Operational Guide: Digital Printing as an Alternative for Packaging Manufacturers
In a package printing market that is becoming increasingly crowded, the need for efficient printing operations is more pressing than ever. Digital printing has become a viable alternative for many packaging manufacturers looking to optimize the production of their products. Understanding the markets for digitally printed packaging can help manufacturers make better decisions about their current printing operations and future investments.
Furthermore, as Robert Seay, vice president of digital print solutions for Atlanta-based Hummingbird, explains, potential applications for digitally printed packaging
“There are a lot of possibilities of where digital can go in the market, and they all haven’t come to fruition,” says Seay. “We’re starting to see more of a need for it and the ability to deliver effectively for customers.”
One of the biggest changes Seay has seen in digital printing is around corrugated packaging, noting that thanks to digital printing, packaging can be launched in the market in a matter of weeks, and aggregated batching allows for creative flexibility while eliminating packaging obsolescence and warehouse needs.
“Pretty much all short run and displays on some level [are] handled by digital; it’s the efficient way to do it,” he says. “The other key thing is lithographic labels — and a lot of lamination and its associated converting supply chains — can be rethought. Where you might have labeled multiple large-form boxes in the past, a lot is being replaced by digital. You can do it on a three-ply board or liner, and corrugate it with preprint.”
Another big trend Seay has seen take root recently is e-commerce boxes, which are now printed more with digital, with benefits being easier for double-sided, personalization, and higher-end graphics that can’t be done with traditional flexo.
Kristi Duvall, vice president of sales for The BoxMaker, headquartered in Kent, Washington, notes pent-up demand is also invigorating existing markets. Clients that haven’t done much with rebranding or refreshing market testing and launching new products, she explains, are looking to digital to speed those efforts to market.
Expressing honest admiration for his peers, Ed Zumbiel, president of digital packaging for Zumbiel Packaging, Hebron, Kentucky, notes ePac and its digital-based production model is an inspiration to digital evangelists everywhere.
“The ePac concept utilizes digital print (HP 20000 Electroink presses) to capture short-run flexible packaging business that analog printing is not well-suited to produce,” he says. “For sure, this is a niche application — albeit a very sizable niche — but niches are where we are going to see digital print make its greatest advancements until such time as digital consumables reach relative parity with analog.”
Digital has evolved from small-format, toner-based units, which many considered glorified color copiers, and multi-pass inkjet contraptions, to present-day high-speed, single-pass industrial machines. The actual print engines, whether continuous or drop on-demand inkjet, can now achieve the production speeds required by high-volume packaging producers.
Mark Turk, president and CEO of International Label & Printing Co., Elk Grove Village, Illinois, shares some of the latest things making noise in the digital printing space are 1200 dpi inkjet resolution, inkjet varnishing, increased speeds, and metallic inks.
“Between 2010 to today, we’ve seen an evolution from four-color modules to seven- to eight-color modules including white; 300 DPI to 1200 DPI; 75 fpm to 250 fpm; manual cleaning of heads to auto; decreases in ink cost; electronic jetting and print head improvements; and white module the last color down for reverse printing on unsupported film/shrink,” he says.
As large CPGs become more focused on creating a circular economy, they are not only looking to replace plastic packaging with more eco-friendly paperboard, but are also discovering that digital printing is far superior to analog printing in terms of sustainability.
For example, Zumbiel notes lithographic printing uses petroleum-based inks and a tremendous amount of energy for drying the printed sheets. Digital employs water-based inks, produces virtually no waste, and can be powered by 100% green energy sources.
“We are currently working with our analog and digital suppliers to compute the differences in GHG emissions for each process, and early indications are that digital print yields substantial GHG reductions,” he says.
That data will be welcomed by printed packaging buyers, whom Duvall reports are increasingly using digital printing as a tool to reach their brand’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) goals without sacrificing speed to market.
“They can change the artwork more frequently and not have to worry about plates going into landfills, and can more quickly adapt to regulatory changes,” Duvall says. “That’s driving more small- to mid-size brands to digital.”
