Heavy-Duty: Labels Ready for the Long Haul
With premium substrates, varnishes, embellishments and seemingly endless designs at their fingertips, package printers have created eye-catching results for brand owners in a variety of CPG markets. But when labels and packaging extend into industrial markets such as home appliances and industrial chemicals; durability, functionality and regulation compliance become top priorities for printers and brands.
Functionality and Visual Appeal
Labels and packaging in consumer markets are often judged by their appearance. However, when printing industrial labels, printers need to meet customers’ demand for total label performance, in addition to creating a product that looks great. According to Scott Adams, VP of North Little Rock, Ark.-based label printer SCN Printing, industrial labels are frequently placed in high-impact environments and need to withstand these elements.
“Industrial labels are not just about the appearance but also the performance,” Adams says. “You cannot have a warning label fail, as it’s intended to explain the potential hazards of this product or a portion of this product for years to come while surviving very harsh environments. Packaging labels are typically four-color process attention grabbers. While industrial labels can fit this mold too, these manufacturers are more interested in how well it will hold up to their environments, PMS colors, adhesives, etc.”
Similarly, Craig Moreland, president of Coast Label, a Fountain Valley, Calif.-based printer of industrial labels, explains that placing an emphasis on quality assurance is imperative in industrial products. In a global economy, where labels are increasingly multilingual and critical safety information is more densely packed than ever before, the impact of printing variation or errors has a greater chance for unintentionally altering the meaning or rating on a product label.
“We have introduced the latest generation of inspection equipment, as well as a comprehensive scanning workflow that can 100% inspect product coming off of all our manufacturing lines to give our customers the peace-of-mind they require,” Moreland says. “I’m still in awe of the fact that our equipment can spot the unintended presence or absence of something as small as a period in 4 pt. type (7/1000 of an inch) while scanning printed labels at 1,000 fpm.”
According to Amy Harrelson Machado, research manager for imaging, printing and document solutions for the International Data Corporation (IDC), thermal printing technology remains popular in industrial label printing due to its ability to print easily readable, yet durable labels.
“While inkjet and toner are making some inroads — especially with adding color to the label — the installed base of thermal machines is huge,” Machado says. “IDC research shows that the fastest growing segment of industrial labeling hardware is mobile, and the largest application is inventory labeling and tracking. A label must be readable, but it also must be durable, especially against tears and abrasion. The best label — sturdy, accurate, readable — requires orchestration between the software, the print technology and the substrate.”
Printing’s Important Role
However, just because durability and functionality tend to be top priorities for industrial labels and packaging, it doesn’t mean these products can’t also have visual appeal. In fact, Moreland says that many of the same trends impacting the elaborate designs and increased versioning of CPG packaging are making their way into industrial label printing.
“We are seeing more and more companies update their industrial labels to incorporate colorful and detailed logo elements,” he says. “It appears that a combination of stronger corporate branding practices and new product designers have pushed this trend. That said, despite these new requirements, even in the industrial label space we’re seeing increased versioning and demand for shorter lead times.”
And much like in CPG markets, the need for high-quality, versioned printing with reduced lead times can make digital printing an attractive option in industrial label production. Moreland explains that Coast Label’s addition of inkjet technology provides increased efficiency with print quality that rivals conventional processes.
“At Coast Label we have addressed this trend by investing in a Durst Tau 4CP+W UV cured inkjet press,” Moreland notes. “This machine’s tremendous flexibility in the ink laydown profiles allows us to print the full range — from extremely high-quality process color work to heavy ink coverage that rivals screen printing in color density and durability. That capability, coupled with our servo driven semi-rotary diecutter, gives us the quick changeover capability that’s important in today’s environment.”
Prior to printing, Moreland explains that industrial printing applications also frequently require further product development and material testing before a label can be finalized. Because of this, Coast Label places an emphasis on working hand-in-hand with the supply chain to be able to provide labels that offer the needed performance, appearance and cost for customers.
