The availability of the right substrates is integral to a successful print environment. Many print providers that may have taken this for granted certainly do not anymore, following an ongoing supply chain crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Above: UPM Raflatac offers high-quality paper and film label stock for branding and promotion.
Still, the presses must run. In times of turbulence, new trends are bound to emerge. With limited inventory and marketing funds, shorter runs are favored. Therefore the adoption of digital continues to grow.
An abundance of media providers and suppliers support the digital print industry, from inkjet to toner through standard stocks, label media, and specialty substrates.
Overall Trends The two most talked about print trends that relate to media involve supply chain issues and sustainability.
In order to ensure printable stock, print providers are getting creative to stay on top of the options. Is there an end in sight? Unfortunately, this is not likely in the near future. The general consensus is that inventory issues due to supply chains will continue throughout 2022 and probably into 2023.
“Lead times have stabilized, and freight costs—particularly ocean-going shipping containers—have topped out. We are still seeing supply chain struggles, and periodic out of stocks throughout the industry,” says Wayne Colbath, national sales manager, Continental Grafix.
He points out that companies mitigate these issues with increased inventory allocations from their suppliers, negotiating different supply chain paths and methods, and retooling their offerings to better serve the current market.
“There have been many unforeseen disruptions to the supply chain impacting the manufacturing process, however, it is slowly stabilizing,” comments Jason C. Leonard, technical sales manager, digital print, Neenah. He says the reduced availability coupled with increased demand led to backlogs that still need to be worked through. “Once backlogs are delivered, availability will continue to improve,” he predicts.
Craig Surette, business development director, GPA, admits that disruptions carry on in waves so easing of print-related challenges will continue. “European mill strikes ripple across the U.S. and the global print economy as demand continues and the tons need to come from somewhere. Geopolitical unrest strains energy and oil-based input products, tightening an already strained market. At this point, we see the challenges continuing through the end of the year.”
Patricia Potts, communications manager, Innovia Films, also sees continued disruption in the market and value chain, driven by key coating raw material shortages. “Shortages and lack of supply availability will continue in Q2, even though most plants are reported to be back online. The issue of increasing freight costs and truck shortages will also add to pressure,” she says.
“My belief is the pandemic will wind down in 2022 and, as businesses emerge and get back to ‘normal,’ there will be additional opportunities for print driven by the return of the work force,” shares Greg Kestler, NFD product manager, General Formulations.
That stated, even as some businesses stay remote, the acknowledgement that there is growth will create new opportunities. “Demand will stay stronger than supply and manufacturing will continue to adjust ordering and lead times to compensate for that tension. We have already seen the need for better planning as well as flexibility of material choices, and a nimble business strategy will be advantageous. Print service providers (PSP) may need to expand into additional markets and find new opportunities.”
Sustainability Movement In addition to continued struggles with the supply chain, another thing everyone can agree on is that there is a demand for sustainable solutions.
This uptick is happening for a number of reasons. Colbath points back to the supply chain as one driver.
He notes that these issues forced many companies to look for solutions available to meet the scheduling demands of the projects they have in the pipeline. “Even if they were not looking for a ‘green’ solution, it may be the only product available to meet the job needs,” he offers.
Louis Rouhaud, global marketing director, Arjobex, a company of the Polyart group, notes demand for both products utilizing recycled content as well as recyclable products.
The pandemic has also caused some companies to reevaluate their stance on the sustainability. “For example, companies are keeping more people working from home. Decreasing their carbon footprint via commuting in cars, less office building space to be cooled/heated, etc. This mindset has flowed into companies looking at other ways to build sustainability into their business, like graphics,” offers Colbath.
End users are making sustainability a priority for their campaigns. “We see interest in nearly every aspect of our business from direct mail to wide format to gift cards,” asserts Leonard.
Cost has always been and continues to be a challenge when it comes to sustainability. “Transitioning from a commodity paper to a premium solution does carry an increase in cost, however, the benefits repeatedly outweigh the variance,” says Leonard.
“As always, people are okay with sustainable solutions if they cost the same and perform the same as their usual solution,” comments Colbath.
Typically, there can be an increased cost and learning curve associated with new, sustainable products.
