The year now ending was full of intriguing stories about advances in production technologies for labels and packaging. In this recap, we present a series of them not as a cross-section of progress on all fronts, but as a cherry-picked sample meant to give a more general idea of how solutions for packaging are evolving. The links are to stories that have appeared throughout the year in the Labels & Packaging section of WhatTheyThink.

A glance down the list indicates that most of the highest-profile news has been occurring on the digital side, especially in solutions for label printing. Today, digitally produced packaging represents only a small percentage of the total volume. But, its share is certain to grow as printers, converters, and most importantly, brand owners learn to apply the unique advantages of digital printing to packaging projects in short and long runs.

No project better illustrated this potential than the campaign in which Anheuser-Busch used mass-customized printing to turn 200,000 cans of Bud Light into one-of-a-kind souvenirs for a series of music festivals. HP Inc. furnished the technology in the form an HP Indigo WS6800 digital press and HP SmartStream Mosaic design software. SmartStream Mosaic transformed 31 can designs into 31 million possible graphics, more than enough to guarantee that no two of the 200,000 shrink sleeves for the cans as printed on the WS6800 would be alike. This was the first use of HP SmartStream Mosaic for mass customization by a U.S. brand.

An indication of just how seamless and efficient the developers think digital printing can be was seen in Xeikon’s announcement of a concept it calls Fusion Technology. The idea—or the aspiration—behind it is to combine production modules in a label printing and finishing solution that is integrated not just in the mechanical sense, but also in terms of its ability to process a job as a bundle of steps executed in a single-pass sequence by the system itself.

Because everything is contained in a single digital file that controls all functions, printing and embellishing could be fully automated and unattended. According to Xeikon, this would make it possible to produce virtually any label or package on demand with or without variable elements.

This certainly would be an impressive accomplishment. However, no litany of digital breakthroughs could be loud enough to drown out the roar of conventional presses as they continue to dominate in long-run packaging production.

That message came through loud and clear in Nicholasville, KY, where packaging printer RockTenn set a pair of records in folding carton production on a KBA Rapida 164 press: 9 million sheets in a single month and 357,000 sheets in a single day. Laid end to end, 9 million sheets would span 142,500 football fields or match three cross-country flights from New York to Los Angeles.

The conventional production story isn’t exclusively about long runs. Press automation, sophisticated digital workflows, and onboard quality monitoring systems are making offset and flexo equipment faster to set up and quicker to change over from job to job. These features, along with greatly reduced percentages of start-up waste, turn late-model conventional presses into options for production in smaller volumes as well. Adding inline inkjetting gives them variable data printing (VDP) capability, making them more competitive with digital in some applications.

Here, then, are highlights from a most interesting year in packaging production technology:

Label printing solutions from Nilpeter now include the Panorama line, announced this year. Panorama can be either a stand-alone DP-3 digital UV inkjet press or the press with integrated finishing assets. Intended for short to medium runs, the system prints rolls of paper or film label stocks up to 12.67" wide at 164 fpm. Inline finishing modules include web infeed, varnishing unit, the innovative QC-Die-cutting system, smart matrix stripping, length slitting, varnishing unit, and small roll dual rewinds.

The U.K.-based developer FFEI Ltd., a Fujifilm subsidiary, offered a stepped-up version of its Graphium hybrid digital inkjet label press, which it first introduced in 2013. The press consists of pre-digital flexo stations, a six-color inkjet digital system, and post-digital flexo stations with foiling and rotary diecutting. The improved version featured a new labeling workflow and faster running speeds. The workflow software is said to automate production to a point where only minimal intervention is needed to go from digital files to complex finished labels.

Omet is known primarily for its flexo label presses. But at a “welcome to the future event” in its native Italy, the company expanded its offset portfolio with the unveiling of the Varyflex V2 offset press. It combines flexo and offset printing by means of sleeve-mounted plates. Print widths can be 26" to 33" at speeds up to 1,300 fpm. Omet also introduced the iFLEX label printer, a narrow-web flexo press designed for quick setup and very low start-up waste.

Flexographic press maker Mark Andy introduced the Performance Series P4, a servo-driven, highly automated press aimed at mid-sized label printers and converters. The manufacturer says that its extremely fast setup and changeover times that improve productivity by 60%, making it a two-for-one replacement for older flexo equipment.

There was a major upgrade to IC3D Suite, a real-time 3D packaging design and visualization software solution from Creative Edge Software. Made to transform 2D graphic art into 3D renderings of finished package shapes, the templated software comes as a complete suite for all packaging types or in a dedicated edition for folding cartons. An “Image Based Lighting” feature creates realistic lighting effects in real time for both for packaging visualization and for box shots to be used in marketing and sales presentations.

From a printing company rather than from a mainstream technology developer comes FoldedColor, a solution for bringing folding cartons into a web-to-print production workflow. The browser-based system lets buyers of cartons design and 3D-proof them for offset printing in a proprietary extended gamut of seven colors. The W2P process is claimed to enable customers to save 70% off competitive prices on short-run carton orders of 50 to 15,000 pieces. FoldedColor Packaging is a division of Thoro Packaging, a folding carton producer since 1967.

