Filmics an other synthetic continue to enjoy good growth rates, reflecting the industry’s continue diversity across promotional and industrial applications.

Plastic film (filmics) and other synthetic materials now account for almost 20 per cent of the total self adhesive roll and sheet label market in Europe and much of the market’s growth by value. In some areas, notably pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, toiletries and industrial labels, filmic usage reaches around 50 per cent of production. Annual European growth levels for non paper rolls and sheets collectively remain around the 14-16 per cent level. Demand shows no sign of slackening, whether as paper replacements or for totally new applications.

Obviously, plastics-based laminates offer things that paper cannot offer and people are prepared to pay for them. Durability is one reason. They are all highly resistant to moisture, abrasion, chemicals and some grades withstand marked variations in temperature. A large choice of surface finishes allows for creative versatility. Certain grades will meet specific packaging needs, such as squeezability and conformity on irregular-shaped packs.

In short, these type of substrates embody everything about current labelling technology, from brand promotion through to more utilitarian industrial applications. This also includes the shift towards substrate-identical labelling using polymeric facestocks following higher volumes of plastics in packaging. Containers made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) increasingly take market share from glass bottles and metal cans. Growing fast is the use of polyester (PET). Clarity, lightness and strength – aided by cheaper polymer prices – have made it popular for bottling mineral water and soft drinks.

Transparent films
Transparent plastic films, with either matt or gloss surfaces, are now firmly established: the ‘no-label look’ has become part of the lexicon of labelling. Everybody is familiar with this packaging trend, often equated in marketeers’ eyes as being image enhancing; whether as an expensive shampoo or an equally undrinkable chilled drink for undiscerning drinkers. On a practical note, filmics have stronger constructions allowing faster application speeds, even with irregular-shaped labels. Compared with direct decoration, end-users can label in smaller batches before filling and gain more flexibility.

Of course, it must not be forgotten that roll-label converters are not alone in competing with direct decoration methods. The following have also benefited from the shift towards plastics in packaging: in-mould labels, shrink-sleeves and wrap around film labels. Each enjoys double-figure growth, albeit from a small base. As with self adhesive, the non-paper applications in these sectors also benefit from cost-effective film developments and increased manufacturing capacity.

One trend with ultra-clear and high strength laminates is to replace paper-based liners with much smoother-surfaced PET or PP release liners. The first is a more expensive option, usually confined to premium-grade labelling. More recently, some laminators have begun to offer cheaper PP options. Jacstädts’ Ultraclear, which originally combined a 58 micron PP face-stock with a 36 micron PET liner, is an example.

PET and PP liners have a combined six to eight per cent share of the European market and grow by around eight to ten per cent a year. Calendered glassines and white or bleached krafts still dominate, but annual growth in a mature market is down to three per cent.

Specific facestock coatings have extended non-paper usage into industrial information, office and logistical applications. It is a huge and growing market, invariably underpinned by the demand for labels carrying some form of variable information printing (VIP). Durable bar-coded labels for order tracking, warehousing and production control, also labels for pallets and metal drums, are examples. Printing methods include hot or cold laser imaging, ink jet printing and thermal transfer.

The durability, tear resistance and multi-layer properties of certain filmics has also seen a rise in added-value security and tamper-evident applications. They include PET, acetate, and destructible vinyl constructions, which can be top-coated for VIP imaging and may also carry security holograms.

Some constructions are fairly complex. For example, a top coated PET could include a release solution and pigmented coating (its interaction causes the transfer of a customised hidden message) followed by a matching adhesive liner.

Again, a peel-away PET might contain an optically-active thin film on an aluminium-treated PET film. The difference between the incident light versus the proportion of absorbed and reflected light causes an irreversible colour change.

With security overlaminating film, an aggressive adhesive complements a clear PET or OPP film. This causes fibre tear on the carrier and tampering disrupts the security print. A new range from Ritrama typifies the scope: non-removable brittle PVC films and non-transferable bright-silver PE films with ‘Void’ or chain patterns. It also offers a double-sided tamper-evident PET film, 23 microns thick, and a security overlaminating film with holographic patterns.

In the battle to reduce retail theft, we are seeing the adoption of thin-film labels and tags. They offer integral disposable protection and are applied at source on the product. They work within Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) systems based on radio frequency, accousto-magnetic and electro-magentic (EM) methods. Detection in the shop involves using a transmitter and receiver.

Filmic growth rates
The European Self Adhesive Label Manufacturers provides one of the best barometers of filmic developments. Its latest report says annual compound growth for non-paper rolls grew 150 per cent between 1990 and 1996, compared with 40 per cent for coated and uncoated paper rolls.

However, significant differences exist between national consumption growth rates. Between 1995 and 1996, eastern region countries, led by the Czech Republic and Poland, saw consumption rise by 19 per cent to reach 158 million square metres. Overall growth in Scandinavia dropped to one per cent, while the central region (comprising the German-speaking countries and Benelux) slowed to 1.7 per cent reducing market share slightly to 30.6 per cent (904 million sq/metres).

