Born to Malayali parents in the south Indian state of Kerala, Hari Nair CEO of Digital Labels in Toronto  does not sound like a Malayali, on the contrary he sounds like a typical Mumbaikar (Local longtime residents of Mumbai). The Malayali people are a Dravidian ethnolinguistic group originating from the present-day state of Kerala in India, occupying its southwestern Malabar coast.

They are predominantly native speakers of the Malayalam language. They constitute the majority of the population of Kerala. It is pertinent to mention here that Hari is proud of his Indian heritage and firmly believes in the oneness of being an Indian rather than be recognized as a part of separate religious or caste-based segment of the society. Long years ago, Hari’s parents had moved residence to Mumbai, where he grew up. They lived in Santa Cruz, close to airport. He did his schooling from Kalina Education Society and  college in Parle college. He followed this with Masters in Organic Chemistry from Bombay University. Finally, he completed his MMS (Master of Management Studies) from Sydenham Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. Post education in 1989 he along with a few others were hired by Suresh Gupta former Chairman Huhtamaki-PPL, which at that time was Paper Products Limited (PPL) promoted by the late Sardari Lal Talwar and his family. Paper Products Limited or PPL was later acquired by multinational Huhtamaki. Sardari Lal Talwar’s son in law, Suresh Gupta had joined PPL when it was facing tough times. Suresh Gupta fondly called SG, was in the process of transforming the company from purely owner driven to  professionally managed one. An elaborate program of in-house training was put in place. The program was designed by SG and his colleagues to suit their specific needs, may they be technology, sales, customer or people handling. They were transforming the company to project their acumen in offering the latest in packaging. So, he hired these youngsters and trained them. He would not let them to take it easy. They were initially trained in flexible packaging, learning every part of the process including slitting. Hari mentions, “SG had long term vision.” He achieved success by implementing his ideas. These new incumbents included 6 or 7 persons to be groomed as his core management team. Hari Nair was one of them and who considers Suresh as his mentor and remains in awe of his capabilities to transform a company that was just Rupees 35 Crores when Hari joined and under SG’s leadership PPL had crossed Rupees 2300 Crores when SG retired.

Hari started his career at Thane (Mumbai) plant of PPL in flexible packaging division. When SG introduced Shrink Sleeves 1993-94, Hari was sent to Fuji seal Japan for training him and taking other persons from the company along with him, for training. In 1997 he was moved as General Manager to Hyderabad plant of PPL. Hari came to Canada in 2001 from his last posting in India at PPL Hyderabad. When asked why he moved to Canada, he is not sure, but then says, ”I always thought it will be good for his daughter plus I was fascinated by the west.” Each time he visited these countries on his business trips, he was in awe of the infrastructure, the roads and facilities.

Comparatively, he felt India was always “work in progress” and in his lifetime, it will never be like this in India. He yearned to live in these countries and drive on these roads, though today he says, these were stupid reasons. He feels as one matures and looks back; the realization comes that they were not the right reasons however his vison for his daughter Mythili getting better education has worked well. Since so many children are coming to Canada to study, she would also have had to do that but now that she is here, it is working out for her, she is a doctor and moving on well with her life. When they shifted to Canada his family had no clue what they were going to be up against, on arriving in Toronto they were all holed up in one room of a town house in which four families were living, sharing kitchen. It was an extremely challenging situation from the life they had been leading back in India.

On landing in Toronto, he tried looking for jobs in the field that he was experienced in and approached companies in similar fields. Sandeep Lal the then owner of Metro Labels called him for an interview and in response felt Hari was overqualified and he did not have a position for him at that time. For a full year thereafter, Hari did not get a break and he was so distressed that he even sent a message to his mentor SG that he might want to come back to PPL. The experienced mentor and a professional management leader that he was, SG advised him that while he was welcome to return, yet he did not want Hari to regret later and feel he did not try hard enough. SG asked him to wait for some more time and try some more, things will work out. That was the motivation coming from a mentor that made him hang on, it was the encouragement that changed his mind. A year later while he was contemplating moving out of the packaging industry, he saw many youngsters joining banks as the jobs were there on offer. On a suggestion from a friend, he did a course in financial securities hoping to get a bank job. He was then living at Kingston Ontario and met almost all the bank manager there, looking for a job.

