Flexography’s Strength in Label Sector Faces Challenges as Hybridization Proves Effective

Flexo will represent 39.6 percent of total world output of printed labels in 2023; the equivalent of 31 billion square meters or some 333.7 billion sq. ft. of output.

This is according to exclusive data from The Future of Labels and Release Liners to 2028, a new dedicated market study from Smithers—the leading consultancy for the paper, print, and packaging industries.

In 2023, the dynamics of label printing continue to shift, creating an impetus for investment and innovation. The study’s in-depth market analysis shows that flexo remains the most popular narrow web print process, ahead of offset litho, 28.1 percent share by volume in 2023; and gravure 14.7 percent share.

Digital label print remains small by volume 6.4 percent market share in 2023, but accounts for a much larger share of value. Hybrid printing, often late-stage customization of flexo printed label stocks by inline inkjet modules, represents a further 4.1 percent of volume.

Sector Outlook

Smithers data modelling shows the outlook for flexo in labels work is reasonable. Volume will increase globally at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.3 percent through 2028, slightly below the market mean for all label print. It will outperform offset litho in this period, which has a 2.2 percent CAGR forecast, but lose some market share to gravure, 4.0 percent CAGR.

2023 Label Market Share

Data courtesy of Smithers

Flexo’s main long-term threat comes from digital-inkjet, wet and dry toner systems. Combined these have a CAGR of 12.3 percent forecast for the same five-year period. There are multiple reasons why digital is gaining ground:

  • Quality and throughput speed are improving on inkjet
  • Run lengths are becoming shorter, with consumer product companies (CPCs) looking to diversify into more SKUs, and cut back on their own stock holdings
  • The resulting creation of a market for premium, fast-turnaround orders, directly benefits digital production, especially when integrated with the latest generation of web-to-print software

The same factors are making digital more attractive for flexible packaging jobs. This is a natural extension for narrow web OEMs, and the success of a business like ePac shows how disruptive digital print can be when conceived to integrate as closely as possible with online channels.

Press Enhancements

Digital is much more cost-competitive for short-run work because of its reduced makeready and set-up times. While the current generation of flexo presses cannot match digital on these metrics, they can still leverage advances in automation to maintain price competitiveness at medium-run lengths, improving turnaround and boosting quality.

This can be seen on both inline and CI flexo lines. For example, auto registration and better color set-up systems cut makeready time. Faster plate changing modules are useful for handling the drift to more SKUs, without losing an excess of uptime. There is also an array of software upgrades that can contribute to higher quality and more reliable changeovers.

In addition, replacing gears for direct servo-driven web handling, gives the more accurate tension control needed on physically sensitive substrates, such as thin film label stocks. While heat-sensitive media, such as shrink wrap films, are now easier to handle with the use of lower heat UV curing LEDs.

Photo courtesy of Smithers

Automation has the added benefit that it can help compensate for the loss of skilled operators over the Covid years, when many veteran flexo operators left, and have not returned to, print rooms.

Hybrid Potential

Flexo can also gain from the digital revolution in print by investing in more hybrid configurations. Smithers data shows that hybrid label print volumes will increase at a 7.8 percent CAGR from 3.2 billion square meters or 34 billion sq ft in 2023, to 4.7 billion square meters or better than 50 billion sq ft in 2028.

Several new hybrid narrow web presses have debuted in recent days.

  • Nilpeter has collaborated with Screen, fitting the latter’s seven-color SAI UV-inkjet engine inline on its FA-Line flexo platform. The partners say this will open the door for the efficient production of value-added labels
  • Omet’s next iteration XJet hybrid press is fitted with a Durst Tau inkjet engine
  • Domino’s latest retrofit module is designed for integration into existing flexo lines. It notes a retrofit option is a lower-cost, short-cut process for customers that allows them to embrace just-in-time delivery models, realize short-run cost-efficiencies, and reduce waste
  • Heidelberg is working through its Gallus subsidiary, including offering LabelFire models as an option on press lines like the ECS340; although its new 340mm, UV inkjet, Gallus One press is presently its main focus of attention
  • Mark Andy’s Pro Series flexo press can be upgraded at any time to a hybrid press using the company’s Digital Pro Max technology

Realizing the full commercial potential of hybrid print can represent a steep learning curve, in response many flexo OEMs are doubling down on their customer relationships, via new training hubs and support services.

About the Author

headshot John Nelson
John Nelson is an award-winning editor and journalist working in the market reports and consultancy business of Smithers. He covers market and technology developments across multiple technical and commercial segments; including paper, packaging, sustainability, inks and printing.

The Future of Labels and Release Liners to 2028 is available to purchase now from Smithers. It includes comprehensive analysis of the flexo narrow web print market, other print systems, and consumption of label and release liner stocks. This is quantified into an exclusive dataset for 2018-2028 with over 150 data tables and figures giving unparalleled insight into the sector. For more information and/or to purchase the report, visit smithers.com.