Labels continues to be a growing market for inkjet. A recent report from Smithers found that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the use of digital print in labels and packaging to $21.1 billion in 2021. Digitally printed labels continue to account for the majority of this output. Smithers estimates a digitally printed label market value of $11.79 billion in 2021 with a 5.6% CAGR anticipated through 2026. The CAGR forecast is more modest than in years past and demonstrates a maturing market for labels. The growth rate remains higher than GDP indicating the digitally printed label market still has head room for further growth.
To understand the current state and potential future of digitally printed labels in the United States, we interviewed three industry experts on the substrate side of digitally printed labels:
- Catherine Heckman, Laminating Adhesives and Coatings Business Director for Ashland, Board Member of the Tag and Label Manufacturers Association (TLMI), Chairman’s Advisory Council Member for the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA)
- Paul Lender, Business Development Manager – Digital with Avery Dennison Label and Graphic Materials, and
- Gianluigi Rankin, Global Marketing Manager – Digital Printing with Michelman.
We asked all three experts, five questions:
- What trends are you seeing in the digitally printed labels space?
- What gaps do you see in digitally printed label technology?
- How do ink receptive coatings and substrates designed for digitally printing help?
- What is holding inkjet for labels back from further adoption?
- What new products should we look for in 2022?
Here are their responses.
What trends are you seeing in the digitally printed labels and flexible packaging space?
All of our experts pointed out that digital print, as it relates to labels, is really four different technologies: electrophotography, water based inkjet, UV inkjet and solvent based inkjet. It’s important to understand the differences. Notably, no one talked any further about solvent-based inkjet. While it remains in use for niche applications, solvent-based technology is estimated at less than 10% of the market, likely due to ever increasing environmental regulatory demands. It was also noted that traditional label printers are looking to expand their business by expanding into flexible packaging. The challenge for label converters is to ensure they understand different end use requirements such as food contact regulations and processing guidelines.
- “HP electrophotography (EP) technology has been a leader in the packaging space as well as in shrink labeling. When prelaminated structures are needed, it has been relatively common to see a label printer invest in an HP 20000 30-inch press. Growth is likely in HP Indigo as the technology is established and proven.”
- Water based inkjet: “I believe water based inkjet will be a trend especially as converters penetrate flexible packaging. Short run, small scale spaces are likely to find advantages in water based inkjet speed and costs that make it attractive versus other technologies. Many market reports estimate higher CAGR for water based inkjet than electrophotography by as many as 5 points. Europe is leading the growth with a few OEMS having developed inkjet presses designed for water based inkjet label printing. Overall, there is a market desire for water based inkjet to take a significant market share from EP, UV (and solvent-based) inkjet as well as a desire to grow the overall size of the pie for inkjet label printing. “
- UV –“ I expect UV to grow with the market. OEMs have built bolt-on platforms for existing (flexo) presses. This is an easy win, low hanging fruit. It’s a small incremental expense and can get up and running quickly. “
- “There is an increase in legislation for food safe packaging and labels including flexible packaging, shrink and pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA). The increase is happening in levels of magnitude that is surprising the industry – even those who have long experience watching the trends. The industry must look at the impact of sustainability, food safety and regulations on their business. “
- “Labels and flexible packaging are converging. Approximately, 20% of label converters participate in flexible packaging. The easiest way to get in, is to use inkjet digital technology. I typically see HP presses in this scenario.”
- Industry consolidation: “There are numerous examples of acquisitions in the inkjet and label space. HP recently announced the acquisition of Choose Packaging, a vertical integration. Avery (Dennison) bought Ink Mill a few years ago. What possibilities could be created if companies integrate ink and substrate technology?”
- “Lowering the initial cost of investment while improving on-going throughput will be a key growth driver.”
- “In the UVIJ space the OEMs are looking to expand their target segments beyond labels and into shrink films and flexible packaging. “
- “Water-based inkjet continues to see the addition of new print models offering higher print speeds and improved image quality.”
- “HP Indigo continues to innovate with new WS presses, like the release of the 25K.”
- “I’m seeing an interest from flexible packing – HP Indigo is really the only viable solution currently. There are not many inkjet machines out there.”
- “There is a growing trend in synthetic substrates – could be flex pack, label etc. Substates are all different and a challenge to develop an ink to go on all. Inkjet is comprised of a host of different manufacturers UV, water based piezo and UV. When you add in the different manufacturers followed by individual options for different customers, it makes it very hard to have one substrate to accommodate all.”
