As label converters see demands from their customers surge, ink suppliers must keep pace. The newest ink sets must perform well at greater speeds and for faster turnaround times. Plus, they must shine with a multitude of printing technologies. From UV- and water-based inkjet to flexo, ink manufacturers are innovating at a rapid pace.

When it comes to inks, quality is the name of the game. “We continue to see customers and brands requesting more robust inks and coatings, not only from a decorative standpoint but also looking for stronger product performance with regards to ink adhesion, low odor and runnablilty,” explains Andrew Wasserman, managing partner of Cyngient. “These products must meet the demands of production speeds without the loss of quality.”

With brands looking to stand out on crowded shelves, it is quite common for converters to utilize multiple techniques to make the labels pop. One such tactic might include difficult-to-print substrates, which puts a strong onus on ink suppliers.

“We’ve developed our Photon technology to have extraordinarily good adhesion characteristics, especially for difficult substrates,” says Dennis Sweet, vice president, commercial, Rycoline and Distributors, North American Inks, Sun Chemical. “It has high opacity, especially with whites, and has low to virtually no odor and is BPA free. The technology is also extremely easy to clean up on-press, as there’s not a lot of build-up on anilox rolls. We’re planning on rolling this technology out in the next few months.”

hubergroup USA, on the other hand, has seen a trend toward graphics with various foils and specialty coatings such as textures, glow in the dark, and pearlescent. From a flexible packaging point of view, Clinton Melius, director of liquid inks, North America, ‎hubergroup USA, sees a strong push to compostable pouches that can be BPI certified.

Of course, quality must be accompanied by sustainability – one of the growing trends noted by industry experts.

“The key trend is the increasing demand for environmentally friendly, energy curable products that are safe for food packaging,” states Shawn Scheel, applications team leader, flexible packaging, ACTEGA. “Ink products that achieve certain regulatory benchmarks, such as Nestle Compliance, are gaining popularity as energy curable technology continues to advance. Sustainability, in general, is a topic that is continuing to gain attention, and depending on the material, inks need to perform in a certain manner to ensure that sustainable solutions are effective in achieving the desired results.”

In line with the trend toward sustainability has been the migration to LED inks and equipment. Hybrid inks that can print conventional UV arc or LED are becoming much more commonplace, as well.

“It is evident that LED is now becoming accepted by more than only the early adopters,” says Jon Fultz, packaging product manager – Americas, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division. “This is a result of the latest LED equipment and ink technologies that even further reduce the carbon footprint and energy costs compared to the early conventional LED systems. It also allows for elimination of heat from the flexo printing process. These systems and inks have come down in price considerably, making the payback period very attractive for retrofitting existing flexo presses or as OEM equipment on new presses.”

In addition to meeting the technological demands of label converters and their customers, ink suppliers have had to remain nimble in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As many converters, especially those serving essential industries, have been taxed to the limit, suppliers have been required to keep pace while dealing with supply chain challenges of their own.

Despite manufacturing uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, suppliers have continued to engineer new and exciting products while working overtime to get their inks into the hands of converters. Kao Collins, for example, has developed inks with flexible packaging and labels targeted as growth areas, with an overarching theme of sustainability and reducing environmental impact.

“Thoughtful, purposeful consumption is at the heart of our organization,” notes Kristin Adams, marketing manager, Kao Collins. “Water-based Lunajet uses pigment Nano dispersion for printing flexible packaging and thin films. At the same time, bio-based, mineral-oil-free inks meet European food safety standards and reduce the carbon footprint.”

Inks, of course, have always had a strong relationship with food. Direct and indirect food contact inks help ensure consumer safety, and a breakdown in that process could be catastrophic for brands. To meet that demand, Flint Group has debuted its EkoCure Ancora Dual Cure food contact material (FCM) UV-curable ink for food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic label and flexible packaging applications.

Compliant with indirect food contact regulations thanks to enhanced curing under both UV LED and mercury UV systems, this new flexo ink series enables a phased transition to UV LED technology.

UV LED curing also offers increased production times as lamps require no warming or cooling before and after operation. Flint Group notes that speed increases of up to 25% are possible thanks to faster curing times. Additionally, for brand owners, the assurance of an effective migration barrier, made possible by the ink in combination with the substrate, may facilitate the move to lighter, easier-to-handle packaging.

“There is no doubt that switching from mercury to UV LED curing yields cost and production benefits throughout the production process,” says Catharina Aaroe, product and continuous improvement manager – Narrow Web, Flint Group. “The addition of EkoCure Ancora Dual Cure inks makes these benefits accessible to food-contact and pharmaceutical value chains, combined with the assurance of compliance to the highest safety standards.”

