From paper to coated film – A materials review on the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech

Labelstock demand 1996 - 2016 (Source: FINAT/Panteia)

Self-adhesive material, inks, curing and ecological issues have greatly changed the self-adhesive label industry during the past twenty years. Many of the suppliers of this time are still in business and are well established in the market, others have completely disappeared.

Written by John Penhallow

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Fasson, Jackstädt, Adespan, Panoval…. who remembers these names today? Yet in the 1990s they were the leading brands of self-adhesive labelstock in Europe.

From the 1950s onwards, Werner Jackstädt was a pioneer of self-adhesive materials in Europe. From the company’s base in Wuppertal, the Jac brand became a household name in the European label industry. By the early 1990s the group had three plants in Germany, and one each in France, Brazil and Australia.  Fasson was a brand name of the Avery Adhesive Label Company in America, which opened its first European production site in 1965. The two metre wide machine was at that time the largest labelstock coater in the world.

The Fasson brand spread all over Europe, as the company built plants in UK, France, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. Prior to 1990, nearly all self-adhesive labels were made of paper. Then Fasson started using a synthetic face material, opening the way for the vast range of clear-on-clear labels which are available today.

[Editorial comment: this article was published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech – more articles find in our extensive special edition “20 years NarrowWebTech – A history of label printing”]

This trend continued with the opening, in 1999, of the Avery/Fasson plant in Gotha, which soon became Europe’s leading supplier of synthetic labelstock. This plant was the first major production site in the former East Germany, and was aimed at supplying not just Germany but also the now rapidly expanding label markets in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“Today is an important day for Avery Dennison and Jackstädt, as we complete our largest acquisition in a decade,” said Philip M. Neal, the then chairman and CEO of Avery Dennison. “The combination of Avery Dennison and Jackstädt is an ideal strategic fit in our core pressure-sensitive materials business”. Others were less enthusiastic. One former Jackstädt manager complained “We had to learn a new product range, a new corporate culture, and even a new language. It was a nightmare!”

A further trend is high-quality and attractive labels enabled through the embellishment of the surface (Source: Herma)

Synthetic adhesive material / Avery acquires Jackstädt

With eight manufacturing facilities and 13 distribution centres, Avery Dennison became the European market leader after acquiring Jackstädt (and shortly thereafter the Italian labelstock producer Adespan). The group’s next goal was to expand its business in Central and Eastern European markets, where label growth rates were increasing by more than 10% year on year.

While US-based Avery was securing its dominant position in Europe, the Italian labelstock producer Ritrama, owned and managed by the Rink family, was moving the other way, starting production in USA. Ritrama invested heavily in producing labelstock with filmic face materials, and in 2012 launched an innovative solution for linerless labels. Today, Ritrama has 24 plants, which boast the latest technology, and are located in Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Chile and China; it also has slitting and distribution centres in Central and South America, and Central Europe.

Labelstock manufacturers in Italy

Italy was a fertile ground for labelstock manufacturers in the 1990s. Adespan, part of the Panini Group, was already producing at its plants in Bomporto and Modena. At the turn of the century, when it employed 220 people, it was acquired by Avery and absorbed into Avery Dennison’s Fasson Roll Europe Division. Another Italian, Fedrigoni, was known in the label world chiefly through its subsidiaries Manter (Spain) and Arconvert (Italy). In those days manufacturers were less environmentally conscious than they are today, and it is significant that in the late 1990s, Manter was already advertising the fact that all its adhesives and silicones were solvent free.

Today, with more than 2,700 employees, 13 factories (9 in Italy, 2 in Spain and 2 in Brazil) and over 13,000 products in its catalogue, Fedrigoni sells its products in more than 110 countries worldwide. In December 2017 this 130-year-old family-owned group was acquired by the private equity group Bain Capital. Another familiar name in the label industry, MacTac, has also recently fallen victim to a takeover. In the 1990s MacTac’s plant in Belgium was a leader in specialty self-adhesive materials, including tamper-proof materials and laminates for re-closable packaging.

In 2002 UPM made a bid for MacTac, hoping to strengthen its market share in the US (where MacTac was based), but the US authorities overturned the deal on anti-trust grounds. Some observers thought there was a whiff of protectionism in this decision.

Five years later, MacTac was finally sold, with the Japanese producer Lintec taking the US operations, and Avery acquiring MacTac’s European network and its production plant in Soignies, Belgium.

Two exceptions

It is surprising that few of today’s major labelstock producers are vertically integrated: they do not make pulp or paper, labels or labelling equipment. There are two exceptions to this: UPM Raflatac and Herma.

Raflatac’s first labelstock line was set up in 1976, the same year that the company was acquired by Finnish paper and pulp manufacturer UPM. Raflatac grew partly through acquisitions, buying Sterling Adhesive (UK) in 1984, then acquiring producers in Germany, South Africa, Russia and China. A terminal and slitting station, set up in Hungary in 2004, was closed a few years later when Raflatac opened its factory in Southern Poland. Today, Raflatac has worldwide sales of USD 1,4 billion, ten production plants and over 3000 employees and is arguably in number two position in Europe.

