By Olivia Cahoon
The folding carton market benefits from digital print and automated finishing technologies, which bring the ability to cost-effectively produce variable data, target new applications, and provide short runs. Despite limitations in ink costs and speed, digital technology for folding cartons is growing on a global scale with the strongest integration in Europe and North America.
Food and beverage industries also drive demand for digital printing and finishing folding carton technology with increased demand for customization and small product batches. As this trend continues, vendors improve digital products to provide unique capabilities.
Above: Highcon delivers innovation and differentiation that converters, printers, and brand owners all need to transform finishing into a value-added process.
Digital printing and finishing brings a variety of benefits to the folding carton space, including the ability to handle new applications with enhanced decorative features.
In this market, digital technology’s most obvious benefit is the ability to print variable data and offer targeted promotional cartons. Most digitally produced folding carton work is new or incremental business that was unachievable on a traditional offset platform, says Ed Pierce, product marketing manager, graphic systems division, FUJIFILM North America Corporation.
Reduced short-run and versioned packaging costs are one of the largest benefits digital platforms offer. “As with any short-run job, the cost to set up and run a job that is very short can lead to a high cost per piece when considering the setup time, plates, and makeready. A digital platform essentially has none of that cost,” explains Pierce.
Companies that integrate digital printing into their folding carton production realize economic benefits and enhance their competitive position with brand. Replacing older presses significantly saves time by eliminating the analog press makeready step, comments Rick Mazur, worldwide director, market development, packaging/labels, Kodak Enterprise Inkjet Division.
Other benefits of implementing digital printing into the folding carton production process are frequently seen in marketing and sales activities. “Digital printing enables new applications that can—and should—command a premium,” offers Mazur. “These new applications often attract new customers that become prospects for a company’s current printing products.”
New applications, products, and services are attractive to existing customers. According to Mazur, what’s less obvious is that new, digital-driven applications can also mitigate the price pressures on a company’s more commodity-like analog printing services, thus helping printers sell more from traditional printing operations and generate more profit.
Hybrid solutions are also attractive. “A digital printing press integrated with a flexographic coating unit provides a single-pass solution for applying graphics and varnish to folding carton sheets, with minimal start up waste, logistics, manual input, and setup time,” explains Allan Thysen, key account manager, TRESU Digital Solutions. Moreover, coating units perform at the maximum speeds of the digital press, meaning there is no compromise in productivity. “The integration of the coating unit therefore plays an essential role in ensuring a low-waste workflow with fast throughput in digital folding carton printing.”
Consider the Limitations
While digital technology promotes custom applications and reduces turnaround time, converters and print providers should be aware of limitations in speed, detail, and ink.
Current limitations for digital folding carton enhancements surround fine details and reverse text features that are often applied with analog technologies. “Some folding carton production runs for fast-moving consumer goods products can be over the breakeven point for digital technologies,” comments Nigel Tracey, head of packaging, Scodix Ltd. “Still, more than 70 percent of production runs can fit within the digital model.”
Speed is also a limitation in digital printing and finishing for the folding carton market. According to Juan Kim, CEO, VALLOY Incorporation, folding cartons need different knives for creasing, embossing, and die cutting, which requires simultaneous performance on a flatbed system. “Conveyors will transport the next job rapidly after each batch. So there’s a limitation to increase the speed,” he explains.
The cost per piece—which includes the price of toner and inkjet ink—is considerably higher than offset or flexographic inks, which limits digital printing’s applicability for folding cartons. Because these applications often use more ink per square meter than publishing or general commercial printing applications, Mazur suggests print providers consider consumable prices before investing in a device.
In addition to ink, substrates should also be considered. Not all digital printing systems handle the weights or surface types required in folding carton production. “If the inkjet ink contains higher levels of humectants, it limits the amount of ink applied and is likely to slow production to a crawl to dry the job,” explains Mazur.
A variety of digital press transport systems are designed for publishing or general commercial printing applications. As a result, the systems are unable to handle thicker board stocks required for folding cartons. To avoid complications, Mazur advises print providers to look for digital equipment vendors that design systems specifically for packaging and to watch out for force-fit equipment from other markets.
Driving Demand for Folding Cartons
Digital technology’s ability to provide short-run, customizable packaging for a variety of industries drives its demand in the folding carton market.
Globally, digital in the folding carton sector experienced growth rates in the 55 to 60 percent range and is expected to remain strong at nearly 50 percent for the next five years, says Mazur. However, it is far from mainstream. “Penetration of digital use for folding carton production is low, estimated at about two percent in 2018,” he shares.
Currently, the growth in digital folding carton production is strongest in North America, followed by Europe, Asia, and then Latin America. According to Mazur, North America and Western Europe developed infrastructures for business to consumer (B2C) data-driven communications and established brands with the largest folding carton markets—driving a higher degree with market testing, sub-brand product launches, eCommerce sales and promotions, and regulatory requirements impacting product labeling and consumer advisory information.
Throughout the packaging industry, segmentation and customization is trending with frequent branding changes and products requiring equally frequent packaging variations. “These lead to shorter runs and a demand for rapid speed to market,” says Shelagh Hammer, marketing manager, Highcon.
Rapid decorative changes require versatility and differentiation that is difficult to achieve conventionally. In commercial printing, this is even more noticeable. “Converters and printers alike leverage the benefits of digital technology to deliver just-in-time production rather than just-in-time delivery, which means keeping inventory in stock for their customers,” explains Hammer. This goes hand-in-hand with growing consumer demands for immediate short-run delivery, often fueled by online purchasing.
Thysen believes brands must work harder to achieve customer loyalty, especially millennial customers who are found to change allegiance more quickly. “The immediacy of digital workflow allows brand owners to target consumers with relevant products,” he adds. With digital, unique prints and personalized packaging are possible.
