Perfect printing7 February 2017
With ink technology continuing to advance, converters have been evolving their tools to offer brand partners a new environment of colour and print effects. As the demands of legislation and brand owners intensify, practical ink selection is now more important than ever. Dave Howell reports
For converters, the advances in ink technology that have been seen over the past few years have been essential to their market and product expansion. Even a cursory glance at the output of converters reveals that ink has played a crucial role in their ability to innovate.
Ink now plays an important role with consumer conversations. With an increasingly crowded shelf, converters have continued to use colour and ink technologies to offer their customers a means to differentiate their packaging.
Consumers are already highly sensitive to colour, and this sensitivity continues to be heightened. Converters need to understand the mechanics of colour and communication, and how this can be managed with ink technologies in order to remain relevant to their customers, who will likely become even more demanding in the future.
In its report into the packaging industry, EY predicts: “Packaging producers have to be able to deliver new shapes, use new materials, print more colours in greater definition and deliver short-run lengths economically”. One area where consumer trends have been most felt has been with flexible packaging – a sector that is worth over $31 billion.
Chris Lee, head of regional marketing for polymer dispersions and resins for printing and packaging, Asia Pacific, BASF tells Converting Today: “The trend to convert from solvent-based inks to water-based inks or UV inks due to stricter regulation changes is getting more obvious. In China, it’s also an important topic because the government announced that it would impose the VOC tax on solvent-based ink. This trend could be a challenge for companies along the value chain but, at the same time, it offers opportunities if they find sustainable solutions ensuring printing quality and reasonable costs.”
Siegwerk CEO Herbert Forker adds: “In the packaging market there is a steady increase in regulatory efforts worldwide. The fact that legislations are becoming stricter creates new challenges for ink manufacturers in terms of raw materials used for the production of packaging inks. Until today, the overall market is reluctant to accept higher prices for safer inks compared to standard ink systems.
“Converters are always trying to reduce their total cost of ownership in order to improve their competitiveness and stay successful at the market. The qualification of modified inks involves considerable resources along the value chain,” Forker continues. “Going forward, regulations like the Swiss ordinance, policies from large global brand owners, or the upcoming new German ordinance will further shape the acceptance and the demand of safe ink systems at the market worldwide. Product safety continues to be the most important and challenging aspect in packaging. The goal is to create food packaging that is safe for the consumer.”
With increasing demand from the flexible packaging sector, ink developers have had to react. A good example is hubergroup. Their new ink range, dubbed ‘Gecko Platinum’, is a complement to their existing Gecko range of inks. Whereas the classic Gecko series are based on nitrocellulose (NC), this new series uses a polyurethane (PU) binder system.
Lutz Frischmann, director of technology, Management Liquid Inks at hubergroup, explains why the company chose to use PU, which has been optimised for this demanding application: "For standard applications, such as packaging for dry package contents, we already have well-established NC ink systems. However, NC systems cannot be used for applications involving sterilisation due to the limited thermostability of nitrocellulose. Until now, specialised ink series based on polyvinylbutyral (PVB) or polyvinylchloride (PVC) have been used for such high-performance laminations.
“However, flexo printers are either not able to use these specialised inks at all (PVC-based inks) or only to a very limited extent (PVB inks). Moreover, brand owners are increasingly demanding chlorine-free binders and pushing the established PVC systems in gravure to the limits of their capabilities. Extensive field trials in combination with various solvent-based and solvent-free adhesive systems have confirmed that Gecko Platinum offers consistently high bond strength values in both standard and high-performance applications, including sterilisation. Print quality is excellent even in fine halftone designs with 60 lines/cm or more," Frischmann says.
Any discussion of inks will inevitably cover security. Converters have been using ink-based technologies as the foundation for security systems for decades. However, today, security is even more important than it has ever been. Brands looking to cement a level of trust with their consumers are focusing on their converting partners for innovations to progress their security ambitions.
drupa, for instance, saw Mimaki introduce its invisible ink, which is only visible under UV light. This isn’t new technology, but converters will need to offer every security application they can to satisfy the insatiable appetite that brands have for security technologies. Mimaki also demonstrated its new LUS-900 and LUS-350 UV inks for thermoforming applications. These inks are stretchable when heated, up to 900 and 350% respectively, enabling digital decoration of thermoformed parts that could only be created using time-consuming and expensive screen printing in the past.
White ink applications were also making waves at this year’s Labelexpo, where converters showed how what appears to be an innocuous ink is actually proving to be highly useful for many packaging applications across the digital-press environment.
