Countdown to a digital packaging revolution

26 April 2013

While digital print remains a niche part of the global packaging market, communication and purchasing trends are changing, thanks to evolving consumer demands and the ability to leverage new web-based technologies. Neil Falconer, director at consultancy firm PrintFuture, finds that on-demand business models are driving new possibilities for digital print in marketing collateral, POS and packaging.

The computer software and games sector is a prime example of how quickly change can occur, and the impact it has on print and packaging suppliers. In the heady days of the late 1990s through to the end of the first decade of this century, this was a booming global industry creating healthy margins right across the supply chain. It seemed like nothing could go wrong, but the cyclical nature of trends dictates that they usually come to an end one way or another. In the case of the gaming industry, the advent of the internet-enabled games console, the iPad and the smartphone changed everything, with a huge amount of games suddenly becoming available as online downloads and low-cost or free apps. Computer software programmes bought in-store became packaged in a standard plastic moulded case, or as a plastic card with a key code for verification when downloading from the cloud.

The upshot of this is that the packaging in this sector has been minimised and downgraded or done away with altogether. The effect on the packaging converter has been dramatic because it is not only the packaging that has disappeared but also the inventory and logistics side of the business, which is where most of the profit came from. This effect has been compounded by the speed of change, as the market all but disappeared within a couple of years, and finding adequate work to replace it has been problematic.

Seeds of change

In the future, looking ahead and doing the necessary research on your target markets in order to predict triggering events will be critical to long-term success. It will also be essential to kill existing products and reinvent them with new applications before they either become commodities,
or disappear as a result of changing consumer preferences or the introduction of a new enabling technology. This constant evolution of products and business models is going to be a real challenge to smaller companies with limited resources and budgets. However, not accepting the challenge, or taking your eye off the ball, will become a recipe for certain disaster in the future.

"A whole new world of packaging print is opening up to the commercial printer with a few million euros in his pocket."

There is extensive R&D work going on in the digital print manufacturing community to make it a viable alternative to offset and flexo, and a more flexible alternative that will meet the needs of a digital, on-demand world. Until now, all the digital printing platforms aimed at the packaging sector have provided limited niche opportunities with a good deal of compromise on the variety of substrates available, image quality and output speed.

The introduction of the HP Indigo family of presses began to change the perception of digital output, and now, the Océ InfiniStream technology platform and Landa Nanography are about to radically change the digital packaging landscape.

Digital developments

The Indigo 30000 for cartonboard production has been addressing the evolving trends in the folding carton market. This press can print on virtually any substrate, including off-the-shelf paperboard, metallised board and plastics. Market-proven HP Indigo quality, enabled by liquid HP Indigo ElectroInk technology, makes it easy to meet stringent corporate brand standards - and all with the support of industry-leading end-to-end solutions, including a dedicated print server from HP and Esko, and an inline selective post-coating unit.

Primarily designed for flexible packaging converters, the web-fed HP Indigo 20000 digital press supports a 30in-wide (76.2cm) roll with up to 44in (1.1m) repeat length. That means it can easily fit into standard production lines, so converters can produce almost any flexible packaging application. The priming unwinder enables the press to print on off-the-shelf printing materials, including film, paper and aluminium. HP Indigo One Shot Color technology provides perfect colour registration and supports the gamut of media. It is possible to print on materials from 10-250 microns while keeping consistent rotogravure colour quality in a 24/7 production environment.

HP Indigo technology has been around for some years and is proven in terms of its print quality and performance; however, the main barrier has been the speed of production and unit cost of print, which has limited it to niche applications.

Currently in beta testing, the InfiniStream liquid toner technology from Océ is not only capable of delivering digital production without quality compromise but is also set to match offset production speeds of 14,000 B2 sheets an hour or 7,200 B1 sheets an hour, with expectations of achieving up to 20,000 B2 sheets an hour in the future. Although a machine will not be commercially available until late 2013, the results being achieved now are impressive, so with more testing, development and preparation, Océ should soon have a compelling proposition for the market.

"As digital print technology becomes more competitive, it will become more attractive for both mainstream and niche packaging applications."

Litho-quality liquid toner allows uniform colourants to put down a thin toner layer, with high positioning accuracy and exceptionally sharp and vibrant image quality at a perceived 1,200dpi. The press has a similar tower technology and paper path to web offset with 70×100cm variable imaging lengths at 28in web width. The cost of set-up and waste is significantly reduced by the fast, plateless imaging process, with LED print bars imaging 2,400 A4 images a minute. Productivity can be greatly improved by cutting job changeovers by up to 50%; it is also possible to add spot colours and use hot airstream fusing integrated with an energy-retrieval system for residue-free emissions.

The rationale behind InfiniStream is digital production, which is as fast as offset, with comparable quality and a competitive overall cost per sheet. The additional digital USPs for low run, shorter lead times, reduced inventory and variable data will then provide significant added value to brand-owners.