Heidelberg, well established in offset label production, broke into the digital label equipment market with the launch of the DCS 340 label press by its subsidiary, Gallus. The hybrid DCS 340 combines Fujifilm inkjet technology, flexo components from Gallus, and a Heidelberg Prinect DFE in a system that prints with UV inks at speeds up to 164 fpm with resolutions as high as 2,400 x 2,400 dpi. Fully integrated finishing processes include varnishing, laminating, foiling, diecutting, rewinding, and slitting.

Bobst came out with a sheetfed press for printing in four colors directly onto sheets of coated and uncoated corrugated board up to 51" x 83" (1.3 x 2.1 meters) at a top speed of over 600 fpm. Kodak supplies its Screen Inkjet Technology. The press is in beta test in Europe.

Xeikon placed the first Cheetah digital label press in North America by installing one at Accu-Label in Fort Wayne, IN. As its name suggests, the Cheetah is a fast machine at 98 fpm. It can print in five colors of dry toner in integration with finishing equipment for end-to-end label production.

The Colordyne 2600 Series Mini Press from Colordyne Technologies made its debut mid-year at a packaging show in New York City. Billed as an out-of-the-box, easy-to-operate label production system, the Mini Press runs at 60 fpm with resolutions up to 1,600 x 1,600 dpi.

MatteSilver and PalladiumSilver joined the option for printing in color on Xeikon digital presses. In addition to these, the machines now can print standard CMYK, spot colors, and what Xeikon calls “technical colors”: for example, one-pass opaque white, UV reflecting clear, or security colors.

Color-Logic made its metallic-ink look available for flexible films and shrink-wrap materials. The software-based Color-Logic system uses five inks—CMYK plus white or silver—to create 250 metallic colors with a variety of special effects.

Bottling beer in PET plastic containers is an innovation in many beer-consuming markets, and so is directly printing on them with high-resolution inkjet. The former distinction is claimed by Martens Brouwerij, a Belgian beer maker, and the latter by KHS GmbH, a manufacturer of filling and packaging systems. KHS’s direct printing system for Martens Brouwerij uses Xaar printheads to jet text and images in CMYK plus white onto the PET containers in low-migration, LED-cured inks at the rate of 12,000 bottles per hour. Claimed resolution is 360 dpi physical and 1,080 dpi optical.

For single-pass, inline inkjetting on conventional web and sheetfed label presses, there now is the Xaar Print Bar System—an array of Xaar 1002 printheads that can be positioned anywhere on the press for a variety of printing applications and special effects. Print widths in single and dual configurations range from 2.75" to 22", and top printing speed can be close to 250 fpm. Jettable are spot colors, protective lacquers, high-build spot varnish, high-opacity under-surface whites, cold foil adhesives, and metallics, among other inks and fluids.

From EFI came what the company says is the first fully inline LED inkjet digital printing system with integrated laser cutting and finishing: the Jetrion 4950LX LED narrow-web press. Printing webs up to 13" wide at 164 fpm, the system uses a 1000-watt laser to do the diecutting after “cool cure” printing in four colors of UV ink plus white. Inline varnishing and lamination are available as optional modules.

Those looking for a digital “roll-to-roll print embellishment solution” for labels and flexible packaging may find one in the JETvarnish 3DW and iFOIL W system previewed this year by MGI. With it, says the manufacturer, 2D spot UV coating, 3D embossed varnish textures, and embossed foil effects can be applied in one pass. The system’s variable-data capability permits variable foiling and other special effects. Production takes place in widths from 4” to 17” at speeds up to 65 fpm. A built-in flexo priming station pre-treats label substrates that need pre-treating.

The iGen4 digital color production press from Xerox isn’t usually thought of as a packaging machine, but the fact is that the iGen platform has been marketed to folding carton converters for that purpose since 2009. At open-house events in Europe this year, Xerox and customers demonstrated how the iGen4 can be used to print short runs of cartons quickly and economically. The press’s VDP capability was shown to be of special value for coding pharmaceutical packages and other kinds of cartons needing serialized or personalized printing.

Last but impossible to call “least” by any definition is the PageWide Web Press T1100S from HP Inc. and Koenig & Bauer AG. Unveiled this month, the T1100S is a 110" wide inkjet press designed to print top sheets for corrugated containers—a multibillion-dollar market where HP and KBA see a very large untapped opportunity for digital printing. The T110S, which easily is the most massive digital printing machine yet developed, is slated for general commercial availability in 2018.

Those trying to keep up with packaging printing technologies may find that two-year window to be a relief, because they are certain to have their hands full in 2016 with news from Labelexpo Americas, drupa, Digital Print for Packaging US, Graph Expo, and what surely will be an avalanche of vendor announcements tied to these events. WhatTheyThink will continue to stay on top of all of it with the industry’s best lineup of packaging-focused reporting, video journalism, and commentary.