The Pros of Digital Printing
A recent client of The BoxMaker that turned to digital print solutions was Anderson Hay & Grain Co., one of the largest hay exporters in the United States. As a startup, the company was looking for a packaging supplier that could provide exceptional print quality and high-quality finished goods in small quantities to accommodate for artwork changes and shifts in SKU demand, while accurately reflecting the brand’s colors.
Duvall explains The BoxMaker incorporated a faux kraft image into the design, and printed it on uncoated white boxes to help it stand out more. Plus, because digital print requires no plates, it empowered Anderson Hay & Grain to change its graphics with every print run. This provided significant cost savings when the company launched a new organic version of its Timothy hay, and was simply able to update their print design without incurring new plate costs.
Additionally, digitally printed boxes can be cost effectively purchased in low-order volumes, allowing Anderson Hay & Grain to start small and scale as they grow.
Seay explains that one major CPG may not want to run off tens of millions of dollars of obsolete inventory at the end of the year, and another can’t predict their demand and need something faster. Therefore, the supply chain efficiency created by digital becomes a huge deal for both.
“The turnaround time is important, as is the overall supply chain improvements, though that gets factored into the cost, because digital printing isn’t always necessarily cheaper,” Seay says. “It can be cheaper given certain situations.”
The maturity curve of designs can also be improved with digital printing, as it allows companies to rethink their artwork and get a better-looking box that’s more similar to offset quality.
Comparing digitally printed corrugated to more traditional processes, Duvall says, “If you’re comparing to single-face lamination, you’re talking eight- to 12-week lead time depending on the time of year, whereas with digital print, it’s usually a couple of weeks after the proof is approved.”
Another benefit is digital printing allows the same file to be printed on the same press in two different locations and still meet the same standards. This can result in further time savings in packaging procurement cycles. “Often when a customer is buying from a company that might have regional support, you have to go to multiple suppliers and that same image is not going to print the same on different types of presses,” Duvall says. “Having the brand consistency and ability to print nationwide is important.”
Looking ahead, Turk believes the digital printing of tomorrow will have even more improvements. “Production speeds will keep increasing, embellishments, e.g., varnishing, spot colors, metallic/fluorescent inks, will improve, print head costs will decrease, ink costs will become more competitive, and inks will become more food-safe,” he says.
The two challenges for widespread adoption of digital print for packaging are (1) achieving the scale necessary to bring down the cost of digital ink, and (2) the industrialization of the machinery.
“As the volume of digital print grows, the free-market will take care of the ink cost problem,” Zumbiel says. “In the meantime, producers of digital printing equipment are challenged to output machines that can compete, from a reliability standpoint, with analog machines. While digital presses have almost no make-ready downtime compared to analog machines, they have considerably shorter mean times between failure. And, due to their technical complexity, they tend to have longer mean times to repair.”
Optimizing Package Printing Operations
When discussing top tips for optimizing operations with digital printing, Duvall points out you can reduce the SKUs because you can replace multiple inserts by printing on the inside of the box and having a QR code linked to the information, so it provides a more interactive experience for the customer.
“All of the information that’s usually on the card inserts is now printed on the one box,” she says. “Ultimately, it should reduce the cost.”
Seay notes to improve operations, it’s important to work with experienced packaging converters and printers that have been around digital.
“Digital is evolving, and what you can do yesterday is different than what you can do today, and what you can do in the future,” he says. “Start with people doing the cool, compelling stuff and work with them on what’s possible. If you’re not seeing what you want, work with them on what they could do to help get you there.”
Turk shares press-proofing on actual material to be used in production saves time and material. “Press module/print head maintenance is the key,” he says. “Keep that machine running.”
The best tip Zumbiel has to optimize operations with digital is to reduce the level of inventory in the print service provider’s system.
“Package producers tend to have millions of dollars tied up in finished goods/WIP inventor — and inventory seldom appreciates in value,” he says. “If you can use digital to target inventory reduction, the price of digital equipment starts to look extremely attractive.”