A New Window of Opportunity for Digital
While flexible packaging has been traditionally entrusted to conventional processes like flexography and rotogravure, the increased popularity of the format, its versatility and a need to run more jobs faster is fueling the need to print more flexible packaging jobs digitally.
Digital on the rise
“Converters have been forced to respond more quickly to lead time on orders, and newer designs,” explains Roy Oomen category manager for the HP Indigo 20000, a wide-web digital press intended for the flexible packaging market. “More packaging is shifting from rigid to flexible, with brands deciding to use new vehicles for delivery to consumer.”
Oomen notes how some converters have already started making the shift with narrow-web machines. For example, he says some 13˝-wide web presses have been utilized for the printing of smaller pouches, including coffee, cosmetics, sachets, stick packs, and others. Other customers have used digital printing to print labels for blank pouches. Not the most efficient use of the technology, perhaps, but one that satisfies a customer’s immediate need.
He explains that these changes in the flexible packaging segment have developed some momentum, enabling medium and small-sized brands to create pouches complete with full graphic decoration.
“These are changes in some very specific vertical markets,” Oomen states. “You can argue whether the changes are printer driven or market driven, or a combination of the two, aided by press availability. But what is clear is that the markets are asking for solutions.”
No plates, no problem
With about 30 installations worldwide, approximately 70 percent of Indigo 20000s have been placed in flexographic environments. Although digital printing is not yet a widespread choice for flexible packaging, these early adopters could signify a new trend of combining flexible package printing technologies under one roof.
While most of these converters prefer to remain anonymous while they develop and refine their digital techniques, one company, Innovative Labeling Solutions (ILS) is happy to share some insights. ILS is a label and flexible packaging printer in Hamilton, OH that received the first U.S., installation of a 20000 in the summer of 2014. In addition to the new business opportunities the new printing capabilities provided, ILS President Jay Dollries says he has enjoyed the way digital printing can make flexible packaging more of an art.
“It’s exciting to give creative people the opportunity to do really neat and exciting things within a package,” he says.
Forward thinking is the norm at ILS, which was among those packaging companies that first tried digital printing for flexible packaging with a smaller press in 2008.
The smaller web had some limitations in run lengths and in what types of flexible packaging could be run digitally, recalls Dollries. Now, by adding the wide-web press, ILS has been able to nearly triple the volume of labels it can run digitally and can handle flexible packaging runs of up to 150,000 feet.
In addition to expanding the run lengths for both labels and flexible packaging, Dollries says digital printing allows brands to make graphical adjustments at a fraction of the cost when compared to conventional methods of printing.
“On a wide-web flexo press, those plates are expensive,” he states. “[In using the digital press], we allow a lot of flexibility within a product launch. In normal scenarios when they launch a product, [customers] can’t just go back and change the look of the product as they get feedback from the market because it’s so expensive to change it.”
Moving long runs to the digital machine is not just a benefit to the brand owner, though. Oomen explains that converters adding digital printing for flexible packaging typically see an increase in equipment optimization across their conventional presses.
For example, moving even one run of 30,000 or 40,000 feet from conventional to digital, can add several hours of availability on a big flexo press.
“Unlike many commercial printers, most of these flexographic printers are growing, and there is more topline business,” says Oomen. “So these organizations need to add capacity, shifts, or more conventional lines. What the digital press does, especially as a printer is close to capacity [on conventional presses], is let him free up hours on the conventional asset.”
Increased design potential