By Gretchen A. Peck
There’s been a lot of punditry and speculation about how digital print will impact packaging printing, whether it would go the way of commercial print, with shorter print runs and variable data-driven versioning. However, after more than a decade of predictions that digital print—narrow and wide format—would forever alter the packaging landscape, they’ve yet to manifest.
When having a conversation about “packaging,” it’s important to be specific about its sub-segments, suggests Simon Lewis, director, strategic marketing for Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) Indigo Division, who categorizes package printing as labels and label-like products such as shrink sleeves, folding carton, flexible packaging, and “others,” which include specialty packages produced using more exotic media such as metal and glass.
It’s the flexible packaging sub-segment that seems to dangle the most opportunity because it’s vast and diverse. Think of the range of flexible packaging print that may be produced on digital print equipment—bags, envelopes, pouches, and wraps.
For this piece, we focus on the opportunity in flexible packaging.
Learning from Labels
Until very recently, the only packaging segment notably impacted by digital print has been labels, according to HP’s Lewis. Today, he estimates that as much as ten percent of label printing is now produced on digital print engines.
“So that’s a dramatic transformation,” he qualifies. As that figure grows, so too declines the number of conventional flexographic presses being sold, he adds. “HP Indigo has been the best-selling narrow-web label press in the industry—meaning, it out-sold the best analog press. That’s really a dramatic transformation.”
Other vendors also offer popular digital label solutions that suit a range of needs from low- to mid-volume through to production. Those offering solutions in this space include Allen Datagraph, Colordyne, Domino Printing Sciences, Durst Image Technology US LLC, EFI, Epson, Fujifilm/FEEI, Gerber Scientific Products, Graficon Maschinebau AG, INX International, iSys Label, OKI Data, Primera Technology, Screen USA, Valloy Incorporated, and Xeikon. While these products are well adept at label applications, the availability for digital presses tailored to flexible packaging is much slimmer.
Thanks to its familiarity with digitally printed labels, Lewis says, “brands have become familiar with what digital printing can do.” Next to go digital will likely be folding carton and flexible packaging, he predicts, adding that the HP Indigo 20000 and HP Indigo 30000 engines were brought to market with these types of print applications in mind.
If flexible packaging printers are to learn more from the label market, it should be that it, too, has been fluid. Run lengths for labels—like most forms of print—are diminishing, but Lewis says that’s being offset by the mounting numbers of jobs. Long runs of digitally produced labels haven’t disappeared, he acknowledges, but brands are notably leveraging the short-run sweet spots of digital print engines these days, perhaps for marketing strategy, perhaps because they’re just producing less product.
Barriers to Digital Adoption
Possibly one of the greatest barriers to digital print adoption for flex-pack work is legacy. There are many iron workhorses still on duty.
HP’s Lewis notes that conventional presses used for packaging have long lifespans—20 years or more, he estimates. And until that base of technology begins to erode, packaging printers aren’t necessarily compelled to add digital alternatives to their printer stables. But commercial printers have certainly made those digital investments already, and flexible packaging may prove to be a growth area for those print suppliers.
However, it is important to note that packaging—rigid or flexible—is highly brand particular and color sensitive. While digital print has come a long way past the CMYK color gamut, spot colors are still a hurdle.
“Flexo presses typically work with multiple spot colors, and when you work digitally, you’re encouraged to work with process color,” explains Lewis. “Even though you can have spot colors with the HP Indigo, it reduces the productivity,” he adds.
Over in labels, much of the work that’s gone to digital print suppliers is process color in nature, while flexo suppliers are able to offer six-, eight-, or even ten-color prints.
In addition to budding hardware, media innovations for digital flexible packaging applications are also important. Cindy Collins, Flexpack business development manager, Avery Dennison, oversees the company’s Rapid Roll’s “packaging line,” which she says the company has had in development for more than a decade.
However, in the past few years the demand for digital packaging media has flourished, confides Collins—much of that deriving from converters. As a media supplier, Avery Dennison does outreach work to assess the capabilities of converters and educate them about the range of digital media available from the company, which Collins says clocks in at more than 30 substrate options.
“We just spent the past two years enhancing of our portfolio. The reason for that was the opportunities opening up for the narrow-web converter,” explains Collins. “Traditionally—let’s go back four or five years ago,” she quips, “you were seeing narrow-web guys doing dry goods, because it was simple, a paper-poly-foil construction. They knew how to print on paper, and there was no greater complexity.”
