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Securing the future of your business through diversification

Labels and packaging play an essential role in combatting counterfeiting

For label and narrow/mid web converters looking at ways to diversify their business and open up new revenue streams, a number of opportunities present themselves, writes Hans Poortinga, manager of the MPS Systems Technology & Expertise Center

From diversification within labels – smart/interactive, peel and reveal, shrink sleeves – to new packaging formats – flexibles, folding cartons and some lightweight corrugated – there’s an almost endless array of opportunities. 

Next-generation flexo, digital and hybrid (flexo-digital) printing all offer your business enhanced capabilities to manufacture new products. Hybrid printing, as an example, presents new opportunities for the combination of digital and conventional for mainly smaller runs. Evolution in printing is supported by further developments in pre-press, consumables, finishing and ancillaries, all of which help open the door for printers looking to diversify.

Why diversify?
The technical ability to diversify goes hand-in-hand with the need to do it. Diversification is important as there are many standard label converters entering the industry, such as sheet-fed offset printers that are adding labels as they look to diversify. To differentiate your business, you need to be looking to move into special label applications and different products like shrink sleeves and flexible packaging.

Flexible packaging has been a talking point in the industry for a number of years and is now a reality for many. Food, non-food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, home and personal care, industrial chemicals – you name the product and more often than not, it is now available in some form of flexible packaging. 

While emerging product categories such as e-cigarettes and vaping have created new demand in non-food applications, food continues to dominant the flexible packaging conversation.

Those looking to offer food-safe flexible packaging must consider a number of factors that will help deliver a functional yet decorative product. 

While labels are often applied to packaging that provides a functional barrier – an absolute barrier in the case of metal and glass – as flexible packaging comes into contact directly with the product it must provide all the barrier properties necessary – light, oxygen, aroma. A further challenge emerges in that different types of product require different barriers, with dry goods, liquids, pastes, oils, etc, exhibiting different absorption characteristics, yet also need to allow some exchange of gases/moisture to ensure product integrity.

This makes materials integral to delivering food-safe flexible packaging. Often in a multi-layer construction to provide specific barrier characteristics, flexible packaging films feature a base layer made from PE, PP, PET, PVC or PLA polymers. 

Some barrier properties of plastic can be obtained by biaxial orientation. BOPP films are known to have increased toughness, increased stiffness, enhanced clarity, and improved oil and grease resistance. Enhanced barrier properties with regard to oxygen transmission rate (OTR) and moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR) are another benefit of biaxial orientation. OTR and MVTR are important characteristics of films as they allow the appropriate atmospheric exchange through the packaging, extending shelf-life while preventing food spoilage. Topcoats are another way to modify films to achieve the appropriate barrier properties.

Substrate selection will impact other consumables used in production, such as inks and coatings. As flexible packaging is more often primary packaging, so the ingredients of ink are much more critical because of food contact and the implications of migration. As an example, UV flexo is commonplace in label production but in packaging remains a niche, albeit growing, option owing to concerns over safety from the migration of photoinitiators resulting from improper curing. Systems and tools to monitor UV dose and curing have been proposed and developed, with careful and considered testing recommended to ensure compliance. In the case of UV, the combination of inks with the different coatings that are used for flexible packaging must be tested.

Inks must also be correctly formulated to achieve color accuracy and consistency across the print run. Solvent- and water-based inks are most common, with energy curable options finding a home in certain applications. Flexible packaging inks tend to have lower viscosity, making ink management an important tool in effective printing. Mixing stations, pumping units and automatic monitoring systems are among the tools that should be used to achieve and maintain the correct ink characteristics. 

A laydown of white, sometimes double white, will be needed in order to achieve the correct opacity to print high quality graphics on flexible packaging films. When reverse printing, the printing ink must be formulated to be receptive to onward processing, such as metallizing or lamination.

By their very nature, filmic materials tend to be thinner than fiber-based substrates, such as self-adhesive label papers that you might be used to handling. They are also more sensitive to stretch and heat, making their handling on-press more challenging. 

Mid web central impression (CI) presses see the substrate supported around a single large diameter cylinder as it contacts a series of adjacent plate cylinders that lay down successive colors. This helps keep the substrate stable when running through the press. For in-line (stack) printing, where color stations are positioned in succession, careful tension control and chill rollers can be used to minimize the risk of excessive heating and stretching when pulling filmic materials through the press. Transverse movement of the web is an additional challenge. This causes issues with registration and can be managed through web guiding. 

Printing brings further challenges, as most PP, PE and other plastics have chemically inert and nonporous surfaces with low surface tension. This causes issues in bonding with printing inks, coatings and adhesives. This means surface treatment is a necessity when running flexible packaging films. Corona and plasma treatment are the most common, with flame treatment also an option. 

Another growing area of interest for converters that want to diversify is security printing. 

Estimates put the total value of counterfeiting globally on the way to topping $1.8 trillion USD. Labels and packaging play an essential role in combatting counterfeiting. They can combine overt, semi-covert and covert technologies to deliver multi-layer security. This will then provide visual cues to consumers with holograms and the like, smart and intelligent packaging activations that feedback data to confirm the authenticity of a product, and RFID that allows enforcement officials to easily check provenance at ports and logistics hubs. Low-cost components are now being developed that will make RFID an increasingly accessible option.

For converters, this often translates to post-press embellishments, such as embossing, foiling, hot/cold stamping. Micro embossing, as an example, adds an extra level of anti-counterfeiting protection to print and packaging. Micro embossing dies feature a very small detail contained that is then translated into the foil on a printed item. 

The print process itself can also be used to build in anticounterfeiting elements, such as digitally-printed variable/personalized data or offset rainbow printing. The rainbow coloring process used in offset printing can protect against color separation or copying by subtly merging colors into each other, resulting in a gradual color change. The special print cannot be reproduced by photocopiers or scanners. Thermochromic inks – which exhibit a color change when exposed to a predefined temperature change – and those that are only visible under a specific light are likewise unable to be replicated or copied.

High definition flexo is facilitating developments too, with modern plates and platemaking allowing roll-fed lenticular printing, micro lines, micro text, guilloche patterns, and more. These are added directly to the plate using high resolution imaging technology as part of the effort to prevent forgery, counterfeiting or tampering. 

The result 
In the above examples of flexible packaging and security printing, it is clear that understanding the customer’s requirements and application are key to successful diversification, with pre-press, consumables, print process and finishing influencing each other and combining to produce the desired outcome. 

This plays into the wheelhouse of label converters, as the narrow web industry is widely regarded as having much more experience with all kinds of additional applications compared to traditional wide web converters.

Written by Hans Poortinga, manager of the MPS Systems Technology & Expertise Center



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