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Best Face Forward


The front and back labels on a quart of high-end motor oil can add 4 cents to the retail cost of the product, says Robert Esch, vice president for blending and packaging at American Refining Group in Bradford, Pa.

Those pennies may not sound like much, but multiplied by the billions of packages of lubricants sold around the world, the cost of labeling lubricants is significant. And virtually every lubricant, whether its sold in a tube or bottle or pail or tote or drum, needs a label when it goes to market. To learn more about labeling options and trends, LubesnGreases spoke with some of the lubricant packagers and label suppliers who are active in the Petroleum Packaging Council.

In the United States, the cold-glue paper label is most common, while the pressure-sensitive label is more common elsewhere, says Rick Hawley, global packaging technical manager with Shell Lubricants in London.

How common? The U.S. one-quart lube market uses about 65 percent cut-and-stack paper labels and 30 percent heat-transfer labels, one label supplier claims, with pressure sensitive labels and other technologies making up the remaining 5 percent.

Other suppliers arent so sure. Only one major brand motor oil uses heat-transfer labels, one points out, while all the other major brands and large private labelers use paper for their quart bottles. Another supplier pegs the pressure-sensitive share of the market at 10 percent, and growing.

Regardless of exact market share, each of the major label technologies – cut-and-stack paper, heat transfer, in-mold, pressure sensitive, and shrink sleeve – has advantages and disadvantages. How to decide which label type is right? Image and price are important, says Marty Dennis, sales and marketing director for Smurfit-Stones Di-Na-Cal Label Group in Cincinnati. But the right choice is also driven by what application equipment the packager has.

Merritt Wikle, Chevron Products Co.s marketing packaging manager, based in San Ramon, Calif., might agree. For motor oil quarts, we use paper label technology. Its very flexible. But label technology is not so important. We want efficiency and effectiveness.


Cut-and-stack labels are affixed to the container with glue that is applied during the labeling process. Paper cut-and-stack labels applied with cold glue can be the least expensive choice, and still provide a quality graphic look, says David Klotter, marketing manager with Multi-Color Corp. in Cincinnati, a manufacturer of all five label types.

Alan Luther, national sales manager for Custom Printed Products, concurs. Cold-glue paper is cheapest and best for huge runs. For the standard quart, application speeds of 500 to 600 bottles per minute are possible. Luther, based in Spring Hill, Fla., notes that cold-glue paper labels used to be much less expensive than pressure sensitive, but now the difference isnt so large.

Glue-applied paper is economical and most popular for one-quart and other small packages, says Andy Rapp, vice president for national accounts at Seneca Printing & Label in Franklin, Pa. Economics and finished appearance are the primary factors for the lube industry, he says, and paper can fit the bill on both counts.

Larry Birch, manager of lubricant manufacturing at Citgo Petroleum in Houston, says, We use cold-glue paper labels. We buy the labels and the bottle manufacturer applies them. Why cold glue? Its the economics and flexibility. Lead times are shorter and inventories are smaller. Theres no downside.

Heat Transfer

With heat-transfer labels, there is no substrate, explains Multi-Colors Terry Fowler, marketing services manager in Watertown, Wis. Just the ink and varnish is transferred to the bottle. Its the ultimate no-label look.

If you want a permanent label that holds up to sunlight and abuse to the container, then heat transfer is better, says Di-Na-Cals Dennis. And although the direct cost is higher than for paper, the total applied cost is comparable. With heat transfer, you can grind the label up with the bottle and reuse the material.

Both heat-transfer and paper label application equipment will go faster than filling lines, adds Dennis. Heat-transfer equipment goes up to 500 or 550 per minute for rectangular containers, while most fillers are 400 per minute or slower.

At American Refining Group, Esch uses heat transfer and pressure sensitive in equal mix, going with heat transfer for larger-volume products. The label application is only as good as the container itself, Esch notes, and molded and extruded bottles arent perfect. You never have a perfect panel to put a label on. Heat transfer and in-mold labels are more forgiving.

Pressure Sensitive

Pressure sensitive labels are the right choice for a cleaner application, with very nice lay-down, says John Ressler, national accounts manager for Design Label in East Lyme, Conn., which specializes in flexographic printing of cold-glue, pressure sensitive and in-mold labels. Theyre good for lower volumes, and the investment in capital equipment is lower. For example, you might spend $250,000 for cold-glue equipment and only $50,000 to $70,000 for a pressure sensitive labeler. Although the cost of the label itself is higher, it works well for shorter runs.

We use pressure sensitive almost exclusively, reports John Massel, vice president of independent blender and packager Pinnacle Oil in Indianapolis. We do a large number of private labels plus our house brands, and we found pressure sensitive most effective. We can change a roll of labels quickly, and line speed is not an issue. Our labeler can do 400 bottles per minute.