Siegwerk also continues to put much effort globally into enhancing its current range of UV LED dual cure products, as well as low migration systems compliant for indirect food packaging.

“Siegwerk’s UV/LED technology and primer have been recognized as the first technology of its kind by the Association of Plastic Recyclers,” says Dave Hiserodt, BU Head-Narrow Web, CUSA, Siegwerk. “Plus, Siegwerk’s Aquantum Alkali strippable primer and Sicura UV/LED ink technology set a new standard for the recycling of PET bottles and cPET sleeves.”

hubergroup USA has also introduced a new product to the UV flexo market. NewV Max is a high strength, low viscosity and dual curing ink that eliminates the need for multiple UV ink systems in print shops. “The NewV Max ink system is also the latest addition to our X-Rite IFS database to help printers minimize ink downtime on-press and ink technicians re-work existing inventory,” adds Melius.

Investment has been key for ink suppliers, especially since the label and packaging space offers a number of challenges. These investments have come in the form of greater R&D, personnel and facility space.

“The needs of the narrow web industry are really unique,” says Sweet. “It’s probably the most challenging business from a technology point of view because of the varied substrates and applications that go into narrow web. For that reason, Sun Chemical has established a center for narrow web technology in Carlstadt, NJ, which is our R&D headquarters. In fact, it’s the largest research and development facility in graphic arts in the world. It’s a 200,000 square-foot facility with four operational pressrooms and many PhDs that work there. Last year, between Sun Chemical and our parent company, DIC, we spent over $100,000 million in R&D. That’s more than the rest of the industry combined.”

Meanwhile, Cyngient has designed a complete development lab with polymer chemists in order to exceed the goals of the company’s customers. At this lab, Cyngient has engineered new products, such as its Atomic shrink white, which is intended for speed, adhesion, high opacity and high L values designed for CFX and GMI certifications.

ACTEGA has not stopped with its R&D initiatives, either. The company is currently in the final stages of beta testing a new UV LED ink system to be used for indirect food contact materials. “This solution offers an innovative approach using energy curable technology for food packaging,” comments Scheel. “We are also working on new products that offer specialty effects and embellishments, and a new UV shrink-sleeve system. This latest innovation, expected to be available in Q3 this year.”

R&D efforts have targeted the future of packaging, as well. INX International Ink Co. has set its sights on consumer engagement and security features. Security, especially, has been a hot topic among end users with the rise in e-commerce labeling.

“We are seeing several trends within the area of printing inks,” says Shane Bertsch, vice president of strategic planning and innovation, INX International Ink Co. “A few are related to track and trace and the additional benefits of consumer engagement, sustainability and enabling the circular economy, as well as a focus on differentiating features and effects, as well as identifying new technologies for improved print efficiencies and throughput.”

With the added restrictions associated with the pandemic, increased communication and customer partnerships are more important than ever. Plus, communication within companies is also vital.

“Collaboration and customer feedback are essential to the success of our business,” states Adams. “Because our business model is built on supplying custom inks, having a continuous feedback loop is how we are able to zero in on desired specs and performance characteristics. A day on the print production floor is more valuable than months in a lab. Some of the best information comes from the equipment operators.”

Even though suppliers have been tasked with designing inks that pop on the label – at faster speeds and with quicker turnaround times – the products must still meet the demand for other emerging trends. Sustainability, for example, is a key tenet of ink development, as these products play one of the most vital roles in the health of the environment.

All of the industry experts we talked to noted sustainability as one of the key trends in the industry moving forward.

“One of the biggest trends is definitely how to improve the recyclability rate of packaging and labels of all kinds, and increase recyclable resources and their re-use for marketable products,” comments Siegwerk’s Hiserodt. “Fitting within the circular economy and other reuse and recycling approaches will be key drivers for future growth. The whole industry is rethinking and redesigning packaging structures. It’s not only about inks anymore, it’s about integrated solutions as part of an overall framework of the whole packaging supply chain.”

“We are keenly aware of the impact our products can have on brand marketability, consumer safety and the environment throughout a product’s lifecycle,” remarks Renee Schouten, INX International’s director of marketing. “We develop these products to have minimal impact on the environment without sacrificing machine, processing, and end-of-use product performance. To assure minimal impact, we strive to use renewable, natural-based raw materials from ethical and sustainably managed sources. Our product development efforts focus on material health and safety, product functionality for environmental impact, and consumer safety with a mind for recycle-ready products.”

