Commentary & Analysis
Is Digital Printing for Corrugated Packaging; The Holy Grail or Third Rail?
My first exposure to digital printing for Corrugated Packaging occurred when I joined Inland Container. This occurred in late 2000, and Inland was in the process of developing a prototype digital press to evaluate the potential for digital printing in Packaging.
By Jeff Wettersten
Published: December 17, 2013
My first exposure to digital printing for Corrugated Packaging occurred when I joined Inland Container. This occurred in late 2000, and Inland was in the process of developing a prototype digital press to evaluate the potential for digital printing in Packaging. At that time, technology options were extremely limited, and the resulting image quality was at best suitable for printed stock boxes. Still clear is the excitement; confusion and disbelief in the eyes of a customer when we showed them how they could design packaging, press a button, and see the packaging production begin in less than 90 seconds. Job changes were managed on the fly, with versioning occurring without stopping production. The final, Aha moment occurred when the cartons were printed with a picture of each participant, each carton within the run different, at production speed. The reaction was as they say, priceless. The problem is, and continues to be, priceless is an emotion; and emotions will not pay the bills! Welcome to the digital promise! The question needing to be answered is; how and when can we pay the bills with digital printing?
Our firm Karstedt Partners consults with a wide variety of companies at many levels within the Packaging Supply Chain. Forecasting and projecting the technical requirements necessary for success with digital technologies in Packaging applications is one area we are quite familiar with. We regularly speak with converters involved in high end graphics. These converters consistently speak of 15%-20% of high graphics jobs being a better fit for digital printing. Order volume is just one of the reasons frequently cited, others include difficult job set-ups, addressing urgent customer needs/lead time issues, and reduced cost. Converters who currently have digital assets also speak to the eventual development of discreet digital markets. These converters believe widespread access to digital printing, combined with a desire among Brand Owners to expand the use of print in promotional events, may grow high graphics demand by 20%-40% over time. The concept of a discreet digital market is not unique to Corrugated Packaging, and has developed in virtually every segment digital printing participates in. In Commercial Printing, the discreet market has developed around variable data, enabling customers to personalize printed literature. In Labels, the discreet digital market has developed around JIT initiatives supporting new product launches, initial production requirements leading to full production, end of life product management, and packaging enhancements adding additional color. Brand Owners, especially smaller Brands, consistently state the desire to extend beyond two color printing, but lack the budget to do so. Digital printing enables the addition of color at little to no expense. If you are printing in blue today, and wish to replace some of the blue with red, digital printing can easily accommodate that, without adding expense. In our discussions with digital technology developers and Corrugated Converters, we define the current available US market for digital participation at approximately $1 billion dollars at the converters selling price. The current market will most likely expand to a $2-$3 billion dollar market fairly quickly, based on the capabilities of the press. Even at $3 billion dollars, digital printing is about 10% of the overall corrugated market, so why bother? Our response is competitive advantage and profitability.
How do you build competitive advantage and profitability through a niche digital offering? First, digital printing will not be a niche offering. In the context of the overall Corrugated Market, digital printing will not have a commanding presence. In the context of High Graphics Corrugated, digital printing has the opportunity to be a significant participant. Keep in mind, digital printing is potentially a “disruptive technology”. By definition, disruptive technologies have the capability to be game changers. In my first days at Inland a senior sales executive made the following comment, “if we make digital printing about the ability to print a box, we all lose”. Converters have sufficient options for printing a corrugated box. What is lacking is a print technology capable of addressing process inefficiencies, directly or indirectly related to the expanded process for corrugated printing, design, procurement and brand strategy. Digital printing offers several unique advantages in this area. What are the process inefficiencies that you or your customers are struggling with? How can digital printing be used to address them? I was visiting with a company that manufactures air filters for the automotive aftermarket when an urgent call came in from their Sales Manager in Canada. Their largest Canadian retailer had just stumbled upon the fact that the packaging they were receiving from the filter company was not printed in both English and French. They were advised they would lose the business unless they could have new packaging on the shelf in two weeks. Over 80 SKUs were involved, and the GM was not optimistic about the ability of their suppliers to respond in such a tight time frame, not to mention the expense for managing that many revisions. Now, imagine if you had digital printing capability, even to manage the interim requirements while you completed the overall packaging transition. A digital printer could be printing packaging within hours. How often is your business confronted with similar issues? What capabilities do you have to respond? Competitive advantage can be obtained in a variety of ways. Few truly obtain cost advantage, but many act like they have it. Product advantage, when similar materials and processes are utilized is hard to obtain, much less sustain. Service advantages built around digital processes have the ability of extending from product design to inventory and replenishment strategies. And, service advantages are sustainable with digital printing.
