Sleeving packaging has taken off in the recent years as producers discover it can be a flexible, cost-effective asset rather than an expensive liability, but this has not always been the case. Paul Gander investigates the advances that have transformed this market.

There has been nothing stealthy about the advances made by sleeving in the beverages sector over the last few years, just as the technology's effect on-shelf can rarely be understated. As a technique for full 360-degree, neck-to-heel bottle decoration, shrink sleeves can be applied with high-speed filling lines at rates of up to 1,000 a minute. In short, both stretch and shrink sleeves are now able to compete on cost with more traditional forms of labelling.

While bottle manufacturers and fillers have experimented with other forms of all-over decoration, and may consider solutions such as clear self-adhesive labels more appropriate in some cases, the shrink sleeve has little competition when it comes to a combination of graphic impact, convenience and the all-important cost. But this has not always been the case.

Only a few years ago, says sleeve application machinery specialist PDC, there was a gulf between the esteem in which marketing departments held the sleeve and the suspicion with which it was viewed by production. The high-quality print processes, and finishes that could be generated, were often regarded as a short-term promotional fix rather than a long-term, mainstream solution. "A few years ago, sleev ing was seen as being some sort of magic," says PDC sales manager Derek Vandevoorde. "Nowadays, we have demystified the process, and succeeded in explaining to manufacturers that this is something that can be handled in-house."

To date, Coca-Cola fillers have installed some 60 PDC sleeve applicators, says Vandevoorde. The brand is using the company's equipment to apply sleeves to its squeezable Aquana water product at speeds of up to 200 packs a minute. "Efficiencies are as high as in any other kind of labelling process, if not higher," he claims. "It is also possible to stop and start the line, since there is no need to heat up the system before use."

"it is now the best shrink medium available, since the steam penetrates under the sleeve rather than simply acting from a single direction"
According to sleeve converter Decorative Sleeves, the type of steam shrinking used by PDC is, in broad terms, nothing new. But the past few years have seen an improvement in system design and wider recognition among end users of its benefits. Sales and marketing director Jon Cowan believes it is now the best shrink medium available, since the steam penetrates under the sleeve rather than simply acting from a single direction. It is also, he says, far easier to control accurately than other heat sources.

Decorative Sleeves has built its reputation on full-length designs for standard packs or promotions, including high-quality gravure print and pre-distortion of the neck and other contoured areas. The promotional potential of the sleeve was on show during the 2002 World Cup, with four different versions of Coca-Cola's classic 330ml glass bottle sporting images of David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and David Seaman. By including all four personalities on a single print cylinder, the converter ensured availability of the complete set for on-shelf and multipack display.

Another Coca-Cola promotion, run earlier in the year by Coca-Cola Ireland, offered high-value prizes with an instant win mechanic relying on variable win/lose texts printed on the reverse of the sleeve. A perforation system, designed by Decorative Sleeves, was included to make it easier for the consumer to access this information.

Of course, it is not only soft drinks that have benefited from shrink sleeving. In fact, some of Decorative Sleeves' highest impact designs have been for pre-mixed alcoholic drinks aimed at the young adult market. Recent examples from the UK include Wildbrew, which has added a vodka, lemon and lime variant to its vodka, cranberry and caffeine original. Here, a matt lacquer was applied, while on GBL International's VK Blue and VK Ice, a tactile lacquer was used to give the product a frosted effect.

These types of full-length sleeves, whether for alcoholic or soft drinks, remain as popular as ever for new brands trying to attract new consumers, and for established brands trying to maintain consumer interest. But according to PDC's Vandevoorde, there is also increasing interest now among bottlers in using a smaller, lower-cost sleeve for standard applications, which might otherwise have been entrusted to a traditional label.

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PDC cites the example of the latest PET bottle from Perrier, which is being decorated with sleeves of this type on one of its machines. The narrower sleeves are applied at speeds of up to 400 a minute. "Brands are looking for all the advantages of sleeving without the costs," Vandevoorde explains. "They are using thinner film grades and narrower sleeves."

There is an additional challenge that these partial sleeves have to be kept in place between being shot onto the container and entering the heat tunnel, since they are not self-supporting. PDC says it has developed its own mechanical system for doing this.

One feature of the latest rotary high-speed sleeve applicators is their ability to handle both shrink sleeves (with a heat tunnel) and stretch sleeves (without). Stretch sleeves are simpler and cheaper to apply, and use stretchable polyethylene (PE), rather than alternative shrinkable polymers. Because of the method of application, they are used on straight-walled containers.

Typical uses of stretch sleeves, such as those produced by ITW Auto-Sleeve, are as labels on mineral water bottles. They are especially popular in Central and Southern European soft drinks markets. In the case of sleeves produced by Auto-Sleeve for Slovenian water bottler Perne-Juliana, a clear film was used to create the illusion of direct printing on to the bottle.

Whatever the end product, more and more glass manufacturers, plastics converters and fillers producing their own PET bottles in-house are discovering that a sleeving line can be a flexible, cost-effective asset rather than an expensive liability.