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Commentary & Analysis

Digital Folding Carton — How to Make it Work for You

With the market pushing packaging printers and converters towards shorter runs and faster turnaround times, you might be tempted to assume that folding carton printing is on its way out.

By Filip Weymans
Published: May 13, 2013

With the market pushing packaging printers and converters towards shorter runs and faster turnaround times, you might be tempted to assume that folding carton printing is on its way out, given the complexity of the supply chain of folding carton-packaged products. Yet this is not the case. Aside from cost, brand owners have good reason to choose folding carton over labeled containers. Customer intimacy is today’s mantra and packaging is one of the tools to nurture it. The perceived value of a quality full-color carton box is much higher, and folding cartons can be produced in almost any shape or size. It looks like folding carton is here to stay and there are even new business opportunities to be exploited — provided certain hurdles can be overcome.

A Market Undergoing Change

Gone are the days when packaging essentially served only to contain and hold a product, to protect it from being damaged during transportation and storage, to facilitate storage and handling, and to provide information about content. Today packaging does all that while maximizing selling power. In an increasingly cluttered marketplace, brand owners have their work cut out for them trying to build market-share. Building a recognizable brand and protecting it has become a tall order, and packaging plays a vital role in this.

Several trends have caused the packaging industry to move toward a broader variety of SKUs and shorter run lengths. Product variety is rapidly increasing as a result of industry globalization and brand owners are targeting ever-smaller groups of customers. Event marketing has taken off and product life cycles continue to shorten. Finally, in an effort to lower capital requirements, companies have taken to reducing their stocks, adopting just-in-time inventory policies. As a result, packaging printers and converters have had to accommodate increasingly shorter runs and faster turnaround times.

Something to Say for Digital Printing

In a market dominated by offset printing, all this means more frequent make-readies of presses and converting equipment, a cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive process.

Digital technology, however, can make the folding carton supply chain more efficient and cost-effective. With digital technology, every print can be different. Because set-up and make-ready costs are minimal, small runs can be produced cost-effectively. Digital printing is extremely flexible in that it allows last-minute changes and updates to be made in short turnaround times.

In short, digital technology is a great complement to offset printing, and can also make for a profitable standalone business. That is, if the technology meets all the requirements of the folding carton market in terms of print quality, color accuracy and consistency, lightfastness, food safety, and brand protection.

There are several other features that are crucial for folding carton printing.

Conventional Substrates

The use of toner that can print on any type of conventional substrate without any pretreatment is a crucial requirement. This helps printers save time and money and allows easy integration of the press into a traditional production environment.

Web-Fed Technology

Presses which are full rotary with variable repeat length and built-in cutter, have virtually no restrictions on sheet or image length. There are distinct advantages to using web-fed instead of sheet-fed digital technology. In the conventional environment, which is sheet-fed, printers will keep an impressive stock of print media in different formats, often the same format in different grain directions to ensure optimum positioning on the sheet, thus minimizing waste. In a digital environment, where short to medium runs are the rule, such a diverse stock would no longer be cost-effective — especially if pretreatment is required. Web-fed technology means that waste is minimized and, compared to digital sheet-fed presses, productivity is increased.

Food Safety and Odors

When it comes to food safety, dry toner electrophotographic technology offers significant advantages. The FDA has set strict guidelines for indirect food contact and direct contact with dry food substances that contain no surface oil or fat. All process colors and standard available spot colors are suitable for indirect food contact applications. While relatively few packaging applications require print on the inside in direct contact with food, all process colors and certain standard available spot colors have been declared suitable for direct food contact.

Another key advantage is the fact that it is odorless, which is a requirement for certain food applications such as chocolate packaging.

The Power of Durable Clear Toner and Inline Finishing

For print shops starting from scratch or commercial printers who want to move into digital folding carton printing, the biggest challenge will be to find a finishing solution that is cost-effective for short to medium runs.  Toner choices available today make this kind of printing a viable option. They simplify production workflow and eliminate the need to invest in a separate varnishing station, which would take up additional space. The addition of an inline die-cutting station with easily removable plates results in the most compact folding carton production solution possible, enabling printers to make the most of the flexibility offered by digital printing.

With the right integrated, compact solution a single operator can produce printed cartons ready to be folded and glued in one go.

The Key to Success

Cost-effective conversion of short runs opens up opportunities for even small companies to stand out from their competitors through bespoke packaging at affordable prices. Custom-designed packaging enables individual businesses to communicate more effectively with customers.

While the folding carton market is still dominated by offset, with digital printing representing only 0.15% of the market in 2011, research by Pira International indicates strong growth prospects for digitally produced folding cartons. A 2011 study expected worldwide growth rates of over 30% between 2011 and 2016. This forecast confirms that, due to increasing demand for shorter runs and just-in-time production, digital printing is fast gaining acceptance in folding carton printing, not least because it provides the answer to some of the challenges the sector is facing. Its success depends on the ability to cost-effectively print innovative formats and designs that add high value. Digital press manufacturers will be integral to this story, offering a range of solutions to help printers and converters turn digital folding cartons into profitable business.

Filip Weymans is the director of segment marketing and business development for Xeikon N.V.


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