The Evolution of Printing Technology

Labels from the 19th Century to Now

The first recorded production of printed labels dates back 400 years. Using pressure and images cut into wood or metal, labels were applied to hand-made paper on a wooden hand press. Label printing did not really begin to change for another 200 years.  The evolution of printing technology over the years is informative to the industry today.

The Industrial Transformation

Hand presses evolved from wood to iron and pressure was applied with newly-invented lever systems, while the hand-made paper remained basically untouched. With the rise of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the printing industry expanded their technology; from the first steam-powered cylinder printing press to continuous papermaking machines.

Color printing, the halftone process, the offset printing process, and coated paper are just a few of the technological advances from the printing industry of the 1800s that lead to our modern label industry. Labeling became a commodity with the new 19th century applications such as automatic volume production, bottle filling lines, the growth in pharmacy products, canning factories, box labels, luggage labels, and matchbox and cigar box/band labels.

Stan Avery developed key innovations for the invention of the first narrow web printing press that could print gummed and self-adhesive tape. These innovations led to backing carriers for self-adhesive materials allowed the materials to be press-cut. Manufacturers such as Nilpeter, Gallus, and Mark Andy took advantage of roll-label letter presses and flexo presses. Our modern roll-produced adhesive labels began with die-cutting materials on a liner.

From Self-Adhesive to Barcodes

Self-adhesive labels rose to 7% of label usage in Europe in the 1970s with the innovations of narrow web screen, hot-foil and combination process presses, UV-curing ink, and the advancement of platemaking technology. Since the industry has expanded to include faster processes, wider webs, new rotary and wrap-around tools, new servo-drive presses, and the development of color management, the current self-adhesive label market now makes up to 40% of label usage.

In 1978, the Fine Fare Supermarket produced one of the first versions of the universal retail barcode. These first retail barcodes were produced for the Supermarket’s own label products, using dark vertical lines and a velocity code. These barcodes spread for usage on fresh produce in-store and pre-packaged.

As the 1980s began, fresh produce barcodes transformed with the introduction of heat-sensitive label stocks. Thermal direct and thermal transfer printing led to growth in self-adhesive price-weight label barcodes during the latter part of the decades.

The concept of new types of polypropylene and polystyrene films emerged around this time. Leading brand owners now required high-quality printing on materials for more demanding label applications such as shampoos, soaps, toiletries, and industrial products. Press manufacturers and converters now faced challenges in conversions and an increasing label printing demand.

The 30 Years of Change

Starting in the 1980s, the label printing market began to evolve. The rotary letter press controlled new press sales in the 1980s, then the new flexo process of the 1990s carried into the UV flexo processes that dominated the beginning of the 2000s.

Digital printing also began to abruptly evolve around the the mid-2000s with electrophotographic liquid, dry toner technologies, and the recent UV and water-based inkjets.

Looking Forward in Technology

With today’s advancements in technology,it is difficult to say what new label printing press or process should be invested in. With the variety of today’s technology, there are several options to choose from. Each factor should be carefully considered as each main press manufacturer offers their own technological variations and benefits.

The Digital Future

The digital world creates a whole new set of variables for printing as well. Digital printing means new ways of working, color management enhancement, the requirement of a more sophisticated management information system, consideration for DPI resolution and extended color gamut, variations in press speed, the benefits and detriments of inline or offline finishing, and the use of laser die-cutting.

Although label printing has been growing for the last 400 years, within the last five decades, label printing technology has had an incredible economic and technological expansion. Label printing continues to evolve and change to meet new demands, bringing more variables and even more label printing options, technology, and advancements.