The Packaging Ink Market

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 10.24.05

The packaging ink market continues to move forward, with new technologies and products leading the way for growth.

Great Outdoor Grill, a six-color reverse printed film/film lamination printed by American Packaging Corp., received both the Best of Show and Flexible Packaging: Bags awards from the Packaging and Label Gravure Association (PLGA) in 2004.
The packaging ink market has been fairly resilient in recent years, as new packaging continues to drive growth, particularly in the area of flexible packaging. For ink manufacturers, 2004 was no exception.

According to the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM), for the first six months of 2004, the packaging ink market has declined 2.2 percent by volume year to date, with sales of 1.3 percent. That indicates that ink prices have actually risen slightly during that time frame.

Breaking down those figures further, NAPIM reported that solvent- and water-based flexo had slight increases in both volume and sales during the first six months compared to the same period last year. While solvent-based flexo comes as no surprise considering the growth of flexible packaging, the success of water-based flexo, a staple of corrugated packaging, comes as somewhat unexpected considering the recent exodus of manufacturing from the U.S.

Meanwhile, gravure volume and sales are down, but sheetfed packaging showed the greatest price gains, with volume down 2.7 percent but sales up 3.1 percent.

Taken all together, the packaging ink market remains strong for ink manufacturers, and it should continue to be so in the future.
This Kitchen Aid Pouring Shield package, printed by Lewisburg Container Company, received Best in Show honors from the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) in the Combined Corrugated category. It was printed with water-based ink, and ran at a press speed of 4,000 sheets per hour.

The Packaging Ink Market in 2004
The experience of ink companies in the early part of 2004 echoes NAPIM’s findings, although perhaps not to the extent that companies expected.

“2004 has been a better year for packaging than either of the previous two years,” said Mike Impastato, vice president, market development, Flint Ink’s North America packaging division. “The improvement in the general economy we saw at the end of 2003 carried over into the beginning of 2004. Most people had predicted a significant improvement for 2004 because of the overall economic outlook at the beginning of the year. And although the volume and activity is up, it has not reached the sustained level most people expected. At mid-year most of us still had a bullish view of 2004, but the dramatic increase in crude oil appears to be dampening expectation for the rest of 2004.”

“Overall, ink consumption in the packaging market appears to be up a few percentage points,” said Richard Pettifor, vice president, Sun Chemical North American packaging inks. “The improved economy has increased demand slightly, but other factors such as converter overcapacity and rising raw material costs and shortages have made times difficult for both converters and ink suppliers.”

“2004 appears to have been a marginal year for packaging,” said Shannon Barry, Color Converting Inc.’s (CCI) vice president of marketing and business development. “The first quarter was relatively strong while the second and third quarters have tapered off. We believe the market to be flat year to date. CCI’s growth continues to hover around 7 percent for the year.”

“In 2004, the overall packaging market was expected to increase considerably,” said Matt Fassler, director of corporate services at Graphic Sciences, Inc. “We’ve seen that the market has bounced back to some extent, but rather sluggishly against expectations. Closures and consolidation of manufacturing plants, primarily in the corrugated market, have indicated that the changes in market conditions are not temporary, but could be a lasting trend.”

Flexo Market
Flexo continues to show growth, and new printing technologies are helping to drive further expansion.

“Flexo has been a dynamic market for a number of years,” Mr. Impastato said. “It seems that every few years a new technology has emerged and has generated advancements in capabilities or new opportunities for flexo. This has kept both printers and suppliers on their toes to ensure they are keeping up with the pace of change. Computer-to-plate is still a hot subject as more and more printers are making the change, and digital proofing is continuing to garner attention.”

“The flexo market continues to try to push gravure quality printing in a quick changeover format,” said Mark Hill, vice president of liquid technology and assistant R&D director for INX International Ink Company. “I see a trend toward digital plates and higher line screens on both plates and anilox.”

“We have witnessed some new trends in plate technologies,” said Manuel Rivas, CCI’s director of R&D. “For example, Groovy screens, which are designed to deliver more ink to the substrate, seem to be generating a lot of customer interest recently.”

“Heatset plate systems also seem to be taking hold,” said Patrick Mollman, CCI’s senior project leader. “Both trends will challenge ink suppliers to formulate accordingly to accommodate differences in these changed plate technologies.”

This Frosted Marshmallow label, printed by McDowell Label & Screen Printing, received Best in Show honors as well as First Place for Multi-Process, Line & Screen/Tone, Prime from the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute (TLMI). The customer required a 3D “frosted look,” and a special raised topcoating achieved the look and feel. It was printed on a 175 line screen using UV flexo inks with rotary screen print white at a run speed of 100 fpm.

