Direct to Shape: Is this the beginning of the end of the printed label?

Printing and placing labels onto packaging and products is big business. Think about the importance of brand recognition, security and coding and marking. It is huge and the market will just continue to grow in line with the fact we continue to consume. It is amazing when you think about it but labeling and packaging now remains the only 'interruptive' media that is unaffected by the rise of new media. 

According to I.T.Strategies the printing alone in this sector is reckoned to be worth $45 Billion and growing.  So it shouldn't be that surprising that a significant amount of innovation is occurring.

So why the provocative title then? 

Largely because of the sheer amount energy and action from exhibitors at InPrint 2015!

Digital direct to shape printing has the potential to be huge. Printing digitally directly to shape is going to revolutionise how products are branded, identified, coded and marked. It removes the need for a label, it liberates designers, and it increases flexibility whilst enhancing the potential of customisation.

The opportunity for this sector is huge. But first, why has the inkjet revolution in label printing not really happened to any great degree?

The printing of customised labels is not new. These established technologies and processes have been around for a long time. I recently heard that the label market has not really adopted digital inkjet in a huge way largely as there is already some established digital toner and electro-photographic technologies that have a foothold in packaging perhaps making it far more difficult for inkjet itself to enter. I am not saying that inkjet is not present, but the percentage take up is relatively small considering how long is has been present.

Perhaps it is also simply because the economics don’t stack up and the structure of the industry is making it difficult for labels to digitise properly. The Coke, Nutella and other campaigns that have arrested some decent attention - do not seem to have inspired other brands to join the revolution yet. (Although I am hearing work is being done behind the scenes).

The economics stack up

John Corrall at IIJ, (exhibitor at InPrint 2014 and in 2015 as part of Konica Minolta) and I talked about the direct to shape phenomenon. “The direct to shape revolution is happening, and will alter how products are branded, coded and decorated – there is no question of that. The quality of reproduction is already more than good enough, but possibly more important the economics are beginning to stack up. Compared to screen or pad the lack of any setup time or tooling cost  more than compensates for the higher ink cost. Compared to digital label printing,  direct to shape removes one process step but also removes the label printer – and his profit margin.  So the positive economic value of direct to shape is quite clear for any applications other than those with the longest run lengths.”

It seems that despite the creative potential, and the speed and responsiveness of digital inkjet and any new digital technology that it will still require that the economics truly add up. Whether it is inkjet, electro-photographic, toner based or any other form of digital, is somewhat of a moot point, but now the arguments for not taking on digital for direct to shape printing is no longer merely down to cost. We saw the graphic; ceramic and textile markets take on digital when all of the key advantages of digital were not outweighed by the higher cost of ink and speed of one image reproduction.

It seems that the packaging print industry has always liked the idea of digital but has rather a one dimensional view of it, in that whilst they like the idea of digital, but they view it as a replacement technology and judge it accordingly. When they discover the speed and cost is different, they lose the initial interest and do not understand that digital creates new possibilities and will not replace analogue in this regard.

It is true that with the transforming nature of digital within our culture, one expects the new technology to simply be better on all levels, and when we find this to not quite be the case, some people lose interest and refuse to concede that digital will simply create new value because in their mind it must replace.

So it begs the question, what exactly do we suggest that label printers do? Sell their label presses and buy lines and lines of direct to shape?

Friedrich Goldner, Marabu urges balance when considering digital direct to shape. “We have been very involved with ink developments shown first at DrinkTech back in September 2013 and we agree that digital direct to shape printing is set to take off and will undoubtedly be adopted by brands and retailers. But I think it is a little early to be predicting the demise of the label. The shift towards digital in the graphic and especially in recent years in the ceramics sector was quite fast and pretty wholesale. But really there is no comparison to direct to shape in the packaging world. To get an image properly onto a cylindrical object to the standard required is more challenging and labels will remain reality for many products. That said, direct to shape will make itself known and will find its niche and it is likely to be a lucrative one.”

The packaging sector, according to Mark Hanley at I.T. Strategies will simply continue to grow in line with the growth and consumption but is a complex and diverse proposition in terms of applications.

“The packaging sector has a lot of pressures placed against it to provide persuasive and compelling communications as well as safe and practical applications. There is no doubt the complexity of packaging itself has thrown up a number of barriers to wide-scale digital inkjet adoption but I think that the potential for direct to shape is considerable – but let’s not get too carried away, the commercialisation of this type of technology is still in an early stage and we are yet to see great examples of its wide scale adoption.

So? Do we have a simmering revolution on our hands and is digital direct to shape about to become the next and greatest thing? 

Personally I believe it will be a big thing, but I agree that it is possibly a little early to be writing any kind of obituary for the printed label. I believe it will find its own purpose and complement existing processes.  But come to InPrint and see the greatest array of digital direct to shape printing solutions anywhere in the world.