It’s not so long ago that to be a successful, good quality label printer it was all about investing in the right printing and finishing hardware, and training skilled operators to produce error and fault-free results that consistently met brand owner requirements.
With the rise of digital printing, servo technology, sophisticated management information systems, color control, web inspection and, most recently, the introduction of increasing levels of management and workflow automation, success is becoming almost as much to do with software and IT solutions as it is with hardware.
Both office and production employees today need to be ever more familiar with computers, keyboards and key pads, with many different forms of mobile communications, with electronic data collection and data analysis, networks and networking. Every week or month there seems to be new solutions and opportunities evolving. Easy to understand and use by the younger generation, but perhaps not always easy to follow by some of the older workforce. Employers need to understand this and ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn and be mentored on where the industry is going for the future and the skills required.
Each Labelexpo show provides even newer MIS solutions and upgrades, that press and workflow automation become more sophisticated and focused, and that IT and artificial intelligence (AI) – automating decision making – will have an increasing prominence in label and flexible packaging plants of tomorrow. How far automation and AI will take the industry is still difficult to say at the moment. However, recent announcements from major equipment and systems suppliers suggest that there is certainly a lot more to come.
Esko’s recent acquisition of Blue Software, for example, aims to bring their combined hardware and software solutions together to digitize, automate and connect label and packaging development and production workflow from virtual 3D design concepts all the way to printed finished packs, in-store displays and e-commerce imagery and content. Developments of this kind will enable faster and more accurate collaboration, with brands having the ability to launch new products much more frequently and cost effectively.
Enhanced ink management software from GSE now enables an operator to achieve repeatable quality and accurate cost estimates when printing a design, automatically determine the exact amount of color needed for printing, calculate the printed surface area covered by each color, and offer better traceability in label and package printing. All information can be instantly recalled for repeat orders, assuring identical color results.
In another development, Ricoh announced that they had made ‘lights out’ end-to-end print production a reality. Although not for labels or packaging at this stage (it’s for personalized postcards), it nevertheless shows how software and digital technology are already working together to create a seamless end-to-end production process – imposing personalized print-ready PDF files, optimizing and automating workflow, scheduling jobs, managing print production on a digital color press, as well as organizing the complete business process. If this can already be done with postcards, then labels would seem to be a possibility in the not too distant future.
There is little doubt that the label and package printing industry in just a few years will be very different to that of five years ago, or even of today.
It was therefore welcome to see Finat launching a competition to increase awareness among students and young professionals about the creative, technical and leadership skills involved in shaping tomorrow’s labels and label sector. The goal is to educate students and young professionals about the exciting and challenging opportunities the industry offers and how their innovative spirits can make a difference.
This initiative will probably need to go much further in the future, finding ways to inform, encourage, stimulate and create a new generation of software, automation, AI and IT specialists who will see the label industry as being at the forefront of a printing and packaging industry revolution – almost seamless from order entry to dispatch and invoicing – that still has some way to go.
The future of the industry looks ever more exciting, but will only really succeed longer-term with the right people and skills in place. It’s a challenge, but the initiatives are now underway.