Second is the ability for digital printing to impact profitability. We see several ways for digital printing to enhance profitability:
- Incremental sales through enhanced service and product capabilities
- Leveraging your ability as a problem solver into additional business opportunities that fit your business
- Participation in the development of the “discreet digital” market
- Attacking areas of operational inefficiency being created through SKU proliferation.
We have covered the first three items, let’s address the fourth. In a high graphics environment, what is the impact on your operational cost when job set-ups increase by 10%, but volume remains constant? What if the number is 30%? We know, you would identify and capture the resulting inefficiency, and charge the customer accordingly, correct? If so, you are in the minority. Even simple moves, like moving four-five set-ups per day from your existing operation to a digital press may free up a shift per day for production, rather than set-up. We have had a number of converters, after working with them to assess digital opportunities, state that digital printing may be the lowest capital investment for adding incremental or peaking capacity, in addition to the other potential advantages of digital printing. Resist the desire to do a side-by-side comparison on the cost of print between analog and digital presses. Instead, look at the value generated when you use a digital press for operational relief, the results may surprise you.
For digital printing to succeed and be in a position to impact a converters business as described above, the technology must be able to participate in production job requirements. What is required? Current flatbed capabilities generally fall into a range of 5,000-6,500 square feet per hour. This range needs to increase to 25,000 to 30,000 square feet per hour, and help is on the way. Barberan, a company located in Spain, has introduced a single pass UV press capable of printing on sheets with a maximum dimension of 59.5” x 144” at a speed of 178 linear feet per minute. This output rate equates to over 50,000 square feet per hour, production capable for sure. We know little about this press or the company, other than what is on their website, but it is indicative of what the future may hold. Seven years ago there were five to seven digital companies exhibiting at label Expo. At last month’s Label Expo there were over 30 companies promoting digital printing solutions. HP has been a long term participant in developing packaging solutions, other well-known industry leaders such as Kodak, Epson, Konica Minolta, Oce/Canon, Xerox, FujiFilm and Screen have either introduced products for packaging, or have announced their intentions to do so. At last year’s drupa exposition, traditional analog manufacturers such as Bobst, KBA, Heidelberg and ManRoland announced partnerships with digital developers. Over the next five years we anticipate a host of solutions, addressing both sheet fed, and web fed requirements, as both stand-alone and in-line solutions.
Dr. Geoffrey Moore is the author of several well-known books addressing all facets of disruptive technologies. Dr. Moore uses the following diagram to explain the technology progression.
The chasm is where most new products die, as they fail to move from early adopters to the early majority, or the mainstream market. Flatbed digital technology has established a beachhead in corrugated packaging, but it is clear the output of these products is not sufficient to gain the interest of mainstream markets. The next generation of technology has garnered the attention of mainstream markets, but it still needs to deliver. Digital printing in Labels has either passed through the chasm, or is close to passing. New press technology targeting Folding Carton has caught the attention of mainstream Folding Carton Converters. Efforts in Flexible Packaging are developing. The combined efforts in all four markets have caught the attention of the Brand Owner, and they are now preparing for a future with digital printing. Coca Cola gained a lot of positive press this summer by launching a campaign in Europe for several Coca Cola soft drinks through a promotional campaign combining traditional media such as print and TV with interactive promotions through social media and the Coca Cola website. The cornerstone of the initiative was the use of digitally printed labels enabling Coca Cola to personalize the cans with the most popular names in designated regions. Yes, the consumer was able to purchase the product with their name on the can. In his books, Dr. Moore speaks about the dangers to companies who are late in adopting disruptive technologies. The value of competitive differentiation enables those with the differentiation to participate, while effectively locking out those without the differentiation. Sustainable differentiation means the competitive advantage endures, assuming you leverage the early gains into other areas of competitive advantage. Digital value propositions focused on print deliver short-term competitive advantage. Digital value propositions focused on upstream and downstream process advantages, both internally and externally create sustainable competitive advantage. If you are a participant in High Graphics Corrugated, you may not desire to be the first to enter, but can your business really afford to be late?