Modern marketing means brand extensions, on pack promotions, packaging to tie in with events – all designed to increase sales and enhance relationships with consumers. This provides opportunities to printers that can meet these demands

When Heidelberg predicts that digitally printed packaging is set to grow at double digit rates for the immediate future, printers need to sit up. And Heidelberg is not alone. The prospects for printing packaging of all types on digital presses are exciting every press manufacturer. If digital printing on paper is understood and developing at a steady pace, digital printing of packaging has scarcely scratched the surface. And with packaging there is no risk that print will be replaced by electronic media.

To date digital printing has left packaging alone while expanding in publication print. Over the next year or so that is going to change as existing electrophotographic technologies clash with inkjet systems to win market share in a sector where the arguments in favour of short run and just in time printing are gaining ground. The positions that each supplier is taking will be clear at drupa 2012.

Traditional ways to produce packaging generate huge volumes of waste as up to 20 per cent of printed material can become obsolete before it is used. Frequent promotions and shorter product life cycles only exacerbate the problem, unless companies can order just in time or closer to the point of use. Both favour digital production methods. Then there is the opportunity presented by personalisation, as a means of customer engagement and as identification in pharmaceutical applications for example.

Heidelberg’s strategy is based on developing machines and printing lines around inkjet technology, previewing these at Interpack. There main board member Stephan Plenz declared: “Digital packaging will more than triple in four years and its growth rates is expected to be bigger in the future. UV inkjet printing is rapidly gaining importance thanks to its versatility in the choice of substrates and the fact that it can be directly integrated into packaging production lines.”

Size of market

Alon Bar-Shany, vice president and general manager of HP’s Indigo division, reckons that digitally printed packaging can take the same 10per cent share of the market that it has in label printing. Already HP Indigo presses are being used in flexible packaging and carton printing, but it is very early days. HP will be unveiling significant moves by drupa and will have presses in place at major flexo and carton printers before then. The prize is worth the effort. The worldwide market for digitally printed foils, cartons and labels stood at just €2.5 billion in 2009, the vast majority of this from labels. The world packaging market is currently valued at $429 billion according to Pike Research and is expected to surpass  $500bn billion in sales within five years. Paper and paper-based packaging are the largest sectors with more than 40% of the global packaging market.

Many packaging companies have tested digital printing over the last decade, but almost all have abandoned these trials claiming that the business model did not exist or that the quality was not adequate.

But the problem of meeting demands for faster turnaround has remained, pushing litho press manufacturers into delivering presses with high levels of automation to handle short runs effectively. This means adding tools to monitor quality on press and to reject sheets that fall short, using scanners to check that what is printed is exactly the same as on the PDF that the client approved, and using all the plate changing, presetting and colour control tools that have become standard for commercial printers.

Packaging printers with this level of press are comfortable printing a run of 100 sheets among others where the job may need several pallets of board.  And litho continues to offer advantages in terms of inline varnishing and foiling that digital does not yet offer.

The same is true in narrow web printing where what were once considered label presses are now printing boards for lightweight and small format cartons using flexo or UV letterpress technologies, sometimes combined with inkjet for dating, coding and adding a promotional message. The demand for higher quality and shorter runs of flexible packaging has brought manufacturers like Muller Martini into the mix with its VSOP litho press able to print on films with electron beam curing to meet the demand for faster turnarounds than is possible with conventional gravure and flexo presses.

However, all the interest, whether from manufacturers or printers is concentrated on the potential that digital offers. If quality was an issue a few years ago, this is changing fast and is no longer the barrier it once was. If quality is not the barrier, delivering the complete end to end solution remains an obstacle, especially at the finishing stage where innovation is still required.

The biggest problem has been that most cartons and film packaging have been produced in huge quantities because production of food or packaged goods depends on economies of scale and big production runs. However, fierce competition for consumer attention in the mature economies is driving FMCG producers to use more promotional on pack marketing, more special versions, to develop ever more niche brands and to bring products to market faster in order to grab the consumer’s attention.

