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IN DEPTH: The Global Release Liner Industry

The annual Global Release Liner Industry Conference and Exhibition, hosted by AWA Alexander Watson Associates, was one of the last few industry events to take place this spring, before the coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

It took place in Amsterdam at the end of February, and attracted around 180 delegates who spanned the broad release liner supply chain and end-use markets. The program addressed the major items of interest, and concern, surrounding this industry.

Market overview

Indeed, the opening session focussed on opportunities and growth in key release liner markets. AWA Alexander Watson Associates’ President and CEO, Corey Reardon, opened the event with an overview of current market status. Still dominated by labelstock, the market segments in which release liner takes a role also include hygiene, medical, industrial, envelope, tapes, and food and bakery applications among others. In such a broad-based industry, innovation is mostly seen in coating, or surface treatment, of release base, as well as in nanotechnology and biomaterials.

Glassine and SCK paper are still the first choice for release base, with a 36% share of the market, with PET film – with a16% share-- now claiming second place. Asia remains the fastest-growing regional market, followed by the now developing market in Africa and the Middle East.

The value chain as a whole has, as AWA research shows, also experienced extensive merger and acquisition activity which has led many companies to consider themselves within the ‘global’ bracket.

One of the areas of concern in recent years in the pressure-sensitive label industry has been recycling – particularly of release liner by-products. As Corey Reardon showed, there is today much activity in this arena. 74% of companies approached by AWA researchers now have a working recycling program, and the packaging industry as a whole now has access to appropriate recycling facilities which are, for release liner, offering real ‘second life’ opportunities for the substrate. Other ongoing areas for concern, however, are increasing costs – particularly for transportation and energy.

Sourcing transparency and sustainability

The impact of the increasing demands for transparency on material sourcing in the label industry, with particular emphasis on the need for sustainability, was the topic addressed by Robyn Buma, Vice President, Global Procurement, Avery Dennison. ‘Sustainability, she said, ‘is not just a hot trend or buzzword – it is a shift in global behavior’. She detailed the positive sustainability trends being exemplified by major brands, including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Danone, Nike, and Coca- Cola, and moved on to examine how the value chain is reacting to the challenges these initiatives present – for both converters and suppliers. It is, she underlined, essential for the industry to respond positively. 'The time is now -- to collaborate, innovate, and do’, she said. ‘It’s from our materials, and from the contributions of the bold innovators behind them, that we’re creating solutions to the sustainability challenges that matter most – and ensuring a thriving future for our business.’

Leadership panel

An executive leadership panel discussion moderated by Corey Reardon followed, featuring Loparex CEO Simon Medley; Dow’s VP, Global Commercial and Customer Experience Massimo Rebolini; and Panoval CEO Wilco Van Zwieten, who between them explored the real-life impact of many of the current business challenges round the world – from COVID-19 to Brexit, US/China trade relations, and the need to attract, and retain, young graduate professionals to this industry.

‘Transformation and transition’

Then it was the turn of Arthur Erdem, Head of Group Sustainability for the group around the companies Engelhardt, Töpfer, Walcher, and Goelz, to pair the already-identified circularity and innovation agenda with that for transformation and transition – in other words, to adapt to future conditions, redefine the business purpose, and survive as an industry, delivering ‘measurable, sustainable results.’ He highlighted the EU Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEFCR) – a method for measuring sustainability performance, from raw material procurement to disposal -- which is being developed in co-operation with companies and experts, and which, he said, will ‘become the currency from 2025 onwards’.

Market-focussed – tape and industrial

The agenda for the afternoon was divided into two pathways, devoted to presentations on different market focuses: tape and industrial, and label and graphic arts, each with its own program of expert speakers.

With 12% and 14% of the global market respectively, tapes and industrial applications are today an important outlet for release liner, as AWA Senior Consultant Sarah Rigby explained, introducing Ian Grace, Vice Chairman of the Technical Committee for Afera, the European tape association, and Business Development Manager, Loparex. He delved into the extensive current checklist of trends and drivers in this sector, from ‘clean energy’ and electric cars to the product ‘must haves’ of the millennial generation. Along with circularity and ‘dismantlability’, the specific drivers of today’s manufacturing industries are the regulations -- REACh, solvents-related BREF STS, and the new European Green Deal, which aims to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a circular economy, restore biodiversity, and cut pollution. He urged delegates to stay ahead of all the legislation, manage their production, supply chain and sources, and customer support, but warned that in this new environment ‘there will be casualties’.

The session moved on to the technical agenda for industrial and tape usage, firstly with an examination of the way in which release liners influence diecutting in the medical and hygiene sectors from Butch Schomber, Global Innovation Manager, Rotometrics. Predicting the suitability of a release liner for specialty tape use employing today’s advanced database building and management techniques, was the topic addressed by Lohmann’s Head of Research and Development for Technical Products, Dr Evert Smit. Finally, the latest developments in coating technologies for pressure-sensitive materials were pinpointed by Markus Schlütter, Area Sales Manager, Film and Paper, Polytype Converting.

Market-focussed – labels and graphic arts

The agenda for the label and graphic arts session was prefaced by AWA Associate Anum Javed Beg’s market overview. Pressure-sensitive labels, she said, claim no less than 48% of the global market, and Jules Lejeune, Managing Director of the European self-adhesive labeling association FINAT, detailed trends and developments, both in markets and materials and in the association’s strong activity in the field of recycling and sustainability. ‘Going beyond self-adhesive labels’, he indicated, many label converters today are also printing flexible packaging, shrink sleeves, and wraparound labels to broaden their offering tothe brand owners – whose agenda also demands of converters shorter print runs, fast turnaround, and the ability to print variable-information- printed logistics labels.