The western region, comprising the UK and Ireland, saw consumption grow by five per cent, given a slight increase in market share to 22.4 per cent (663 million square metres). This reflected a 4four per cent increase in paper rolls and a 15 per cent increase in non-paper rolls.

EPSMA estimates that European sales of all self adhesive label product in 1996 amounted to 2,956 million square metres, broken down as follows:

Paper rolls 2,170 73.%
Non-paper rolls 417 14.1%
Paper sheets 258 8.7%
Non-paper sheets 111 3.8%

The association expects total non-paper rolls to grow by 10-12 percent and sheets by two – three per cent, compared with four – six per cent for paper rolls and two – three per cent for sheets. One of its largest members, Raflatac, estimates the total European P/S market as 2,800 million square metres. Average annual growth is roughly five per cent for paper and ten per cent for non-paper materials.

Market stability
As with pulp costs for paper labels, raw material costs and the strength of the US dollar have a big effect on non-paper substrate costs. For film manufacturers this mainly means the cost of plastic granulates, while similar factors govern the silicones and adhesive-making ingredients for laminators. As a rough guide, raw materials comprise 60 to 70 per cent of labelstock manufacturing prices, whereas unconverted materials represent perhaps only 20 to 50 per cent of total label production costs.

Currently, there is less volatility regarding raw material costs. This has stabilised the factory-gate prices of finished laminates, helped by intense competition and increased global capacity for both film manufacturing and laminating/coating. One marked trend is a concentration on manufacturing logistics, such as fast-running coating lines, master roll slitting and procedures that speed orders through the factory. Service support options from the major laminators mean customers can receive their orders within 48 hours, specify customised slit widths or have special laminates made for them.

The accept is on niche markets and trying to drive down internal costs says Chris Betts, Ritrama’s roll-label sales manager: ‘Today’s expanding filmic market places pressures on key players. New product developments inevitably have a financial implication for manufacturers. The price of the final product generally reflects research costs, yet because smaller companies are keen to undercut their opposition, they are bringing down overall market prices.

‘However, market changes have generally slowed in recent months and the situation is currently stable. While filmics are increasingly popular, especially in the toiletries market, fewer industries remain for introducing the newer materials successfully.’

Labelling plastic milk bottles using either OPP or PE with an OPP liner is a new development. The thin construction allows more labels on a roll and faster application and the adhesive withstands damp dairy conditions. Betts says it typified the market trends during the foreseeable future. That is, focusing on refining existing synthetic materials, speeding up production processes and aiming for stable product prices.

Global market
Environmental issues within a global market will always effect materials developments, influenced by variable attitudes to recycling waste and safe packaging disposal. Until the late 1980s cast or calendared poly vinyl chloride (PVC) accounted for 70 per cent of all non-paper labelstocks.

A highly vocal green lobby – mainly in central Europe and Scandinavia – later branded PVC as a toxic material (Germany banned it altogether for packaging). The PVC backlash was never as extreme in Britain, Ireland and southern Europe.

Current signs suggest that attitudes to PVC are even softening elsewhere in Europe. Semi-rigid and shrinkable vinyl grades are still widely used, but most sales remain in the industrial, point-of sale and exterior signage sectors, typically as sheets.

Polyolefin progress
PE was the main vinyl replacement and like PP, is made from high yield polyolefin resins, which convert easily into blown, cast or oriented films. The first two offer flexibility and toughness, while oriented films provide excellent stiffness and strength. Most PE films are made by the cast, co-extruded process using multiple slot dies. White and clear top-coated grades are popularly known for good die cutting and register control, They find favour where squeezability and conformability to irregular shapes are essential, such as shampoo and toiletry labelling. Multi-layer films (up to five layers are possible) combined with specific surface coatings provide extra manufacturing versatility.

‘Downguaging’ to produce thinner film is gaining acceptance following initial reluctance by converters used to stiffer paper labelstocks. PE base thicknesses have gone form 120 microns to 100 microns and now 80-86 microns for gloss, clear or white laminates is fairly common. Major products include FasRoll PE 80, Jac Films’85 micron Polyexact and Raflatac’s PE 85 range. One effect is to give more labels per roll.

Downguaging and the introduction of new coatings is a feature of OPP film manufacturing. Major producers like Mobil Chemical, Hoechst Trespaphan, UCB Films, Polinas and AET are actively developing new grades for both the self-adhesive and non-adhesive categories. Some are thin as 27gsm (30 micron metallised), while high-yield 80 micron four-layer films give extra stiffness where needed.

Richard Britton, sales and marketing manager of Hoechst Trespaphan UK said 540,000 tonnes of OPP for
self-adhesive labels and non-adhesive wraps were produced in Europe in 1996. This industry also produced around 170,000 tonnes of cast PP for other uses. This compares with 375,000 tonnes of rigid, calendared PVC (with additional plasticised grades for non-packaging applications). Capacity for PET grades of less than 350 microns is now well over 192,000 tonnes. No figures are available for PE production.

