by Cassandra Balentine
Flexible packaging like liners, pouches, seals, sample packets, and bags are composed of a range of materials including film, plastic, paper, or foil. These solutions offer easier transport compared with more traditional glass and metal packaging. Digital print presents shorter run capabilities, no minimums, eliminated tooling, improved turnaround times, better supply chain efficiency, variable data capacity, and reduced waste for this type of application.
“A label printer or converter is able to enter new markets with a digital printing press because smaller print jobs can be realized with a better cost-per-label ratio than with conventional printing. In addition, the opportunities that come with a digital press support the trend that clients order at local print shops,” says Matthias Marx, head of marketing, Gallus Ferd. Rüesch AG.
Changing the Landscape
According to research firm Smithers, over the last ten years, flexible packaging has taken off, doubling in size to $228 billion in 2019. Its latest market report, The Future of Flexible Packaging to 2024, forecasts that it will continue growing by an annual rate of 3.3 percent, reaching $269 billion in 2024.
Digital print is making its way into flexible packaging, particularly where there is demand for ultra-short runs and customized products.
Print providers as well as label and packaging converters look for ways to apply digital print technology for short-run production and variable data applications. “The flexibility of digital print is attractive to those striving to expand market share and print capability. Digital printing also offers quick turnaround time for production runs, which helps meet the growing just-in-time and quick-to-market needs of many end customers,” shares Nicole Onesti, senior communications specialist, Paper Converting Machine Company.
“In a world where forecasting the success of new products is becoming an extremely difficult task, digital printing enables brands the freedom to create and easily print a large variation of artwork for a wide array of product SKUs and campaigns,” shares Eli Mahal, head labels and packaging, HP Indigo. This is a big advantage for any brand and could be a life saver for smaller organizations. “As a result, digital converters serving craft brands and localization can offer packaging in premium quality and format with no minimum orders.”
The packaging industry is growing rapidly, and is one industry that saw a boost from COVID-19. “The need of flexible packaging is increasing due to various factors such as the need for eco-friendly, lighter, cheaper, and less carbon dioxide. Flexible packaging has been approached by many brands—even micro-local brands—seeking short runs,” offers Gustavo Guzzi, EMEA sales manager, Karlville.
Demand for shorter runs is rising since it is now economically accessible for quantities below 5,000. It allows for quick changes in product marketing, ingredient, nutrition markings, and legislation, which can change rapidly. “More fragmentation and versioning, as new small businesses and boutique retailers join the market and have more exposure thanks to ecommerce,” adds Guzzi.
Digital print technology has been available in the flexible packaging market for the past seven to eight years. “Like most new technologies that move into conservative businesses, the ones who’ve invested so far would place them in the ‘innovators’ category, as laid out in Clayton Christianson’s Theory of Disruptive Innovation model. Interestingly, there have been more label converters who’ve already had many years of narrow web digital press exposure that have transitioned into digital flexible packaging more successfully than the traditional flexible packaging converters,” comments Matt Bennett, VP, Global Packaging Business Strategy, Fujifilm Graphics Systems Division.
Jerry Henson, sales manager, Mark Andy, points out that since printing is only one part of the manufacturing process, other equipment suppliers have stepped up by providing accompanying equipment like laminators that serve the short-run market as well. “The combination of these pieces of equipment are a cost-effective process for printing and laminating product that meets the needs for the ultra-short run flexible packaging market.”
Specific Features and Functions
From quality to control, several features and functions are expected from digital flexible packaging.
Guzzi says features to look for include easy-to-use equipment with quick set-ups, low waste, a small footprint, production control, storage, connection to external devices, integration to upstream and downstream processes, and smart solutions.
“The flexible packaging market is a very complex one that not only expects high print quality and special brand color matching characteristics from a digital press, but must also be able to print on a variety of media such as plastics, paper, foils, and recycled and post-consumer recycled stocks, just like their analog counterparts,” says Bennett.
Onesti agrees, noting that print and graphic vibrance as well as durability are essential as there is a trend towards less packaging.
A flexible production format is important for producers looking to utilize a single line to create a variety of products, according to Onesti.
Marx says a hybrid press is an option that gives converters the possibility of producing flexible packaging applications in one single pass. Inline finishing with slitting/die cutting can be combined with or without primer and with or without lamination depending on the job.
Accurate tension and temperature management throughout the entire process is essential because flexible packaging utilizes multiple layers of thin, unsupported films.
“With tension requirements as low as .25 pounds per linear inch, a closed-loop tension system with high accuracy is needed to maintain repeat and throw length to the level required for consistency through the entire process,” explains Henson. In addition, lamination tensions are equally as important to ensure minimal curl.
He adds that temperature management is necessary as materials can have a lower melt point that will be effected if not controlled in the manufacturing process.
“Production waste is under scrutiny, so equipment needs to be able to change over quickly and run with minimal waste,” offers Onesti.
“Packaging applications have to meet various demands, for examples sachets have requirements regarding heat resistance and the sealing of the inks,” explains Marx.
Low migration ink is also key, especially those that meet regulations and requirements like Good Manufacturing Practices and Nestlé guidance or Swiss Ordinance.
Traditional converters incorporate digital print technology into their service portfolios, making it possible to produce short and medium runs quickly and profitably as well as incorporate variable data.
“As printing technology and the packaging market continue to evolve, package printers and converters that once focused on analog processes are making room for digital inkjet printing solutions in their business,” says Onesti.
“As with all forms of printing, digital printing in flexible packaging is utilized for shorter run work where the costs of plates, labor, and waste cannot be realistically amortized as with larger runs. This also includes a cost-effective way to produce various short-run samples of packaging for marketing research. In addition, variable data is utilized in flexible packaging in much of the same ways it is used in all other forms of packaging and labels. Digital is the perfect process for these products,” notes Henson.
