Finding the Right Digital Printing Fit
Though determining the right technology fit for a printing operation consists of several considerations, in the package printing/converting segment, it is also dependent on what the operation specializes in among labels, flexible packaging, folding cartons, or corrugated. While conventional technology maintains a strong role in package printing, there is increasing digital adoption in this segment due to a multitude of options on the market. To help printers evaluate these digital options, Packaging Impressions spoke with multiple industry consultants, who weighed in on current adoption, and what must be considered and discussed before making a purchase.
The Road to Digital Adoption
The PRINTING United Alliance/NAPCO Research report, “Digital Package Printing – The Time is NOW!” found that many package printer/converter respondents were operating a mix of digital and conventional printing technologies, indicating that both have important roles in satisfying customer needs. When asked the type of equipment they were using to print labels and packaging, 51% indicated using digital toner/electrophotographic (EP) equipment, 48% said digital inkjet, 11% used digital hybrid standalone, and 4% used digital hybrid retrofit. On the conventional side, 49% used narrow- or mid-web flexo equipment and 42% were using sheetfed offset.
Among the reasons package printers are utilizing digital technology, Lisa Cross, principal analyst, NAPCO Research, has observed are “shorter run lengths, faster turnaround times, demand for more versions or stock-keeping units, and personalization in the form of serialization and numbers.” Other indicated advantages have included the quality and demand for markups and prototypes.
But these reasons shouldn’t be the sole drivers behind purchasing a particular digital technology. When it comes to determining the right fit amid the staggering number of digital technology suppliers, Kevin Karstedt, founder and CEO of business consulting and research firm Karstedt Partners, and Digital Packaging Summit (DPS) conference co-chair, says businesses should ask, “What do I want to do with digital? What problem is it going to solve for me? Are my customers asking me for it, or demanding that I do it?”
Another question is whether the business actually has those short runs that are increasing in prevalence. “Not all businesses thrive on short runs,” Karstedt adds, noting that there are companies that do low-cost high-volume work really well, and it’s what their customers need.
Personalization, he says, is also not the only reason to get digital. “It’ll be an offshoot, it’ll happen, but hardly anybody is doing personalization and one-to-one, making a box, and sending it to you [with your name and customized items],” he adds. “Some are, but the vast majority of [package printing] is not being done that way.”
This is where it’s important, he says, for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers to emphasize the pragmatic and important uses of digital, such as flexibility, versus “the special bells and whistles.” “Converters don’t think that way — brand owners do,” he says. “[OEMs and suppliers] have to have the right message that’s resonating with the people that are buying it.”
Cross explains that in some cases, package printers invest in a digital press that may have several exciting features, but is not the best fit for their book of business. With so many digital options now available, she says that it’s important to consider the advantages of each before making an investment.
“A lot of times what we see in some of our research is that people will invest in a press that’s like a Ferrari when they need a pickup truck,” she says. “They don’t invest in the right thing. They might not need all that power and all that speed or have that run length, but they’re not looking or evaluating that investment on what they’re hoping to accomplish and what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, and who their target customers are.”
Package printers/converters, Karstedt says, are generally trying to figure out a way to alleviate pressures they have in their manufacturing process. In other words, plants having the flexibility to react more quickly to short-run demands, which is where he says digital shines, especially single-pass technologies.
He also cautions printers to not get caught up in the “crossover point” — where the order cost and volume of analog meets those of digital when comparing these print methods.
“Look at the overall benefit of digital and not just the printing capability of the digital,” says Karstedt. “We’re seeing this take place in corrugated now, it is already done in the labels market, and we’re trying to coach the folding carton and flexible folks to put less importance on the crossover point, and more importance on understanding what your customers are needing and what they’re doing. The opportunity that will come may not be visible right now, but will open up to you, if you don’t have your blinders on.”
Breaking Down Digital by Segment
Digital adoption among the packaging segments can be put on a scale, says Karstedt, where one side is the developed market, and the other is developing. On the developed side, he says, is the labels market, in which more than half the printers are utilizing digital, many being on their second-, third-, or even fourth-generation digital press.