While he was searching for a job in banks, Hari stayed connected and following up with Sandeep Lal at Metro Labels. A year had elapsed and one fine day he got two calls, one from a bank offering him a teller’s job for 10 dollars an hour and that too for just 10 hours each week which was not enough to feed a family, and the second job offer came from Sandeep Lal which Hari accepted and joined Metro Labels as an estimator. The job was entirely different from what it was in  India, the workload was heavy. One of the first lessons he learnt was that in India if you are dealing with large customers the price for a particular customer remains same for all quantities of same label but in Canada, each job is estimated and quoted separately. In 6 to 8 months, he became the plant manager for Metro Labels. A year down the line he felt the discomfort as the environment was a lot different from the time, he worked in Paper Products in Mumbai. After having spent over two years  there he quit Metro Labels and joined another label company Labelad. He joined as a supervisor and gradually moved up and stayed there for the next 7 years. While in PPL he had worked a General Manager and had handled from production to selling more like as an entrepreneur but in Canada the work system was entirely different and here Hari worked completely in production.

During his tenure at Labelad, while he was attending a Fasson seminar, the speaker mentioned that there were two big opportunities in North America and those were flexible packaging and digital printing. Sitting at a round table along with his colleague Chris Henderson from sales in Labelad, referring to digital printing, Hari said to Chris, “this is the future.” They parted on that note and forgot about the incident. Six months later Chris was at Hari’s office asking him if he remembered his comments on digital and whether he wished to start something. With an affirmative reply, both indulged, and Digital labels was born. Chris had spent 14 years in Labelad and it was an ideal combination with Hari as the production person and Chris as the Sales expert. From experience Hari felt that the HP Indigo 4000 series could not sustain a business expense but when the 6000 series came it became a different story and once it was two years of launch of that model, they felt comfortable to buy the press. Within six months they came in contact with Charlie Maclean President from ASL Printfx and decided to get into an association with ASL investing in Digital Labels, taking a small part of the ownership. Since they also had interest in digital. It was a win-win situation as ASL could use the digital capabilities of Digital Labels who could in turn have access to ASL’s sales network. ASL has grown and is very focused in high-end jobs like wine and spirits and for short runs and personalized variable print jobs, Digital Label’s capabilities are an important resource.

Digital labels are into manufacturing of all segments of labels, shrink labels and decals, but mostly concentrating on short and specialized runs. To start they had huge challenges as both partners were into service before and had no business background, so banks were reluctant to fund them. Working capital dried up soon. Once they got over the initial hiccups and proved their capabilities it became smooth sailing. The first 6 months were tough as buyers did not trust them since they were new in labels business but then a Godsent opportunity came to them when a scented candle manufacturer who was having trouble with current vendors of labels, approached them. That business came to them as a big saviour. Once orders from that customer came in, they were operating better and later when ASL came into the picture, things changed for good.

Chris and Hari have worked tirelessly, and their efforts have been fruitful as Digital Labels has been growing in the last few years at around 25% each year. Their business is now around 7 million Dollars, and they plan and make efforts to reach 10 million in the next 3-4 years  from organic growth alone. They presently operate from a premises admeasuring 8000 square feet and the space it is fully utilized. Due to shortages faced following the pandemic, they had to increase their inventory. They rented a lot of space around their present premises so that they could maintain enough stocks to service their customers well. They operate with 25 employees, presently working 8-10 hours basis. They are a slim trim enterprise who are very careful with expenses and very focused to grow their business. Commercial real estate in Toronto is expensive so they feel that for any expansion that becomes imperative, they will try to rework their present setup and increase the working shift for the time being.