“The challenge is to help the customer understand the innate value to these solutions, and how and where they can help their business grow. This includes being a ‘green’ company and bringing new unique solutions to your customers. There are differentiators that make you unique and put a positive light on your business,” he adds.
The good news is, sustainability is becoming more attainable. “Prices of these typically high-cost solutions have come down relative to current inflation,” says Colbath.
Performance is another hindrance. Leonard says in addition to cost, the second perceived challenge is the comfort level of the print providers running an uncoated paper on their technology. “This is why we work closely with the OEMs for certifications and approval. We want it to be easy for a PSP to transition across all paper types,” he assures.
“Digital print often requires substrates with additional treatment for robust printability. That, combined with lower volumes than analog print, has made materials harder to source and service,” admits Paul Lender, business development manager, digital, Avery Dennison. He says the company recently introduced its new TC-2000 topcoat for BOPP films that provides robust printing digitally and with analog print methods, helping to eliminate some of the logistical issues that come with providing digital-only solutions.
“We are continually improving our adhesive formulations, particularly as the types of packaging used by brands evolve as well,” says Anna Hunt, senior manager, brand and marketing, UPM Raflatac, Americas. She sees many new types of packaging substrates that include recycled content; which requires continuous development in labeling materials as well as collaboration and testing with customers to ensure on-package performance.
Production Inkjet Production inkjet printing is a hot and growing market. However, many nuances affect paper selection. “The print process dictates the paper choices a PSP has on their production inkjet printers,” explains Leonard. However, inkjet allows for a wider range of papers to be printed without specific coatings or receptors. As an example, if a PSP wants to run a paper across their offset and digital inkjet, this is possible without requiring a digitally treated sheet. This aids in consolidating paper purchases, matching campaigns across one stock, and driving creative solutions to their clients.”
Different ink types have an important role in deciding which paper or film material is selected. “Water-based inkjet, for example, requires the substrate to have a very different absorbent coating on the surface, than for UV inkjet, where the chemical interaction between the coating and the ink are very important,” adds Potts.
“Each digital print technology comes with its own set of requirements on printability,” agrees Lender. Water-based inkjet substrates require coatings to manage the high liquid content of each drop and contribute to drying to help control dot spread and image quality, he explains, adding that UV inkjet substrates require coatings to improve ink anchorage, control dot spread, and heighten image quality.
Lender sees an improvement in UV inkjet inks to perform more robustly across a wider range of substrates. Advancements like updated ink chemistries, variable drop volumes, and improved ink curing all contribute to better performance.
He is also starting to see a lot of interest in shrink films and flexible packaging from the UV inkjet press manufacturers as image quality improves and wider presses start to enter the market.
Surette points out that stock compatibility is broader and more universal now because of advances in inkjet inks, inline primers, or both. Specific inkjet-primed media has largely been overcome, easing sourcing and cost pressures. Synthetic substrate compatibility can still be a consideration on some platforms, however but advances in topcoats are easing that concern.
“A large part of my role at Neenah is to partner with the OEMs to align our papers to their technology. The partnerships with the manufacturers have been excellent and the drive to approve our portfolio of papers has been overwhelming. The advantage of running a wider range of papers and substrates through a production digital machine sells machines and having Neenah papers approved aids in the growth of this technology,” says Leonard.
Surette says OEMs have partnered with GPA to qualify substrates never before possible in inkjet. Photo stocks, synthetics, and card solutions are just some examples of markets now open to inkjet possibilities.
Toner/EP/Electro Ink Aside from inkjet, toner-, electrophotographic-, and HP ElectroInk-based solutions require a separate set of considerations in terms of media and substrates.
EP technology is well established, but papers and substrates should be thoroughly tested as the print process is less forgiving than inkjet in some cases. “Most all of our digitally treated papers are proven on the platform,” offers Leonard.
Due to its maturity, several specialty media options are available in this space, including synthetic materials.
“We are seeing tremendous growth and continued demand for solutions in the walls, windows, and floors categories as retailers and brand managers look to expand their messaging,” shares Kestler. “The availability of specialty media and a range of performance adhesives allow for decorative or informational graphics to be installed on more surfaces than ever.”