All this means shorter print runs and faster turnarounds, the same forces which have expanded the market for digital printing elsewhere in the print world. Add in a massive drive to reduce over production both from the point of view of cost and a desire to reduce environmental impact, and the forces are coming into position to make digital print for packaging highly viable. The same bell curve will apply, digital print for test marketing and in the launch phase which gives way to conventional production as volumes increase and back to digital for the long tail effect.

With the rise also of small scale regional and artisanal producers of drinks, home furnishings, confectionary and similar products, there is a new breed of company looking to buy packaging which is not on the radar of the multinational groups. It creates an opportunity for commercial and digital printers to expand into offering packaging print along with marketing print for a business.

Chocolates on demand

This is where Irongate, a UK digital print and marketing services company operating Xerox presses, has been successful. It has set up a web to print portal in collaboration with chocolatier Thorntons. A customer can come on the Thorntons website and personalise a gift box of chocolates, selecting the flavours and styles and uploading an image and personal message. It has been a huge success, running at 3,500 boxes a each week leading up to Christmas, 1,000 in the week ahead of Valentine’s Day. The 'create your own chocolate box' promotion continues to be a key part of the Thorntons e-commerce offering.

While more sophisticated than many examples, the use of quality packaging to make a product stand out is a sweet spot for digital printing. Xeikon has been a leader in digital print for packaging and says that confectionery is ideal. “It allows bakers to create boxes that are branded with their store and that are versioned for special days, Mother’s Day, Easter and so on. They are selling a premium product so the  price of the carton is less sensitive,” says Filip Weymans, business development manager.

At Drupa 2008 Xeikon had shown its technology in combination with a finishing line developed by StoraEnso for producing CD and DVD packaging inline. While the product never took off, arriving at the same time that CD sales plummeted in favour of downloaded entertainment, StoraEnso has continued to market the Gallop line but in conjunction with Xerox, one installed at pharmaceutical printer Goldprint in Belgium. “Pharmaceutical is a big driver of digital packaging,” Weymans continues, “helped by changes in legislation that drive companies to short run production.”

A US proposal that every pharmaceutical pack be personalised to the patient has been dropped, but traceability to overcome counterfeiting remains a driver of digital production. However, while pharmaceutical has always been high on the prospect list for conversion to digital, and a number of pharmaceutical carton printers installed digital presses, these were soon found to be unable to deliver the colour quality needed and the print resolution fell short of that needed to reproduce the curved text and logos that litho had no problem with.  

Project to go ahead

There is now renewed interest in digital printing for this end. Simon Tokelove, head of asset management, at Chesapeake, a global carton producer, says: “Chesapeake has pioneered alternative technologies and processes as run lengths and order sizes have declined. Digital printing is challenging conventional printing for certain applications but it remains restrictive in terms of print format, productivity and finishing options.

“The adoption of digital technology for packaging is moving closer as manufacturers offer improved machine formats and higher print productivity. However, more widespread adoption requires further developments in finishing technologies and a different way of thinking about the supply chain. We have already invested in digital systems for labels and are now actively reviewing end of line applications. As a result, we expect to offer our customers a fully integrated digital carton solution within a year."

The breakthrough says Weymans has come with better print resolution, in Xeikon’s case stepping from 800dpi to 1200dpi, allowing digital presses to reproduce the smooth curves on text and corporate logos. One of the key customers following this step forward became Odyssey Digital Printing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Xeikon pointed Achushnet towards this company when it asked the press supplier about how to print short runs of golf ball packaging. Each sleeve can hold three balls and eight years ago could only be ordered in batches of more than 1,000. With the switch to digital printing, this has changed. Now a golf course can order balls that carry the course’s name and can sell balls that are branded to suit corporate golf day events or competitions. “It’s the kind of application that a creative print business can develop for the packaging market.”

