Editor’s note: the following is adapted from a presentation by the author at the Paperboard Packaging Council’s Technical and Production Forum: Digital, Report on Drupa, and Driving Growth 

Every drupa I’ve ever attended has had an unofficial subtitle that highlighted a key area of emerging technology at the show. In 2008, for example, we took to calling it “the inkjet drupa” because of the range of inkjet-based production systems that were coming to market then. Eight years later, the slogan that fits the event best is “the digital packaging drupa.”

Digital solutions for packaging were all over the drupa 2016 fairgrounds, and for the first time, the story wasn’t mostly about labels. We now have direct-to-corrugated systems such as Barberan’s Jetmaster and EFI Jetrion’s Nozomi. We saw what’s becoming possible for folding carton production in devices like the HP Indigo 30000 and the Landa S10 Nanographic platforms. Speaking volumes is the fact that the three leading manufacturers of sheetfed offset equipment—Heidelberg, KBA, and Komori—showed off their own technologies for digital packaging printing. 

It’s clear that digital presses are now solidly established as tools for packaging production. A bit less clear is what will motivate packaging printers to adopt them. At drupa, the manufacturers emphasized personalization through variable-data printing as a key selling point. It’s one of them, to be sure, but personalization isn’t primarily what will drive installation of these machines.

The number one benefit that packaging printers are seeking from digital equipment is operational relief for their analog workloads. Packaging printers everywhere are facing demands for shorter runs, but they still have their long-run work to do. Trying to produce both on a flexo or an offset press means that the analog machine won’t be operating at full profitability 100% of the time—the shorter the run, the costlier the job on a per-piece basis. That’s where the need for relief arises.

Shifting the challenging short-run jobs to a digital press accomplishes two things: it provides a way to print smaller volumes cost efficiently, and it lets the analog pressroom concentrate entirely on long runs. Both processes are put to their most profitable use, and the printer makes more money. Small wonder that nearly three-quarters of those who responded to a Karstedt Partners survey of Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) members said that addressing operational needs would be their main reason for investing in a digital press.

In this survey, we also wanted to find out what packaging printers define as a “short run.” Depending on what was being counted, the average response was either 7,800 cartons or 4,300 sheets. The consensus was that any job under 5,000 sheets represented a short run. The respondents said that runs meeting this description accounted for an average of 15% of total volume shipped and 25% of jobs processed.

PPC members have always been very good at putting numbers on their folding-carton output. This is why they don’t expect their short-run numbers to remain static. Nearly all of the respondents—including those who said that they thrive on long-run work—agreed that low-volume production is now part of the packaging printing business model. More than 80% said that demand for short-run work would increase. All of the packaging solutions we saw at drupa are designed to help them meet that demand. 

There’s more to coping with changes in volume than just putting inkjet ink or toner on substrates. About 25% of our respondents said that adding digital capability also helped with order entry—the process of receiving jobs and preparing them to join the plant’s print manufacturing workflow.

It’s an important insight. Digital printing changes everything—marketing strategies, pricing, sales compensation. But, nothing changes as dramatically as the number of jobs moving through the plant.

Combining short-run digital volume with the output of an efficient conventional press department could put hundreds of new jobs into the pipeline every week—a production manager’s nightmare. The good news is the digital front ends and workflow architectures that come with the printing equipment give managers the tools they need for keeping throughput under control.

Packaging printers are optimistic about what digital production can do for them. Although operational relief is the main motivation, nearly half of the respondents who said their digital volumes would grow also viewed adopting digital printing as an offensive move: a step enabling them to break into other markets besides folding cartons. They identified labels, flexible film, shrink sleeves, and litho lamination as prime digital printing opportunities, 

Something to keep in mind when forecasting the future of digital print for packaging is that the norms and parameters of print manufacturing aren’t what they used to be. For example, we used to associate digital printing exclusively with short runs and personalization. But, one look at a T-series inkjet web press from HP tells us that this form of digital printing is principally about high-volume production, with variable content or without it.

The analog press manufacturers aren’t sitting still either when it comes to turning run-length rules upside down. Conventional presses are still oriented to high-volume production, but the newer ones are getting amazingly good at producing in small quantities as well. A Karstedt Partners client recently installed a 54" sheetfed press for just this purpose. This machine turns out up 20 jobs a day, all of them short-run. Methodical prepress and platemaking support keeps production uninterrupted—and profitable.

There is always a pent-up demand for operational efficiency in packaging printing. The takeaway from drupa 2016 is that both digital and conventional production technologies are giving packaging printers new ways of achieving the efficiencies they want. How individual companies go about doing it will be a fascinating trend to follow.