by Olivia Cahoon
Digital printing allows for short runs of customized packaging. When planning to utilize this technology, package printers should prepare for a new, automated workflow. Through automation, jobs that require multiple SKUs are easily processed while creativity possibilities are high.
The Packaging Lab
Headquartered in Brooklyn Park, MN, The Packaging Lab, Inc. is a custom packaging provider specializing in printed film and pouches. The company started production in October 2019 in a 15,000 square foot workspace. “We were founded based on a vision to offer custom printed pouches or film with turnaround as fast as 24 hours,” shares Dan Niblo, CEO, The Packaging Lab.
Today, the flexible packaging manufacturer employs eight people and operates in a 21,000 square foot facility, serving Canada and the U.S. The Packaging Lab produces standup pouches, layflat pouches, and packaging film. It offers 12 standard sizes of standup and layflat pouches. The pouches and film are manufactured from a choice of seven materials and two surface finishes. All specifications are available on the company’s website, allowing customers to make an informed choice when it comes to selecting the best material for their production. Additionally, prospective customers can order a free sample pack that includes all sizes in a combination of each material.
Standard lead time is five days, which gives customers the option to complete the order from start to finish online, including artwork. According to Niblo, it is one of the first to offer an end-to-end, online solution for flexible packaging.
For digital products, The Packaging Lab uses the HP Inc. Indigo 20000 Digital Press. Designed for flexible packaging converters, the HP Indigo 20000 features a maximum 30-inch web width, seven-color support, and speeds of up to 55,118 square feet per hour. With the HP Indigo 20000, the packaging provider prints six days a week and nearly 12 hours per day.
All of the company’s base film is purchased through S-One Labels & Packaging. Laminate is provided by Nobelus. For finishing and lamination, the manufacturer uses a thermal laminator from Karlville Development, LLC. As traditional lamination requires adhesives to laminate and takes days to cure, Niblo says thermal lamination is ideal for the business because it enables immediate converting.
Digital technology is the backbone of The Packaging Lab’s production process. It allows customers to change graphics or colors without purchasing new tools. It also offers short runs without any setup.
“With our production automation, similar orders are batched and printed at the same time meaning that we can efficiently produce very small orders—even orders of one—with little impact in overall production and throughput,” explains Niblo.
That doesn’t mean the flexible packaging manufacturer is exempt from challenges. In fact, its biggest challenge was designing an efficient workflow process. According to Niblo, the packaging industry is sometimes set with a status quo. Assumptions are made that require certain processes to happen because they always have. “We looked at it differently from the beginning by deciding what our end service model needed to be and worked backwards.”
As a result, The Packaging Lab identified every barrier to achieving an ideal service model and eventually found a solution that allows it to offer turnarounds as quick as 24 hours. “Within each barrier, we identified a solution and tested it. At the time we were told our vision was impossible,” continues Niblo.
The packaging manufacturer achieved its goal and now operates in a digital production assembly. Compared to traditional packaging manufacturing techniques, digital printing helps the company save on cost and boost creativity.
According to Niblo, digital printing is more expensive when considering only the printing costs. However, it important to remember that there are no plates or plate setting required and the long process of hitting color, press checks, and prepress is eliminated. “Once all the other costs are considered, digital is economical for all except extremely long runs where these costs are an insignificant portion of the overall package costs,” he adds.
With a digital printing workflow, the artwork is sent to the press, which automatically does all of the calibration and color matching. Niblo believes the first image out is good about 96 percent of the time. For the four percent where it isn’t ideal, he says a few keystrokes can usually fix it for production. Compared to traditional printing methods, plates must be ordered, set onto cylinders, and aligned. Ink must also be mixed and added to the appropriate stations on the press and calibration starts. Niblo says with traditional printing, this process takes a minimum of two hours and can create thousands of meters of waste. However, the digital process, including converting, never wastes more than 50 to 100 meters of film.
Digital also allows variable data imaging—enabling creative ideas. For example, if a customer requested the background of each print to change, it is a fairly simple request. “This would be impossible with traditional printing,” adds Niblo.
Digital is especially beneficial when the company strives to stay on top of flexible packaging trends. While flexible packaging covers all areas of life, food is roughly 60 percent of the flexible packaging market and is consistently trending. “Grocery stores today carry on average 50,000 SKUs which is roughly 40,000 more than two decades ago,” says Niblo. A push towards organic and locally sourced products have even larger manufacturers focused on smaller and more unique value-added brands. This creates many more SKUs in smaller quantities, which is ideal for digital production.
Protein Bar Packaging
In October 2019, a protein bar company became The Packaging Lab’s first customer with an order for flexible packaging. The client had been performing a local test market with CVS in the Chicago, IL area when the retailer decided to market the product nationally. As a result, the client received a large purchase order and had two weeks to deliver to the CVS distribution center.
“That meant get the packaging and the raw materials, produce and package the product, and then get it delivered to the distribution center,” explains Niblo. “The standard lead time for flexible packaging is between four and 12 weeks, that would have been impossible and they would have failed.”
The Packaging Lab was tasked with creating 20,000 protein bar pouches, four SKUs at 5,000 each totaling 151,000 square feet of film. For this job, the manufacturer selected S-One medium clear film for the pouches and medium metallized for the individual wrappers.
Niblo says this film was selected because it is the best fit for the product. He adds, “after 30 years in the packaging industry, there tends to be a lot of smoke and mirrors around different films. When it is broken down, there are only a few different customer needs, and the rest is based on feel of the finished product.” For example, typical questions for clients include barriers, matte or gloss, and package weight. With these specifications, the manufacturer narrows down the best fitting film. “We stock seven different films and find those seven will fit 95 to 98 percent of the applications brought to us.”
With the S-One clear film, The Packaging Lab printed the pouches on the HP Indigo 20000 press, using the HP PrintOS print production operating system, and HP Indigo ElectroInk. All pouches were finished with Nobelus matte laminate. Each pouch measured 7x9x3 inches with the film impression 6×4.5 inches.
Few challenges occurred, the biggest being that a fuse in the three-phase power was blown by an electrician installing in another space. This occurred when the protein bar packaging was completed, but still on the press. “We lost power for 18 hours while the issue was resolved and we were able to remove the roll from the press,” shares Niblo.
The protein bar company’s products were sent to Chicago in 48 hours and the client met its deadline and delivered in two weeks. “We have gotten many subsequent orders since then. I believe they are pretty happy with us,” shares Niblo.
The Packaging Lab is an ideal example of how a completely digital workflow is successful in a package printer’s production process. With its HP Indigo press and S-One film, the flexible packaging manufacturer offers clients 24 hour turnaround, short order cycles, and unique packaging solutions.
Sep2020, DPS Magazine