Offset quality output

The next potential game-changer is Landa Nanography, which is due for production ramp-up in 2014 and holds much promise. Benny Landa, the inventor of the Indigo Digital Press, has developed a new category of digital printing: Nanography. It combines quality, speed and low cost with production formats on a limitless range of paper types. According to Landa, "Printers no longer have to choose between the versatility and short-run economics of digital printing, and the low cost-per-page and high productivity of offset printing. Now they can have both. Nanography offers a winning formula that is poised to transform digital printing into a mainstream technology."

The ultra-small Landa NanoInk pigments are extremely powerful absorbers of light, enabling unprecedented colour purity, edge sharpness, image density and uniformity. With these capabilities, Nanographic Printing technology produces ultra-sharp dots of extremely high uniformity. Landa NanoInk droplets are ejected with precision timing onto a heated transfer blanket, where they spread and quickly lose their water content. The dried ink dots are able to form a layer of ink just 500nm thick. This thin layer is transferred as a dry polymeric film onto the substrate where it literally laminates the paper surface without penetrating the fibres. The thin, dry layer of Landa NanoInk permits precise and extremely efficient low-ink lay-down. This accounts for the ability of theNanographic Printing technology to match the gloss of the paper and to produce dots with super-sharp edges and high optical uniformity.

For the carton market, Landa has developed the S10FC press, printing B1 format at 13,000 sheets an hour with up to eight colours on all types of board, including coated and metallised stock. For the flexible market, the W10 press has a 40in web width and prints at 200m a minute in up to eight colours, on PE, PET, BOPP and other aluminium foils and papers.

Opportunities for converters

Through these new advances in digital technology, an on-demand business model is now possible for existing packaging converters, and a whole new world of packaging print is opening up to the commercial printer with a few million euros in his pocket. Armed with this new technology, the larger commercial printer that is already working with a fully automated workflow, closed-loop colour management, variable data and cross-media channels, and that is selling value-added solutions to its customers, has got a distinct competitive advantage over the majority of traditional packaging converters.

The digital packaging opportunity does not, and probably never will, include the majority of fast-moving consumer goods packaging found in supermarkets, owing to the enormous volume requirements, and the wide variety of format sizes and substrates being used. However, there is a vast array of packaging applications where digital printing can be used more successfully than the traditional print packaging processes of offset, gravure and flexography.

"Digital print has always been on the periphery. As the technology becomes more competitive it will become even more attractive for both mainstream and niche packaging applications."

Segments like pharmaceuticals and cosmetics generate large volumes of high-value, short-run products. A lot of these products also require quick turnaround and the use of variable data for language and ingredient changes as well as anti-counterfeiting applications for brand protection, which make them perfectly suited for digital printing. There are other instances where products are linked to time-sensitive promotions and events where digital printing becomes an obvious choice because of the lower volumes, the need for specific branding or versioning, or the elimination of waste and obsolescence.

Digital printing can play an important part in all the major drivers for packaging innovation. From a manufacturing perspective, it is about reducing production cost and waste as well as achieving greater efficiency in the supply chain, resulting in a reduction in carbon footprint. Digitally printed packaging can be effectively supported by automated workflows, which can simplify order processing, and integration with other digital channels.

The digital packaging market is currently in its infancy but is growing rapidly, largely through the production of labels, cartons and corrugated packaging. In a recent report by InfoTrends, the worldwide growth rate of digital packaging was estimated at 15% CAGR. The best entry point for commercial print providers is to become a 'one-stop shop' for packaging, working with smaller clients with a particular set of product requirements such as labels, cartons, supporting POS (point-of-sale) merchandising, and marketing collateral. The key benefits that digital print delivers for smaller brand-owners are increased production flexibility and the ability to control marketing and packaging budgets more effectively.

Supply chain efficiencies

For brand-owners, the emphasis is slowly moving away from the unit cost of the printed package and towards the end-to-end supply chain cost. Consequently, there is huge interest in how digital print can provide solutions to supply chain problems by creating efficiencies and reducing cost. Web-to-print systems are a great example of this, and we have already seen many successful applications create new business models and drive large volumes of personalised digitally printed packaging.

Digital print has played a part in the packaging supply chain for many years, but it has always been on the periphery for proofing, prototypes and sales samples. As the technology becomes more competitive from increases in production speed, improved print quality and use of a much wider range of materials, it will become even more attractive for both mainstream and niche packaging applications.

The packaging market will continue to grow steadily and there is no doubt that the future holds tremendous growth potential for commercial printers and packaging converters who are willing to embrace the digital opportunity. For the first time, digital without compromise is almost a reality, so with creative ideas and new supply-chain solutions that leverage the full range of digital capability, the countdown to a digital packaging revolution is underway.

Currently in beta testing, Océ InfiniStream liquid toner technology.
There is extensive R&D going on in the digital print manufacturing industry to make it a viable alternative.
Neil Falconer is the director of PrintFuture and has over 30 years’ experience in the printing industry, across production, management and consulting.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.