A huge need for labels and packaging

India is the second most populous country in the world after China yet it is home to world’s largest youth population. As literacy levels grow, more and more young English speaking people are coming out of schools, colleges and universities seeking gainful employment. These youths when in employment, have disposable incomes in their pockets and have made the burgeoning middle class, a powerful buyer segment driving a huge demand for consumer products. As the demand for food, clothing, medicine and other consumer durables escalates, a huge need for labels and packaging is created. To add further impetus to this industry segment organized retail is becoming more widespread across the country. Shop shelves need to display the products in a well-organised manner in order to tempt consumers to select the product which is most appealing due to its attractive packaging


by Harveer Sahni


Size and condition of the market

According to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Indian Institute of packaging, the total market size of the packaging industry in India is USD 24.6 billion USD growing at the rate of 15% per annum, according to WPO and PIRA. Printed cartons are 17% of the total packaging market amounting to approximately 4.7 Billion US Dollars and labels is a small part of packaging, with less than 3% approximately USD 850 million which includes all wet-glue labels, self-adhesive labels, plain labels, in-mould labels, shrink sleeves, wrap around labels, etc. Personally, I believe the market size of labels in India to be somewhat larger than this.

With the growing usage of the internet by industry and the general public, the commercial printing industry has experienced a setback. In the late seventies or early eighties when Indian printers visited exhibitions abroad, they collected large numbers of printed catalogues and would hardly find time to go through those loads of paper brochures before it was time for another exhibition. The new millennium has changed all that since all information is available on the internet, and mobiles and iPads are handy for accessing, storing and retrieving information when convenient. At this time packaging and not commercial printing is seen as the dependable area of growth and in synergy with the work offset printers are used to doing. As long as there is growth in a literate population needing food, clothing and consumer products, the need for packaging and folding cartons will continue to grow steadily.

Technological developments

In the 1970s and onwards, the self-adhesive label printing industry in India was evolving. From its initiation mainly using the screen printed process, with time self-adhesive labels transformed into a technology using offset printing and finally registering a change from the sheet-fed printing process, they went on to be produced on in-line narrow web presses. Initially, in India, labels started to be printed and converted in an in-line operation in roll form on Japanese flatbed letterpress machines with flat-bed die-cutting in reel widths between 100 mm or 150 mm (4” to 6”). Sometime during the 1980s, a shift from flat-bed letterpress printing to rotary flexo printing and rotary die-cutting in-line in similar widths occurred. Evolving still further, towards the end of the last millennium in the 1990s flexo presses started to become wider, from 150 mm to 250 mm (6” to 10”).

The wider width and higher speeds due to rotary converting appealed immensely to label printers and thus started the decline for the cheaper flat-bed presses that were extremely slow and would produce at a speed of impressions per minute rather than meters per minute. In an effort to increase productivity, the width of rotary label presses around the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the decade of 2000, became even wider at 340 mm to 370 mm (13” to 15”). The speed of these presses increased from 300 fpm (90 mpm) to over 600 fpm (200 mpm).

A call for innovation

Flexo printing was preferred for line jobs but when high-quality halftone images were needed, sheet-fed offset printing was the process of choice. In the last few years, the quality of flexographic printing improved, due to developments in the prepress process making the results comparable to offset printing. Flexo rotary label printing flourished not only in India but generally across the world. With increased investment in these presses, intense competition was created by the label printers. This situation called for innovation and creating more decorated and complex labels incorporating different technologies. As the new millennium dawned, a new concept came to the fore when flexo label printers started investing in equipment with multi-process printing and converting. This is also referred to as combination printing or hybrid printing whereby more than one printing, decorating or converting technology is used on the same machine to enable the finer results from the different print processes to be achieved. Also, the new millennium brought changes in narrow web label presses which were to get even wider between 430 mm to 530 mm (17” to 21”).

