Print: A Crucial Element

11 January 2021

No matter the technology used, and even though some parts of the market may be more mature, print is always going to be vital in the packaging and converting process. Whether ensuring accuracy or delivering crisp branding and graphics print is frontline in the branding battle of fast-moving consumer goods. Sonia Sharma speaks to Intergraf, the European print advocacy body to discuss the latest print technology developments.

Throughout the various sectors the one universal aspect in the packaging and converting process is the use of print, whether that be for branding purposes or communicating key messages to end-users. The vital aspect of print can be used in a variety of ways, such as with decorative techniques on items such as cosmetic packs; imagery on pet products; the traffic light system on food and beverages and text for ingredients lists. Printing is an imperative component of the pack which cannot be compromised.

However, with global changes comes new challenges and demands which the sector has had to adapt to. The worldwide impact of the Coronavirus pandemic continues to be felt with companies and organisations across an increasing set of sectors feeling under pressure due to the economic uncertainty the crisis has caused. Across all sectors the strain of the workforce and operations has been vast with the Bank of England warning that as many as 2.5 million people could be out of work by the end of 2020.

To try and help the economy stay afloat the UK government lent nearly £52 billion by the end of August to businesses via the emergency Coronavirus loans funding schemes to help companies trying to weather the crisis-triggered downturn. Data released by the Treasury showed the total lent to businesses had hit £51.7 billion with the number continuing to rise. The bounce back scheme (BBLS) accounted for £34.96 billion, where the government guarantees up to 100% of the loan to the bank’s lending the money up to £50,000.

Lending via the Coronavirus businesses interruption loan scheme (CBILS) hit £13.41 billion which has an 80% government guarantee and loans can be up to £5 million. The BBLS had a total number of 1,404,726 applicants (1,157,296 were approved) and the CBILS scheme received applications from 121,669 companies with 59,520 of them being approved. As these figures show, different sectors have had to push against the wind to stay afloat, but just exactly how has the crisis impacted packaging and in particular the printing sector? And what opportunities have arisen out of the obstacles?

Viral Impact

One of the largest impacts of the pandemic was understandably on healthcare workers and the supplies which were needed in order to keep key workers safe. Annie Scanlan, Events and Policy Officer at Intergraf, the European federation for print and digital communication spoke exclusively to Converting Today saying: “ Amid the health and economic crisis resulting from COVID-19, one positive aspect was that governments around the world acknowledged print as the essential service it is. Crucially, this meant that companies could keep their doors open. But with low to non-existent demand for some printed products, 2020 has been one of the toughest years yet.”

She continues: “The demand for print and the functioning of the economy are closely linked. Simply: if restaurants and shops are closed, and the event industry non-existent, commercial printers suffer. As printers are no strangers to changes in society, innovators seized the opportunities. Many companies quickly switched up production to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers fighting the virus. The need for signage in shops, stickers to enforce social distancing, and stands for hand sanitiser are also new product opportunities.”

The need for print was one of the most in-demand services as organisations rapidly tried to meet the new demands not only from customers but from legislation. Supermarkets and other stores implemented one-way systems and crucially during the Chancellor’s Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme in the summer - which aimed to boost the hospitality industry - provided restaurants new opportunities. Printers were needed to create instructions and signage within both the inside and outsides of stores to explain how the system would work. QR codes were also used to minimise contact, where the customer could scan the in-store printed code to place them in a ‘virtual queue’ until their table was ready.

For the healthcare industry 3D printing has allowed an on-demand solution for a wide spectrum of needs including producing PPE equipment to urgent medical devices. 3D printing solutions have been able to demonstrate a competitive advantage during this emergency situation due to the speed with which it is able to produce different solutions. However, whilst the printing method soared in popularity the FDA was keen to offer additional guidance. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for certain medical devices, including personal protective equipment (PPE), may outpace the supply available to health care organizations because of the high demand and overall interruptions to the global supply chain” it said in a statement. “We recognize that the public may seek to use 3D printing to assist in meeting demand for certain products during the COVID-19 pandemic.” In a fact sheet issued by the organisation, they address the frequently asked question on whether 3D printing can be used to make gowns, masks, respirators, and other types of personal protective equipment. It responded by saying: “While it is possible to use 3D printing to make certain PPE, there are technical challenges that have to be overcome to be effective enough.” Even though printing has provided an on-demand solution, it should still be approached with caution.

The Digital Age

The change that lockdown brought about for many was that the majority of consumerism had to be done online. Annie, who also manages Intergraf’s sister association FTA Europe, which represents the flexo printing industry in Europe said: “Under lockdown, many of us realised that we can spend, travel, and leave the house less – which impacts print. However, it is arguable that many existing consumer trends were just accelerated during lockdown.”

“The increasing use of digital services, and a developing consumer environmental conscience are trends that companies were already tackling head on. For instance, printed electronics, or innovations in compostables and alternative materials have truly taken off over the past few years. Revolutions in ordering and custom printing as well as offering digital services in addition to print are responses to an increasingly online consumer” she continues.