It is in this well-established market that Marco Boer, VP of business consulting and research firm I.T. Strategies, and DPS co-chair, says hybrid inkjet technology — inkjet mounted on flexo — plays a strong role, due to the “faster, more productive technology.”
“For those who have a high volume of digital label business, hybrid systems tend to have lower running costs,” he says.
Though they are not as prevalent in other markets, Karstedt also attests to the hybrid presses’ increasing presence in the label sector, as it eliminates complexities, stations, and staffing in the process.
“There’s actually a move to take and bolt digital onto an analog press,” he adds. “You take a digital engine, and you bolt it onto an analog press in a place that you can do it that utilizes the best of both worlds. Mark Andy just came out with a product that can bolt onto an existing web-fed label press, and [add] variable information. Memjet is also building those types of products to bolt onto existing presses. It’s happening to a lesser extent, but has the potential to happen in the flexible packaging market.”
EP and standalone inkjet are also options for label printing, Boer says, which have a lower acquisition cost compared to hybrid inkjet, with less volume needed to break even. Thus, they are lower-risk starting points for converters starting in digital label printing.
Digital, Boer says, also presents an attractive option for traditional commercial printers looking to expand in a new market amid declines in document printing. “Packaging is a great long-term sustainable business, but [they] don’t know anything about it, and can’t really automate it. So, [they’re] going to buy a much-lower capital cost of equipment to de-risk that first investment,” he says, adding that more entry-level type machines — meaning less than $250,000 digital label printers — can be a very good fit for this group.
“Remember, when you get into packaging, it’s really not about printing, it’s really all about converting,” he adds. “The printing only accounts typically for maybe 20% of the end user price of that finished product, so the real value is in converting, but you can’t get there unless you have the digital printing to do short runs.”
Single-pass — used by virtually all inkjet label printers — says Boer, is also becoming common in corrugated printing, the second fastest-growing market for digital adoption. “Serial inkjet, which uses a lot fewer printheads that move serially across the substrate being printed — unlike single-pass inkjet heads, which are fixed across the substrate print width — has been around for more than a decade in the form of UV-curable flatbed printers,” he adds. “They can print lots of things, including corrugated point-of-purchase displays and boxes. As a technology, it works fine, but it is too slow to economically address the mass-volume box printing industry.”
With inkjet, there is also the consideration of whether to use UV or aqueous inks. Karstedt says aqueous is not necessarily good for printing on a porous board or paper product, drawing a comparison to dropping water on a tissue, where it will spread. “It’s not good for image resolution,” he adds. “That means you would have to precoat that in order to have aqueous inks work, [and] precoating brings added costs and added manufacturing difficulties to the process.”
Post-coating that ensures the packaging stays protected in transit is another aspect he says to take into account when considering technologies.
Boer attributes a lot of the corrugated market’s tremendous interest and growth in single-pass inkjet presses — which can produce tens of thousands of boards per hour — to new packaging models, like subscription services. “There’s a huge interest in that, particularly when it comes to what we call the ‘unboxing experience,’” he says, meaning customization or versioning that makes customers feel good about the products in lieu of having the salesperson/retail experience.
Meanwhile, corrugated pre-print, Boer says, “is a whole different animal. It is effectively web-offset printing, but in this case, using ultra-high-speed roll-fed inkjet. You print on paper rolls — rather than corrugated boards — and the printed roll is then laminated onto a corrugated roll, after which it is cut and finished. HP is the only company commercially selling a pre-printed corrugated system. BHS has announced it is making one, but it is still a few years out from commercial availability.”
Direct digital printing of corrugated is also on the rise, Karstedt says, stating that the industry can expect to see that trend continue.
“On the corrugated side, every year for the next two or three years, there’s probably going to be two or three new OEM suppliers trying to get into the market,” says Karstedt, noting these will come from China and Europe. “You have the ones that are here already, such as Barberán, HP, and EFI. Domino’s just getting into the market and Xeikon just announced that they’re getting into [it]. There’s probably eight now; in two years, there will probably be 12, and then my guess is it will start consolidating down.”
Following corrugated in digital adoption is flexible packaging, which Karstedt says is due to the few major players — “the ePacs of the world” — embracing digital for very specific use and helping it to evolve and grow.
