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Linerless: The Compromise for VDP Labels?

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For many years now, label purchasers have been looking for a compromise. The difficult-to-match esthetics of self-adhesive labels, coupled with their clean and accurate application characteristics, are balanced by slower application speeds, the high cost of the laminate, and finally, by the apparent process/packaging waste—the used release liner. Take away the release liner, it is argued, and you can get up to 50% more labels on each roll, which not only saves money but saves downtime for roll changes on the packaging line.

As raw material prices rise and margins fall, the pressure on the label industry value chain to find new ways to reduce costs has been the driver in the development of linerless self-adhesive materials, which are, basically, a roll of printable face material, silicone coated on the face and adhesive coated on the underside. In this way, the silicone-coated face also acts as the release liner and effectively eliminates this component in the self-adhesive laminate completely.

The concept is not a new one. In the 1980s, when self-adhesive labeling had established itself at the high end of the market, the industry was keen to take a share of the long-run label market, where wet glue was still in the ascendancy. UK-based packaging print specialists John Waddington Ltd. was among the first to come up with a linerless self-adhesive label proposition, based on in-house siliconization, that worked: MonoWeb. The system was installed at H.J. Heinz for labeling cans of baked beans, which involved huge runs of simple butt-cut labels delivered as singles to the unlabeled cans on the packaging line. While label application certainly was cleaner than wet glue, it was not as fast, and the then-extant silicone coating technology was not advanced sufficiently to deliver the consistency of release coating required for high-speed label dispensing. MonoWeb was not adopted elsewhere and eventually was shelved.

More recently, a new generation of linerless products has grown up, but their sights are not set, like MonoWeb, on primary product labeling. Today’s linerless labels are aimed at labels for variable data printing (VDP) and a much less demanding platform.

Because there is no release liner involved in a linerless self-adhesive label, the opportunities to vary its shape and size are limited, and complicated die-cuts are not possible. Converted labels need to be attached in the roll by “paper ties” to their neighboring labels, front and back. Each label, therefore, would have to be separated, either manually or by machine, to be applied to a container. It is clear that the esthetics of any labels presented on a linerless product will not match those of a self-adhesive label presented on a release liner.

Esthetics, however, are certainly not the prime concern of labels for variable data print. They are first and foremost functional: track-and-trace applications in warehousing and logistics; catchweigh labeling of pre-packed retail items, particularly foods; and courier delivery services. When industry adopted the UPC and EAN bar code systems, variable data printing became the major growth area for self-adhesive labels overnight, bringing huge volumes of business to manufacturers of release liners, adhesives, and self-adhesive laminators, and creating a market for preprinted rolls of label “blanks” for supply to individual companies for subsequent overprinting as part of their product tracking systems.

Normally demanding only that a bar code and associated text and numerals be clearly readable by scanners or hand-held readers, linerless labels can be delivered via a simple overprinter using direct thermal, thermal transfer (via a ribbon), or—increasingly today—inkjet print in singles, butt-cut; perforated and snapped off, or simply torn off; and hand applied. It is for these applications that today’s linerless materials are best suited, and today there is a wide selection of variable data printers, label applicators, and dispensers for use with linerless technology. Linerless labels also are promoted as suitable for the manufacture of pack closures and reclosures (a strong market for linered self-adhesives today) and for custom spot-adhesive-coated labels and tags.

The arguments in favor of linerless labels include the following:

  • overall cost-effectiveness compared to standard self-adhesive laminates
  • no liner
  • no matrix waste
  • no die-cutting
  • no overvarnishing necessary
  • less storage space needed
  • more labels per roll
  • linerless also can deliver, from the same roll and to customer specification, labels of different length for print-on-demand applications in warehousing
  • uses almost 100% of the raw label stock—real environmental benefits
One supplier, Scandstick AB, which has been promoting the linerless concept for the past three years, offers a degree of flexibility to users in terms of label shape. The company concedes that, while simple “shoulders” added to a rectangular label by pre-conversion of the label stock roll are possible, circular labels and other label shapes are not. With the needs of, e.g., fast food prepacks in mind, Scandstick proposes preprinting the linerless label stock using conventional print processes to give a graphic background to the label, leaving blank areas for subsequent overprinting with the required variable data. Scandstick offers a range of adhesive choices to meet the needs of different label substrates. Scandstick claims major environmental impact for its linerless materials in Europe: The company assesses the savings in liner for variable data print applications at 80% of that market volume or 170,000 tons of release liner. It also claims materials result in major savings on matrix waste—about 7% of a linered self-adhesive label stock or around 16,000 tons of adhesive-coated waste product.

S+E Release (part of Schleipen and Erkens), which manufactures the Silicart release liner range, also has announced a low-caliper UV silicone-coated thermal paper for the manufacture of self-wound, i.e., linerless, labels.

However, for long runs (e.g., legislation-driven contents and sell-by dates on food prepacks), today’s linerless labels demonstrate the same shortcomings as MonoWeb did 25 years ago. There is a likelihood that linerless labels will replace self-adhesive labels in variable data print in the short term, but at the same time, all labeling materials now are under threat from two new variable data print sources: flatbed inkjet technology and RFID tags.

Flatbed inkjet printers can apply variable data directly onto virtually any substrate, at any angle, without the need for a label at all. Good examples of current usage are card “outers” and other bulk product cartons with their product tracking data inkjet printed directly onto the carton and disposable PET soft drinks bottles printed with their filling date and packing line reference number, either directly on to the bottle itself or on to the cap.

As pressures on margins increase, we are likely to see this cost-effective solution for product manufacturers negatively impact standard self-adhesive, linerless self-adhesive, and wet glue label stock sales in these areas. As far as RFID is concerned, laminates with a release liner are currently the preferred choice. However, Scandstick product literature claims it is “easy to add RFID transponders and anti-theft devices when printing” a linerless label.

According to Scandstick, linerless labels can be expected to replace up to 80% of today’s linered labels in day-to-day variable data printing applications. Now that there are more than 75 dedicated linerless label printers/dispensers on the market, from all the leading bar code label dispenser suppliers, linerless certainly could hasten the demise of conventional linered self-adhesive labels in the VDP market, which mainly has reached commodity status and is no longer a major margin-earner in the release liner business.

Elizabeth Park has more than 20 years of experience in the coating and laminating industry and joined AWA Alexander Watson Assoc. as a senior consultant in 2004. A graduate in chemistry, she began her career with Smith & McLaurin (later James River Graphics and Rexam) initially as a senior chemist focusing on the development of imaging coatings, later moving into senior positions in general management. In 1997 she joined Avery Dennison Roll Materials Europe as senior product manager and subsequently was appointed to a number of key strategic posts, including director of business development and growth Initiatives.

S+E Release—schleipen-erkens.de

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