Digital technology’s ability to offer short runs also helps businesses with inventory management. “Buyers don’t have to print a high volume today but rather print what is needed today and then purchase more as needed,” says Pierce.
To effectively produce consistent short runs, today’s digital devices reproduce color exactly as previous runs without added operator time or set up—making the cost to produce reprints the same as the initial run. “Printing less upfront removes the risk of SKU obsolescence and scrap,” he adds.
While smaller production runs are a key driver in pursuing digital technology, Tracey says this is not enough. According to Pierce, production flexibility becomes essential as digital technology supports new business growth, whether that is new applications or simply creating new business offerings.
Thysen comments that digital folding carton printers are capitalizing on the growth of high-quality niche markets where short runs can be as few as 100 cartons. “This gives small businesses such as cottage food industries and meal delivery services access to retail branding solutions and retail listings, where no professional packaging was previously possible. Such sectors have enjoyed sharp growth in recent years as consumers seek authentic, organic produce.”
Several industries drive demand for digital capabilities in the folding carton market. This is due to economical short runs, customizable features, and print on demand abilities. Russell Doucette, product marketing manager, Konica Minolta, says these markets include wine and spirits, micro-breweries, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, health and beauty, industrial, co-packers and fulfillment, and B2C.
Folding cartons are especially important in food and beverage industries, targeting consumer buying needs as well as brands’ needs. Sub-brands and private labels are entering the market. According to Mazur, in the 1990s supermarkets had approximately 7,000 products. Today the average supermarket carries over 40,000 to 50,000 products. “Production volume per product is decreasing to a point where a print run of one million is now made of ten print runs of 100,000 due to increased product versioning,” he says.
This creates pressure on food and beverage packaging converters to produce cost-effective short runs and increase the brand’s speed to market, resulting in faster turnaround times. The trend is especially strong in consumer-packaged food, pet care, pharmaceutical, and beverage markets. As consumers look for brands that provide safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly options, these same companies are already communicating those values on the packaging through messages, promotions, and ingredients. “The value of the package as a marketing tool is increasing, which package variations will continue to proliferate,” says Mazur.
Digital Die Cutting
Several types of digital finishing devices are available for the folding carton. Digital die cutters are popular for a variety of features that cater to design, efficiency, and fast turnaround times for on demand folding carton creation.
Today’s digital die cutters are compatible with essential digital printing and finishing technology. This technology generally offers simple job setup using flexible dies to make the finishing function significantly easier and faster than conventional methods, shares Susan Corwin, marketing manager, Rollem International. “The ease of job changeovers allow users to process and deliver a variety of products with quick turnarounds.” The overall investment of a digital die cutter is typically less than conventional die cutters and does not require highly skilled operators.
Digital die cutters offer features like digital print-to-cut functionality, enabling the machines to read a digital print mark from the top or bottom of the sheet. Kevin Moll, VP of sales, B&R Moll, Inc., says this is important because it enables operators to run the sheet upside down for die cutting, stripping, and feeding into the folder gluer—allowing pieces to be completely finished in a single process.
Laser Die Cutting
Digital laser die cutters are also available. These machines use a high-speed laser to cut through substrates. Steven Leibin, president, Matik, Inc., says the benefits of digital laser die cutting are continuous cutting production without the cost of dies or the time needed to change dies. These systems can cut, mark, perforate, micro-perforate, or engrave for unique finishing embellishment capabilities.
“Laser cutting is the only truly digital form of cutting as it allows every piece to be unique,” shares Shaun Stanley, global sales director, motioncutter. “Short order lengths continue to grow in popularity due to people wanting lower stocks, faster time to market, and also a shift from business to business to web-based business to consumer, where naturally lower quantities are needed.”
He believes digital die cutting is the only way to make these orders cost effective due to immediate changeover as jobs have no downtime and don’t require die changes. These devices also yield high personalization with the ability to cut or engrave names and symbols into folding cartons. “With laser digital finishing, we can cut names into packaging—giving it an added dimension in personalization,” adds Stanley.
To support folding carton digital printing and finishing, digital die cutters require a variety of basic functions.
Ideally, the device is easy to use but capable of handling substantial volumes as demand grows. Although some devices are designed for runs in the hundreds, Corwin says print providers should consider the device’s ability to keep up with increased digital press production levels. This includes meeting all of the folding carton job’s needs, even if it entails multiple functions such as scoring, creasing, perforating, or even embossing.
It’s also important that a digital die cutter is able to fully integrate into any digital workflow solution. In this scenario, Stanley says cutting files are ripped and sent to the machine so that it is waiting for the printed sheets to appear on the feeder. “It will provide feedback and record each individual file giving vital analytics and also allowing owners to follow the job through the whole process.”
The ability to handle a variety of stock types and weights is ideal so print providers are not limited to paper-based materials. Further, Corwin suggests print providers consider the device’s delivery methods like high-capacity stackers for flat sheets, waste removal of the sheet skeleton, air blowers to remove sombrero holes, and conveyors to move the finished product to the final destination.
Digital die cutters should also offer flexibility by running seamlessly inline with other finishing machinery, offering high-speed throughput and sensing material edges to ensure accurate cutting. “All of these features combine to maximize efficiency and reduce press time, saving the operator money and increasing profit margins,” says Moll.
Unique Folding Cartons
Digital printing and finishing is making great strides in the folding carton production process. Industries like food and beverage sectors now demand shorter runs and customizable, value-added packaging attainable with digital technology. As this trend continues to grow, we see digital presses and finishing solutions emerge designed to handle the needs of short-run folding carton environments. dps
Mar2019, DPS Magazine