Expanded color gamut is also an area of interest for printers.

“We are seeing more interest in expanded color gamut printing,” Mr. Impastato said. “This is being driven from a cost and efficiency point of view. At this point in time it may be too early to determine if this will become a significant trend, but it certainly has attracted enough attention to justify more investigation.”

“Though still a younger technology, expanded gamut process printing technologies such as Opaltone and Hexachrome continue to make headway,” said Dr. Lothar Schaffeler, CCI’s vice president of technology. “Several customers are moving from the development phase into commercialization.”

The trend towards reliance on ink suppliers to aid in improving pressroom efficiencies is continuing.

“While digital presses for wide web applications have not taken off yet, the digital technologies have certainly gained ground in the pre-press arena,” said Dr. Schaffeler. “Digital artwork has been around for quite awhile but the use of digital plates has increased substantially over the past year.

“We are also seeing more use of channeled plate backing which allows for better air release, which reduces air pockets as plates are being mounted,” added Dr. Schaffeler. “This, along with other process improvements in the pressroom, facilitates a more consistent printing process.”

Packaging Gravure Market
Gravure technologies are shifting, although not as quickly as flexo, likely due to the maturity of this market. In particular, CCI believes that retort applications could have some impact on gravure package printing. While not necessarily flourishing, CCI continues to see interest at several major gravure package printers.

The ability to print short runs efficiently is essential if gravure is to make gains in the marketplace.

“Gravure continues to try and compete with flexo’s ability to run short runs efficiently,” Mr. Hill said. “They are doing this by making change-over automated with wash-up systems and as little as five gallons of ink in the press.”

“Packaging gravure has seen a spurt of growth over the last couple of years,” Mr. Impastato said. “The improvements that have been made in shorter run gravure has provided continuing opportunities in packaging. Gravure is still the printing process of choice for a number of packaging buyers.”

Gilbreth Packaging Systems received a PLGA award for Sleeves/Tubes with this reverse printed Nature’s Noni Juice label. It features seven colors printed on PETG.

Another interesting development in the gravure world is the potential delisting of MEK. “The delisting of MEK could have a major impact on printability of gravure inks,” said Mr. Rivas. “It opens windows for formulation that could certainly provide improved printability.”

CCI’s leaders also report seeing more aggressive marketing of the technology within the industry. The Packaging Label Gravure Association (PLGA) has been particularly active in promoting gravure printing for packaging applications. Membership and value-added events have increased quite a bit in recent years, which they believe feels a lot like what the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) and the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) have done for flexo printing for several decades.

Flexible Packaging
In the U.S. alone, flexible packaging has nearly doubled in sales since 1991, reaching approximately $20 billion annually. Shrink sleeves and retort packaging continue to offer the greatest opportunity for gains in the coming years.

While growth in the overall packaging market is improved over recent years, it is just matching the country’s economic growth. In some specific areas, such as shrink sleeves, retort and labels, the annual growth rates can be up to 15 percent a year, Mr. Pettifor said.

This Perdue Farms Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets package, submitted by Curwood, Inc., earned the Gold Award in the Wide Web category from the FTA. It was printed using solvent-based ink at a speed of 650 feet per minute.

Shrink sleeves, for example, are being seen on more and more food and beverage containers because their eye-catching colors and 360° graphics create retail sales, Mr. Pettifor said. He added that converters are expanding their shrink sleeve capabilities, but some are cautious because they are unsure whether the flood of new shrink sleeve products can be sustained.

“There can be considerable investment in equipment and capability training to be successful in shrink sleeves,” Mr. Pettifor said. “Some converters have also seen a great deal of variability in shrink films, which can complicate the process because you must be able to accurately predict the shrink to achieve good graphics.”

“I expect retort and shrink labels to continue to make gains on traditional labels (shrink) and cans (retort),” Mr. Hill said. “The graphics which can be printed on these structures blows the old can and label away. I also expect digital inks and RFID to get more attention in the future.” “Shrink sleeves and retort packaging have been on everyone’s list of red hot technologies for the last couple of years,” Mr. Impastato said. “Shrink sleeve growth has been significant. Currently most of the shrink sleeve printing is being done gravure, but I believe we will see more and more flexo printing product in this segment. However, if flexo is going to be successful in this market, it must supply a high level of graphic quality. Average flexo will not be successful, but high quality flexo can take part of this market.”