His wife Surekha with whom Hari got married in 1994, is from Goa. She is a social worker by training and now since 2007, she is working for the social services division of the city of Toronto. Their daughter Mythili was born in 1995. Hari remains connected with all his friends in India. But has no business with India. He still remains in awe of Suresh Gupta whom he looks at as a mentor and feels he has yet to meet anyone as smart, knowledgeable and professional as him.

Nostalgically and pensive in thoughts he says, “Whatever I learnt in my journey in profession so far, it has been from him”!

Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited, New Delhi December 2022

The narrow web label industry is a smaller segment of the larger diverse printing and packaging industry. It remains in focus for being the face of all products and an imperative identity providing part of any package. It is estimated by many that the Printing industry in India is growing at over 12% per annum. Some segments get slower and there are others like packaging are growing at a faster pace of 17% to compensate the shortfall by registering better growth. The label industry has been growing in a very wide band between 10 and 25%, the growth has always been in double digits. While Offset is the largest segment of the printing technologies employed yet the past 2-3 decades have seen growth in adoption of other printing processes like flexography, Roto

In recent times the convenience of “just in time computer to print capabilities” has resulted in adoption of digital printing by many printers such that the segment is registering robust growth of 30%. The narrow web label industry that is largely employing flexographic printing has been conservative and hesitant in adopting digital printing for labels because of higher investment in capital equipment, expensive inks and costly printheads needing replacements resulting in costlier labels in comparison to those produced on their existing equipment. The return on investment appeared to be unattractive. It was just a matter of time that the growth of digital printing of labels in India would start to attract investment. Finat, the European label Association with global membership had reported a couple of years ago that European investments in digital presses for labels in a year had exceeded that in flexo presses. We now see an evident interest and indulgence in this digital label printing technology by Indian printers as well.

Recognising the need for knowledge and understanding  digital printing technologies since label printing and converting is in an evolutionary phase of adopting digital printing, while still growing with analogue, LMAI-The Label Manufacturers Association of India organized a program titled “DIGITAL PRINTING IN LABELS – THE WAY FORWARD” for the benefit of its members only. The program took place at ITC Welcome Hotel, Chennai on the 20th of December 2019. Unlike the other printing processes digital printing has largely four different tangents; Dry toner printing, Liquid toner printing, UV Inkjet printing and water-based Inkjet printing. To deliver the knowledge, leading companies came forward to sponsor the event as also to make very interesting presentations. The following speakers from their respective sponsoring companies made presentations;
 
  • Dry Toner Digital: Xeikon. Presenter; Vikram Saxena, Sales General Manager Xeikon India (Part of Flint Group)
  •   Liquid Toner Digital: HP. Presenter; Ashok Pahwa, Sales Manager-Indigo & Inkjet Solutions (HP India Sales Pvt Ltd).
  •   UV Inkjet Digital: Domino. Presenter- Ajay RaoRane, Asst. Vice President-Digital Printing Solutions. at Domino Printech India LLP
  •   Water Based Digital: Astronova Inc. Presenter-Goutham Reddy, Regional Sales Manager
  • Non-speaking support Sponsors: Avery Dennison and Durst Phototechnik AG
After welcoming more than eighty delegates present and after felicitating the sponsors, LMAI Secretary Rajesh Nema handed over the moderation to Harveer Sahni member LMAI Board of Directors.
 

Sahni updated the audience on the journey traversed by the label printing industry in India. Starting from the first self-adhesive label made by screen printing process in 1965, he covered many landmarks in the evolution that included the first flat-bed very narrow web Japanese label presses to produce labels in roll form in 1972, rotary label converting in 1982, flexographic label printing in 1993, adoption and development of UV flexo from 1997 onwards, setting up of LMAI in 2002 and the first installation of digital label presses toward end of the decade of 2000.

All the speakers gave important insights in the technologies offered by them and emphasized the need and importance of short runs, personalization and variable data on labels and for that how Digital Printing capabilities are fast becoming a necessity.

