Why attend print industry technical conferences? If you’re a journalist or an analyst, it’s a big part of your job. But, what justifies the time away from deadline-pressured work in progress, the predictable travel hassles, and the perennial risk of hearing things you may already have been briefed about at other events?

No such misgivings troubled members of the WhatTheyThink team as we served as the exclusive on-site media partners for Smithers Pira’s Digital Print for Packaging conference in Tampa, FL, earlier this week.

Like similar programs, this symposium of packaging supply chain experts aggregated many existing pieces of information that weren’t being shared for the first time. But, it all came together so comprehensively that it made the connections among the pieces seem fresh. We also were treated to some genuine surprises that gave us new ways to think about how digital printing can win a bigger share of the packaging production market than it currently owns.

Watch the WhatTheyThink home page for video interviews and feature stories that will lay out some of the conference proceeding in detail. For now, here are a few highlights that may indicate why Digital Print for Packaging was the kind of event that’s always worth getting on an airplane for.

Expect to hear more soon from Tonejet, the U.K.-based developer of an unusual inkjet printing process that it believes can transform the beverage can printing market in the U.S. A representative of Tonejet and a counterpart from a manufacturing partner talked about how it works as members of a panel discussion on collaboration in the packaging printing industry (about which more below).

Tonejet’s solution is a nozzle-less, electrostatic, drop-on-demand system that can deposit a very thin film of pigment-rich ink onto almost any packaging substrate without pre-treating. Instead of inkjet heads, it uses arrays of needle-like injectors that accumulate and then precisely launch droplets of charged ink onto the surface being printed. Depositing four colors of ink at 600 dpi, the system can continuously vary droplet volumes for near-photo quality imaging at full production throughput.

Although the technology has a number of packaging applications, printing directly onto the surfaces of beverage cans and other metal containers is the one that Tonejet is targeting as the primary end use. Tonejet builds the print engine and provides the dedicated ink (made for it by two leading ink suppliers). Its manufacturing partner, Patented Machine Builders, contributes the mechanical components of the printing device, which Tonejet calls the Digital Can Decorator.

This machine is said by Tonejet to be capable of printing 120 cans per minute in on-demand runs that can range from 1,000 to 250,000 containers. A few of the devices have been installed or ordered in Europe. In the U.S., Bev Can Printers, serving producers of craft beer, craft soda, and other drinks, reportedly (PDF link) will go into production with one assembled for it by Patented Machine Builders.

That installation would be the tip of what Tonejet believes is a very large iceberg of craft brewers looking for a practical and an affordable way to get their beers into metal containers. Holding them back until now, says Tonejet, have been high minimum-order quantity requirements from the can suppliers and the lack of a way to print flexibly when new design and branding opportunities arise.

If Tonejet is correct about the existence of this pent-up demand for the on-demand production of inkjet-decorated beer cans in short runs, it has a large and frothy market of U.S. beer makers to cater to: more than 3,000 craft breweries producing 30,000 SKUs of craft beer, most of them packaged in glass bottles with paper labels. The size of the potential to be realized was a provocative idea for the Digital Print for Packaging audience, all of whom were there to get a better idea of how far digital printing technologies can go in packaging markets of all sizes.

It’s not a package, exactly, but it can be thought of as one: a corrugated container that holds a cell phone, some simple lenses, and a world of immersive visual experiences when people use the rig as an inexpensive virtual reality headset. It came up as a topic at Digital Print for Packaging because one of the speakers, Mark Abramson, helped to bring the first custom-printed example to market: a VR viewer from DODOcase that can be produced with branded or personalized graphics in quantities from 10 units to 1 million.

One of Abramson’s ventures, PrintForm, assists makers of digitally printed products like DODOcase with software that makes their production routines more efficient. His theme at Digital Print for Packaging was scalability: a manufacturing strategy that’s not as easy to get right as it may seem.

Those who would provide digital printing services for packaging production must have a “single-piece mindset” and a willingness to profit from mistakes made in learning how to deliver very small quantities cost efficiently. “The only way to do this is to ship product,” Abramson said.

But, adopting a single-piece mindset isn’t an excuse for thinking small. Although in terms of manufacturing workflow, said Abramson, it’s easier to go from one piece to 100 than from 100 pieces to one, small-quantity producers still have to prepare themselves for large-scale output should their digitally printed goods take off in the marketplace.

“Anybody can create a single piece, but what happens when you get a deluge of orders?” asked Abramson, who speaks from experience as the CEO of Thinfolio, an online seller of handmade wallets that buyers can personalize with their own photos and graphics. By scrupulously tracking time and cost data at every stage of manufacturing, the Thinfolio team shrank the order management timeframe from 52 minutes to just two minutes over the course of 18 months.

Learn to streamline digital print production like that, Abramson said, and “orders over 100 are gravy.”

This writer had the privilege of serving as the moderator of a panel discussion on collaboration and partnerships for digital packaging production. Besides the representatives of Tonejet and Patented Machine Builders, the participants included spokespersons for press maker Xeikon and a Xeikon customer, Labels in Motion. Also joining us were senior executives of two iconic consumer brands, Kraft Foods and Mars Confectionery (Europe).

We covered technical joint ventures, customer satisfaction, ROI, and other manufacturing and supply-chain issues for digital packaging. All of the comments were valuable, but some of the most significant insights came from what the Kraft and Mars panelists had to say.

These two giant CPG companies understand what digital printing can do for them, have experimented with it, and are open to learning more about it. Nevertheless, persuading them to commit to digital packaging production will not be easy. As high-volume producers, they are and will remain tied to conventional printing and converting methods. They have quality requirements, cost-reduction targets, and legal and regulatory obligations that digital print service providers must prove they can meet as satisfactorily as conventional packaging manufacturers have done.

Guarantees of faster speed to market, reduced waste, simplified inventorying, and improved sustainability will have to accompany any pitch on behalf of digital printing to companies like Mars and Kraft. These are the objectives that digital press manufacturers and their printer customers are working together to achieve. We came away from Digital Print for Packaging with a better understanding that while digital production will never sell itself, there are ways to position it for broader adoption by packaged-goods producers of all sizes and product specialties.