Excelda Manufacturing, an independent fluid blender and packager in Brighton, Mich., relies on pressure sensitive and in-mold labels for lubes and other automotive products. Packaging Engineer Katie Fairless and Purchasing Agent Kelley Siebertz note that their packaging runs vary considerably in size; some runs are as small as a few thousand bottles, so pressure sensitive labels are a good choice.

Henry Wolfe, in charge of set-up maintenance at Excelda, adds that challenges with pressure sensitive labels include bottles that are off-spec, and temperature and humidity variations within the plant, even with a climate-controlled storage area for label stock.

Pressure sensitive is often the label of choice for drums and other large containers, says Brian Ayers, market development representative for Flexcon, a Spencer, Mass., based manufacturer of pressure sensitive films and adhesives. For international shipments, he points out, drum labels must meet British Standard 5609. Its a saltwater immersion test, Ayers explains. If the drum falls in the ocean, the label must stay on for 90 days and must be legible. But we also have a lower-cost option, a value line with a lower-cost adhesive, thats good when you dont need to pass BS 5609.

In-Mold and Sleeves

Preferred for larger (one gallon and up) molded bottles, the in-mold label is adhered to the container during the molding process. The in-mold label can be paper, metallized paper or film, says Multi-Colors Fowler. Both paper and film provide superior graphics reproduction, and film in-mold labels can give a container a premium look.

In-mold allows a no-label look, adds Design Labels Ressler, and the cost falls between paper cold-glue and pressure sensitive.

Its an aesthetically pleasing, integrated label/bottle look, agrees Shells Hawley. But it slows the cycle time at the blowmolder, a problem for the high-volume packager.

Finally, the shrink sleeve – usually the most expensive option – isnt used much for lubricants, says Multi-Colors Klotter. But its good for unique container shapes and gives 360-degree graphics. Full-body and partial shrink sleeves are getting into car-care products.

Something Novel?

Beyond those selections, there are a growing number of novelties and specialties to add pizzazz to labels:

Secondary labels, such as coupons and mail-in rebate labels, can be used for promotions. Multi-Colors Fowler and Klotter describe their cut-and-stack label that is peelable by the customer, with a form printed on the reverse to mail in. Weve also developed a couponable in-mold label, says Klotter. You flex the bottle to remove a piece of the label – the label is in the mold. Its good for instant redemptions.

Booklet labels, where you peel off an edge and the label folds out like a book, are familiar on insecticides and other agricultural product packages, says David Wickard, senior sales representative for Total Quality Labels in Dallas. And the lubricant industry is starting to use them for products shipped to the European Union, where health, safety and environmental messages are required in multiple languages.

The necker, a cardstock neck sleeve, is another specialty label thats popular on small containers in the automotive aftermarket, Total Qualitys Wickard notes. Its an extra billboard space on your container.

Silk screening can be cost effective and flexible for small volumes, says Hawley of Shell, whose company uses that technology in East Asia.

More to Watch

Acquisitions, mergers and consolidation are common in the label industry, comments Senecas Andy Rapp. There will probably be fewer companies selling labels to the lube industry in the future. More do-it-for-me oil changes mean less demand for packaged lubes.

The cost of new generation films will come down, predicts Ressler of Design Label, but paper costs continue to rise. Overall run lengths are dropping. New equipment is made with an eye to minimum downtime, and thats good for shorter runs.

The old business model of the bottle manufacturer supplying decorated containers is changing, says Dennis of Di-Na-Cal. There are more contract packagers now, and they label as needed. There are more SKUs, more product niches. You cant just run 10W-40 for two weeks. And the market is shrinking.

Chevrons Wikle says his company is taking the lead in North America in making its labels bilingual. Spanish-speaking consumers are a big customer focus for us. Were now converting almost all our small labels to be bilingual, he notes. Weve also gone to multilingual large labels for drums and pails, with English, Spanish and often French.

Other trends to watch include expanding use of RFID (radio frequency identification), a technology that involves embedding a chip in the label. The label industry needs to be in the forefront on RFID, says Shells Hawley. Wal-Mart requires it now for pallet loads and will soon require it for cases. In the future it may be required on each individual label.

Excelda agrees, but RFID technology is pretty costly, say Fairless and Siebertz. The cost will come down, but it will never be cheap.

Near-term, label suppliers are near unanimous in citing the difficulty of passing on raw material costs to customers in the lubricants industry. Our cost is rising, says Total Quality Labels Wickard, but customers say they want a cheaper label. [Increased] productivity is the only answer, but its tough.

But label companies can take heart. The label industry has worked real hard to give us what we need to make unique packages, including foil and multiple peel-off labels, concludes Citgos Larry Birch. Theyre giving us what we need.

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