Unlocking Flexible Packaging Opportunities With Digital Printing
Though currently in its early stages, digital printing of flexible packaging has emerged as a game-changing technology with significant growth potential. The packaging industry has widely recognized the value that digital printing has brought to other packaging applications, and with flexible packaging continuing on its positive trajectory of the past several years, it has become clear that when digital printing and flexible packaging collide, boundless potential will emerge for brands and converters.
“Harnessing the Flexible Packaging Potential of Digital Printing,” a recent NAPCO Research report sponsored by HP, reveals the latest trends and opportunities that digital printing is providing for both flexible packaging printers and converters, and label printers who also print flexible packaging. And while the research confirmed that conventional technologies such as flexographic and rotogravure printing will continue to take on the lion’s share of flexible packaging volume, the industry is clearly intrigued by digital printing and the advantages it provides.
The State of Digital Printing for Flexible Packaging
Unlike the label and folding carton segments, which have seen significant digital adoption in both electrophotographic (EP) and inkjet platforms, digital printing for flexible packaging is largely dominated by EP technology. In particular, the HP Indigo 20000 digital press, which has since evolved into the more robust HP Indigo 25K, has been the dominant digital system in the segment.
In fact, among 33 flexible packaging printers surveyed, 30% reported that they use toner or EP presses with web widths of 14 to 19.9 inches and 24% reported using EP technology of more than 29 inches. Similar results emerged among label printers who also print flexible packaging, with 38% of respondents reporting using their toner/EP equipment (14 to 19.9 inches) to print flexible packaging.
Though electrophotography is by far the most common digital printing technology in flexible packaging, it does still trail conventional technologies. 52% of flexible packaging printers surveyed reported using mid-web flexographic presses (20 to 39 inches), while 21% print narrow-web flexible packaging (less than 20 inches) and 18% utilize wide-web flexo (more than 40 inches). Gravure printing technology was also represented, with 27% of flexible packaging printers reporting they utilize that technology.
Inkjet equipment was not strongly represented among current flexible packaging printers, being far less prevalent in the industry. Very few inkjet presses capable of printing flexible packaging have hit the market for a variety of reasons including substrate limitations and ink migration challenges that stem from UV curing. A small quantity of aqueous inkjet platforms have emerged however, offering a potential solution to the food safety concerns of UV inkjet.
Understanding the Advantages
Just because digital printing is comparatively new in the flexible packaging segment, it does not mean that printers and converters in this space have not taken advantage of the many benefits it provides. What this research revealed however, is that flexible packaging printers and label printers entering flexible packaging view digital’s advantages differently.
For example, when asked to indicate their top five advantages of digital printing, the top result for flexible packaging printers was the elimination of plate and tooling costs from the production process. Meanwhile, label printers’ most prevalent advantage in digital printing of flexible packaging was faster makeready times, with 63% of respondents indicating that benefit as a top five advantage.
Figure 6: Many Benefits for Printing Flexible Packaging on Digital Presses
This difference in opinion could be a result of the various adoption rates of digital printing among flexible packaging and label converters. In flexible packaging, where flexography and rotogravure are the predominant conventional processes, converters and their customers are highly accustomed to the plate and tooling costs that these processes require. With the introduction of digital printing to this segment, converters and brand owners are likely to be pleased with the ability to take these costs off the table.
Meanwhile, in the label segment, where digital printing is far more common, printers seeking to enter the flexible packaging space have likely been deterred not only by the financial investment in capital equipment, but also the time investment that goes into the makeready process. Since label printers are unlikely to produce a comparable volume of flexible packaging to those that specialize in it, the ability to take on shorter-run work on digital platforms with minimal makeready is appealing.
Despite flexible packaging’s upward trajectory, it has hardly been immune to the challenges of today’s production environment. Luckily for printers and converters in this space, digital printing’s rise is perfectly aligned with providing solutions to the challenges plaguing flexible packaging printers.
When asked to indicate their top challenges, the flexible packaging printers in this study reported that the increasing quantity of short-runs, lead time pressure, staffing issues, and the inefficiency of their older analog equipment were most prevalent.
The challenge of increased short-run work has been a difficulty for printers across all packaging segments, and due to digital printing’s lack of plates and minimized makeready, flexible packaging printers that invest in digital will immediately see an opportunity to transition their short-run jobs to digital, relieving their conventional assets. These minimized makereadies are also advantageous in providing quick turnarounds for customers and increasing efficiency throughout the production environment.
Meanwhile, on the staffing side, digital printing has proven to be an attractive technology for younger members of the workforce. Though the perception of the printing and packaging industry as a heavy manufacturing environment is largely outdated, it persists, and has made attracting, recruiting, and retaining employees a difficult endeavor for package printers. Digital printing’s ease of use, creative attributes, and high-tech qualities, however, have made it an asset in bringing new employees on board.
Though challenges that emerged prior to COVID-19 remain, with some becoming exacerbated by the pandemic, digital printing has become both a solution to and a provider of new opportunities. For additional research and insights into how digital printing is impacting the flexible packaging segment, download your FREE copy of “Harnessing the Flexible Packaging Potential of Digital Printing” today.