Goutham Reddy from Astronova explained the cost effectiveness of water-based process and also dwelled on their offering equipment to print on finished packages, 

Ajay Rao Rane of Domino highlighted the strength of UV inkjet and achieving a higher colour gamut besides printing opaque UV white that is needed for transparent films, 

Ashok Pahwa demonstrated the success they achieved in personalization of leading brand of beverages giving another dimension to retail marketing of fast moving consumer products and finally 

Vikram Saxena of Xeikon informed that digital printing was picking up pace with over 32 high-end installations reported in India. He further informed the benefits of dry toner digital printing technology and that it did not require any precoated media.

It was encouraging to note that despite the event being organized in South India many printers travelled from all over India to attend and to learn the nuance of this emerging technology. Some of the printers seen at the event included Gee Kay-Bangalore, Seljeget-Sivakasi, Fairfix-Tirupur, ITC-Chennai, Manipal Technologies-Chennai, Prakash Labels-Noida, Kwality Offset-New Delhi, Pragati Graphics-Indore, Speclabel-Kolkata, Total Print-Mumbai and Zodiac Graphics-Hyderabad.

LMAI founder members Raveendran of Seljegat, Sandeep Zaveri of Total Print, LMAI founder promoter Amit Sheth and Board member Ajay Mehta of SMI were present at this important industry event.

An interactive question answer session was followed by a vote of thanks by Rajeev Chhatwal Vice President of LMAI. The evening ended with networking cocktails and dinner.

Change is the only constant in life.” This is an age old saying and it is so true! As we look back in time that has gone by, the evolution in technologies that impact our life is amazing and for the new generations it is difficult to imagine the path traversed by elders.

For example, look at the development in telephony and communications; there was a time when, to get a telephone we had to make a lengthy application with documents plus a hefty deposit and then wait for 3 years to get a telephone. For dialing national or international numbers one had to book a call and experience endless wait to be connected for a 3 minute call. Those who did not have telephone connections had to visit a post office to call relatives in other cities, book a call and wait for their turn until the operator tried to connect them for a call that they had to pre-declare the duration as 3 minutes or 6 minutes. Mobiles have transformed life and we have instant voice and video communication capabilities 24X7 with multiple phones in our pockets. The mobile is perhaps the most impactful technology experienced by us in life so far. In a somewhat similar manner, printing technologies have evolved over hundreds of years to bring changes enabling perfection and colourful meaning to all printed products. A technology that began with carving stone blocks, apply colours and transferring images, evolved to using wooden blocks, metal type sets, letterpress printing, screen Printing to offset printing, a technology that was widely adopted and spread across the world as the most preferred print process. Also evolved flexographic and rotogravure printing. All these technologies had a costly pre-press and make-ready process as also the cost of artworks, plates, print cylinders, etc.

The 1970s saw the beginning of an era that would continue to impact the print industry in a totally different tangent, the digital printing! The technology enabled printing with a command from a computer with press of a button without much of processes that were needed in conventional printing.

It is so much like the changes in mobile phone technology coming about. By 1993 the digital printing technology developed such that the first commercial digital printing press named “Indigo” was produced by Benny Landa in his company with the same name. This transformed the printing world; one could now print personalized short run jobs straight from computer. In 2000-2001, the company Indigo was acquired by Hewlett Packard (HP) and at the time of acquisition Landa had said, “Our vision has always been to lead the printing industry into the digital era and to see Indigo technology pervade the commercial market. Now, a part of HP, that goal is in sight.” Rightly so, the market of digital printing has been registering robust growth. Digital printing technology has been developed by various press manufacturers and is being widely adopted with innovative indulgence.  Label manufacturing is an integral part of print and has also been witnessing growth both in terms of total market as well as in Digital printing of labels. The global market for label printing has been growing steadily in recent times, valuing at $36.98 billion in 2017. As per Smithers Pira the total market of labels is likely to cross 49.9 Billion USD by 2024. According to Finat; 2017 was the first year that, with nearly 300 digital press installations, the volume of newly added digital label presses surpassed that of new conventional label press installed volumes.

While label printers in the western world have been early investors in digital label printing presses yet the Indian printers have been skeptical about the need for this investment in the Indian label production scenario.

