Labelexpo Americas 2018: Unlocking Flexible Packaging Opportunities for Label Converters

Labelexpo Americas 2018 logoThousands of package printers descended on Rosemont, IL this week, electing once again to participate in the biennial pilgrimage that is Labelexpo Americas. The attraction: the invitation and theme, “Explore Your Future.” They joined more than 400 industry partners on site to display the latest innovations designed to enhance productivity, automate efficiently, move forward smartly and secure every business opportunity that presents itself.

Flexographic Technical Association was there in force—from the 150+ supplier members identified by bronze and black FTA member plaques displayed prominently on each stand; to booth 454, home base for the Association itself; to the growing label and flexible packaging printer member contingent walking the aisles, networking passionately and taking in advice on enhancing the bottom line and expanding the identity of the business.

Critical plans were made, with many consumed by the talk permeating the five exhibit halls and 12 conference sessions. A central focus: flexible packaging and the opportunities it can bring to traditional label converters.

Session Summary

FTA members’ vast experience in that area prompted show planners to invite the association to stage a conference session speaking to the trend. Moderated by FTA Board Chair Mary Sullivan, it offered a blueprint to getting started, as well as an outline of what to watch for and how to deal with it.

(From left) Nikki Johnson, Tina Hart and Mary Sullivan staged the FTA-sponsored Labelexpo Americas 2018 educational conference on unlocking flexible packaging opportunities for label converters.

Detailing the action plan were Nikki Johnson, executive vice president of Kala, and Tina Hart, vice president/marketing of Avery Dennison Labels and Packaging Materials/North America, Mentor, OH. Insights offered were both candid and eye opening.

Nikki, first up, outlined what she termed the “sweet spots and pitfalls of entering the flexible packaging marketplace as a traditional label printer.” Her firm, founded in 2002 as Flexible Technologies, rebranded as Kala in February 2018. The name change embraced the corporate direction, as Kala is Hawaiian for “unburden” or “release.”

The label and flexible packaging converter operates three shifts over six days with 75 employees. Three flexo presses and six HP Indigo digital printers stand at the heart of the rapidly expanding operation—in fact, the newest press destined to be installed at the plant was running out on the Labelexpo show floor. Four of the digital units are narrow web; the other two, wide web, with flexible packaging by and large being their purview.

Borrowing David Letterman’s favorite format, Nikki offered fellow label converters a Top 10 List on what to expect to experience in bringing flexible packaging online at their plants. She did so in reverse order, starting at 10 and working down to one.

Costs, materials, experiences, standards, footprint, adaptability, core focus, cross-pollination and measurable benefits all come into play, based on Kala’s documentation of its transition and transformation.

Nikki ran through the checklist and provided insights on what exactly each of her 10 talking points entailed.

10. Get Your Wallet Out

Expanding product offerings beyond basic pressure-sensitive or cut-and-stack labels and entering the flexible packaging domain—pouches, shrink sleeves, stickpacks, etc.—is a true commitment that comes at considerable cost, she warned. “Plan to spend double what you initially think.”

9. Getting Materials Is Really Hard

“High minimum order requirements from traditional suppliers changes your pricing dynamic,” Nikki said. “It can have a dramatic, somewhat negative impact on your competitive posture.” What can be done? “Find partners willing to grow with you, rather than dictate to you.

FTA Manager of Training Services Duane Woolbright (left) and President Mark Cisternino (second from left) greet Labelexpo Americas 2018 attendees at the Association’s booth.

8. No Dummies Allowed!

“Expertise is key to success!” Nikki proclaimed. “If you don’t have it, hire it!

7. NOPE!

Advice offered: “Challenge your partners. Tell them no. Insist they find another way. Don’t blindly accept what they say.” Speaking to Kala’s experience, she indicated that the team put a question out there: “Why slow things down with traditional finishing processes in a digital workspace?” The solution came in the form of e-beam technology, eliminating curing stations, trimming volatile organic compound (VOC) waste and leading the way to food-safe packaging.

6. ISO Smart

Rattling off marching orders associated with this point, Nikki proclaimed, “Document everything! Follow processes! Challenge the status quo! Learn as you go. Shape the future.”

5. Large Space Required

“Everything related to flexible packaging is bigger,” Nikki observed. Her advice: invest and prepare. “You need to be a food-safe facility. Multi-national consumer product companies require it.” She explained why relying on smaller clients is not a safe course of action by citing continuous merger and acquisition activity entailing larger entities gobbling up smaller enterprises. She also pointed to there being a great deal of complexity and procedure to acquiring certification, cautioning peers to be precise, thorough and documentation oriented.