“Then you started seeing things like lotions, tanning lotions, samples of things like topical pain relievers,” Collins continues. “We revamped so that we had products that work better in the faster filling equipment, that had the barriers and sealants to cover the diverse applications we were seeing come in. So the opportunities for narrow web really expanded.”
Among Avery Dennison’s best-selling flexible packaging media is a family of media for cosmetic applications—a polyester base with foil barrier, according to Collins. “It’s polyester, so you get really great aesthetics with the inks. It’s durable, and can be used for wet and dry goods. The visual on the shelf is incredible.”
Avery Dennison’s clear substrates are also popular, she reports.
According to Amaia Cowan, market manager – speciality packaging films, Innovia Films, the company has worked with a range of digital print manufacturers for a number of years. “As a consequence, we now offer an extensive range of products to support this market. For printing flexible packaging applications, we provide both clear and white film suitable for single ply or laminate packs. These optimized films are pre-applied and ready to run, so that the best print performance can be achieved.”
Collaboration between HP and Innovia Films has led to three HP Indigo-certified films designed for flexible packaging applications, according to Cowan, including ADI30, a clear film that’s reverse-coated with an acrylic for an aroma barrier and seal-ability; ABDI30, a white version of that same media; and XDI30, a clear film that features an enhanced gas barrier and exceptional seal-ability.
Avery Dennison’s Collins says that narrow-web converters are, by and large, “comfortable with their flexographic presses today.” They see the benefits of digital printing, but as a “secondary” complement, she notes. Having access to an array of media for packaging applications—including those coveted and diverse flex-pack jobs—is just one hurdle bypassed. With packaging comes regulatory bodies and rules and oversight—matters already sorted out in flexographic and offset print.
There is a value proposition in offering existing commercial print customers some packaging options, HP’s Lewis points out, short runs, fast turnaround, and supply-chain management—all the perks afforded by digital.
But to own the equipment does not make a specialist. There is a distinction between a commercial print supplier—mostly printing collateral, but happens to do a few folding carton jobs from time to time—and a packaging print supplier. Being able to say to a print buyer, yes, we can produce that promotional package for an event, to promote that offer, is “low-hanging fruit,” according to Lewis. The workflow is in place. The print engines are in place. Offering short-run packaging doesn’t require any additional expertise, either, he notes. If, however, the job requires some sophisticated finishing process, die-cutting, folding, or gluing, that’s when you tap a local partner to lend a hand.
Local may be an operative word here. Are large, national brands likely to switch their big-run projects to digital? Don’t bank on that happening in the near future. But local, short-run packaging jobs are intriguing as a “cottage industry,” according to Lewis.
“Someone may want a run of 500 for a special strawberry jam that they’ve grown in their garden and want to sell to tourists,” he suggests. In this case—whether it’s a label or a flexible packaging solution, the print expertise and technologies are already in place to grab that business.
Lewis cites another clever digitally produced job—a local supermarket that sold DVDs in the checkout aisles. The local DVD supplier wanted to be sure to grab eyeballs otherwise not engaged in loading their goods onto the conveyor belt. After working with a local design agency, he digitally printed the DVD sleeves, with resounding success, Lewis recounts. “Now, he’s bought a large format device and is going to expand that business,” he concludes.
The Road Ahead
According to research firm Smithers Pira’s report, The Future of Flexible Packaging Papers Market Forecasts to 2017, the flexible packaging market is expected to grow by an average of five percent annually to 2017. The retail market is a key driver of demand, with the firm estimating that 55 percent of packaging papers is used to package various products for retail sale.
The report notes that macro-economic influencers such as household consumption expenditure, as well as demographic factors like population aging and growth all have an effect on these trends and therefore influence flexible packaging paper consumption and growth.
While digital only makes up a small portion of the overall packaging market, this growth suggests the amount of potential waiting in the wings. As such, the digital print industry is poised for much opportunity as packaging applications lean towards shorter runs, more SKUs, and personalization. While we’ve seen success in labels, it is clear that packaging applications, including flexible, will soon go—at least in part—the way of digital. As such, we’ll continue to cover each segment of packaging as it pertains to digital adoption. dps
May2014, DPS Magazine