Jan ‘t Hart, Senior Director, Innovation, Sustainability and Compliance, Avery Dennison Label & Packaging Materials Europe, detailed current and future processing of liner by-products – mainly glassine papers but also, increasingly film release base. ‘It will take all of us to solve the challenge’, he said, and detailed Avery Dennison’s pursuit of success through its strong, active recycling partnership with Cycle4Green, Lenzing Papier, ECOR, and ROMEI REPLASTICS.

What paper can do in terms of design for recycling in label applications was discussed, with a case study on curling control, by UPM Specialty Papers’ Director, Business Intelligence and Development, Mikko Rissanen. More value from release liner can be gained through a combination of improved paper yield, lower raw material costs in silicone coating, improved processing, and higher efficiency in downstream converting and customer service – from in other words, from ‘technical and environmental expertise!’.

The voice of the customer was heard in the last presentation – from The Coca-Cola Company. Jerome Labie, R&D Innovation Manager, EMEA, discussed consumer trends and packaging sustainability, and how the company views both as innovation opportunities. Smart packaging, premiumization, and consumer engagement with packaging, are all fields where Coca-Cola and other beverage manufacturers have actively experimented with on-shelf product visibility to promote sales.

Next day’s agenda opened with two more parallel sessions – this time on the hygiene and medical and composites and electronics markets. Hygiene and medical applications may be small market sectors for release liner, with an 8% and 3% share of the global market respectively, but in hygiene and medical applications release liners have important and demanding roles to play, as AWA Associate Catalina Steenbakkers Galindo explained.

Market-focussed – hygiene and medical

Rotometrics’ Butch Schomber discussed the important specific implications for diecutting in this sector, and the challenges involved in converting medical and hygiene products using rotary diecutting.

Dr Stefan P Stadtmueller, Vice President, Head Surface Technologies Interface and Performance for Evonik Nutrition and Care, was the next to speak. He addressed the way in which co-operation along the complex value chain promotes efficient, effective performance from the silicone elements in the production of release liner for the growing market in diaper and feminine hygiene products.

Meeting the evolving quality performance requirements and expectations in the hygiene release liner market was then summarized by Michael Slamanig, Group Head of Quality, Mondi. Judged finally on quality by the consumer purchaser, hygiene products are, he underlined, very much influenced by product and process innovations; recyclability; hygiene standards and regulatory compliance; printed liner graphics for brand identification – and, of course, by the power of the media.

Market-focussed: composites and industrial

For composites and electronics, AWA Associate Qiwen Shen introduced a wide-ranging marketplace for release liner, from computers and smart phones to aeroplanes and wind turbines, which nevertheless still represents only a combined 5% of the global release liner market.

Nicolas Vandencasteele, Operations and Business Development Manager, CPI, introduced the company’s innovative Ximofilm thin, film-based release liners with extremely low silicone content and environmental impact. It employs a plasma-gas-deposited release coating on a liner substrate, which requires no solvent or drying steps. At present only available on films, it delivers release liner for composites, pressure-sensitive adhesives, and film casting -- particularly in applications requiring ultra-low levels of contamination.

Focussing on composites, Sébastien Marrot, Technical Service Manager, Release Coatings, for Elkem Silicones, mapped the various market segments – with particular reference to the role of release liner in pre-preg manufacture and lay-up -- and detailed the range of release coatings, and differential release performance required to meet the multiple needs of this particular market.

Roll-to-roll processing for composites and printed electronics such as RFID/NFC with a functional release liner, emphasizing the complex property needs and the available application processes, were the theme of the final paper in this section, from Andrea Glawe, Regional Sales Director, Kroenert. She identified new process and machinery solutions, and looked towards future sustainable solutions that go ‘beyond hardware’,

Focus: business matters

All the delegates came together then for a thought-provoking final plenary session focussed on business concerns, which opened with an exploration of mergers and acquisitions as a catalyst for change in the release liner industry. Jonathan White, Managing Director, Mazzone & Associates, detailed M&A activity past and present, and showed how, despite upstream and downstream activity over the last five years, ‘release liners remain a market with several leading players (commercial and in-house)... yet none with a dominant position.’

An executive leadership panel came together to expand on the subject, moderated by Jonathan White, and involving Matt Gilmore, Head of Specialty Materials Investment Banking; Paul Grzebielucha, President, Industrial Solutions Group; and Nick Mockett, Managing Director, Moorgate Capital. Together, the panel participants delivered expert advice from their specialist viewpoint to the delegates on the many diversification options that are available, of which consolidation is only one; on the elements influencing a company’s success today – profitability, of course, and becoming a multinational or expanding the product offering; managing relationships with private equity companies; and current market concerns, including the coronavirus pandemic. For release liners, it was agreed that the medical/healthcare, pharmaceuticals, hygiene, and composites markets are the premium, robust, and growing opportunity markets today.

A visual summary

Throughout the event, participants were able to enjoy ‘live’ visual notes on the topics covered, with delightful, cartoon-style drawings created on site by artist Halmar Haagsman, which really captured the release liner agenda.

Networking opportunities

The formal conference program was complemented throughout by a well-supported tabletop exhibition and extensive networking opportunities, including cocktails and canapés on the first evening, during which Corey Reardon presented the AWA Release Liner Industry Leadership Award, given annually to an individual who has demonstrated singular dedication, service, and leadership to the release liner industry. Alex Knott of Dow was declared this year’s winner, to much congratulation from the audience.

Drawing the conference to its close, Corey Reardon thanked the sponsors, speakers, and delegates for together creating a memorable event, and said that he hoped to meet everyone again at next year’s conference in Chicago – at which AWA Alexander Watson Associates will be celebrating their 50th anniversary as market researchers and consultants with long-standing in-depth knowledge of the release liner industry.