In industrial label printing, as in other label use cases, it is important to understand the life cycle of the label along with all of the customer’s expectations for appearance, functionality and durability, Moreland says.
“A big part of this process is asking a lot of questions so that we understand the temperatures and environmental exposures that the label and product it will be affixed to will see during the lifetime of the product’s use,” Moreland notes. “For every customer that wants the label to stick forever and only be removable with tools and solvents, there’s another customer that wants the label to adhere securely, but be removable intact while leaving no adhesive residue on the surface where it was formerly attached. So, understanding our customer, their specific application and how they will judge great label performance for each part we make is really important.”
Coast Label works with the customer closely during the entire product design phase, while also working with suppliers behind the scenes to find all the right components that the company can bring together to create a solution that meets all of the customer’s needs, including fitting the customer’s budget.
“Many times this involves prototyping and small test runs that can be used to validate label function and performance,” Moreland explains. “It’s all about making a label that performs as needed and that we can produce repeatedly over time within a predictable performance envelope. At Coast Label Company we call it working within the ‘Zone of Certainty.’”
Trends and Regulations
According to Machado, the globalization of the supply chain and the complexities therein are the biggest trends to keep an eye on in industrial labeling. Changing regulations — which impact the label content and configuration on an evolving basis — are also a big concern.
“The customer needs software that can react in an agile manner with regulatory intelligence built-in,” she says. “The supply chain itself also demands accuracy; companies can incur financial penalties for inaccurate and unreadable barcodes. Customers are also keenly concerned about data and label security, especially in the health care and pharma verticals.”
Machado explains many industrial labels also serve as an important part of the manufacturing process, providing functionality far beyond the information displayed on its surface.
“The label — with its barcodes, RFID tagging, ingredient list, regulatory warnings, etc. — is an integral part of the supply chain,” she says. “The label impacts track and trace, warehousing, movement within the channel, lean manufacturing initiatives and compliance. No company wants to feel a negative financial impact because of bad industrial label practices or outcomes.”
Moreland explains that as an industrial label printer, an essential part of the job is to be able to demonstrate to customers that their labels are being printed according to the various regulations and standards.
“Under the ever-growing influence of regulatory programs such as Prop 65, RoHS, and REACH, we are seeing that clients are increasingly demanding detailed documentation,” Moreland notes. “In this environment, it’s not enough just to say you are compliant. You are often required to demonstrate that you have the inventory control, traceability and processes to support those statements.”
Coast Label’s industrial customers tend to be in the medical, aerospace, chemical and electronic markets; so strong supplier quality management systems are often a requirement. Moreland explains the company is ISO 9001:2015 certified and recently upgraded to the latest iteration of the standard. Coast Label is also certified to print ANSI/UL 969 and CSA C22.2 No. 0.15 labels, which he says “require careful adherence to standards and significant compliance efforts to satisfy the UL labs and inspectors.”
“Certificates of conformance, specification sheets and other critical documentation are all regularly required,” Moreland says. “With so much time and effort spent on the construction, supporting details and conformance reports, in many cases the easiest part of the process may in fact be printing the label.”
In addition to compliance documentation that seems to get more detailed all the time, industrial labeling and packaging suppliers are seeing more and more companies requiring non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as step one before they even start talking about label requirements, explains Moreland.
“The challenge is that these documents are a bit like snowflakes — no two seem to be alike,” he says. “Given all the varying requests and demands buried within, you need to carefully review and understand the agreement and what the customer requires, and then have the processes in place to manage and track compliance with those requirements throughout the company.”
Adams explains that when it comes time to create an industrial label, its quality, durability and performance attributes should be top of mind. While affordability is certainly important, Adams says that due to the importance of industrial labels, quality should not be sacrificed in the name of cost.
“Being competitive is important and it’s something our company strives to achieve every day with new technology, experience and purchasing structures,” he says. “However, we will not reduce the quality of our labels only in order to hit a target price if this comes at a detriment to the performance of the label.”