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The Andy Thomas-Emans column: Converters adapt to ‘new normal’

The Andy Thomas-Emans column: Converters adapt to ‘new normal’

As the global Covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of easing, and a vaccine remains a long way off, what many label converters first assumed would be emergency social distancing and hygiene measures will now need to become the ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future. Due to their status as essential workers during the pandemic, label and packaging converters have been in the front line of working out how industrialized operations can continue in the face of a highly infectious and lethal virus.

Speaking to a few label converters about their experiences up to now, key issues to address are starting to emerge. 

Customer facing: No face to face meetings by sales teams and customer service reps with clients or prospective clients will change the way the approval cycle works. It will likely accelerate the replacement of hard copy contract proofs with secure online proofing portals, since client approval teams are unlikely to be working from a centralized office. Sales teams will need to find new ways of contacting potential clients when they no longer have access to headquarters buildings. 

Machinery operation: Older presses and other machinery requiring two or more operators will present problems for social distancing, particularly in the typically crowded space of label workshop aisles. This is where more modern automated presses really help, with single operators able to run one or even multiple presses from a location remote from the press, and with automated machine monitoring and servo adjustment taking over from manual monitoring. 

Tooling: Delivery of tooling to the press, and from press to cleaning stations, will need to be on a ‘non-contact’ basis (like a takeaway restaurant) – the tooling parts will need to be left at a location near the press for collection by press and then cleaning crews.

Machine and operator monitoring: We are trying to avoid more people than necessary walking the shop floor. Remote monitoring of machinery systems (presses, rewinders etc) avoids the need for supervisors to walk around the factory floor. 

Secure networks: ‘White collar’ staff – from accounts to design – working away from the office will need to link seamlessly and securely into all work systems. This means, for example, that customer service reps need access to files on the pre-press system, and this in turn requires a robust digital asset management system. 

Management Information Systems: now is the time to invest if you have not already. As mentioned above, a good MIS will reduce the amount of time an individual needs to be on the shop floor or in the warehouse performing stock takes on materials, ink, anilox and die inventories, or keeping track of stock and tooling assets.

Digital job bags: These will continue to replace physical job bags to reduce as far as possible the number of ‘touch points’ where more than one employee is handling the same item. The same is true for all paperwork which needs to be passed around, signed and countersigned. 

Disinfection and cleaning regimes: They will need to come closer to those in place for BRC/IOP food-grade certification. And there are other areas of concern. Take rubber gloves as an example. Their function up to now has been to protect workers from potentially harmful fluids, but these same gloves can become carriers of virus between shifts, so also need to be rigorously disinfected or changed.

Common areas: Canteens, changing rooms and reception areas will need one-way systems in place, with 2m distancing between eating or changing stations, staggered arrival/leaving times and break times. 

Business prospects
As we have noted already, the label industry has proved extraordinarily resilient throughout this crisis, not just at the label converter but also through the whole supply chain. 

For most label converters business has remained strong because of the surge in demand for pandemic-related products like pharmaceuticals and sanitizing products, food and beverages. 

But we need to face the fact that major economies are already entering recession and this historically has led to a reduction in demand in label volume. How should label converters respond?

Firstly, as in all periods of intense disruption, new opportunities will open up. Brand protection, for example, is emerging as vitally important as criminal gangs infiltrate supply chains with lethal counterfeit medical equipment. One possible solution has been launched by Avery Dennison. Its Smartrac division has partnered with blockchain start-up Suku to launch a digital verification system to authenticate Covid-19 testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE). The NFC-powered platform enables instant verification of authenticity and provides end-to-end supply chain transparency. 

Secondly, rising e-commerce sales open up new opportunities not only in logistics and track and trace labeling, but also in the development of more engaging transit and protective packaging and of personalized packaging linked to browser-based digital store fronts.

Terrible as the pandemic has been, the label industry should continue to thrive, providing employment for those dependent on it and solutions to a range of emerging end user challenges.


Andy Thomas is strategic director of Labels & Labeling.

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