Once this happened, the range of products that could be converted on these machines also widened, as diverse materials of varying thickness could be handled with automatic registration controls producing a wide range of end products. Innovation and technically designed capabilities of these machines presented an alternative from conventional printing and converting of folding cartons to converting in-line in a single pass. This provided further impetus to the narrow web printing industry to go wider. Today we have in-line presses that incorporate diverse printing processes like offset, flexo, screen, gravure and digital with finishing processes like varnishing, laminating, cold foil, hot foil, embossing, die-cutting, creasing and waste removal all in a single pass on the same machine.

The evolution of converting machinery

The self-adhesive label is a small but important part of the packaging industry and primarily consists of the main components release liner, adhesive, and face stock. Each of these components has a whole lot of chemistry and variations according to the need and requirements of the label and its application. The converting process consists of printing, decorating, die-cutting or sheeting, waste removal and rewinding the end product in roll form or stacking in case of sheeted end products. The evolution of narrow web label presses, to be able to produce a wider range of end products, has prompted the machine builders to innovate and make the machine not only wider but also to integrate diverse processes and capable of handling different materials of varying thicknesses. While with flexographic printing one can achieve exact pantone shades, offset printing delivers fine skin tones and vignettes, with gravure the impact of metallic inks is decorative, screen printing helps put a higher deposition of ink onto the substrate so as to achieve the vibrancy of colours and digital can provide variable data and also help make short runs viable in addition to proofing. These web presses are now available in widths up to 850 mm (34”) catering for printers producing folding cartons, flexible packaging and shrink sleeves. Not very long ago 850 mm (34”) was considered as wide web but now it is an extension of the narrow web printing equipment merging with the mid web segment and offering dedicated equipment for the folding carton industry.

Modern day imperatives

If one has to just print a large volume print job, then conventional offset probably remains the best option. However given the modern day imperatives of catering to a demanding retail-oriented consumer base and pressures coming from a result-oriented marketing team, the need for highly decorating capabilities and producing short runs of folding cartons has become a necessity. This requires a lot of multi-process printing, finishing and decorating. It also calls for increased investment in an array of equipment so as to innovate and complement the capabilities of the offset printing press. It makes life on the offset shop floor time consuming and cumbersome. The requirement for space and manpower goes on increasing as huge stacks of paper need to be moved from machine to machine to achieve the desired results.

For a highly decorated package or carton, incorporating additional security features the following processes and capabilities are preferred to be incorporated in converting operations:

  • Offset printing
  • Flexo printing
  • Gravure printing
  • Screen printing
  • Digital printing
  • Front and back printing
  • Fully automatic register control
  • Lamination
  • Delam/Relam.
  • Embossing
  • Primer coating for digital printing
  • Varnishing
  • Hot/Cold foiling
  • Adhesive coating in line
  • Die-cutting
  • Sheeting

Achieving all the above capabilities in a single sheet-fed offset press is not possible. However, all the above processes can be used in creating a package in a single in-line converting press. It becomes very convenient to load paper or board reels at the unwind station and get the finished product at the end of line. For board usage as in case of folding boxes and large volume jobs one can provide the press with an automatic butt splicer for continuous production.

Investment and growth

The investment may initially appear to be high but when one sees the larger convenience and the project in complete perspective, it becomes an interesting proposition. With the rising cost of real estate, the space requirement greatly increases the project cost. Skilled manpower is not only difficult to source but extremely difficult to retain and manage. An in-line printing and converting press reduces the need for a high level of manpower. Moreover, state-of-the-art  automatic registration systems allow achieving results without much operator intervention. Moreover, fast changeovers facilitate many job changes during a single day. This investment reduces the amount of space needed thereby reducing the investment in real estate and making the project viable.

It is pertinent to note that consistent growth in India has prompted a number of larger printing and packaging companies to invest in this combination or hybrid in-line converting presses. There are others in the process of following suit. In time these printers will see the convenience of printing and converting in a smaller space with fewer manpower and better production capabilities. The make-ready cost that appears to be more at this time for larger runs will either be compensated by the convenience or will reduce with economies of scale in time.


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