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The digital packaging promise – How real is it? – Andy McCourt’s ReVerb

Tuesday, 07 January 2014
By Andy McCourt
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With almost religious fervour, many in our industry believe that digital processes can accomplish anything…eventually. While digital’s track record in SRA3 sheetfed printing, wide and grand format, labels, mono books and transactional printing is impressive; most attempts at breaking into the lucrative packaging sector have floundered; so far.

The success of digital label presses from HP Indigo, EFI Jetrion, RapidX, Xeikon and others can be explained by the nature of the label market. The end product is print-intensive, on a narrow web. Inks are applied to a familiar substrate and finishing systems are openly available to foil, emboss, coat, matrix strip and rewind. There is existing demand for short-run colour labels that can be applied to a wide variety of products from smaller producers of foodstuffs, beverages, cosmetics and so forth.

Moving up the packaging foodchain, we get to flexibles where, apart from prototypes and test marketing, the sheer speed and versatility of flexographic and gravure presses stands firm against digital. Add to this the fact that flexible packaging is less graphic intensive and more to do with the protective function of the bag. Of course, stunning graphics adorn most BOPP, LDPE, PET, Foil and Paper bags but the materials and converting define the end product. Even humble plastic bread bags require micro-perforating to allow the bread to ‘breath’ and delay the formation of mold. Reels of printed flexible packaging do not become fit for purpose until formed, welded or glued, wicketed and heat-sealed.

Most flexible packaging uses white ink and this tends to slow down digital presses, as does the addition of special 5th, 6th and 7th colours. While producing great quality, this has relegated digital presses to be servants of the larger, faster flexo and gravure presses – to produce tests, prototypes and gimmicky personalized short runs.

Next are the folding carton and corrugated packaging sectors where again, we are seeing great leaps in the level of graphics applied. Where once a corrugated carton would be plainly printed in one or two colours; pre-print and treatment techniques are producing cartons with outstanding colour, design and detail. The digital manufacturers have their eyes keenly on this market and would like a healthy slice of it; but there are barriers.

Corrugated lives in a world of its own! While working in the UK in the 1990s, I was asked to promote a Corrugated trade show by the Ipex organizers. “They have their own trade show just for corrugated boxes?” I mused. I soon discovered a captivating world of high-precision engineering, converting, die cutting, assembly and; just as an afterthought; printing. Here lies the heart of the matter.

With folding cartons and corrugated, printing is by far a junior partner in the manufacturing process. In his recent masterful analysis, Jeff Wettersten of US Packaging consultants Karstedt Partners noted from his days at a company called Inland Container, a maxim from a senior sales executive: “if we make digital printing about the ability to print a box, we all lose.” It’s worth checking out Karstedt, they are on top of their game:

This is a powerful observation. Converters have many options for the supply of graphics to their containers but their first priority is that the container is manufactured with high-integrity and fit to…well, “contain.” The print on the box is almost as superficial as McDonald’s “D’you want fries with that?”


Do you want Printing with that?

My primary advice to anyone looking at digitally-printed production of cartons is to look at the converting end first, and then decide on a digital print platform. You might be surprised at the new names you will come across such as:

Barberan: Barberan is a Spanish company established in 1929 and today is a major supplier of lines to add value to MDF, Particle board, doors, furniture and so on by printing, laminating and wrapping patterns on the otherwise plain materials. Packaging containers are a recent addition.

Sun Automation: Converting manufacturers first, and now with the CorrStream digital print engine for corrugated board.

You might also want to check out trends for digital printer suppliers to form allegiances with converting manufacturers such as September’s Kodak-Bobst one:

Then of course are the B2 and larger digital inkjet presses from Screen, Fujifilm, HP Indigo and upcoming Landa Nanography. Converting the printed board digitally is only just beginning to be addressed by firms such as Highcon and delicious embellishing by the likes of Scodix.

However, for the main part conventional converting lines for digitally-printed corrugated and folding cartons remain the preferred option. On the press side, VLF offset presses rule the roost.

Unlike labels, digitally-printed cartons are more challenging markets to enter and be successful in. There are some established and very knowledgeable players who are seen by their customers as thought-leaders – they look to them to lead them into new areas such as personalized packaging and versioned products. The press is not driving this thinking; costs, brand appeal and converting innovation are.

There is no doubt in my mind that digital printing will come to have an impact on the folding carton and corrugated markets, but I do doubt that it will be as rapid, or as penetrating, as in commercial digital print, wide-format and labels.

Perhaps ‘hasten cautiously’ should be the byword. Happy New Year.

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