“While shrink sleeves are certainly growing rapidly as noted by their presence on grocery store shelves, we suspect that this is occurring primarily in the narrow web world,” said Dr. Schaffeler. “We are, however, running across more wide web applications these days as well.”

Retort packaging has been very successful throughout the world, but it has been slower to take hold in the U.S. While commercial projects are not overwhelming at this point, CCI continues to see work with several of the major gravure printers on development projects for retort packages.

“The ink technology for these applications is readily available for the gravure printers, while more consideration is still necessary for the flexo printer,” said Mr. Rivas. “The jury is still out as to how quickly retort applications for flexible packages will take hold in the U.S. and replace traditional packages as it has done in other parts of the world. It has been adopted well in Europe and Asia. So it will depend on how similar the U.S. consumer and shopping habits are to these markets.”

“Retort is an interesting issue, with lots and lots of headlines and discussion,” Mr. Impastato said. “But, for all the discussion, the growth of retort has been slow in North America. Retort is a significant packaging type in both Europe and Japan, but in North America it is still an emerging technology. It may be several years yet before we see if retort can play a significant role in the North American market.”

Package Service Company printed this Colgate Suavitel label, which received the PLGA’s PSA Labels: Prime Label, Film award. This label was created using seven colors plus UV on white BOPP.

The $23 billion corrugated market has suffered from manufacturing moving overseas, although the segment seems to have stabilized in the past year. Still, ink manufacturers are wary about future trends.

“We’re starting to see growth in corrugated,” said George Sickinger, chairman, CEO and president of Color Resolutions International. “It’s starting to turn around.”

“It appears that the corrugated market segment has remained relatively flat, with no significant move upward or downward,” Mr. Fassler said. “With a continued increase in offshore printing, we must do our best to assure savings for our current customers here in the U.S.”

“Domestic printing of corrugated containers has continued to suffer due to the imports coming into the U.S. market,” Mr. Impastato said. “Products manufactured overseas are now coming into the country already packed in corrugated containers manufactured nearby. Corrugated will continue to be a strong packaging medium, but the continued trade deficit will restrict volume.”

Folding Carton
As is the case in corrugated, the folding carton market is also being impacted by manufacturing moving overseas and technology shifts within the market, as some products move away from cartons to flexible packaging.

“The folding carton market is being affected by imports,” Mr. Impastato said. “Consumer products manufactured outside of this country will be packaged in folding cartons manufactured outside of this country. This will be a continuing trend that is likely to impact the folding carton market for the foreseeable future.”

Folding carton is recognized as a mature market, and little, if any growth is expected, Mr. Pettifor said. “Consumer companies have begun shifting to other forms of packaging such as flexible, and we expect this trend to continue.”

“While there is some dissension on information in the market, as some sources report slight growth while others report substantial declines, we have it coming up relatively flat,” said Dr. Schaffeler. “Within the market, there appear to be important technology shifts that may be neutralizing growth. For example, rigid containers are shifting to folding carton. Meanwhile, certain folding carton applications are shifting to flexible packaging, yielding, to the best of our knowledge, zero growth.”

Multi-Color Corp. earned a PLGA award in the Heat Transfer Label & Special Effects/Novelty category for Finding Nemo, an attention-grabbing label printed with five colors on proprietary heat transfer substrate.

New Trends in Packaging
Innovation is the key to success in packaging, and ink manufacturers are always working on new technologies Some of the most exciting developments in packaging today revolve around RFID technologies.

“Here at CCI, we have a large number of development projects happening in this arena and with conductive inks in general,” said Mr. Rivas.

“We’re mostly involved in the corrugated market at this point, and are moving into the label market,” Mr. Fassler said. “Throughout the industry, our customers continue to look for ways to provide better visibility of the product through new packaging design innovations. We’ve seen a vast increase in interest in RFID technology, primarily in the label market, so this is an obvious trend.

Specialty inks and coatings for improved shelf life and functionality also continue to make headway. “Along with increased use of pearlescent and glow-in-the-dark type applications, for example, we have seen increased demand for functional lacquers such as oxygen barrier and anti-fog coatings. We are also now offering embossing lacquers and twist wrap lacquers for the confectionery market,” said Dr. Schaffeler.

Banta Specialty Converting produced this label for Intek, 23 HP, Twin V OHV, Briggs & Stratton, which received TLMI’s First Place award for Flexography, Line & Screen/ Tone, Prime. It utilized UV inks.

As counterfeiting becomes more of an issue, brand protection is also receiving more attention. Counterfeiting is finding its way into more applications and the U.S. market.

