By Cassandra Balentine
The increased demand for short-run print hasn’t spared the packaging industry. Personalization trends, including customization, versioning, and test marketing benefit from the capabilities offered by digital print technology. To capitalize on this market shift, several print and finishing vendors target this space with folding carton packaging solutions.
Folding cartons are printed on heavier paperboard stock and are laminated, cut, folded, and glued. Demand for smaller volumes of packaging make digital printing technology and automated finishing attractive to folding carton producers.
Above: The Kodak PROSPER 6000S simplex inkjet web press delivers up to 12,000 B1 sph with a print quality of 600×900 dpi.
Benefits of Digital
The well-known advantages of digital print apply to folding carton packaging and new equipment supports this market segment.
“The folding carton market is experiencing the same trends as the commercial printing market in many ways, primarily in a growing need for shorter and shorter runs,” says Ed Pierce, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphics Systems Division. “This is driven by several key drivers, including the avoidance of obsolescence, the growing market for local and regional products, ecommerce boutique product packaging, and test marketing packaging.”
Enter digital. “When you combine the cost structure and the ability to run multiple jobs without the need for plates and waste, the digital platform becomes even more of an attractive and viable solution. Consider a folding carton for let’s say a dry pasta. That same package may be sold under 150 SKUs but each having an average length of only 2,000 cartons. This is just not possible with traditional methods, but digital production inkjet makes this possible day in and day out,” explains Pierce.
Scott Robertz, digital printing systems product manager, Komori, agrees, adding that digital print enables marketers to better target customers and offer extremely short runs. He says current technologies now offer packaging printers the ability to print with quality that is indistinguishable from offset and use the same paperboard and substrates they currently use in their pressroom. “This gives printers freedom and flexibility when determining the appropriate output device while being transparent with customers.”
While the worldwide folding carton market is only expected to grow a small percentage, the digital representation part of that growth is substantial. “There is a massive opportunity to convert to digital,” coments Oana Manolache, marketing manager, folding cartons, Graphics Solutions Business, Americas, HP Inc. “The role of packaging is evolving from a functional item to a platform for consumer engagement. The package as a marketing tool can capture a greater impact using digital printing, enabling mass customization as well as unique items such as promotional codes and one-of-a-kind boxes.”
Packaging print providers require the flexibility to meet brand buyers’ needs for prototype, short-run, and just-in-time inventory. “The driving force is the ever-increasing pressure to stand out from the competition with more complex, regionally focused designs and seasonally rotating campaigns. As digital print becomes remarkably close in quality and color matching to traditional printing methods, it enables providers to develop truly realistic prototype packaging. This is also where digital finishing comes into play with the ability to cut, crease/score, and perforate—even with the most complex designs—quickly and easily,” says Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics and packaging, Zünd.
The packaging market demands the ability to produce shorter runs with custom or variable content and faster makeready times. Lance Martin, director of sales, North America, MBO America, says digital technologies enable market specialization; lower inventory costs; and increased time, labor, and cost competition due to frequent job changes—making shorter makeready times a must.
Will Mansfield, director of worldwide product marketing and category management, Kodak Enterprise Inkjet Systems Division, points out that when a company implements a digital printing process into its folding carton production workflow, they can realize both direct and indirect benefits. The direct benefits include cost reductions and time savings. The indirect benefits are frequently seen in a company’s marketing and sales activities. “Digital printing enables new applications that can and should command a premium. These new applications often attract new customers that become prospects for a company’s current printing processes. And of course, new applications allow a printing company to sell the new products and services to existing customers. What’s less obvious is that these new, digital-driven applications can also mitigate the price pressures on a company’s more commodity-like analog printing services, thus helping them sell more from their traditional printing operation more profitably,” he shares.
Mansfield adds that when a company implements a digital printing process into their folding carton production, they gain a more advantageous market position and see more revenue and reduced cost for a better bottom line.
Limitations of Digital
While the challenges of digitally printing folding cartons are being addressed and eliminated, digital isn’t the right answer for all. There are several limitations to digital printing and finishing folding carton applications.
