Flexible Packaging Opportunity for Narrow-Web Newcomers
Package printers with an eye on the latest packaging trends should be well aware of the rapid growth in demand for flexible packaging. As consumers become increasingly accepting of rigid formats transitioning to flexible, brands in turn are seeking ways to leverage flexible packaging’s advantages.
With a growing need for short-run flexible packaging across a variety of segments, narrow-web flexographic printers have emerged as a viable platform to shoulder some of this work, which has historically been dominated by dedicated wide-web printers.
“It’s a big market,” says Marshall Hogenson, VP Americas for the flexo business unit of prepress equipment supplier CRON – ECRM. “A couple of the fastest growing segments are stand-up pouches and shrink sleeves — particularly the shrink sleeves.”
An Expanding Market
While the various segments of the packaging industry are all exhibiting growth and new opportunities for package printers, the flexible packaging market is quickly expanding, as many products that were once placed in rigid packages are transitioning to flexible. In fact, according to the U.S. Flexible Packaging Market study released by Micromarket Monitor in 2016, by 2021 the flexible packaging space is expected to grow to $29.6 billion.
And while a large percentage of that flexible packaging work will likely go to dedicated flexible packaging converters with specialty equipment that lets them produce large runs for low costs, brands are also starting to look for options that let them produce smaller, specialty runs. These include test cases for new packaging brands can deploy in targeted markets, or even packaging runs for smaller brands and distributors who want to exhibit the same quality on shelf as larger brands, but who don’t have the budget or resources to purchase in the high quantities traditional package printing demands.
One of the reasons narrow-web is so attractive, Hogenson says, is that both shrink sleeves and pouches can be run on narrow-web presses, and the cost of running a narrow-web press is typically lower than a mid- or wide-web machine.
Additionally, because brands often prefer to have a “one-stop shop” print partner, a label printer that can also offer flexible packaging will be at less of a risk of seeing their customers take their flexible packaging work elsewhere.
For example, Richard Black, business development manager for flexographic product and service provider All Printing Resources, explains that because narrow-web printers have likely already gone through a rigorous approval process with their label customers, they can be in a good position to earn short-run flexible packaging work that may not make economic sense to be produced by a dedicated flexible packaging printer.
“From a brand standpoint, if a company has a need for suppliers of lower-volume flexible packaging jobs and their existing flexible packaging vendors are unable to produce them economically, brands and packaging buyers have a built-in vendor solution with their preapproved, pre-vetted narrow-web print vendors,” Black says.
While establishing the right flexible packaging customers is an essential starting point for narrow-web converters, it’s also beneficial to begin the journey into flexible packaging by adding products that are easily produced on narrow-web machinery. For example, Tim Fox, president of the North American division of MPS, a supplier of narrow-web flexo presses, says shrink sleeves in particular, are an increasingly popular packaging format among brands, and represent one of the easiest entries into flexible packaging for label printers.
“If any label printer is going to go into flexible packaging, shrink film is the next progressive step for them to take,” Fox says. “It’s a little easier to run than some other films, but it’s still a film; if they can run that, they can progress into other areas.”
Gaining Education and Experience
Though many narrow-web presses are capable of producing certain types of flexible packaging, making the transition can be a challenging process for label printers. Experimentation and fine-tuning the process is imperative, as the substrates used in flexible packaging often have different requirements than their label counterparts. Black explains, for example, that in some flexible packaging applications, important printing components like registration and ink adhesion can be obstacles.
“By far, the No. 1 questions [we hear] from narrow-web converters [are around] substrates, registration and proper ink adhesion,” Black says. “Traditional ‘label presses’ were not designed to handle extremely thin substrates, so web tension and unit-to-unit registration becomes very challenging.”
However, according to a Technical Overview document from Avery Dennison titled Narrow Web Flexible Packaging Converting, there are some categories of flexible packaging that are well-suited to narrow-web presses.
For example, the document states that paper-faced pouches are a good starting point for narrow-web printers because they are surface printed and maintain the proper thickness for the standard unwind and rewind tensions utilized in pressure-sensitive production.
When it comes to film-based flexible packaging however, Hogenson says that despite the differences in the substrates, printers of high-end labels should have the institutional knowledge to make the necessary adjustments.
“Every type of film has some kind of nuance, but they can figure it out,” he says. “If they’re already printing labels on poly, it’s really not that big of a deal.”
Black explains that it can also be advantageous that prepress processes won’t change much for label printers expanding into flexible packaging. Once the printer confirms a substrate can run through the press and stay in registration, he says the prepress aspects should be a smooth transition, especially with the right software components.
“Basic prepress and platemaking requirements are the same,” Black says. “There are some unique requirements for the layout of flexible packaging pieces such as shrink wrap distortion, gussets, seal areas, etc., but there are many software products that make these once extremely difficult issues easy.”
Hogenson says that shops looking to transition from narrow-web labels to flexible packaging would be wise to invest in high-end software that can accurately do the predistortion necessary for accurate shrink sleeves — and that can show 3D previews on screen before the material is run for better proofing.
On the finishing side, especially when looking to add pouches to flexible packaging offerings, Hogenson says investing in a specialty pouch maker should also be considered.
Making the Most of Opportunities
Part of making the transition to flexible packaging of course, is understanding the trends driving the packaging market toward flexibles and knowing the type of work that is best-suited for narrow-web presses. For example, the increase in versioning and SKU proliferation is causing an increase in short run work, as brands expand their product lines and require smaller, more targeted runs of packaging.
“This is an exciting time and with brand owners looking to run more and more targeted campaigns, run lengths continue to fall making it difficult for wide web printers to cost-effectively compete,” Black says. “In 2017, APR commissioned an extensive research study in the narrow-web flexible packaging market and surveyed narrow-web converters active in this space. The average annual growth for narrow-web flexible packaging applications is 9% to 10% per year. This is two to three times the average annual growth rates for the label printing industry.”
Hogenson warns that while the flexible packaging opportunity is an enticing one, label printers and converters should not haphazardly make the transition, and ensure they’re not just investing in the right equipment for the job, but also the right people who have an understanding of the flexible packaging market from the start.
Similarly, Fox reiterates that adding flexible packaging applications to a narrow-web workflow is a multi-step process requiring time, education and practice. Flexible packaging may be a rapidly growing market with lucrative opportunities for narrow-web printers, but only if it’s done right.
“Guys in the label world who have never run flexible packaging or film before don’t realize it’s a learning process,” Fox says. “It takes time to get used to how to run material in the press — tensions, heat levels, UV or air, etc. There are a lot of considerations to be able to produce quality work. You can’t just slap film on and run it like you do label paper stock.”