“Solutions are wide-ranging and can include mechanisms discernible at the expert level as well as by customs officers all the way to the end-use consumer,” said Dr. Schaffeler.

Dr. Schaffeler also reported that demand for water technologies has also increased recently.

“While this may be related to specific customer data points versus a tangible market dynamic, we have seen interest this year in both water lamination technologies as well as surface applications which require high resistance properties,” said Dr. Schaffeler.

“We’ve seen continued efforts by our customers to reduce overall costs through price reductions, an increase in value-added services and new technologies,” Mr. Fassler said. “A revival of focus on technical support is becoming more evident in continued cost-reduction efforts. The old ‘commodity supplier’ perception throughout the industry is consistently migrating more toward that of a ‘value partner’ scenario.

“Graphic Sciences has seen a strong trend toward pH-stable and pH-neutral ink lines, and a number of our customers are seeing considerable and quantifiable savings due to the decrease in downtime associated with plate cleanup,” Mr. Fassler added. “The more we as suppliers can do to help simplify the printing process, the more loyalty we receive from our customer base. Finally, we’ve seen increased interest in adding energy-curable OPVs to the corrugated direct print market segment.”

Mr. Impastato said that printers are seeking ways to cut down on inventory by simplifying their purchasing.

“The idea of simplicity is gaining more interest,” Mr. Impastato said. “Our industry includes some very complicated technologies coupled with participation in some very diverse markets. This creates a high level of complexity for our businesses. To be successful in the future, we need to be able to be effective and efficient in what we do.

“Efficiency is not always an issue of being able to do more with less,” Mr. Impastato added. “In the future, we need to determine what is and what is not important, and stop doing the unimportant activities. We also need to simplify our processes as much as possible. We need to make our processes robust. As suppliers to the printing industry we need to provide products that have widespread application. As an example, as an ink supplier we need to provide products that can be used for different end uses and in different constructions. By providing a versatile ink, we can reduce the number of inks that need to managed and inventoried. This simplifies the operation and increases efficiencies.”

The packaging market continues to support innovation and more importantly, the major brand owners are prepared to pay for advances in packaging technology to either improve their brand appeal or to enhance packaging performance. Sun Chemical is continuing to invest extensively via their global R&D centers to find new ways of improving the functionality of packaging. Mr. Pettifor believes that the packaging market will continue to drive ink technology and the ink industry needs to be able to generate a sufficient return on capital employed to be able to support the need for continued investment in research and innovative technology.

What the Future Holds
As anyone who has walked through a supermarket can attest, the packaging industry is an ever-changing business, with new ideas always coming to the forefront.

Today, flexible packaging has become dominant on store shelves, and the ability to create inks for bags, pouches, shrink sleeves, retort packages and other applications has played a significant part in the success of these packages in the marketplace.

While we don’t know what the future holds for packaging, it is certain that inks will play a major role. Regardless of the type of packaging, ink manufacturers will lend their experience and expertise, and will succeed in meeting the challenges of the future.

New Products

The area of flexible packaging is drawing much interest from ink manufacturers. Mr. Pettifor said the use of retort continues to grow in the U.S., but it has not achieved the same levels of penetration it has in Europe and Japan. Sun Chemical has products such as Sunpli RT and Universal 21, but has also developed new products such as RotoPure which can withstand the high temperatures of retorting.

Another key trend in flexible packaging is the continued growth of stand-up pouches, which some have predicted will eventually replace bottles and cans for liquid packaging and folding carton for dry. Mr. Pettifor said that Sun Chemical’s high performance laminating ink systems such as Flexopure and Rotopure are ideal for this emerging market.

In paper packaging, there is increased interest in using preprint and post print to achieve higher quality process printing. For these applications, Coates USA, a division of Sun Chemical, has developed Everest and Solace water-based flexo inks designed for vignette and process printing on paper and board for preprint, multiwall bag, post-print and narrow-web applications.

Also, Sun Chemical recently began offering Advantage, a water-based flexo ink formulated for pH stability during long press runs of mid to mid-high level corrugated and paper bag products. This creates consistent on-press performance, while reducing the need to constantly adjust pH in order to control viscosity and print characteristics.

Versatile inks are allowing printers to simplify their operation and Mr. Impastato said that Flint Ink's new Arrowbond Ultra is such a product, it can be used for a wide variety of laminating applications, reducing the need for multiple inksystems. Flint Ink’s ArrowStar sheetfed system is a similiarly robust product for sheetfed folding carton applications.