Chris Rogers, solution marketing manager, folding carton/corrugated, Esko, says the biggest question of digital limitations surrounds run length volumes. “Digital is ideal for short run, fast turnaround production that supports market demand for variable printing and frequent design changes. For longer runs with no content changes, lithography remains the cost-effective choice.”
Robertz agrees, adding that digital printing today cannot compete with offset in medium-to-large print runs in terms of productivity and cost per piece.
“I wouldn’t say digital is limited as much as being designed for a growing part of the packaging space,” attests Pierce. He explains that digital platforms outperform traditional methods for shorter run lengths. Long run lengths today—mostly for high-volume, national distribution, still fit better with traditional methods. “As digital platforms get faster, which we know is inevitable, this separation will certainly diminish.”
Color consistency is also a challenge. Marcus Tralau, CEO, KAMA GmbH, says this may not matter much for a single-piece application like a photobook, but it does matter on a sheet with 20 boxes of the same green.
As digital printers start to hit the market with the speed of single-pass technology, PSPs find that finishing equipment often requires a two-to-one ratio to keep up, especially if there are particularly complicated finishing processes involved. “While this should be no surprise to PSPs, a similar ratio has long applied even with traditional print processes—it does make it imperative that PSPs carefully consider all components of the digital production line and what they need to do to fully maximize the benefits of a digital workflow,” says Roden.
Martin says process limitations imposed by the use of labor-intensive offline processes—such as flatbed die cutting with nicks—present a significant problem for finishing short run, personalized, or variable production. He adds that format and substrate variations means no single machine can accommodate every variable. Additionally, static electricity can lead to problems when handling coatings or plastics. Finally, inconsistent coloration can occur when using inkjet technology or when changing substrates for variable applications.
Tralau says it is important to understand that digital print in general is in the beginning of the product lifecycle. “It took decades before offset became the most popular printing technology. The limits for digital with folding cartons are the higher costs. Suppliers and customers have to accept higher prices for more value in terms of variable designs and short lead times,” he explains.
Mansfield adds that digital printing has made great strides for folding carton production. “It’s no longer limited to just prototypes and ultra-short print runs, but moving up into more mainstream run lengths and applications thanks to recent developments in inkjet writing systems, pre-coating fluids, and drying hardware,” he offers, adding that limitations vary widely from one vendor to another and include cost per piece, substrate compatibility and availability, and width.
Sweet Spot and Demand
The biggest opportunity for digitally printed folding cartons is variable, as it largely depends on the printing or converting environment’s specific workflow.
“It is essential to look at the whole process including impositioning, job batching, sheet format, and diecut format,” says Sebastien Stabel, sales and business development, Flint Group.
Manolache admits this really depends on the application, as the cross-over point can vary quite a bit depending on the particular job.
Edwin M. Bokuniewicz, product marketing manager, Industrial Print Group, Konica Minolta, says short-run lengths equate to various breakeven numbers for digital folding cartons, depending on the cost structure of the solution, consumables, and the usage of variable data. “That breakeven number can be as high as 50,000 and as low as one.” He says the short-run job is increasing year over year and run lengths continue to decrease. “The number of jobs of 10,000 are a strong sweet spot for digital folding carton applications.”
Tralau also believes experiences are different depending the application and provider. He offers an example of a U.S.-based pharmaceutical/healthcare company running all jobs up to 100,000 boxes with digital. “Others say the crossover is less than 1,000 sheets. It depends on how the folding carton producers calculate and whether they install a dedicated short-run facility, which is more cost effective thanks to less overhead.”
Pierce notes that while there may be varying responses based on each print provider’s unique business scenario, the sweet spot for folding carton applications is generally in the range of 2,500 to 5,000 but can go upwards of 10,000 in certain circumstances.
Tralau sees the market driven by pharmaceutical and cosmetics. In addition, there are crossover activities between social media and folding cartons. “I assume the cost can be reduced and crossover higher. The amount of 100,000 boxes/10,000 B2 sheets is where I see the limit in the future,” he shares.
Rogers says an increase in the number of digital printing presses, combined with a growing demand for variable print is anticipated—bringing a significant shift towards short-run production.
