A number of years ago I did a study at Cal Poly to identify all graphic communication industry segments. I came up a total of 35. They range from long-standing segments, some of which are on the brink of no longer being active, to the latest and most vibrant segments that are defining the present and future of the industry. 

Of these 35 segments, 27 have traditionally focused on print. Of the 27, the only segments that have not been negatively impacted by the Internet and have grown in spite of online marketing are those related to packaging: label printing, folding carton printing, flexible package printing, and corrugated box printing. All of the others have declined, and some have nearly disappeared entirely.

The packaging industry is growing rapidly and does not show signs of slowing down any time soon.

According to Smithers Pira, the estimated worth of digitally printed packaging in 2013 was $6.6 billion. This is forecast to more than double to $14.4 billion by 2018.

Labels accounted for the bulk of digital printing market share in 2013, with their value expected to be $6 billion in 2018, or 89.6% of all digital packaging. Currently, label and packaging converters worldwide invoice over $2 billion annually for the output of their color digital presses. While about 95% percent of that value is for labels for consumer goods, the folding carton and flexible packaging applications are also growing rapidly through digital printing.

According to Smithers Pira, analog packaging is also growing by about 28% per year. This growth is expected to continue through 2018, while all digitally produced packaging is expected to increase by 375% by 2018. This expected growth explains why many OEMs are developing digital equipment for the main packaging industry segments.

The three traditional processes for package printing, flexography, gravure, and lithography, will continue to be vital and needed, particularly for static and long-run printing. However, their market share will gradually diminish as digital printing processes advance in size, speed, and flexibility.

Digital printing is already well established in label production, and electrophotography and inkjet are enjoying growing shares of market value. Growth in these processes is expected to reach over 27% in 2018. Of the world market for digital package printing, the Western European market exceeded $920 million in 2013, with Germany remaining the largest market for all print in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States is the single largest country for print and packaging and is by the far the most developed market for digital printing. The United States market is forecasted to grow to $3.38 billion by 2018.

Electrophotography and inkjet are improving in both quality and speed, and larger systems and presses becoming available are challenging the dominance of offset, wide-web flexography, and gravure. In 2010, the digital processes accounted for $166 million for color digital presses alone, and have been growing by over 10% a year since then. Converters now often use color digital presses in tandem with their analog systems, and some converters operate electrophotographic and inkjet presses. Companies such as Agfa, EFI, HP Indigo, Xeikon, Xanté, and Xerox are only a few of the OEMs developing electrophotographic and inkjet printing press technologies.

An interesting development is under way that traditional press manufacturers focusing on the packaging industry should take notice of. These would be the OEMs of analog gravure, flexographic, and offset lithographic presses. Many have been the mainstays of press technology for the packaging industry segments of folding carton, flexible package, label, and corrugated board printing.

Whereas the advantage of digital presses has been touted to create a short-run market for packaging, the traditional press manufacturers continued to see the need to produce analog presses to serve long runs. Such presses are very expensive and bring in millions of dollars in revenue to the press manufacturers. Indeed, these traditional presses, many comprised of numerous printing stations beyond four units, cost in excess of $1 million, with many costing multiple millions of dollars. However, this dynamic is changing with digital presses now being developed to serve the long-run packaging market.

“Million-dollar” high-end presses are now redefining the role of digital printing in packaging. The number of such packaging presses is growing internationally, and all of them are designed to print larger image areas on larger paper sizes for folding cartons and flexible packaging. Further, there has been the development of high-end digital printing presses that print directly to corrugated board in full color, and on cans, bottles, packaging tubes, and other packaging shapes. These are all color digital presses, but with prices of between $1 million and $4 million.

Hence, the market for long-run packaging now has digital options not previously available, and these represent competition and a threat to OEMs of traditional analog presses for packaging. The output speed and productivity of such presses have grown to compete with traditional presses as well. For example, the 1.8-meter-wide EFI Nozomi C18000 LED inkjet press can output up to 9,000 boards per hour. The Konica Minolta KM-C inkjet press can output up to 2,200 cardboard and microflute boards per hour.

Some of these press developments have come from industries outside of the printing industry, and particularly from product developers seeking more packaging automation, such as the beverage industry.

The introduction of “million-dollar” digital packaging presses will bring about a fundamental market shift. Placements will be small in relation to digital label presses, but growth is expected. To justify their cost, their output will far exceed the package printing volume that a digital label press, designed for short-run production, can achieve.

Target products for these presses are expected to be bottles and corrugated boxes. Such presses will also appeal to large companies with revenues of $10 million or more that are new to creating production-level digital printing for packaging, such as can manufacturers and folding carton converters. It is expected that higher-performance digital presses will enter the market at an accelerated rate.

Finishing processes are very important in producing the complete package. Therefore, with advances in digital press development for packaging must come advances in finishing processes. Finishing is vital because it influences package design, the placement of products in packages, the storability of packages in stores and in the home, and the effect of packages on consumer purchases.

Laminations, coatings, diecutting, spot varnishes, folding, scoring, and other finishing techniques are vital capabilities for effective package production. For example, the TRESU iCoat 30000 now offers protective and spot varnish in one pass as well as new enhancement capabilities with gold, silver, and other high-viscosity flexographic inks. The HP Indigo 30000 Digital Press is also compatible with HP partner converting solutions for creasing, folding, gluing, and integration with AVT's inline inspection system.

Another example is HP Indigo Pack Ready Lamination. Because it creates a film that does not require curing, it connects directly to an inline form, fill, and seal (FFS) machine to produce pouches with no lag time. The Pack Ready Lamination process combines different films, each providing a different functionality (print quality for shelf appeal, protection of food for longer shelf life, sealant film to melt together with heat, etc.), just as converters do. The quality of the bond strength between substrates being joined is key, as lamination failure could lead to compromised food. This is not acceptable for food manufacturers.

Traditional lamination for flexible packaging, such as solvent-based lamination, requires a curing process that can take a few days, a week, or even 10 days for high-end applications. Such a wait time to cure lengthens time to market. Hence, a huge advantage of digital printing is reduced time waiting for curing to occur.

Pack Ready Lamination requires no time for curing. Its advantage is the combination of film and a specially designed thermoplastic polymer resin layer that HP developed. This is HP-owned intellectual property that the company plans to license to selected Pack Ready partners.

In this process, lamination speeds can reach 386 feet (100 meters) per minute. Because it is solvent-free, it does not generate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are irritating to operators. HP claims that the process can be used for high-quality, zero-curing, food-grade package lamination by inexperienced converters or packagers. HP expects Pack Ready Lamination to be commercially available next year. 

The growth and success of the consumer packaging industry is related to the industrial, capitalistic, and market-driven interests and values of the Western World and the expansion of these values to Asia, Europe, and elsewhere. As populations increase in size and consumers in industrialized regions enjoy growing income, packaging demand continues to rise. In more developed regions, average household sizes are falling, reducing the size of average print runs and therefore playing to the strengths of digital packaging. 

It is not expected that these interests and values will change, nor will the ongoing growth of the consumer packaging industry in the decades ahead.