Ink Makers are Playing a Role in Narrow Web, Flexible Packaging Advances

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 09.09.09

Innovation is taking place in the narrow web and adjacent areas of flexible packaging, which is giving ink suppliers opportunity for providing additional assistance to printers

The recession seems to be an opportunity for innovation in packaging, particularly because brand owners and retail chains want to find new ways of differentiating their product when the economic upturn comes.

A lot of innovation is taking place in the narrow web and adjacent areas of flexible packaging, where a variety of printing processes are giving printers a chance to diversify into new segments of the market.

This diversification, combined with a drive to innovation, is giving ink suppliers opportunity for providing additional help to printers, especially when printers are having to deal with substrates of which they have little experience.

Printers and their packaging customers are also requiring assistance in ensuring that new designs and the applications of new technologies in food packaging comply with tighter European Union regulations on food contact materials.

However, since this additional technical support has to be given at a time of economic difficulties, it tends to be a additional cost burden which has to be carried by the ink makers because of the squeeze on prices.

Innovations are having to be developed and tested at a time when curbs on costs are an imperative. In addition, sustainability – with a lower consumption of materials and energy as well as protection of health and the environment – remains a priority.

The European packaging market normally suffers less than other printing sectors in an economic downturn because consumers continue to buy their usual quantities of food and drink, which are the main source of demand for packaging.

“The overall packaging market seems to have been affected by approximately a 3 to 5 percent reduction in volumes from what we see overall, which contrasts with what is typically a market growing at 3 percent per annum,” said Jo Watkins, Sun Chemical’s European marketing director for packaging.

“Our business today is approximately 60 percent food packaging related, which remains relatively stable in economic downturns, and 40 percent industrial applications, which have been more radically affected,” Ms. Watkins added. “However, I would say that we have definitely seen a bottoming out of the situation in recent months during the second quarter.”

Brand owners have been worried about signs of weakening loyalty among shoppers as they search for the best bargains. This softening of support for leading brands comes at a time when consumer products companies have been using supermarkets as a key space for the marketing of their goods.

“With many types of products, packaging is now a crucial means of communicating with the consumer,” explained Wolfgang Czizegg, chief executive of Waldorf Technik GmbH, a German producer of in-mold labeling (IML) systems. “TV advertising is no longer as effective as it used to be, so that if companies want to increase their market share they need to have packaging which has a visual impact on the shelf. We think IML is particularly suitable for this because of the quality of its decorative effects and of its reproduction of images.”

The recession has also given retailers the opportunity to promote more effectively their own private label brands in their stores.

“What could be observed during this economic downturn is the increase of sales of private label products,” said Jens Zimmermann, Flint Group’s director of marketing for packaging and narrow web. “While in the past this segment typically was represented by plain packaging with simple graphics, graphic quality is (now) an important factor behind the acceptance of private label products.”

Brand owners in general appear to be taking more seriously the ability of special effects, such as the use of color shift and light interference pigments, to draw the attention of shoppers to packaging.

“Typically – post recession – we do see increased demand for special effects as brand owners look to drive share in the upturning market,” said Ms. Watkins. “Sun Chemical is working on enhancing and branding its special effects portfolio to support brand owners, pack designers and converters in innovational pack design for the new market.

“We quite often see a ‘special effect’ being added when a design concept is nearly completed rather than being designed in from the start,” she continued. “We’re working hard with many industry players to highlight designing in special effects and using partners such as ourselves to validate their effect, value and ‘producibility’ at an early stage to ensure these designs work right first time.”

More color and the addition of other visual features frequently are not sufficient to differentiate packaging on the shelf. Additional elements are having to be included to appeal to the shopper’s other senses. These can come from inks with new or extended properties.

“The right inks – as well as the right use of colors – can make a product stand out on any crowded shelf,” said Mr. Zimmermann. “We have, for example, introduced new and improved lacquers that give plastic films either a paper-like appearance and touch – like tactile varnish – or a soft feel. Such products offer additional opportunities for brand owners to increase attention of their packaged goods at the point of sale.”

“Today we are far more involved in the area of sensory packaging design,” said Ms. Watkins. “(We are involved in) the ergonomic design of bottles and containers – lifting the tactile effects on the package for handling and aesthetic difference. Sun can now provide soft touch, leather feel, coarse, grainy and super smooth lacquers for added effect.

“The use of aroma in package design can be achieved through the printing of encapsulated aromas in the inks – with every smell you can think of available, from baby powder to seaweed,” she added.

Narrow Web and
Flexible Packaging

Narrow web printing is tending to be the most active segment in terms of new ideas and innovative designs and visual aspects.

“Despite the recession, we see many narrow web converters are busy and some segments remain buoyant,” said Jonathan Sexton, Sun Chemical’s sales and marketing director for screen and narrow web in Europe. “The sector tends to be more adventurous and innovative because of the variety of its print processes – offset, flexo, screen and some gravure. We’re currently seeing a lot of innovation in narrow web. In some markets label consumption has fallen so there are opportunities to use spare capacity to try new things out and test innovations.”

Innovation is also being partly driven by the intensifying competition between narrow web and flexible packaging printers as they move into each other’s market.

“There is a lot of diversification going on,” Mr. Sexton explained. “Printers in both segments are doing work in sleeve packaging and in sachets and pouches. When printers switch to new substrates and types of packaging, they need help from suppliers like ourselves because of their lack experience with the products.”

Narrow web printers have, for example, to deal in flexible packaging areas with longer runs. Flexible packaging printers are having to tackle the problems of shorter runs when taking on narrow web work.

At LabelExpo Europe, which is being held in Brussels this month, press manufacturers are demonstrating machines designed to cater especially for the “middle ground” between narrow web and flexible packaging. In particular, flexo equipment is being introduced which has been designed for shorter runs and faster changeovers.

Ink producers have been responding to the general need among packaging and narrow web printers for new and improved inks which above all cut costs so that they hang on to their margins during the downturn.

“Improving profitability while achieving excellence in label quality will remain major topics of discussion,” said Mr. Zimmermann. “The ink plays a key role. We can provide solutions to the label printers by focusing on operational costs and efficiency in the print process with good up-time and low waste.”

At LabelExpo Europe, Flint is introducing a new UV ink, marketed as Flexocure Force, which has already been extensively tested by a selection of converters.

“Flexocure Force is a milestone development in UV flexo technology that will enable printers to take another step in print quality, improved mileage and press performance with much easier handling due to lower viscosity and no foaming and greater adhesion to a wider range of substrates,” said Mr. Zimmermann. “Leading quality-minded converters were involved in the development process. All customers involved in the tests reported clear improved properties from printability and adhesion to press performance.”

During the recession, packaging converters and printers have been making greater use of lower grade materials by, for example, replacing lids with thin gauge films, and reducing multipacks resulting in cuts to shrink wrap volumes, according to Sun Chemical.

The company has launched a new flexo narrow web ink called SolarFlex Nova, which aims to give printers trouble-free printing at the highest press speeds with improved adhesion, particularly on difficult substrates, and more ink mileage.

However costs are increasingly being linked with sustainability, with the latter in the longer term become a key objective in the packaging sector.

“Despite much media discussion about a swing away from sustainability in a recession due to cost factors, we are continuing to have questions from all parts of the packaging supply chain, and indeed are seeing brand owners really looking to innovate in this space,” said Ms. Watkins.

“The big win for all players is light weighting when you consider the added advantage of waste reduction and cost savings that it can bring to many steps in the chain,” she continued. “As far as the future is concerned, sustainability, in my belief, is a mega trend – i.e. one that changes the way we do business for the long term and is not a short burst of activity that then goes away.”

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