The advances that have taken place with this pigment enable high opacity to be achieved. This is vital for some converters, most notably those producing films for bags, as the white ink allows them to print vibrant colours that don’t look washed out, as would be the case without the white ink application. The ‘no label’ look is increasing in popularity, as converters offer brands this level of graphical capability.
For instance, the JetFlex Technology ink system is durable that in many cases, varnish and laminates can be eliminated. The inks can also have a texture and thickness that gives a tactile effect without varnish. The digital opaque white ink rivals that produced by screen-printing and provides brand owners the ability to use multiple colours on a clear label. This is a huge improvement over traditional digital and flexo printing.
Ink and the food sector have been, in some ways, uncomfortable bedfellows over the years. However, following recent developments with films, substrates and ink, the food sector is seeing a number of innovations that are appealing to consumers. The recent announcement by Flint Europe of its new EkoCure Ancora UV LED-curable low-migration inks expands its range to offer more flexible options for converters.
Another good example is from Coveris, which has launched its Nextrus Boneless Shrink Bags. “One of consumers’ top concerns when they go shopping is the appearance of meat in the package,” says Rebecca Casey, marketing director at Coveris. “Our new and innovative Nextrus line features premium gloss that creates a low level of haze, allowing the product to shine through with maximum clarity and visibility. This reassures consumers that they are purchasing the freshest meat available.”
Nextrus bags use a barrier system that eliminates the potential for the yellowing tendencies of traditional protein packaging solutions. The outside PET layer and 10-colour front and back printing promotes the product brand and shines on the shelf, attracting customers to the package.
Interactivity has been a burgeoning area for packaging design, as brands seek to attract customers. Considered by many to be a technology that has run its course, thermochromic inks are making a comeback thanks to innovations from Crown.
In the past, a single ink could change colour as the can substrate does. Crown Bevcan Europe and Middle East has come up with an innovation called ‘Reveal’ that uses two inks with different thermodynamic properties. When the can is cooled and then heated while it is consumed, the ink pattern changes to reveal different graphics and text to communicate with the consumer. The applications are endless with just this simple addition of a second ink.
Converters are also increasingly pushing the technical envelope that digital presses currently offer. “Currently, converter groups are still only adopting isolated elements of available technology, possibly due to insufficient understanding and coordination from internal champions and management,” says Stuart Duffy, sales director for business services, Flint Group Packaging and Narrow Web. “This is compounded further by the fact that the 'Colour Solutions' space has become ever more crowded without actually providing clear value creation.”
Duffy concludes: “However, I do believe digital colour management is approaching a tipping point, as global brand owners are becoming increasingly aware of integrated services that can assist the genuine delivery of consistent achievable colour across multiple global regions that demonstrate broad synergies, savings and speed to market.”
Siegwerk’s Herbert Forker tells Converting Today how he sees the future development of ink technology across the packaging sector: “There is a trend with a growing short-run demand driven by brand owners desiring regionalisation and personalisation, as well as effect varnishes and special finishing of their product packaging. The need for brand differentiation and lean production cycles will further drive this trend and will impact the packaging industry in future. This will drive growth of digital printing technologies in packaging as it enables packaging manufacturers to react even faster to specific customer requirements.
“Brand owners are also expressing an increasing interest in PVC-free printing inks in order to action complex packaging structures. Some regions and key brand owners are further increasingly asking for BPA-free and toluene-free inks. Besides, universal ink systems will gain further importance going forward, as they create cost-effectiveness for the user by reducing ink system complexity as well as ink stocks. Furthermore, we expect a volume switch from conventional UV to low migration UV inks. LED UV curing is one of the growth drivers. Further expansion of LED UV ink applications will enable printers to use these inks for the full range of products,” Forker concludes.
Ink, then, continues to be a major component of the services that converters deliver to their customers. Looking forward, more digital presses will make their way into the mainstream of converter output. UV inkjet will be a focus through 2017 for labelling applications, with water-based inkjets increasing their impact when larger expanses of substrate need to be printed.
Expect to see legislation continuing to shape how ink vendors and converters alike will shape their output, which will increasingly move towards more low-energy curing, with LED UV systems impacting on packaging applications, along with EB offset inks becoming more popular.
What is certain is that 2017 will see ink technology continue to develop in order to meet the ambitions of brand owners. Converters are well-placed to react to market changes and deliver the output their customers require.