During the pandemic online grocery saw sales rising by 91%, according to research by Kantar. “The huge increase in available delivery slots across the sector meant nearly one in five British households bought over the internet in the month to mid June, totalling 5.7 million shoppers. The cumulative impact of lockdown has helped Ocado to achieve its highest ever market share – hitting 1.7% over the past 12 weeks thanks to an industry-high sales growth of 42.2%. Convenience stores have

become an increasingly important outlet for shoppers during the lockdown – be they independent retailers, which are growing at 69.3%, or the smaller formats of major outlets, for example Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local” the report states.

Food and beverage printing are arguably one of the most important sectors as it relays crucial nutritional information to the user. Matthew Hepburn, editor of Coca-Cola Journey Great Britain said: “People are busy, so they want a quick and easy way to see what’s in their food and drink. So when you pick up a can or bottle you’ll see that we list all the ingredients and nutritional information on the back – and on our website too – to help you make an informed choice. A key priority for the Coca-Cola system is providing people with the clearest possible information about our drinks. In 2014 we started using the Department of Health’s colour-coded, front of pack nutrition labelling scheme. It’s there to help you choose the drink which best meets your needs and clearly shows you the calories and sugars in each serving.”

“On every Coca-Cola can and bottle you’ll find information about what the drink contains, including Reference Intakes (RIs), so you can see how it contributes to your daily consumption. The calories, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt values are provided in amounts per serving, and as a percentage of your RI, so you know exactly how much of everything is in your drink” the website states.

“The Coca-Cola system also adopted the Department of Health’s voluntary front-of-pack labelling scheme and its colour coded system across all of our drinks. Some of our drinks contain extra beneficial components, so we go into more detail on those labels. For example, the glaceau vitaminwater range provides additional vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and these are all written up on the nutritional panel. On other drinks, such as our sugar free range, we flag up the fact they contain 'no added sugar' on the front of the pack. Details are provided per 100ml of product as required by law. There’s also an ingredients list on every label, where we always highlight any allergens in the drink.”

Annie said: “Printed packaging is a sector which clearly benefited from the unusual consumer behaviour under lockdown. Spikes in food and medicine purchases, meaning higher demand, proved packaging as a highly resilient part of the printing industry. However, this industry will also come under increasing regulatory scrutiny at EU level in Europe.”

Different Sectors

One area that has seen significant fluctuation in the market due to the pandemic is the cosmetic industry. However, with more consumers online and rise of YouTube, the beauty industry is still going strong and these items once again proving the imperative need for printing. Aside from relaying crucial information to the end-user, aesthetic labelling and decorative techniques play a larger role in the pack format. Marrying together eye-catching packaging with labels that adhere to obligatory regulatory guidelines means that manufacturers are adapting their previous techniques to produce more innovative solutions.

New materials and processes are being utilised in order to meet current consumer preferences for labelling and decoration whilst still meeting the standard requirements such as declaring the ingredients, demonstrating a registered address and providing an indication as to how long the product remains usable after opening or a 'best before' indication if the product is likely to deteriorate. Both new and established or adapted techniques are used to achieve this whilst still portraying the necessary branding.

When discussing recent aesthetic label and decoration techniques to achieve the manufacturer’s goal, a few key trends have been pushed to the forefront. Regarding colour schemes and printing

techniques, Stephanie Rowntree, Product Manager at HCP Packaging UK said: “[There has been an] increased demand for full colour and digital printing, so artwork is not compromised by restrictions on the number of colours within a design – for example, heat transfer printing which is seamless for both compact covers and cylindrical packs.”

Tim Lowe, Director at Source Labels echoes this sentiment saying: “Source Labels are seeing an increasing adaption of digital print, specifically inkjet for personalised print but with ‘screen like’ opacity and vibrancy, innovative materials and standout lacquers – all combined to deliver a ‘standout’ shelf presence.”

Next Steps

Aside from the many changes that the pandemic has brought to the packaging industry, it is clear that printing is one of the most crucial aspects of the format, and with things constantly changing manufacturers will need to keep up to speed. “For those parts of the industry not already innovating, regulation will push for change. Intergraf is working to ensure the printing industry will have a strong voice in these debates” Annie said.

“It is expected that the revised rules, expected next year, on packaging design (under the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive) will be strongly focussed on recyclability and reusability. This could influence brands’ substrate choices, potentially creating disruption in the value chain. New legislation on food contact materials will be proposed in 2022. This complicated area of legislation is highly dependent on an effective exchange of information between suppliers and production. Printers are at the heart of this, as they bring together the ink and substrate. It is likely that the new legislation will take aim at printing inks, paper, and board. New legislation will not be straightforward, but this could be an opportunity to create greater legal clarity for producers” she continues.

For many different sectors - such as food and beverage – new guidelines will soon be implemented. “The European Federation for Print and Digital Communication Guidelines to help Member States, and companies, to implement the Single Use Plastics Directive by 2021, are due this September. The guidelines clarify key definitions, which is crucial for printers to understand the future of their product lines. For instance, those printing paper cups with a plastic lining will face rules aimed at reducing consumption; those printing beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene will face a total ban” Annie states.

In order for sectors to weather the storm, they need to address the consumer demands, in line with the global trends that we are currently seeing. Print will be a crucial element of this. Poignantly Annie says: “Buying less, reusing more, and an emphasis on recyclability will influence general consumption. Ensuring product safety and the digital offer are also increasingly important. Producers must respond to these trends effectively if they are to keep up with changing times and a new kind of consumer”.


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