Shrink Sleeve Production: The Right Workflow Erases Intimidating Factors

There’s no denying demand for shrink sleeves is on the rise. While the label industry continues to see healthy year-over-year gains itself, the notable growth in shrink sleeves is something narrow web converters are finding difficult to ignore.


  • Leading shrink application researcher AWA (Alexander Watson Associates) reports shrink sleeve labels make up roughly 18 percent of the entire global label market
  • AWA forecasts better than 5 percent annual growth patterns are expected to hold through 2021
  • Though this application is not considered a new technological development, there are countless innovations within shrink technology itself that have contributed to shrink sleeves gaining traction in the label and packaging marketplace
  • Production enhancements, paired with an incremental increase of brand demand, have led narrow web converters down the path of consideration and education as it pertains to expanding their book of business to include shrink labels

Why Brands Do Care About Shrink Sleeves

Ultimately, brands are shifting focus from labels to shrink and one of the main reasons is messaging space.

WEB Mark Andy Flower Image 1
All images and graphics courtesy of Mark Andy Inc

Pressure sensitive limits you to certain branding space and often requires both primary and secondary labels to get key brand attributes and regulatory items across. When covering the entire product with moldable packaging, brands have nearly 60 percent more “real estate” on the product to get messages across.

Why Converters Should Care About Shrink Sleeves

Simply put, that 60 percent higher coverage over pressure-sensitive labels comes at a premium of an estimated 25 percent. The justification?

  • End users may consciously care about their packaging, but there is a heightened chance for a more positive response to a product with increased label space
  • In addition to subliminal preference, many consumers also prefer the moisture resistance, brighter coloring and unique shapes that go hand-in-hand with the bulk of shrink applications

It’s understandable that unfamiliarity with the necessary workflow precludes some narrow web converters to decide that the entry to shrink seems a little too steep of a learning curve, so an explanation of all that entails may ease the intimidation factor. Education can lead to action.

Exploring the Workflow

Shrink sleeves themselves are experiencing a second coming in terms of their trending popularity, largely in part due to OEM press capabilities. Converters need only to identify which technology—digital or flexo—appeals most to their production process, as a business case can be made for either investment.

Beyond identifying the right flexo and/or digital hybrid technology to best support specific needs, the shrink workflow can be a bit nerve wracking for printers new to the application. But when armed with the right workflow, it’s a very penetrable market for those looking for a straightforward segue to new business.

Here is a look at the entire shrink workflow process in four steps, from art creation to heat application and everything in between.

  • Step 1: Design art suited for distortion. After receiving an art file from a brand owner, the next step is to properly distort the file to ensure proper distortion when heat is applied to the shrink sleeve label
  • Step 2: In-house distortion grid tests. There’s no one-size-fits-all when distorting files for shrink. Traditionally, grid tests are used by printing a grid pattern inside the product art template, running production, then manually notating creases and crevices on containers to compare to the art layout, identifying edits to ensure application success. It’s a tried-and-true process but is quite time consuming
  • Step 3: In-house design. There is 3D software available to give users the ability to create art specific to container shapes, so design can be applied to a shape with accurate visualization. Developed to support prepress operators and packaging designers, this alternative to grid tests can prove to be time efficient for converters with the bandwidth for a creative department
  • Step 4: Additional prepress considerations. From plate making to file manipulation, there is still work to be done before printing can occur. If these tasks are outside your team’s wheelhouse, that doesn’t mean shrink is out of reach; reputable prepress shops have the knowledge to become a strong and supportive industry partner in your shrink endeavor

“Flexo and shrink go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a tried-and-true application for the print technology that is only getting better with advancements in automation.”

Print: Recipe for Success

It may take some trial and error, but it’s a necessary evil to curate the perfect combination of ink laydown, flood coating, primer and substrate to provide the highest quality product. All OEM teams also should have consumables experts who can alleviate much of the pain associated with creating that secret recipe with their industry knowledge and ability to capitalize on a wide network for testing purposes.

Whether you’re looking for the capability to upsell a pressure-sensitive label to shrink with flexo or the opportunity to maximize a digital hybrid inkjet investment by expanding offerings to include shrink, the demand for the application is growing and so are the options in OEM technology for printing narrow web shrink.

Flexo and shrink go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a tried-and-true application for the print technology that is only getting better with advancements in automation. And as intuitive features like automated registration and impression, job save, multi-servo motors per print station and more all become less of a luxury and more of a need to maintain the highest efficiency of upmarket label production, both quality and profitability of shrink labels have limitless potential.

Shrink production on digital hybrid machines is experiencing something of a renaissance itself. While the technology has existed for a few years, there is no denying each iteration of a shrink-capable digital press is better than the last. Pair the color-matching capabilities to its flexo counterpart with the higher speeds achievable with true hybrid machines, and the potential capacity for new business is hard to ignore.

Recognizing that it’s not always necessary, or realistic, to make a huge capital investment to produce shrink sleeves, keep in mind that retrofitting current technology for shrink may prove the more attractive option. Existing presses may need simple upgrades to provide a path to shrink application, such as adding a chill drum at the drying stations or utilizing LED curing.

Finishing: Application & Seaming

From properly designing lay flat art to support seaming, to utilizing the best compatible solvent for the material used, to selecting the equipment that best suits your seaming needs, seaming is a complex process, nearing the end of the workflow with many variables at hand.

The seaming location itself will likely vary depending on the shape of the end product. It is identified during the initial art manipulation phase after artwork is received from a customer, and is typically always located where it will be least impactful to the label’s graphics—usually on the back or side.

The final step in a complete shrink sleeve workflow is heat application. While there are many different ways to apply heat to a seamed shrink sleeve, the best results stem from the uniform spread of temperature.

This is most often achieved via a third-party packaging partner with equipment that provides evenly distributed heat via hot air tunnel, steam tunnel or some hybrid technology.

With designs developed correctly, quality print turned out and impactful finishes applied, there is no escaping the fact that when all is said and done and a proper shrink sleeve workflow is implemented, the attraction of a 60 percent increase in billboard space and the expanded high-end graphics and messaging it contains, simply can’t be ignored. A new business opportunity is calling.

About the Author

headshot Amanda Flower

Amanda Flower is a marketing specialist, supporting both flexo and digital endeavors, at Mark Andy’s global headquarters in St. Louis, MO. She is an experienced B2B content creator with a penchant for labels, brand management and thinking outside of the box.

Mark Andy, a pioneer of the graphic arts and printing industry, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of narrow and mid web printing equipment. Its Performance Series P9E and Digital Series HD presses provide some of the most profitable paths forward in shrink production.