The price of progress – A label industry’s expert looks back on four decades in the business

Nick Coombes, working with NarrowWebTech for many years, has known the label industry since 1977 (Source: Nick Coombes)

It’s forty-one years since I joined the printing industry, and it has changed almost beyond recognition in the intervening years. I started at Drupa 1977, and in 2016 celebrated my 10th participation at the Dusseldorf trade fair, so can honestly say that today’s printing world, is a world apart! Not many years before I started, sheet fed letterpress had given way to offset litho, and flexo, to many, was a “dark art” that fell far behind in terms of quality and performance. Narrow web was exactly that, with many presses being no wider than 7” (177 mm) and offering one, two or maybe three colours. Rotary letterpress was the preferred technology for quality. 

A comment by Nick Coombes


Today, HD-flexo quality is second to none and anyone choosing to dispute that needs only to look at the vast volumes of eye-catching package print that is produced and consumed by the global market each day. While offset might still be the preferred choice of “fine art”, modern day flexo is what keeps the presses running and the money changing hands. From a crude to a highly controllable precision process in one generation is no mean feat.

From manual to computer driven

Prepress has, like many facets of the industry, moved from being manual to computer driven, with all the precise control and versatility that comes with it. So great is its capability now, that today’s digital presses can offer little on-the-run adjustment because all that has gone before is so precise. This is how the emphasis has changed and the production process been redefined.

On the narrow web press side, 7” (180 mm) presses grew to 10” (260 mm) and the most popular web width is now probably 13” (330 mm). The number of colours printed has multiplied too – back then, four-colour was special – now eight-colour is common, not to mention the extensive variety of added-value techniques available, like foil (hot and cold), varnish, lamination, holograms, multi-layer, booklets, peel/reseal etc. – the list goes on, and as innovative as these were in their day, they are now the expected norm.

Gallus R160B – the former benchmark of quality for rotary letterpress in the narrow web market – it was the aspirational press of its day (Source: Gallus)

“Splashy and trashy” flexo inks

Think back to the days when flexo inks were “splashy and trashy”, as the presses and the floor they stood on would show. Now, the control that high quality anilox rolls with modern doctor blades can offer, matched to better ink formulations and very precise UV curing, make it easy to see why the 2018 flexo printed label bears little resemblance to its forebears. Rotary letterpress in narrow web is almost forgotten, while offset, for all its qualities, has never really sold in volume, so good has been the development of flexo.

But now, of course, analogue print technology is under serious threat from a variety of digital techniques that include liquid and dry toner, and the fast-growing ink-jet engines. Seen as a complementary process, digital has much to offer, and certainly in narrow web, lacks only in production speed. True, the lack of set-up time and cost mitigate in its favour as run lengths continue to decline, but it is not the complete standalone answer – yet!

[Editorial comment: This review is part of our new eDossier “20 years NarrowWebTech – The history of label printing” which is available as download for free in our online shop: ]

Post-press/converting has progressed too, but much is still the domain of mechanical processes, and is likely to stay that way for some time. Laser die-cutting continues to improve in performance and creativity, but necessarily remains a slow process because of its intricacy and the heat involved, which limits its capability with sensitive substrates. Other processes, while computer programmed and monitored, remain still largely unchanged, even if they are quicker and more efficient.

Nilpeter MO – offset has been slow to take off in narrow web, but Nilpeter has enjoyed success with its popular MO series (Source: Nilpeter)

Industry 4.0

And then, of course, there is the onward march of automation, which sees an industry in which machines are now tasked with the jobs that had always been the domain of human beings. Automation brings greater control, improved efficiency, better downstream performance from more standardised products, and especially in the food and pharma industries, where public health is at stake, and a high degree of traceability to identify potential problems at source.

So, we have come a long way in a short time – more change in the past 50 years than the previous 500. But any production process cannot be seen in isolation because technology develops as a direct result of changing demand. The world today is a vastly different place to when I joined the industry in ’77, and certainly unrecognisable from that of the centuries that had gone before. Consumerism is a relatively new phenomenon, and brand awareness even more so. Add to that the development of the internet and social media and you can appreciate the force for change that is being exerted on the market.

This is where I question what is going on in our world. My point is that, as the industry consolidates and becomes more automated, we are losing sight of one of the longstanding fundamentals – that print, as an industry, is one of the largest employers worldwide, and because of this, many families have enjoyed the financial support and security that it has offered. It’s all very well producing faster and better and cheaper, but if in the process fewer people are employed and earn a living from the industry, how is the demand for these wonderful new products going to be sustained?

A task for the next generation

This is not unique to the industry in which we work, it is a universal problem for the generation known as “the millennials”. That esteemed body, the OECD, predicts a 40% increase in productivity in the top ten industrial nations over the next 20 years, and, surprisingly, an increase in employment, – but unsurprisingly, only at the high-skill end. Unfortunately, this relates to a relatively small sector of the labour market numerically, at a time when world population continues to rise at an alarming, if not unsustainable rate.

Nick Coombes, working with NarrowWebTech for many years, has known the label industry since 1977 (Source: Nick Coombes)

With many sectors of print in seemingly terminal decline, package printing, which is especially relevant to narrow web, is predicted to sustain considerable growth for many years to come. I sincerely believe that it is the industry’s duty to ensure that this growth is enjoyed by the many, not just the few, and that as staffing levels on the production floor decline with the advent of more technology, that staff are retained and retrained to secure a healthy long-term future for all concerned. The people and the industry need each other in equal measure. We cannot and should not slow the pace of progress, but it would be better if history reflected that the price we paid was shared by all.

This comment is part of our new eDossier “20 years NarrowWebTech – The history of label printing” which is available as download for free in our online shop:

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