“In our opinion the ‘typical’ label converter also addresses the flexible packaging market, so it is logical to look for the best way of production in order to meet the customers’ needs and requirements. In this regard conventional and digital print technologies are placed next to each other on the production floor,” adds Marx.
There are many ways to incorporate digital, such as offering it as an alternative to conventional printing for existing customers or as a method of solving inventory issues and support customized packaging, shares Guzzi. Or, one could opt to create a different business unit focused on looking for new customers, businesses, and markets.
Mahal agrees, pointing out that conventional converters take various approaches to digital printing; some operate it as a separate business model, offering new products as complementary to the standard products they sell and try to attract new customers and win their analog job basket as well. Others use digital printing as a tool for express deliveries and recovery of analog off-spec deliveries to existing customers. “All use the option to serve brands on large personalization and customization campaigns.”
Bennett says the most successful converters up until now have been the ones that have meticulously put together a full business strategy around digital and how it is integrated into their existing business and workflow and typically set up under its own P&L.
Guzzi feels that traditional converters hold the big advantages of already knowing the materials, printing, lamination, and converting process; but have the disadvantage of being anchored to a different business model and a slower internal order process.
Where there are pros, you also have to consider cons. Digital work is often more complex with a lower profit margin and more room for error.
Guzzi believes managing a bigger amount of small orders has an impact on internal processes, documentation, organization, and shipping logistics.
“Digital print is more computerized and requires fewer production materials, so makeready and other processes are very different,” agrees Onesti. Producers need to embrace the faster pace of digital print capability to optimize its value within their organizations. “Operators and support staff also need to recognize the different needs of digital print equipment when compared to more traditional print equipment platforms.”
Digital is a proven printing process that is capable of producing short-run work at much lower cost than gravure or wide web flexographic presses, but there are some concerns. The challenges can be the management of a much larger quantity of short-run work through a press capable of producing a large volume of SKUs in a short amount of time. “Most converters underestimate the amount of work needed to feed the digital process. Order entry, prepress, material handling, shipping, and billing will see a great deal of increased activity as the short-run business grows. Having a plan in place prior to the installation of the digital asset will soften this, even if there is still a learning curve,” says Hansen.
Culture is another issue. “The biggest challenge leaders of flexible packaging companies today face is getting the entire organization to ‘buy in’ and adapt to change; to think differently than they’re used to. They need to incorporate—operationally speaking—a different digital workflow than the analog one, from preprint to post finishing, depending on the level of automation currently exists,” says Bennett.
A digital sale is a different sale than many traditional label printers and converters are used to. “Salespersons at traditional converters will typically manage a few medium and large accounts with millions of dollars of revenue and their mindset is always how can I get the largest run jobs. Their compensation is based on volume. In digital, most customers are emerging and small brands that order shorter runs with much lower volumes. Digital converters have thousands of customers and an average order in the thousand’s dollars range. From a production perspective, conventional converters find it hard to set an optimized end-to-end workflow for digital and they allocate their digital business on the same converting lines as used by analog, which becomes a burden both operationally and economically and ‘kills’ the digital business model,” explains Mahal.
From there it is finding and keeping the right personnel. “The technical background of a digital print operator differs immensely from that of a machine operator of a conventional printing system,” cautions Marx.
Eco-consciousness is on the rise. Digital printing enables less waste in the production process and is therefore attractive from an environmental perspective.
Digital print has significant sustainability advantages over analog, specifically in the short- and medium-run range, according to Mahal. This includes waste reduction, lower energy consumption, lower footprint, and lower volatile organic compounds. “Moreover, brands endured packaging obsolescence since they were forced to buy a minimum order quantity and eventually throw away money and packaging because of regulatory, marketing, and other changes taking place every day. Digital print totally eliminates that and allows you to order exactly what you need, when you need it—without paying financial and environment penalty on plates or cylinders.”
Bennett agrees, noting immediate press startup and minimal makeready and running waste allow brands to order exact quantities of what they need, when they need it, as opposed to the longer run, ‘held inventory’ model where excess product is typically discarded as waste. “For example, food and beverage industry waste rates run on average from ten percent all the way up to 30 percent for some products.”
Overall, digital printing requires fewer components, which Henderson points out saves an enormous amount of energy and resources in the manufacturing process and end of life with eventual disposal in a landfill. “Also the waste generated from a digital asset is a fraction compared to the competitive printing processes.”
Guzzi agrees, “digital printing is more ecologically friendly compared to some other printing technologies. No ink or dye is wasted, no plates, blankets, or screens to be washed off.”
Many digital systems also allow printers to utilize their existing equipment. “This increases their flexibility with unlimited potential across many different markets, while also supporting a sustainable circular economy. They can still use their flexographic presses to produce longer run jobs, and the integrated digital system to extend their capabilities to include customized labels and packaging, higher graphic content, smaller lot sizes, and the faster cycle times clients demand,” offers Onesti.
“Less waste due to a short set-up time and web path are key,” says Marx. “On top of that, digital printing needs no printing plates—in contrast to flexographic, offset, and gravure, which is relevant especially for seasonal or marketing campaigns and frequent legal changes. The converter is able to offer production just in time and does not have to print on stock. In addition, variable data printing will open new markets and address clients directly,” adds Marx.
Digital print offers a variety of advantages in flexible packaging production, including time to market, supply chain efficiency, waste reduction, and variable data support. As quality improves and costs come down, we expect digital penetration in this space to increase as traditional package printers and converters adopt and move work to digital to keep pace with new client demands. dps
Sep2021, DPS Magazine