The other exception is Herma. Founded as the Heinrich Hermann Papierwarenfabrik, it changed its name to Herma in 1970. From the start, the family-controlled company specialised in niche labelstock sectors. In 1995, for example, Herma achieved a world first by using UV acrylic adhesives. The company sets out to be an innovative problem solver for products which are difficult to label  or are used in extreme external conditions. This includes labels for hazardous goods, very hot chemical drums and containers exposed to seawater. In 1999, the company was the first to apply “curtain’ coating” technology. Then in 2005, Herma constructed what it called “the world’s most modern coating plant for self-adhesive materials”. This was followed in 2016 by the largest investment in the company’s history: for around EUR 100 million, a complete new coating plant for labelstock will be opened on the new site by 2019.

Although Herma today is a major labelstock producer, it still relies on labels and labelling equipment for around 40% of its sales, which totalled EUR 340 million in 2017.

[Editorial comment: this article was published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of NarrowWebTech – more articles find in our extensive special edition “20 years NarrowWebTech – A history of label printing”]

Inks and drying/curing technologies

History-lovers may know that the Manders Ink company, long since acquired by the Flint Group, started commercial ink production in 1773. Early label inks were water-based, and heat-dried. The history of label inks starts to become interesting with the development of special fast-drying inks suitable for roll-to-roll label printing. The first UV-drying inks were already on the market in the early 1990s. With the increasing popularity of flexo technology, new inks were developed to give higher print quality even at high press speeds. Improvements in doctor blade and anilox technology also helped the growth of flexo for the label sector.

A growing awareness of health and environmental issues has reduced the market share of solvent-based inks for label printing. UV-drying inks were already becoming widely used by the mid- and late ‘90s: UV Technologie AG, the Swiss subsidiary of a US company, was offering “High-quality UV curing units for all major types of press” and Aarberg Druckfarben launched “The latest generation of UV inks for letterpress and screen printing, as well as a newly developed UV flexo ink for paper, PE, PVC and a special UV flexo series using cationic curing”.

Takeovers and consolidation

Ink manufacture benefits from economies of scale. Its history over the past twenty years is one of takeovers and consolidation. Who now remembers Casco, Dubuit, Marabu, Sicpa and others who supplied inks to the label sector in the 1990s? The ensuing years have seen the rise of just a few big ink manufacturers like the Japanese-American giant SunChemical, the Flint Group (also American) and Germany’s Siegwerk, founded in 1824! Over the past 20 years, Siegwerk has acquired more than a dozen major ink manufacturers, including Color Converting (US), Sicpa (CH), Actega Colorchemie (D), Van Son (NL) and Hi-Tech Products (GB). From EUR 330 million in 2000, Siegwerk’s sales topped one billion euros in 2016.  Other growing label ink manufacturers include GSB Wahl, INX International, Ruco, Paragon and Zeller+Gmelin.

Inks for digital printing are a special case. EFI for example makes its own ink for its digital presses. HP Indigo has its own exclusive ink supplier in Israel. Most other digital press and print head manufacturers are secretive about who makes the ink which they recommend. We do know however that print head manufacturers in particular have, over the past decade, worked more and more closely with ink developers to produce the detailed print quality now available with inkjet presses.

The integration of UV

UV drying needs – or rather still needed in the 1990s – mercury lamps, and the early models were notorious for creating  more heat than UV rays. This made them expensive to operate, and incompatible with heat-sensitive substrates. Companies like IST Metz worked with research institutes to improve the performance of its mercury lamps and the mirrors used to deflect the heat away from the substrate.

At the same time ink manufacturers worked to develop faster-drying, colour-fast UV inks. Progress was made, but then around 2010 the new technology of LED drying started to attract narrow-web printers.  With its very narrow effective waveband, UV LED requires special inks, and considerable investment in drying heads. However the energy saving and increase in running speeds offset these disadvantages, and over the past decade UV LED has grown in popularity, thanks to development work by companies like IST Metz, GEW, Phoseon and many others.

Waste treatment, recycling and the environment

Recycling of label and packaging waste was a secondary problem in the 1990s; whereas waste disposal is today a major concern to all actors in label and packaging markets. The self-adhesive label by its very nature produces waste when it is printed (start-up and matrix waste) and when the label is applied (used liner). These waste materials contain ink, adhesive and silicone, which makes them difficult to recycle.

Some materials manufacturers and brand owners have been tempted by “greenwashing”, with much talk and little action.  Others have taken their social and environmental responsibility more seriously. UPM Raflatac with its “Biofore” programme which started ten years ago, is setting the pace, and in the paper sector it tops the Dow Jones Sustainability index. Several UPM paper mills, together with the Lenzing mill in Austria, are now equipped to recycle used liner. However even in Europe this affects only a small percentage of liner waste, and worldwide the problem looms large. Label association FINAT together with TLMI, VskE and other national associations are working hard to promote environmentally sound practices. However the problem is far from being solved.

Summary and conclusion

Labelstock producers have become more international over the past twenty years, and many smaller companies have vanished. Ink technology has changed radically with the advent of new technologies including UV LED and digital printing. With new drying / curing technologies and inks, label presses can now run much faster. Just a handful of big label ink producers now dominate world markets. The label industry has become much more environmentally conscious in recent years, but ecological problems remain.

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Editorial comment: More articles regarding the 20th anniversary of Narrow WebTech and thus, twenty years of label printing, please find in our overview of “20 years NarrowWebTech” with all published articles – click here!

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