The different types of technologies available leave the printers in a confusion as to what is the most appropriate technology that they should invest in. Unlike other conventional printing processes evolution of digital printing has moved into different technical ways of achieving the same goal which is computer to print.
Largely available technologies offered by various manufacturers of digital equipment are as follows;
1.       Dry toner based

2.       Liquid toner based

3.       Inkjet

4.       UV Inkjet

While looking at the selection of digital print process one also needs to decide the finishing of the labels whether they wish to do this inline or offline. Every different short run job maybe of varying shape requiring frequent stops and change of cutting dies.

This substantially reduces press running time and impacts profitability adversely. In such a case it is advisable to finish the labels offline, one offline equipment can free up printing time of multiple presses. Laser die cutting is another option whereby it can handle multiple and frequent job changes without the need for additional dies and machine stoppages, but this calls for a much higher investment in the finishing equipment.  Additionally, one needs to decide with digital, what dpi resolution to go for; does the work need a white ink in one of the printing heads; does the press have an extended color gamut. Press running speeds of all the digital label press technologies vary quite considerably. The printing speed with many short-run job changes is also an important factor for consideration.
Dry Toner based process:

This process is an evolution of the earliest photocopying process known as Xerography invented by Chester Carlson founder of Xerox and converted as Laser printer by Gary Keith Starkweather in 1970s which transformed to digital printing with laser printers also called electrostatic digital printing as we have seen in our offices.

In a laser printer a laser beam runs over an electrically charged drum preparing an electrical image carrying charged areas.  The drum is a cylinder coated with a material that becomes conductive when exposed to light or laser beam. Areas that are not exposed have a high resistance which allows these areas to hold the electrostatic charge necessary for the process. The image then collects the toner and transfers the image to a paper or substrate that is then heated to fuse the image on to it. In traditional xerography the image is formed by reflecting light off an existing document onto the exposed drum which then picks up the toner and transfers the image. Dry toners consist of pigments embedded inside polymer beads. The fusing phase of the electrophotographic process melts the polymer beads to the surface of the paper. These can print on both coated and noncoated papers. Image quality is a complex issue, determined by a combination of hardware, software, consumables and processes. Dry toner is not absorbed by the substrate, it always achieves an optimal optical density as all the ink transferred is adhering on surface. The particle size of the toner has been reduced over the years to achieve fine print results and most equipment are offering prints of 1200 DPI for solids and blends with good color depth and subtle contrasts, ideal to reproduce vibrant images.
Major brands offering dry toner based digital label presses are Xeikon and Konica Minolta.
Liquid Toner based process

Liquid toners also use pigments in polymer beads, but they are dispersed in oil that evaporates during fusing process. Liquid toners are used in digital presses that are typically used for commercial printing on a wide range of coated papers.

Benny Landa an Israeli inventor mentioned above, having to his credit 800 patents produced the first Indigo digital printing press in the early 1990s using liquid toners in a process that was called liquid electrophotography or LEP in his company established in 1977. Landa came to be known as the father of digital printing. The liquid toner used by HP came to be known as ElectroInk, that combines the advantages of electronic printing with the qualities of liquid ink. ElectroInk contains charged pigmented particles in a liquid carrier. The image is created with electrophotographic process on the drum directly from digital data, avoiding the use of any analogue intermediate media. It starts with digitally created pages or print elements containing text, layouts or images. HP Indigo uses a blanket in between to transfer ink from the drum to media. The blanket is heated, melting and blending the ElectroInk particles into a smooth film. This produces an image that is completely defined on the blanket and transferred to the substrate by direct contact. For this reason, it is also referred to as offset digital printing.

Major brand using liquid toner based digital printing process: HP
Inkjet Printing
:

Inkjet printing is the oldest of technologies in non-contact printing evolving into digital colour printing commercially. Existing together there are two main inkjet technologies i.e. Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) and drop-on-demand (DOD).

