By Gretchen A. Peck
Without question, digital inkjet has transformed virtually every segment of the print industry—commercial print, sign and graphics, books, and publications. Many predicted that digital inkjet would also transform packaging—not in the sense that long-run inkjet production would entirely replace more traditional print methods like flexography, screenprinting, and offset. Rather, it was seen as an enabler to the creative process, allowing for better comping, prototyping, and in some cases, short-run production.
However, since the advent of quality roll-fed and flatbed print engines, digital inkjet printing has yet to live up to its packaging potential.
Tapping the Market
“Digital inkjet is in its infancy, in regards to truly affecting the packaging production landscape,” notes Matt McCausland, associate product manager, professional imaging, Epson America Inc.
When analysts drill down to the reasons why digital inkjet hasn’t yet lived up to its packaging promises, several causes and considerations are mentioned.
Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics, believes that packaging is largely “untapped” by companies that have invested in large format digital inkjet equipment. For one thing, he suggests that packaging is a long-run game. “There is an opportunity to do shorter run work, but they don’t know how to handle, deal, or price it. The revenue isn’t where they want it to be, so it ends up not being addressed.”
“Also, if you look at the packaging industry, it’s very segmented and fragmented,” he qualifies. “You’ve got one company that does the design work—an advertising agency, for example, at the start of the process. Then there are prepress companies that handle the color work and file adjustments. You’ve got companies that output the plates and do the printing. One person or supplier can do it all, but the industry isn’t really set up for one person to do it all.”
There is also a misconception that package printing is somehow bound by strict regulations—regulatory rules, which were long ago ironed out in other types of printing environments—but digital print simply cannot adhere to them yet. This is the case in only one segment of packaging, food, remarks D’Amico. In all other scenarios for package printing, digital inkjet printing is ready for its prime time.
D’Amico adds that specialty companies with Internet presence may be ripe for this type of package prototyping and short-run production, as well as any business that hosts or participates in special events.
“The equipment can do the work—both folding carton and corrugated. The quality is there. These jobs may not be 500, 1,000, or more pieces, but they may require 25, 50, or 100 pieces. There’s an opportunity,” stresses D’Amico.
Where digital inkjet is not likely to change the packaging landscape is in first-surface foodstuffs. The blend of inks and substrates isn’t a good fit here, according to Ken VanHorn, category manager, high volume industrial and workflow solutions, Hewlett-Packard (HP). However, there have been great strides to improve the health, safety, and environmental impact of digital inkjet printing. “We’ve done work to make sure things are nickel free, that there’s nothing in the ink that’s going to be toxic or a barrier to shipping print across country borders,” he explains.
“Certainly things like GREENGUARD certification help,” he continues. “It allows a brand manager to place a product store with the confidence that it’s not going to be harmful to the customer or to the employees. That’s where most of the focus in digital is today. It’s not in food-based packaging; it’s in other verticals, which include displays, signage, and point of purchase.”
This May, in conjunction with its showing at interpack 2014 event, HP announced an “expansion of its Graphics Solutions portfolio, opening the door to corrugated, flexible packaging, and folding carton previously not addressed by digital printing technologies,” the company reported by way of press release. Citing the global packaging market’s $11 billion market opportunity, HP intends to grow the percentage of the work—a mere seven percent—that’s being produced digitally. In addition, most of that work has been in labels.
Thus, HP debuted its new HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press, slated for market in Q4 2014. It is reported to feature an integrated, automated media loader that handles up to four media stacks side-by-side, which are ideal for feeding corrugated sheets without operator intervention. The new press also features HP HDR240 Scitex Inks, which are GREENGUARD GOLD Certified.
Setting Sights on Packaging
Roland DGA Corporation is one of several print-engine manufacturers closely examining the package printing market and target some of its technologies to the segment.
“While we don’t have specific growth figures in this regard, we do believe that there are a significant number of print suppliers developing new profit centers by integrating UV LED printing technology into their existing workflow to handle in-house package prototyping and short-run package print production,” says Marc Malkin, PR representative and copywriter, Roland DGA Corp.
“From our perspective, the majority of print companies performing package prototyping and short-run production work are packaging specialists and converters. A much smaller portion of the market is composed of wide format and commercial printers seeking to maximize revenue by increasing the range of jobs they can accept,” adds Malkin. “These are mostly commercial printers that already own digital presses and are acquiring UV LED digital printers—such as Roland VersaUV inkjets—to maximize their in-house capabilities and versatility.”
Roland’s UV LED technology is particularly effective for packaging applications, asserts Malkin, allowing packaging designers to “incorporate eye-catching embossing and varnish effects” to distinguish their brands.
“We are seeing more digital adoption, not only for prototyping, but also for full-on production,” remarks Ken Hanulec, VP of marketing, EFI.
Hanulec says EFI VUTEk equipment is shaking up how packaging is produced. “With superwide format UV inkjet, packaging is expanding in its appeal as a business opportunity for printing professionals. EFI is seeing a significant uptake of digital inkjet technologies with leading Asian and European converters looking to move into digital production. In fact, we have had our first installations of our high-speed analog-replacement press—the EFI VUTEk HS100 Pro—in dedicated folding carton and corrugated production environments. We have done that by creating a new material edge guide (MEG) system, that makes it easier to run packaging board substrates.”
