The packaging industry seems to be something of a honey pot, judging by the number of digital press manufacturers swarming around it.
Xeikon, for example, has been running an R&D programme focused on packaging and label solutions since 2004, and this year, has homed in on the folding carton sector with its ‘Folding Carton Suite’. At the core of the suite is the roll-fed 3000 Series press which can print on board from 40-550 microns.
Similarly, at this year’s Drupa, Ricoh, a familiar name in commercial print, announced its intent to target the packaging sector with its Pro C751 digital press.
Other digital players, such as Landa, HP, Screen and Kodak have also demonstrated that they are serious about selling into this market, investing in innovations targeting folding carton applications. Declining commercial print volumes go some way to explaining why these firms are chasing the packaging pound.
As Gareth Parker, value proposition manager at Ricoh UK, explains: “It has always been the case in business that once one revenue stream is exhausted then it is logical to begin mining another. The packaging market presents an opportunity because it is largely untapped by sheet-fed digital”.
However, he believes that a bigger factor driving digital take up in packaging production is that more packaging buyers are now educated on the benefits of digital.
“It’s firmly on their radar and they understand the benefits of personalisation and get excited at the potential flexibility to run more campaigns per quarter.”
Swing to short runs
It is also apparent that the packaging landscape is changing in favour of short runs. “Packaging used to be the domain of long runs. Nowadays brand owners want regional variations and more of a ‘just in time’ manufacturing philosophy,” notes Peter Banks, sales director of Presstek.
Jeremy Westcott, Edale sales and marketing director, adds: “As companies compete to have the latest competition, promotion or slogan on their products, print manufacturers are being pushed towards increasingly short runs, where inevitably set up times and material wastage take on more importance. This is where digital finds its forté.”
And this short run mentality is only going to get more pervasive, according to Ricoh’s Parker.“It is widely predicted that demand for short run labels and packaging in Europe will continue along a path of strong growth, with lengths of sub 10,000 expected to become more and more common,” he says.
It’s not just digital press manufacturers who are keen to lead the digital revolution among converters. Flexo and litho companies such as Heidelberg and Bobst have realised that if they don’t get involved, they will risk getting left behind.
Heidelberg has gained a foothold in the digital market through acquisition, while Bobst is building up to the launch of its digital offering for folding carton applications – expected sometime next year. “We have kept an eye on digital print over many years and at Drupa 2012 we showed many customers the output from our digital printing study. Their overall opinion was that we are on the right path and that the solutions we are developing are exactly what they are going to need in future,” says Craig Moran, Bobst sheet-fed sales manager UK, Ireland and Scandinavia.
But is there really as much potential for digital printing in the packaging market as the growing competition would suggest, or will it only ever be a niche? Bobst’s Moran says that his company isn’t seeing any inroads of digital print into the flexo markets for corrugated or flexible packaging.
In fact, he says flexo presses like Bobst’s Masterflex-HD and Bobst DRO NT are taking work away from litho in many markets. His view is that digital press makers still have to prove that digital offers benefits that packaging makers want.
“The ability to produce very short runs quickly and cost effectively is obviously one of these, as is the possibility of personalisation. Although at the moment digital doesn’t deliver what the vast majority of packaging makers need, there are some situations where it may be appropriate to use.”
Ricoh’s Parker notes that digital print has given rise to a thriving market for high value, on-demand personalised packaging for gifts such as wines or chocolates where margins don’t depend on volume.
Personalised packaging and short runs may be the main justifications at present for deploying digital. However, going forwards, greater integration between on-line and on-pack looks likely to be a more powerful persuader. “Brand owners are trying to interact more with consumers to overcome the barrier introduced by more dominant retailers. One way of doing this is by having communications on-pack relating to events or integrating with social media,” says Filip Weymans, Xeikon’s marketing and business development director, labels and packaging.
Whether or not digital will catch on more widely in the future will depend partly on the extent to which trends, such as personalised and smart packaging, take off and partly on the ability of digital press designers to overcome some of the technology’s limitations and shortcomings in packaging applications.
“It is still a fairly new method and technology is still evolving,” says Edale’s Westcott. “On top of this it can also be very costly and print cannot be completed in a single pass. Often people who decide to implement digital go through a change in business model, which usually results in more training for staff and often more than one operator being required to run the press.”
He does, however, acknowledge that digital press technology is moving forwards in terms of quality and speed, enabling it to compete more closely with conventional print technologies.
Ricoh’s Parker readily admits that cut-sheet digital would struggle to go toe-to-toe with the heavy metal of flexo and litho, but says advances are being made all the time, and that a Ricoh Pro C751 or Pro C901 could easily handle 10,000 sheets a month. He points out that it’s not a fair fight in that digital isn’t being pitted against conventional print technologies as a direct competitor.
“The best scenario is to have them working together,” he says. “Digital printers can supplement and complement more established packaging printing technologies and allow printers to become a more reactive production partner for clients.”
With its roll-fed 3000 series, Xeikon claims to have addressed a number of concerns about using digital for packaging applications, including waste reduction, reliability and consistency, and the ability to apply spot varnish.
“With a conventional sheet-fed printer, you would normally keep a variety of sheet sizes in the warehouse, whereas with a digital sheet-fed printer, the inventory cost would be too high. The Xeikon press has a distinct advantage in this regard since it is able to produce sheets of variable length. This minimises the amount of material wasted,” explains Weymans.
Xeikon has also developed Durable Clear Toner, which can be fitted into one of the printing stations to apply a spot varnish digitally.
“One of the things that is very specific about folding carton production is that spot varnish is always applied after printing. In conventional printing this is an offset process. In digital it would mean going to an analogue station, which is why we decided we needed to be able to do a digital spot varnish. No-one else in the market offers this.”
Digital is catching up fast on its analogue rivals. The technology is slowly maturing and with the shrinking commercial market, it’s no surprise that the players believe that packaging is the future.