In the past several years, digital color printing technology has made strong inroads in the label market. Versatile and reliable, the technology has proven to be a valuable resource, especially for short run printing. Yet digital color printing has also challenged converters who have relied primarily on traditional flexo/analog technologies, forcing them to reexamine their business model and the way they service their customers.
But the strides made in digital color printing are not about to erase flexo/analog from the print landscape. Flexo/analog is still the dominant technology of choice for converters and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future due to its unique advantages over digital. Both technologies have a place within the label industry and will continue to coexist.
Nonetheless, converters are starting to embrace the concept of digital printing and incorporate it into their services because the evolving market is demanding it. There are several reasons for this shift, and it begins with brand owners.
THE EMBRACE OF BRAND OWNERS
As the adoption of in-house printing becomes more prevalent, traditional label converters are forced to adapt to this new trend and reconsider their investment in digital color printing. When comparing the strengths and weaknesses of digital and flexo/analog, it is easy to see why this trend is on the rise: A rapidly changing consumer marketplace demands that brand owners respond quickly and agilely to end-user desires, and digital technology offers distinct print capabilities that support this consumer-driven supply chain.
Many brands are now offering more targeted and personalized products as a way to appeal to a more diverse group of consumers. A walk through the grocery store reveals this trend in action: numerous products, in multiple flavors and offerings, all aimed at giving the consumer more choices. This strategic trial-and-error approach to developing product offerings that connect with consumers is leading many brand owners to opt for bringing digital printing in-house as they seek to eliminate pre-printed inventory and respond more nimbly to changing consumer tastes.
As brand owners continue to increase their target marketing efforts and private labeled brands continue to gain market share, an environment of high-mix, low-volume jobs is being created, and this is where digital excels. Flexo/analog technology is better suited for low-mix, high-volume products, and making changes to color and design can take time to accomplish. Consequently, converters that are not equipped with digital presses may find producing increasingly in-demand short runs more of a challenge.
As brand owners recognize the value that digital printing can bring to a multi-SKU, shopper-driven product portfolio, they are also starting to see the efficiencies of producing their own labels. Because brand owners are looking to infuse more personality and variable information into their labels to interact with customers through QR codes and other smart tracking information, short run label orders driven by digital technology provide them the flexibility and agility they require.
In-house digital printing also provides streamlined production, another appealing quality to brand owners. Digital allows brand owners to reduce lead times and significantly lessen their pre-printed label inventory by producing labels on demand. By allowing them to operate a leaner environment and reduce inventory, digital printing streamlines the overall production process, resulting in cost savings.
WHERE THE INDUSTRY IS HEADING
Currently, digital print technology comprises a small share of the overall print label industry. According to an April 2014 InfoTrends report titled “The Label Market: Overview and Outlook,” about 75 percent of all label presses purchased and installed in 2013 were flexo/analog; the remaining 25 percent were digital color presses. While that statistic may seem low, it represents promising growth, as new digital presses accounted for only 10 percent of global placements as recently as 2006.
Digital printing is also growing due to the expansion of the self-adhesive label market. InfoTrends estimates that 99 percent of the digital printing label market is attributable to self-adhesive labels. Additionally, self-adhesive labels make up about 40 percent of the whole global label market, and it is expected that they will continue to gain popularity and surpass older labeling methods as the flexibility from both a substrate and application standpoint far exceeds the capabilities from previous technologies.
This research all points toward a strong growth pattern for digital technology. InfoTrends estimates that digital presses could surpass 35 percent of global placements by 2018, and the use of digital technology has been on the rise for the past several years. That growth will continue among brand owners and converters alike. Some converters are now using digital color printing as a way of expanding their portfolio of services to customers. Having digital color capabilities also gives converters peace of mind, knowing they can quickly accommodate last-minute label needs for those customers who adjust their orders on deadline. Digital color technology gives converters the flexibility to handle these types of jobs; flexo/analog technology does not do so as easily.
Despite a rapidly changing consumer marketplace and evolving technology, both digital color and flexo/analog printing technologies have their place within the label industries. Each option brings special capabilities and fulfills a unique role, yet digital is showing exciting growth among brand owners and converters. Digital color printing is ideally suited for short run products, as well as meeting the demand for more personalization in labels. In the years ahead, the adoption of digital color technology will likely continue to be embraced, meeting the needs of consumers and businesses alike.