Surette agrees, also seeing a high demand for window, wall, and floor graphic applications. “Twelve months ago, those applications were social distance related. Today, promotional and informational graphics drive the volume—same real estate but different messaging.”
Luxury goods continue to surge driving demand for higher-end direct mail, brochures, and related applications. “Textured and pearl stocks are in lock step with those markets,” he shares.
Lender sees a big pull in this print technology for shrink films and flexible packaging in addition to the standard white papers, white films, and clear films.
Photo applications, and therefore substrates that support these applications are also popular. “Photo applications continue to be strong where consumers are valuing personal experiences and connections higher than ever. That has translated to an increase in holiday cards, wall art, calendars, and photo applications in general,” says Surette.
Size is another area where options are growing. Leonard points to growth in the B2-sized press, leading to demand for B2 sheets. “Across our entire portfolio, people look for textures and colors in the larger sheet that is approved for the technology.”
Similarly, heavier weighted options are in demand. Leonard says this is specifically 24 pt. “The recent evolution of the maximum thickness has created a demand for 24 pt. paper for a variety of end uses,” he offers.
Apart from supply chain logistics, the biggest challenges center around the demand for green solutions, says Kestler, noting that there is a remarkable lack of options here.
Rouhaud lists print quality and consistency along with sizing as top challenges in the dry toner/laser printing space. He notes this as an advantage to HP Indigo, which took steps towards B2 size solutions sooner.
Potts says the supply of some of the primer and coating raw materials is another issue in this space, which leads to suppliers cutting back on the breadth of media options they can make for the marketplace.
Surette agrees, noting that while printers are largely accepting of the price shock of 2021/2022, which is an unwanted market reality, stock availability is the biggest challenge and where stock substitution and multi-source supply has become a necessity. “Before, specs where ironclad, now end users and printers accept near-spec and sometimes completely off-spec just to support the job.”
Lender says toner/EP are fairly robust print processes and substrates from its core portfolio of products meet many of the requirements for these presses.
On the other hand, HP Electroink requires an additional primer that is typically done via the inline priming unit on HP WS series HP Indigo presses.
“Most of the Avery Dennison core products are able to be primed this way. However, Avery Dennison also offers a range of pre-primed HP Indigo top coated materials for press owners that don’t have access to the HP Indigo inline priming unit,” he adds.
Digital Labels The adoption of digital printing for labels is a key focus point in the industry. Digital label systems are available in both true digital and hybrid offerings. Further, both toner- and inkjet-based systems are options.
Short-run, variable data, and embellished labels are hot right now, shares Leonard. Industries driving this include cosmetic, cannabis, spirits, and business to consumer outlets. “Technology allows for some pretty amazing capabilities of customization,” he adds.
Potts notices an increase in the number of substrates and media available for inkjet printing, and this matches the growth at which new inkjet presses are coming into the marketplace. “Inkjet is probably the fastest growing sector,” she offers.
Specifically to UV inkjet, Lender sees an interest in shrink films and flexible packaging, as well as improved image quality and the introduction of wider presses.
“Labeling materials are evolving to address the topic of recyclability and circularity,” adds Hunt. UPM offers solutions designed to enhance recycling or allow for the reuse of packaging.
When it comes to flexographic materials, Gabrielle Whittaker, director, films and Specials SBU, UPM Raflatac, Americas, says the type of face materials has expanded over the years as well as the introduction and use of more environmentally friendly materials. “The types of flexographic presses have also evolved and the markets utilizing pressure-sensitive labels has grown and driven a need for higher quality printed graphics.”
Potts says another recent trend in flexographic label printing and media is food contact compliance and low migration UV inks. “Our substrates need to have food contact compliance and give excellent ink adhesion to low migration inks. This is a starting point now for most of the new coated label materials we develop.”
Security is another noteworthy label attribute, according to Rouhaud. Products like tamper-evident labels are designed to thwart counterfeiting.
Always Improving Media and substrate options continually evolve to meet the latest consumer demands and print technologies. In the past year, supply chain issues took the spotlight, as well as the need for recyclable, renewable, and recycled solutions that support a circular economy. dps