Epson released a product to address the prototyping market about four years ago, the Epson Stylus Pro WT7900, reports Epson’s McCausland. “Intended specifically for proofing packaging applications, the WT7900 had the first aqueous, water-based white ink technology, with the stability necessary for proofing of white and clear packaging,” he adds.
The Epson SureColor S70670 offers optional white and metallic silver inks. McCausland says the packaging market has responded well. “This product has enabled customers to do some higher level prototyping and even short-run production work due to its ability to print on clear media with white ink, as well as package-type materials, including adhesive-backed vinyl. As ink technology continues to develop, so too will digital inkjet’s impact on the packaging industry.”
“At this point, we see mostly specialized print shops, or shops located in metropolitan areas—specifically New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA—performing packaging prototypes, and mostly in close proximity to creative companies doing the packaging design. As the ink technology, speed, and RIP software capabilities expand, and the complexity of these products and this workflow become easier to use, the industry will continue to see more commercial print and large-format companies getting involved,” says McCausland.
For wide format digital folding carton production, wide format printers are used for packaging samples, prototypes, and make up or small runs. “Considering one thousand or less to be a small run, with a larger bed size—like 5×10 feet—that number could be expanded,” says Becky McConnell, associate product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Divison.
Fujifilm offers a variety of options for this application including the Acuity LED, Acuity Select, Acuity Select X2, Acuity Select HS, Acuity Select HS X2, Inca Onset Q40i, and Inca Onset R40i.
Digital finishing has also raised the bar for quality prototyping and package finishing, while lowering the entry point to packaging for those that have already invested in cutting and routing solutions.
“Finishing and printing have been continuously pushing each other for many years,” offers McCausland. “There have been so many innovations on both sides that it is now possible for some print suppliers to make beautiful, color-accurate proofs in short runs, and finish them in myriad of ways. The important thing here is cost. Printers can automate the finishing process now, and save time and money on the back end, where in the past more labor was required. Much of this is due to the software integration between the designers and the production team, enabling a complete solution from design to finished, laminated, and cut samples ready to be applied to a product or prototype.”
For Cincinnati, OH-based Stevenson Color Inc.—now under the Southern Graphics Systems organizational umbrella—packaging and retail are two primary markets served. However, the lines between these markets are increasingly blurred according to Mark Gunn, VP of sales and marketing. Not just a print supplier, Gunn says the company considers itself a “brand guardian” and a solutions provider.
“We made a strategic decision six years ago to move away from being seen only as a commodity printer and made the ‘move to the front’ to become a full solutions provider. That is, Stevenson Color focuses on solving challenges for customers early in the process, from logistical, retail issues to aesthetic and strategic branding issues. To support this initiative, we have expanded our range of services to include creative, structural design, comping, and display prototyping. This suite of services brings a value-add to our customers and is critical to our continued growth,” says Gunn.
A key factor in the company’s move to the front strategy was embracing digital print technology throughout its packaging and retail workflows. “We first went digital in 2008 with the installation of the HP Scitex TurboJet 8600 Industrial Press, later following with the HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press. This past year, we further expanded our base of services with the addition of an HP Latex 3000 Industrial Printer,” says Gunn.
Today, they are improving throughput, workflows, resolution, and response times with the purchase of two new HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Presses. “Our digital investments complement our conventional offset equipment. It fits our business strategy to expand our base of services and provide real market solutions to customers.”
The value proposition isn’t just in the printed output. It’s in the total workflow and Stevenson demonstrates this through its ability to leverage in-house color expertise to manage and maintain consistent quality across printing platforms, ink sets, and substrates. This requires a strong creative and prepress arm, and Gunn explains that the company has developed its design and production talent by building a solid creative team.
“With our digital print capabilities and strong in-house creative team, we can ensure brand equities across the packaging and retail markets, as well as continue identifying new, emerging markets.”
Re-imagine Package Printing
The evolution of Stevenson Color is more than anecdotal, says HP’s VanHorn. “What we’re seeing with companies like Stevenson Color is that they’re starting to branch out, and they have been for a while. It has taken a holistic view of printing needs for an account, and it has developed an arsenal of equipment that allows them to go after flexible packaging, corrugate, short-run box, free-standing displays, backlits, and shelf-ready prototypes that its customers need. It is selling across the board, and the challenge for them—and what Stevenson Color has done very well—is by building a sales force that understands more than just one vertical or a few types of print.”
That type of evolution has been key to print businesses weathering the recession, asserts VanHorn.
“In addition to packaging converters who are starting to adopt inkjet solutions, we are also seeing both sign and display graphics folks and commercial printers adding various forms of packaging to their mix of offerings. This includes event-driven materials; fast-turn shorter run items; and full production for campaigns and other purposes,” according to EFI’s Hanulec.
“While it can be difficult for commercial printers and sign and display graphics companies to break into packaging with the larger brands,” he stipulates, “there is significant demand among smaller brands for lower count packaging.”
As digital packaging production adoption grows with technology advancements and brand manager adoption, prototyping and short-run packaging finds its place. dps
Jul2014, DPS Magazine