The CIJ method has been in use for ages in which a high-pressure pump directs liquid ink from a reservoir through a gun body and a microscopic nozzle, creating a continuous stream of ink droplets. These droplets are subjected to a varying electrostatic field and then these charged droplets pass through another electrostatic field to deflect them and form characters. The process can be understood by the image reproduced from Wikipedia. The Drop-on-demand (DOD) is divided into thermal DOD and piezoelectric DOD. Most commercial printers use the DOD to print. The large format ones use solvent or water-based inks depending on the equipment and the product. The inks used in digital inkjet label printing presses are water based and formulated with either dyes or pigments. Aqueous inks provide the broadest color gamut and most vivid colors. The water-based inks are inexpensive and may ultimately spell out as the lowest cost print, but some substrates may require specialized coatings as there is an imperative need for the ink droplet to sink straight in and not to smudge or smear. With growing volumes, increased environmental and consumer friendly nature of inks the coated stock prices are likely to become largely affordable making this technology to watch as wider acceptance is envisaged. Such inkjet printers can achieve high resolution of 1600 DPI. Since the start of a new millennium another water-based inkjet technology called Memjet has been evolving. Memjet is used in high speed, full colour printers to give a high-quality print at a very low cost. It uses a fixed print head unlike conventional inkjet printers where the cartridges or head moves back and forth during printing. The Memjet print head is fixed and is of the width of the material it’s printing on enabling edge to edge printing. This way it’s only the material that moves underneath the head as it’s printed.
Major brands using water based digital inkjet printing: Trojan from Astronova, Afina, Colordyne
UV Inkjet Printing

UV inkjet Digital printing is an extension of the inkjet printing that uses ultra-violet light to dry or cure ink. The inks consist mainly of acrylic monomers together with a photo initiator and after printing when exposed to strong UV lamps or in case of specially formulated inks to LED-UV light, the ink is cured by crosslinking.

The ink due to this chemical reaction becomes instantly dried leading to increased printing speeds. The curing process with high power UV exposure for short periods of time (microseconds) allows printing on thermally sensitive substrates like BOPP and PE. Since the ink sits on top of the substrates and neither is dried by evaporation nor by absorption resulting a robust image on a wide range of uncoated substrates. It is the fastest growing sector of digital inkjet printing and more sustainable than conventional printing.
Major brand using digital UV inkjet printing: Canon, Domino, Durst, Epson, Screen, Xeikon

Selecting digital printing equipment for label printing is a complex task depending on the printer’s customer portfolio. It varies on many parameters, like the equipment price, ink price, media cost, media to be printed, consumables cost, speed of machine, resolution required, space and finishing required.

Time is not far when printers will invest in multiple technologies to attain the best of each process and to service a wide array of customers. However to start with the print on demand feature is so very attractive and for short runs it seems to be becoming an absolute necessary at least in case of established printers whose large investments in high end flexo or combination presses gets held up doing shorter runs and taking away valuable production time. Since short run demands from brand owners continue to swell along with need for variable data, it becomes necessary to opt for an offline finishing equipment which does not slow down their printing capabilities.

Most of the leading label press manufacturers have started offering Hybrid machines with combination of Digital and flexo printing capabilities along with decorating and finishing inline. It is not a simple decision to opt for the hybrids.

As mentioned earlier here, it all depends on the portfolio and requirements of individual label printers. It is interesting to note that all hybrid presses with digital capabilities displayed at Labelexpo Europe in September 2019 were fitted with UV inkjet digital presses. Leading press manufacturer who are offering Hybrids of flexo, digital and inline finishing include Gallus, Omet, Mark Andy, Nilpeter and MPS. With environmental concerns, migration of inks and other food or Pharma safety needs, non-waterbased inkjet systems may see more development in future. As of now due to the speed and versatility offered by UV Inkjet coupled with the ability to add additional white and other colours, UV inkjet is the predominantly used technology however investment is high. Therefore, selection of the best suited technology for digital in labels must be as per individual printer’s need and that of their diverse customer mix. It is a competitive time and cost of equipment, cost of consumables and the nature of output is very important to ponder over before finally selecting the first entry into digital.
Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited New Delhi November 2019