Today’s thinner mono or biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) films are made with either the blown-bubble process, or the more common stenter frame process. They generally have good die cutting performance in both machine and cross direction and are generally considered easier to handle than PE. Higher clarity has opened up many clear-on-clear markets, including for premium drinks, while their usage for shrink sleeves, film wraps and in-mould labels is also growing fast.

New films include UCB’s Rayoface CPA. Its acrylic top coating allows good multiple process ink adhesion throughout pasteurisation and chilling, so is aimed at the ‘no-label look’ beverage label market. UCB has also installed a vacuum metalliser at its Wigton, UK, site to metallise up to 4,000 tonnes a year of BOPP and cellulose films.

Hoechst Trespaphan has introduced two Eticourt OPP films: LWT 35 and 40 for wrap-around labelling and EPH75 for in-mould labelling. Both are high gloss white films. The company is also developing a material for blow-moulded containers that requires no coating on the inside face.

OPP variants are expected to overtake PE sales volumes during the next few years. Its stiffness in the cross direction generally rules it out for squeezable containers. This restriction does not apply to the new breed of ‘engineered’ multi-layer films. Resin yields are increased by either cavitating or foaming the film’s core with low-cost fillers. Film examples Mobil’s Label-Lyte 300 and Dow’s Opticite Plus (a modified PE film laminated by MACtac MACpoly).

Avery Dennison’s white Primax and clear FasClear were early proprietary examples of co-extruded polyolefin laminates. They are intended for ‘no-label look’ labelling of coloured and clear squeezable bottles, including blow-moulded HDPE. Primax II and FasClear II have a twin-layer face film of 63 microns, which is 30 per cent thinner than the original products. Newer still is Crystal FasClear TC, a top-coated ultra-clear version with a permanent acrylic adhesive.

PETs and otner
Higher resin and manufacturing costs tend to restrict PET filmics to luxury-product labelling, or where the material’s superior durability, dimensional stability and high temperature resistance are essential. Transparent grades down to 36 or even 26 microns are particularly noted for their super-clear clarity and widest spread of temperature ranges. It also makes an ideal overlaminating film, down to as low as 12 microns.

PET is widely used for producing bar-coded labels, with permanent acrylic adhesives, for the electronic and process manufacturing industries. In fact, computer-imprintable labels for harsh conditions represent one of the fastest growing PET applications.

Recent VIP introductions include Raflatac’s Polylaser, with heat-stabilised coatings in matt, white and matt transparent. It augments its PE Laser grades. PET gloss white or metallic grades printable by thermal-transfer printers represent an especial growth area for rating plates and marking electronic components.

One of the latest is Madico’s ThermaTech range, available in several white, clear and silver finishes from 25 to 75 microns. It also supplies polyimide and polyetherimide films for bar-coded printed-circuit board labels, said to resist temperatures up to 250ºC. ICI’s Kaladex polyethylene napthalate (PEN) films are another exotic filmic product. Less costly and more dimensionally stable than polymides, it resembles the company’s Melinex PET films, but with an upper temperature range of 150ºC.

Polystyrene (PS) is dimensionally stable with similar characteristic to OPP, but has more specialised applications. Opticite, developed by Dow Chemical, is the leading PS brand, first produced by RollCover Italiana in the early 1980s. Opticite Plus unusually combines PS with PE to produce a three layer white matt film based on the original white and clear film. The company also offers a three-layer PE transparent and white matt films.

Durability, flexibility, printability and high tensile strength are characteristics of the synthetics, which retain certain paper-like characteristics. They used PE or PP polyolefins as a recyclable base and have good printability characteristics with suitable inks.

Proprietary products include DuPont’s Tyvec, Van Leer’s Valeron, Papermatch and Arjobex Polyart. Applications include in-mould labels, self-adhesive labels and tags in niche markets. Arjo Wiggins, among others, is particularly promoting the PP based Synteape product for in-mould bottles and tubs, which like other non-paper products integrate within recycling processes.

Not surprisingly, non-paper self-adhesive substrates with special coatings have appeared in the digital colour printing sector. At least seven film manufacturers and laminators supply around 55 different substrates for Indigo Omnius and E-Print 1000+ print units, also Xeikon print engines. Roughly a third are non-paper substrates, including five Mobil OPP films, and are intended for everything from membrane switch overlays to full-colour prime labels.

Many more l
abel converters now understand the basics of printing and converting what were once difficult materials to handle. Market growth has also encouraged heavy investments in improved production control methods, through from film manufacturing to coating, laminating and slitting. Consequently, the final laminated and coated labelstock produces more predictable on press performance. Ink adhesion presents fewer problems: converters can now choose between many more types of top-coated grades, or install their own in-line corona treaters if volumes warrant this.

Manufacturers of presses and drying systems have also done much to take the mystery out of filmic conversion. For high volume usage, Nilpeter for example recommends installing a gear driven roller kit that stabilises materials through a tighter wrap. Web guides, pressure gauges and web cleaners are also recommended, particularly for all-filmic laminates.

Clearly, non-paper substrates have come a long way in a relatively short time. As a key agent of the industry’s diversity, it is likely we can expect more progress and growth to come.


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