Labels ‒ the lifeblood of society
Labels today are at the forefront of an increasingly automated industrial and consumer driven society that uses the internet, computers, artificial intelligence, hand-held mobile phones and other sophisticated devices almost without thought to manufacture all kinds of products, to sell and distribute goods ‒ nationally and worldwide ‒ and to organize and manage ever more elements of everyday life.
Every day millions and millions of people are faced with labels from the time they get up in the morning to going to bed at night. Labels on their shower and bathroom products; on their toiletries and cosmetics; on the clothes they put on; at breakfast time; in cars, trains and buses; in their workplaces; in supermarkets and pharmacies, DIY and garden centers, clothing and sports goods outlets. The list could go on.
A little understood industry
Despite being seen by millions each and every day there are probably few of the public that know how labels are produced, that they are mainly manufactured to international or national consumer-driven standards or legislation ‒ or that there is a global label industry manufacturing many different and varied types of labels with an annual value of up to €60 billion or more.
Moreover, the industry has become substantially computerized and digitized, uses ever-more intelligent machines, and frequently integrates with social media to promote brands and activities. Indeed, the label industry is probably one of the most advanced and sophisticated of all the main printing sectors; produces some of the highest quality print for the world’s leading global brands. It is also at the forefront of anti-counterfeiting, retail anti-theft solutions, and track-and-trace using barcode technology.
A variety of solutions
Although seen every day, few of the public realize that there are many different types, sizes and constructions of label required so as to meet the varied labelling demands of different packaged products ‒ bottles, jars, cans, aerosols, boxes, mailing containers, sachets, pouches, etc. ‒ as well as different methods of applying labels to containers that may be filled cold, filled hot, require sterilizing or freezing, withstand different climatic conditions, or survive rubbing or scuffing during transit.
No one label material or solution can meet all these different demands. Some label are printed on coated or uncoated papers or boards, some on a whole variety of plastics (polypropylene, polyester, polyethylene, PVC), some on metallic foils or metallized papers and films, while high performance specially formatted synthetic materials are used for extremely demanding applications.
Different types of labels
The most widely used type of label found worldwide is the self-adhesive label. A multilayer construction made up of the face material to be printed, a self-sticking pressure-sensitive adhesive, and a silicone coated backing paper (called a release liner) that stops the sticky adhesive materials from sticking to itself or to equipment during printing, handling, storage and distribution. This backing material is peeled away during the application process, leaving the adhesive side of the label to adhere to the product being labelled.
Other common types of label used include wet-glue applied labels in which a single layer printed face material has a glue-applied to the back of the label immediately prior to application. Another widely used type of label is known as a shrink-sleeve. Shrink sleeve labels are printed on shrinkable films, formed and sealed into a tube construction, placed over a bottle or can, and then shrunk to a tight fit. Certain types of printed labels may be placed inside a mold prior to blow molding or thermoforming a container. All types have a key place in the world of labels.
Creating a label design
Whatever the type of label being produced, they all need to be designed, artwork and graphics created, and files prepared for printing. This is all carried out using sophisticated computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) hardware and software. When artwork has been approved by the customer it can either be sent directly to a digital press, or the files used to create printing plates that will be printed on a wet ink printing press in anything up to seven or eight colours.
Sophisticated inspection system s can automatically check for faults, color variations, missing labels, damage, etc., using on-press camera and web inspection technology that can guarantee 1005 label quality and accuracy.
High performance printing
With so many different materials to be printed, so many varied end-usage and application requirements, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of different printing processes are used for label production. Some label printing machines print from a raised surface image (letterpress or flexography), some from a flat surface (offset lithography), while most recently, there has been a significant rise in the use of digital printing technologies. These include machines that print using charged powders (rather like bigger version of copiers) or using inkjet systems (similar to desktop inkjet printers, but far more complex and sophisticated).
Some label printing machines today even combine different printing processes all in line in one long printing press. Most labels will probably be over-varnished or laminated as a final print process to add durability or performance requirements.
Creating the label shape
When a printed self-adhesive label gets to the end of the printing line it needs to be cut to shape ‒ usually with rounded corners to make them easy to apply, but sometimes with shaped edges or perforations for tear-off portions. Labels for the luxury markets may also have metallic designs applied to the printed label or parts of the design raised by an embossing unit on the press. The final step is cutting the label to the required shape and size using a special cutting unit at the end of the press.
Where digital printing of label is carried out, then some of the presses may use a digitized laser system to cut the labels to the required shape and format.
Advanced label technologies
Apart from the millions of coloured labels produced and seen every day in a whole variety of retail outlets, during travel and at home, there are many different types of labels that have much more functional applications ‒ they contain hidden anti-counterfeit features or radio frequency identity (RFID) chips. Some contain sophisticated types of coding or images that can be detected and read on hand held devices, while other may have rub and reveal or scratch off features, even anti-microbial or anti-bacterial elements.
The range and variety of anti-theft, fraud detection, intelligent, counterfeit prevention and active or interactive labels continues to grow each year.
Once printed and re-wound, labels are shipped to packaging plants where they are automatically applied to products of every shape and size, across almost all industries, and with a requirement to promote brands, carry ingredients information, health and safety messages, usage instructions, company information and track and trace coding.
Managing all the information
The final steps by the label printer are to collect all the job order and print computer information together, work out costs, arrange shipping and provide any necessary certification, compliance data and an invoice to the customer. This is all carried out in sophisticated job definition and management information systems (MIS).
The world of labels today is a very sophisticated industry which uses quite complex technologies and systems that all come together to enable a global economy and market place to function efficiently and as effortlessly as possible.