“The demand for short-run folding cartons is real and it is increasing,” comments Mansfield. “The demand for customization is also growing, but it is more nascent today while customer brands continue refining their digital strategies.”
Tips and Considerations
For those eyeing digital for folding carton production, several considerations should be top of mind.
Pierce says quality and color consistency should be carefully considered when evaluating solutions. “In the packaging space, color is king to the brand owners and technologies greatly differ. Also, the ability to deliver the same high quality and color consistency from run to run is imperative.”
Mansfield suggests paying close attention to ink pricing and optimization. “If a folding carton printer is considering a full digital press, ink usage and cost will be the primary drivers of production cost and therefore have a major impact on the crossover from traditional to digital production.”
Bokuniewicz points out that ink type; FDA ink certification of indirect food contact; substrate size, type, and thickness; press speed; curing and drying; color management; G7 color compliance; post-press finishing including digital embellishments are all factors to consider.
Roden suggests partnering with a good media provider since the quality of these materials often dictate finishing quality, particularly surrounding the creases. “Also, when considering digital printing equipment, thoroughly test the ink and how it performs in conjunction with all finishing processes—cutting, perforating, and creasing.”
“Don’t skimp on blade quality. What may seem like a higher priced blade may be a far more cost-effective choice in the long run since operators can produce more pieces with each blade and spend less time replacing them,” says Roden. She adds that to achieve ultimate productivity, the goal is to keep the tools engaged with the material for as much of the time as possible.”
Pierce points out that advertising agencies are a great source of short-run packing work. “This has been one area of growth for some of our customers. Also look at local and regional opportunities where the cost structure of digital technology will make you the most cost competitive in this growth segment.”
Robertz says the best advice he can give a print provider just getting into digitally printing folding cartons is to invest in inkjet “because the quality and capabilities of inkjet have surpassed electrophotographic printing platforms and continue to advance in terms of speed, print quality, sheet size, and substrate handling/printing capabilities.”
Manolache stresses the importance of listening to customers. “If you are able to further support their strategic goals with a digital solution, you will see that you are going to have access to new opportunities and set your business up for unprecedented growth.”
What’s next for folding cartons? Digital printing and finishing tools continue to advance and support this market.
“We will see tighter integration of graphics and structural design departments in communication and the repurposing of information. This will drive productivity and leverage untapped efficiency potential. There will also be greater automation in finishing to match the speed of digital production presses. As a result, highly automated finishing solutions—for instance, those that enable unattended finishing with robotics—will elevate finishing to industrial levels,” comments Rogers.
Martin says single-pass printing and finishing is increasingly supported by integrated equipment and workflows that can meet customer demands as they arise, unconstrained by process limitations imposed by cumbersome makeready requirements, format size, or substrate.
“There is continued research and development in the digital folding carton and package application space. Press solutions offer faster print speeds, larger sheet sizes, wider and deeper substrate types, thicker substrate capabilities, lower ink costs, more UV ink availability, additional substrate partners that will manufacture substrates optimized for digital presses, and additional finishing partners offering inline solutions,” says Bokuniewicz.
From the OEM perspective, Pierce says speed and format size are the focal points for the future. “Owners are fairly consistent with providing market-based feedback that hones in on these two main points.”
Integration into existing finishing platforms is also important. “There is already a significant investment in finishing capabilities and digital platforms should fit with what is already there,” says Pierce.
He also points out that inks are on a continuous improvement track with bigger color gamuts possible as well as inks that compatible with more substrates for more applications.
Folding boxboard and digital printing have a bright future ahead, says Stabel. “We can help brands stand out and respond to key market trends of shorter run times, just-in-time requests, more variation, seasonal packaging, smaller lot sizes, optimized supply chains, and personalization. This also explains why multiple equipment providers are entering this market with additional digital developments. This will further drive the market to go digital.”
As digital print technologies continue to penetrate the industry, folding carton packaging is a segment to watch.
For more on digital folding carton production, specifically a look at printing and finishing equipment serving this space, visit us online at dpsmagazine.com. dps
May2018, DPS Magazine