Global ink manufacturers have been active in several industry initiatives, including CEFLEX (Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging) and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). “As a global ink manufacturer, we are actively cooperating with those initiatives as we are committed to increase the recyclability of printed plastic packaging with our printing inks and varnishes while addressing circular economy demands – today and in the future,” adds Hiserodt.

hubergroup USA relies on its Chemicals Division for a large proportion of its raw materials. Therefore, hubergroup can define its own environmental standards and ensure a sustainable value chain. “We take a holistic view of sustainability, which is why we already set high standards in raw material production,” says Roland Schröder, product manager, UV, hubergroup.

Meanwhile, Sun Chemical is preparing to launch a new UV flexo ink set that focuses on recyclability. “This product can be deinkable during the recycling process without the use of a primer, which is kind of an industry first,” states Sun Chemical’s Sweet.

In addition, Sun Chemical offers Aqua Green, which is a water-based product that has been designed with the highest bio-renewability rating in the industry, adds Sweet. The product features natural ingredients as opposed to those derived from petroleum.

Sustainability can also go beyond the ink, too. “All of our facilities are striving to be more sustainable,” adds Sweet. “We just installed a solar farm in Carlstadt, and we have a global project within Sun Chemical that details how we can improve our carbon footprint year in and year out. Our goal is to bring sustainable objectives and solutions to our customers but also to meet the goals of the UN 2030 Sustainability Target.”

ACTEGA is making clear and committed steps to developing products that support a more sustainable future for the labels and packaging industry. Just one example is the company’s PETG inks, which have been designed to release from the material through the wash process, allowing the PETG to be recycled effectively.

“As sustainability is often a topic that is much more focused on the materials being printed on than the inks themselves, we see our role as ensuring – where possible – that the ink does not inhibit the materials’ ability to be recycled,” says ACTEGA’s Scheel. “ACTEGA’s commitment to sustainability also extends to helping customers manufacture products with low emissions and energy efficiency. We offer products and technologies that are developed with environmental consciousness in mind, such as our UV LED-cured inks.”

According to Flint Group’s Aaroe, switching to UV LED curing with EkoCure Ancora Dual Cure inks brings improvements in both sustainability and efficiency. It reduces energy costs by at least 50% compared to using mercury lamps on press. Also, the elimination of mercury and ozone, and the reduction of ambient noise, means safer working conditions, as well as a smaller environmental footprint.

For Cyngient, all product development takes place with an eye on environmental friendliness. “Cyngient always takes sustainability into consideration when formulating new inks and coatings with lower migration components when able, as well as incorporating various standards such as Nestle compliance,” says Wasserman. “We pride ourselves in taking a more proactive approach to the narrow web industry. We are extremely proud of some of our leading products, such as PUREmatte coating, which is Nestle compliant and generates virtually no odor. It is abrasion resistant and there is no buildup in the ink pan, leading to better transfer. Another product with the same Nestle-compliant approach is our HYPERcure EU line of cold foil and laminating adhesives, which exceeds requirements for shrink films and prime labels.”

Sustainability will not only continue well into the future, but many suppliers, such as Siegwerk, will ramp up their efforts. Globally, Siegwerk has more than 100 ongoing R&D projects for circular packaging alone, with a constant flow of new circular packaging solutions being delivered to its customers.

Siegwerk has developed a washable ink technology that enables deinking of UV LED-printed PET shrink sleeves, allowing for the post-consumer recycling of the sleeve along with PET bottles. Deinking primers for cPET sleeves, in combination with certified ink systems, provide a solution that allows for the removal of printed layers within defined deinking process conditions to avoid downcycling of rPET into the textile industry.

“Sustainability is absolutely core to our efforts,” states Hiserodt. “Sustainability and circular economy solutions are two of the most topical issues that we as an industry are faced with and must respond to. Meeting the needs of not only our customers, but also society at large, is important to us as a business, so we prioritize identifying trending topics and open issues that enable us to channel our R&D activities into the market segments of the future.”

In the narrow web flexo market, Fujifilm North America made the strategic decision four years ago to focus nearly all of its new product R&D efforts on LED capable hybrid inks. Fujifilm, which integrates the “Voice of the Customer” into all new ink product development, sees the sustainable impact in three ways.