“At the moment that’s mostly a toner-based application for digital printing,” says Boer, also nodding to the example of ePac’s short-run pouches in the artisanal foods industry. “But ultimately, we’re going to need more capacity, more volume, and so that’s where inkjet is going to play a very strong role, but it’s early days.”
Regarding inkjet, since flexible packaging is mostly food-related, Boer says, it requires aqueous inks which don’t like to stick to plastic film. “The faster you print, the more difficult it is for the inks to stick. Kodak and its partner Uteco, a traditional flexo press manufacturer, have developed a hybrid system as a concept. Other manufacturers will likely take a standalone approach since it will be less complicated technically to start with a lower productivity, contained system.”
Karstedt also notes to either look at aqueous inkjet, or liquid EP and dry toner technology — such as HP Indigo or Xeikon — when producing any type of food and primary packaging.
Meanwhile, the folding carton market, Karstedt says, has yet to really embrace digital, “mostly because there isn’t a real good solution out there for them just yet. There are a few really early adopters doing it. But for the most part, it’s a non-issue.”
Folding cartons, Boer adds, is a more challenging market for digital because it’s oversupplied with offset. “And because packaging as a whole is far more profitable [compared to general commercial/document printing], it allows you to basically be less efficient for a much longer time without having to make these bigger sort of investment decisions to move into digital printing to handle short runs and versioning and even [one-to-ones].”
HP Indigo, with its liquid electrophotographic systems, as well as Xerox and Xeikon with dry toner are among the manufacturers with options in this space, notes Karstedt.
For the most part in the package printing industry, Karstedt says, new technologies are going to be inkjet, adding that where possible, they’re going to be aqueous, and where needed, they’ll be UV inkjet. “And there’s new technologies coming out that will probably have hybrid inks that are aqueous, or that are UV and dry with different monomers to make it food safe.”
Aqueous, he adds, is much cheaper to manufacture, and the high-volume use of inkjet wants to be aqueous because of the economies of scale. “It can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of UV, and it’s more recyclable,” he says. “Companies that are really green-oriented are saying they want to go with aqueous.”
Examining Larger-Scale Impacts
In addition to an operation’s offerings, challenges, and customer demands, there are larger-scale issues that will have an impact on the package printing/converting market and its technology, says Boer. One example he offers is the dramatic increase in packaging during COVID-19 due to changing habits.
Civic engagement, particularly from millennials, he says, has also brought environmental sustainability to the forefront. “That is the buzzword in every single major consumer packaging company’s board room,” says Boer, which is leading suppliers to reduce their carbon footprints, and the amount of material that goes into packaging.
“Another big piece of this is we want greater recyclability of our materials,” says Boer. And while good for society, “the more challenging part of that is we have to come up with technologies that allow those packaging materials and the ink that goes on [them] to be recycled.”
And, potentially changing materials to make them more recyclable means continuing up the learning curve of what can and can’t be printed on, and how to address the latter.
Having less material, in some instances, also means much thinner substrates that will be more difficult to run through current printing systems. “In other cases, you’re going to have thicker substrates because you’re removing the outer packaging or secondary packaging,” adds Boer. “All of that is going to have very significant implications upon our printing and converting processes.”
It is all these unknowns, and considerations in technology, that make conferences like the 2021 Digital Packaging Summit (Nov. 8-10; Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.) a must for connecting package printers/converters with their peers and OEMs and suppliers, especially in a continually evolving industry. “What you knew 12 months ago isn’t going to hold true today,” says Boer.
Having the chance to listen to renowned experts, along with equipment, material, and software suppliers in this industry enables attendees to learn market trends beyond what they’re exposed to in their own day-to-day business, and ultimately determine who will be a collaborative partner for their business, he adds.
“At the end of the day, we need to make sure that as a converter industry, we’re able to meet all of these different needs that the consumer goods manufacturers ultimately are going to require,” says Boer. “And the only way we can do that is No. 1 to invest in understanding what all these trends are. Learning what all the implications are with regard to conventional and digital printing technology, and then making prudent investment decisions to prepare for the future.”