Why the Future of Labels Can’t Be “Less”
Label Shimbun Corporation, Editor
The first issue of Label Shimbun was published in 1969 as the only newspaper specializing in the label industry in Japan. Today, it covers self-adhesive labels such as stickers and decals, non-adhesive labels such as shrink, in-mold, and wrap-around, and smart labels utilizing RFID*1 and NFC*2 technologies, and delivers useful news, including technologies, materials, processing materials and equipment, products, peripherals, systems, and markets to all those involved in the label business.
The author Ono focuses on the digital printing field. He is active in the field of digital printing, and also visits overseas exhibitions.
In Japan, various restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been eased and I have gradually returned to the opportunity of going out for face-to-face interviews. One day, when I went to a restaurant for a meeting, I found a sticker on the menu that said, "Due to difficulties in securing raw materials, we have stopped serving this product for the time being.” This unexpected brake was put on the economy by a combination of supply chain disruptions, component shortages, and soaring raw material and transportation costs.
In the printing industry, we are also facing the paperless trend associated with DX (Digital Transformation)*3 promotion and the trend away from waste film. In the label industry, some products are being replaced by direct printing and laser engraving, and beverage manufacturers are launching label-less products in Japan. Looking to the future, will adhesive products such as stickers, labels, and decals someday disappear?
Label Shimbun analyzes and publishes market conditions in the label industry by surveying label converters and monitoring shipping volumes of adhesive paper and film. Despite headwinds for the manufacturing industry, labels will continue to be an indispensable application for society and we expect the industry to grow. Labels have long been used to indicate the ingredients of wine and other food and beverages; some stickers play the role of sealing while others are used for decorative purposes. With their meaning of "something that sticks," stickers have a large marketplace presence despite their small physical size. Adhesive products, which have design and functionality as characteristics and are provided through a flexible manufacturing system for usage scenarios, lot sizes, and delivery dates, are definitely printed materials that cannot be eliminated and will never disappear.
Aspects of the label's appeal, such as brand protection and on-demand supply chain, have been discussed in previous columns.
Developing new demand to support DX promotion
In recent years, new adhesive products with electronic tag functions, such as RFID labels, have also appeared. These products have been adopted in an increasing number of cases, such as in the traceability assurance of sake and the determination of authenticity in pharmaceutical products, in order to eliminate consumer concerns such as whether the product is in accordance with the appropriate management system and distribution channels or whether the product is a counterfeit or from a disguised place of origin. While DX is driving a paperless business, RFID labels are playing an active role in quick and accurate inventory management. Labels are a very useful tool to support the thoroughness of materiality matching by linking data in the electronic world with objects in the real world. In the immediate vicinity, electronic tags are attached to clothing to facilitate unattended checkout at apparel stores and the "Plan to Introduce 100 Billion Electronic Tags for Products in Convenience Stores" and "Declaration of Initiatives for Making Drug Stores Smarter" initiatives led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will also help to further expand the use of these tags. Operational know-how, including the writing and reading of electronic tags, has been accumulated through multiple demonstration tests, and the tags themselves are becoming cheaper. Printing companies are focusing on building solutions together with base material suppliers and brand owners.
Adhesive products are also used for conveyor robots that operate in logistics warehouses and other locations. The stickers are attached to the floor surface with a 2D code that indicates the robot's direction of travel, and when the robot passes over the sticker, it reads the code.
Adhesive products play a role in preparing the way for DX to proceed.
Additional value recognition for the adhesive product itself
Additional adhesive products that cannot be eliminated include masking tape and other B-to-C products. As with electronic tags, this is an area where digitization is difficult because the value is recognized in the tape or sticker itself. In addition to cases where creators have started small businesses using the COVID-19 pandemic to produce stickers and other products in small lots, there are an increasing number of cases where label converters are developing their own branded products in order to break away from an order-based vendor structure.
In the latter case, various printing companies have put products on the market that utilize the know-how they have cultivated and that shine with such technologies as multilayered structures, complex punching, fine foil application, adhesion to glass and wood surfaces without peeling or adhesive residue, and antibacterial and antiviral effects. The prosperity of e-commerce sites has created an environment that helps converters develop sales channels for B-to-C products and increases their visibility, and we expect that the resumption of onsite events such as exhibits and trade shows will further expand sales channels in the future. On the user side, artists use stickers and decals as art materials, influencers feature products on social media, and the fan base of adhesive products enlivens the community.
Labels are made of paper, film, or other surface base materials and exhibit a variety of attractive qualities depending on the combination of various processes such as adhesive, punching, lamination, and printing of information and design, as well as the addition of additional functionality such as electronic tags. The flexibility of labels comes alive in uncertain and volatile situations, such as rapid changes in international conditions, responses to SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)*4 and environmental needs, and adaptation to shorter product life cycles. I hope I have introduced in this column only a small part of the appeal of labels, which support all kinds of fields, including food, beverage, liquor, logistics, electrical equipment, daily necessities, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, retail, and industrial products.
When I finished writing this column and went to another restaurant to get a menu item that was missing, I found a re-peel sticker on the glass door that announced, "Early closing due to shortened business hours." We hope to return to normal social conditions as soon as possible while savoring the effects of our quick-response adhesive products.
*1 ^Abbreviation for Radio-Frequency Identification: a type of automatic identification technology that uses radio waves to identify and manage various objects using small chips called tags. (Reference: weblio dictionary)
*2 ^Abbreviation for Near Field Communication: a technology for wireless communication over a short distance of up to a few centimeters. (Reference: IT Dictionary)
*3 ^Transforming lives and businesses by promoting digitalization. (Reference: weblio dictionary)
*4 ^17 global goals by 2030 for sustainable living and society. (Reference: https://sdgs.un.org/goals)
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