“First, we are eliminating the need for two ink ranges during the transition period from UV to LED inks,” explains Fultz. “This reduces carbon footprint significantly by eliminating duplication in manufacturing, transportation, and inventory space at the manufacturing and converter sites. Secondly, using the latest LED curing technology with the LED compatible inks reduces energy consumption compared to UV arc by 1.03 M kWh per year or 482 tons of CO2 emissions on a typical single press running 20 hours per day, five days per week. Lastly, switching from UV to LED curing eliminates the VOCs from the flexo printing process and the mercury used in UV arc bulbs altogether.”

INX International Ink Co. has also developed sustainable product lines. “It is important to design ink and coating products for their intended circular economy destination while also maintaining product performance throughout its lifecycle,” says Bertsch. “INX provides a range of products, including our Genesis washable inks, which are designed to enable recycling and improve the value of plastics during the process. And our INXhrc and Belle Flora natural-based inks are formulated with sustainably sourced, renewable raw materials.”

The evolution of digital inks has been one of the most dramatic in the label and package printing industry. Given the requirements of today’s converter, digital printing offers versatility to satisfy customer orders.

Kao Collins has been formulating and manufacturing inkjet inks for high-speed printing, single-pass printing, and wide-format printing using a variety of technologies since 1990. Kao Collins develops and sells inks for all the major printheads, including Dimatix, HP, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Funai, Panasonic, Ricoh, SII Printek, and Xaar.

“It’s easy to see the new ways in which digital printing is guiding society through a pandemic, from signs that read ‘stay six feet away’ or ‘stand here,’” says Kao Collins’ Adams. “We have seen significant increases in orders for some inks and decreases for other inks. Like most industries, we’re adapting and finding new ways to navigate the new normal. Anything we can do to help our customers is our top priority.”

Siegwerk has developed inkjet inks for piezo inkjet printheads commonly used on single-pass digital printing machines. According to Siegwerk’s Hiserodt, the demand for digital inks continues to show robust growth.

“The pandemic, in many ways, is likely to only accelerate the adoption of inkjet printing in the packaging market as some of the inherent advantages for shorter-to-medium print runs, and the ability to quickly change to different print jobs are even more advantageous these days,” he adds. “Digital allows for the optimization of materials and supply chains and can accelerate the time to market, and that level of flexibility has become more and more attractive. The same optimization also means less waste, which is a primary driver as the circular economy becomes a bigger focus for the brand owners and material suppliers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the ways in which companies operate internally, and it has also disrupted the supply chain. Companies are striving to keep their employees and customers safe while also meeting their requests. While some markets have been impacted negatively, others have seen surges in demand.

Ink suppliers are facing challenges with raw material accessibility, petrochemical price increases, supply constraints and higher freight costs due to the reduced availability of containers.

“This has resulted in significant strain across the entire value chain, and no one is immune to the supply difficulty these issues have caused,” says Siegwerk’s Hiserodt. “Keeping a full staff to support our customers has been challenging at times, too.”

“The pandemic created an immediate, unexpected increase in demand in inks and equipment for the label market over the first several months,” notes Fujifilm’s Fultz. “That demand remains above prior to the pandemic, but it is much closer to prior levels.”

By adhering to local and national guidelines, many ink manufacturers have successfully navigated the difficulties associated with the pandemic, though.

“All ACTEGA’s facilities continue to be fully operational, and we expect this to remain the case,” says Scheel. “ACTEGA has been doing everything we can to maintain a normal supply continuity as best as possible during the pandemic. Safety continues to be the number one priority, and we also strictly abide by CDC recommendations.”

“Overall, our strategic sourcing programs and global footprint have proven to be effective in managing the many challenges related to continuing supply as an essential element to the packaging industry,” adds INX International’s Bertsch.

The ink industry has been required to navigate multiple challenges, too. In addition to the pandemic, Cyngient’s Wasserman notes that the February freeze in Texas caused chemical plant shutdowns, leading to a major disruption in domestic supply for intermediates needed to make raw materials for UV- and water-based inks, coatings and adhesives.

“This, in addition to pre-existing delays at ports affecting the imported supply of these materials, has created a force majeure condition that is currently expected to last through July, according to our vendors,” Wasserman adds.

In order to handle these unforeseen circumstances, ink suppliers have had to make provisions for keeping their supply chain moving. Companies are monitoring the situation closely, as the future is still somewhat uncertain.

“To this point, the initiatives we have in place for these types of circumstances have kept us from putting any products for the label market on allocation, but it is being monitored closely on a daily basis,” says Fultz. “As long as the primary facilities impacted are back on line within the currently communicated timelines, a significant impact should be avoided. If those time frames are extended, this event will have much more significant impacts in April and May.”