- “There’s a long list of substrates people want to print on. The challenge is to pick the key substrates to focus new product development on so the market can seed and grow. “
What gaps do you see in digitally printed label technology?
Our experts pointed out several technology gaps that could improve digitally printed label uptake. One is around water based inkjet and ensuring high enough print durability. Another gap is around substrate availability. Finally, our experts expressed a desire for more collaboration among suppliers in the inkjet value chain.
- “The industry doesn’t work together on product development. For example, ink and substrate development tend to be separate. There is cost associated with the lack of an optimized system: that includes ink and primer together to be cost competitive versus other inkjet technologies. “
• “While [our] TC-2000 has eliminated the need for specialized products in UV inkjet, the need still exists in water based inkjet.”
- “Is the print durable enough? For pigment, it must stick to the substrate and you have to get the water out. Lots of heat on film can be very difficult. Everything must be dry, get through the equipment and then you have to either put a varnish on top or laminate. You don’t want delamination. The print has to have protection. As an example, think about bottles that are labeled and shipped. The bottle bottles rub together and on the outer package. Additional properties may be needed pending the application such as chemical or heat resistance. These properties typically get brought in with the OPV or lamination process. This of course adds a processing step and cost. Packaging is a multilayer process – even with flexo – it still gets an OPV or is laminated. The same is true for direct mail. High volume print and postal equipment is very harsh. If you don’t protect the print, you’ll have problems.”
How do ink receptive coatings and substrates designed for digitally printing help?
All experts agreed that coatings on inkjet products help improve ink anchorage, image quality and durability. For water-based inkjet they can also aid in drying.
What is holding inkjet for labels back from further adoption?
It is clear that the label industry continues to seek proof of concept before inkjet label printing can reach its full potential. Our experts noted this is particularly true with regards to water based inkjet.
“It takes a while for label converters to adopt new technologies. Once they figure it out, the adoption rate is strong and loyalty to the technology stays. Water based technology is a foreign proposition right now. The industry needs more education to build comfort level to convert.”
• “Print speeds, image quality and robust performance across a wide range of substrates has helped digital print gain a greater adoption in the label segment. Add the short run, print on demand, quick turnaround time capabilities that the current market requires and it’s hard to ignore the benefits of a digital press or printer.”
- “People are pushed to shorter and shorter print runs for various reasons. Personalization is nice, but there are other reasons to use inkjet. It’s not viable to do short runs with analog technology. Inkjet can go wide and fast. If you solve the problem of getting ink on substrate and protection, inkjet can go fast and get very high productivity. Suddenly its economical to go from small and medium runs to long runs. Inkjet can easily go 6” – 20” wide. Other digital technologies have a bit more of a challenge to go wider. This is the same reason why you see interest in inkjet for other applications like corrugate where people can more easily integrate inkjet in manufacturing lines. To manufacture faster, adds manufacturing flexibility.”
- “The other gap is with overprint varnishes. Some find that standard varnishes don’t work with inkjet. Many of the OPVs on the market were designed to go over analog ink and therefore, may not bond well to the primer or ink designed for inkjet. There is an opportunity to develop OPVs designed for inkjet.”
What new products should we look for in 2022?
Our experts are excited for innovations in overprint varnish (OPV) and topcoat technology that can aid in print durability and safety.
- “The challenge for UV printing is due to technical limitations particularly in food packaging. This is due to concerns with photo initiators and migration into food. Low migration UV overprint varnishes (OPVs) and laminating adhesives have the potential to change things. They create a space for converters to use assets above and beyond what they are utilized for today”
• “(Avery Dennison’s) unique TC-2000 topcoat technology enables an especially strong bond between the film and inks. Superior ink adhesion also means clearer, bolder graphics and increased shelf appeal. Avery Dennison TC-2000 works beautifully with a wide range of printing techniques, including UV Flexo, UV inkjet, water-based flexo and more.”
• “The TC-2000 topcoat technology enables updates (Avery’s) BOPP offerings to create products with best-in-class flexo and UV inkjet printability in one product. This simplifies inventory for our customers and expands the film specs and service programs available to UV inkjet customers.”
After speaking with our experts, we see evidence that digital printing for labels and flexible packaging will continue to grow. Suppliers recognize that there are technology gaps to overcome and they continue to come out with solutions to address those gaps and expand the market.