before dates. For the convertor, variable data on a digital press provides the capability for production of asset security labels, variable data and barcodes for a very wide range of applications. The demand is growing for us in this area due to our UV inkjet technology having such good durability and scratch resistant properties. We are also seeing the possibility of variable data technologies being used to provide ways to drive dynamic data. This provides brands with the opportunity to maintain an existing product through their database and drive text changes in a design document by automating everything from label design to prepress, right through to the job arriving on digital front end. It should be noted that this type of workflow requires commitment and systems integration across multiple businesses to create a virtual production line.
How easy is it for a conventional label converter to add digital?
It depends on the scale of entry and the type of device purchased. Digital spans from desktop production to devices which are very closely integrated into a traditional flexo press line.
Convertors must also be prepared for the fact that job preparation, estimation, costs and lead times are calculated totally differently. It is these business model changes which provide the biggest challenge, but also the biggest opportunity too.
How cost-effective is digital label printing?
Cost effective on all short run jobs and on some devices, medium run jobs too.
How are brand owners taking to digital?
Brand owners are under intense pressure to use resources more efficiently. Yet they must also maintain the product positioning as they battle for retail presence and customer perceived value. Digital printing offers brands a solution to the pressures of utilising resources more efficiently.
For mass migration to digital to occur, larger brands are expecting to achieve the same product embellishments that they can achieve on traditional presses such as foil, embossing, spot colours, etc. Device speeds need to be in region 80-100 metres per minute and for high volume use, the cost of ink/toner needs to fall and therefore the cost per label.
How much more innovation is left in this digital cycle?
There is significant innovation and research currently under way which we have yet to see come into fruition. Particularly in inkjet applications and their inks, performance and resolutions.
Where do you see the future of inkjet in the labels market?
Inkjet has huge potential for future development, not just in labels, but in all areas of print. We expect it will eventually be the dominant technology in the labels market.