Supply chain solution

Traditional packaging printers are not used to dealing with the small numbers that digital offers, again providing an opportunity for new entrants to the sector. One of these is Mediaware Digital in Ireland which has a Xerox press connected to a Stora Enso Gallop finishing line. It produces personalised packaging for Microsoft, adding a customer name to each carton and printing only when an online purchase is made. Director Noel Candon explains: “Microsoft needed to address a supply chain problem. Now they only supply goods to order, and we print on demand. The quality is consistent, better than litho, and we have never had an issue even though we have printed thousands of boxes for them.”

Digital production says Candon allows his customers to expand into markets which they could never have tackled previously because of the high minimum orders demanded by traditional printers. He says: “One company we deal with had never sold outside of Switzerland, now we print in 22 languages for them using digital presses.

“In the smaller accession countries to the EU, they want to read packaging in their own language. A carton printed in Russian will not be acceptable in eastern European countries. Digital lets us print in the 28 EU languages, in regional languages like Catalan for Spain, and to cope with changing ingredient lists.”

The iGen4 prints at 2,200 sheets an hour with perhaps six cartons per sheet, giving reasonable production capability, provided the product size is restricted because one of the biggest limitations to digital print taking larger shares of the packaging market has been format size. This is less of an issue with the webfed Xeikon, similarly for the webfed versions of the Indigo which have made a huge impact in labels and which the company aims to repeat in carton and flexible packaging.

The ElectroInk technology has proved that it can handle a wide range of substrates through the web fed label presses. “We see the opportunity in pharmaceutical, in test marketing and for event based marketing where specialist and custom  versions of packaging are needed,” Bar-Shany explains. “We think that the format is wide enough for most applications, so we think that there’s a sensible opportunity and that digitally printed packaging is today where labels were a few years back.”

The finishing question

At the same time HP is looking at how to deliver the wider formats that flexible packaging printers are used to working with. It is also partnering with companies supplying finishing equipment. Bar-Shany names German platen producer Kama, provider of fast set up B3 systems which has adapted its platen to work with digital print.

But it faces competition from others that also that digital packaging will require innovative finishing systems. One of these is Israeli start up Highcon which is developing a system called Direct to Pack. There are no details as yet, other than this will operate without a conventional die, will have zero set up time and will be a transformational technology for the folding carton sector. Others are working with lasers to cut out blanks in fractions of a second, but there is always a need to balance the thickness of the board and the power of the laser. The potential of the market will continue to drive developments. “A solution for digital packaging has to be about much more than just printing,” says Bar-Shany.

Jef Stoffels, director of corporate marketing at Esko Artwork would agree. The company’s Kongsberg digital cutting tables are frequently matched with presses in digital carton lines, either in inline or near line configurations. “The structural design can be sent to the cutting table and the process can be automated and left to run, from a feeding pallet on one side to delivery on the other. That’s already happening and can be done if the industry moves to larger formats.

“Where the job is about adding variable content to a standard box, a line like the Stora Enso Gallop is ideal, but where a company is producing lots of different formats then a digital finishing device is needed. That is already happening in the corrugated sector, where we are cutting out unique shapes for point of sale displays, where the cost and run length does not allow a die to be made.”

Inkjet is starting to make an impact here where small batches of outer casings can also be used to carry promotional messages to tie in with special events. Sun Chemical has had a single pass inkjet machine as a replacement for flexo printed corrugated in beta and can expect to end that development phase soon. Likewise Agfa is continuing to find packaging users for its inkjet press. By drupa 2012 many separate lines of development will be coming together, drawn by the fascinating and lucrative possibilities of transforming the printed packaging sector.

The future is short

The drive is towards ever shorter production batches. This suits the needs of marketing departments in the consumer product companies and it suits the needs of their corporate social responsibility programmes because shorter runs means less waste and a lesser environmental impact. Consumers in smaller countries do not want to see the same packaging as a customer in North America, but want to buy something in their own language with imagery that fits their lifestyles. All this drives towards tighter supply chains with shorter print orders.

Digital print technologies are perfectly placed to satisfy these demands, but it digital will not have everything its own way. Other technologies and production techniques can also deliver shorter production batches. What is clear is that old style presses and old style management is not going to be enough as the packaging business changes.