by Cassandra Balentine
As digital print continues to penetrate the label and packaging market, traditional label and packaging print providers are looking for the right time to jump into digital—if they haven’t already.
Some of the concerns about digital printing and finishing in this space center around efficiency, print speed, media size, color fidelity, substrate flexibility, and finishing.
Ed Bokuniewicz, product marketing manager, Konica Minolta, says these concerns may be valid depending on the print device, target application, run length, and print speed. However, he points out that as packaging applications evolve, run lengths evolve and new applications emerge, making these concerns invalid.
“The packaging markets—other than the label segment— have been slower to adopt to digital technology mainly because of the more complex operational upstream and downstream manufacturing processes that negated the benefits of a very efficient printing process,” says Matt Bennett, global VP, packaging strategy, Fujifilm North America. He explains that in the label market, very efficient digital finishing devices took the place of inline finishing on flexographic presses so the total throughput of the process was enhanced making it a more viable production solution.
As run lengths continue to trend downward today in the label segment, the latest digital presses close the gap against flexography in terms of production and often delivers higher print quality. “In the flexible packaging market, the early digital presses just didn’t have enough firepower to make a meaningful financial impact over flexographic presses, consequently the market has not developed in any scale,” adds Bennett.
He says that today, run lengths continue to trend downward with SKU proliferation from more local, regional, and organic products coming to market, leading to rapidly changing consumer buying habits and a convergence of faster, more efficient digital technology. This leads flexible packaging to enter into an extended period of high digital growth.
Continued improvements to digital presses provide better quality and color control, as well as quick makeready and short-run solutions for coatings, embellishments, and even die cutting. “For example, our sister company, MBO America, offers the BSR rotary die-cutting solution, which features a faster makeready and delivery profile than traditional flatbed die cutters, so it is well suited to the short-run market. It has also been adjusted in size to handle the newer B2+ sheet size produced by digital presses like our sheetfed inkjet printing system, the Impremia IS29,” says Charlie Lahr, manager inkjet solutions, Komori America.
Printing on demand is a big trend in packaging, which is why it is a market with new solutions being developed at a fast pace. “It is important to carefully evaluate all the digital options on the market and invest in equipment that offers capabilities that go beyond those that customers currently demand,” offers Lahr.
There are many market drivers and advantages to adding digital capabilities to traditional label and packaging environments. The opportunities are poised to grow, making it an appealing—if not necessary—move.
Bokuniewicz believes short runs and customized packaging applications are a good start for digital package print operations.
“Labels have been one of the first packaging applications to move from traditional offset to digital. Short-run folding cartons that require a quick turnaround are also a perfect entry point. Then versioned/personalized and just in time, print on demand can be tackled as printers become more comfortable with the technology,” states Lahr.
Bennett suggests starting out by offering simpler, short-run static jobs to ensure there are no missteps in the supply chain from file to finishing. “Simply handling a larger amount of smaller orders can cause bottlenecks at each stage of the process if not properly planned. You don’t want your first orders to be heavy in variable content; you need to first understand how to handle large amounts of data and content before you go live.”
He says it’s better late than never to get into the game. “However, once you do get in—especially in the label market—you’ll be facing much more competition. It’s no longer a specialized market, it’s mainstream.”
“Like anything, business just doesn’t walk through the door. A strategic business plan is a must, but there’s no better place to start than your good customer base,” shares Bennett. He says it’s imperative to make sure that you have upstream and downstream processes in place. One of the biggest mistakes that a company can make is trying to plug a new digital press into a workflow that is optimized for analog printing and finishing. Usually, before they know it they end up with bottlenecks in all areas.
“Traditional packaging printers/converters should consider the value of packaging on demand,” says Bokuniewicz. Run lengths are decreasing and packaging applications are increasing, such as the shipping carton to shelf concept. The use of variable data packaging is increasing in the form of customization and personalization. Packaging design can be more colorful and complex, which leads to digital finishing capabilities for many new devices on the market. Also consider the traditional makeready time that is reduced or eliminated with digital packaging technology. “This all fits perfectly well for the digital packaging printer,” he adds.
Interested printers should become educated on all the value-added opportunities that digital presents beyond the standard analog-to-digital conversion and look for solutions that, when combined, provide the ability to be a complete source for all of your customers’ applications, says Lahr.
There are some instances where a traditional provider may want to hold off on digital.
Long-run packaging jobs are still conducive for traditional presses, however packaging printer/converters should consider adding digital packaging printers to their operations. “Short runs, prototypes, and variable packaging lend well to digital printing,” says Bokuniewicz.
“Traditional package printers and converters need to evaluate their current applications, run lengths, etc. before outlining a strategy for success with digital packaging. A company should be prepared to assess all aspects from the sales engagement through the finished product,” recommends Lahr.
“There could be instances that for whatever reason digital is not a fit for a company,” admits Bennett. Possibly they are in a specialized portion of their market that today cannot utilize digital for additional growth, profit, or efficiency. “However, digital transformation is happening at break neck speed in all businesses and it’s better to keep up than be left behind,” he cautions.
Much like any other decision, it’s always a leap of faith when investing in new technology or applications.
Bennett points out that it’s certainly the best, but also the worst indication that it’s time to make the move when you’ve lost business to a competitor who had digital. “Just don’t think it’s a one-time event, its happening and will continue to happen over time. Today, there are almost no excuses not to have a digital press in order to offer solutions to your customers so they have access to all types of different packaging processes to best serve their own customers.”
Transitioning to digital is often market driven. “There are numerous examples of more personalized packaging, security features, track n’ trace, just in time, etc. that brands are now demanding, as well as speed to market that intensified due to the pandemic,” comments Lahr.
Bokuniewicz says indicators lending to digital package printing are driven by the brand owner, co-packer, and manufacturer in many cases. “Short run lengths, prototypes, personalization, and customized packaging are all indicators to consider adding digital printers to your operations.”
To track success, print providers look at return on investment (ROI) as a good indicator of whether or not they are moving in the right direction.
“A best practice for achieving ROI in digital print is to stay focused on the unique value-added opportunities a digital device has to offer and try to avoid the cost-plus pricing trap,” notes Lahr.
“In my experience, companies that provide ongoing digital sales training programs to the sales teams are the ones who have the most success,” says Bennett. Digital can offer new and exciting solutions that analog can’t. Make sure that your team understands the true value proposition, and in many cases, it’s not price. “Yes, there will be work that is done more efficiently on a digital press than conventional, those are the obvious ones. Where the rubber meets the road, however, is being able to offer tailored solutions to brands around messaging, increasing market share, standing out on the shelf, customized and personalized content, fast turnaround and delivery times, and the ability to allow their customers a better experience,” he offers.
Bokuniewicz suggests checking ink costs and consumables along with the print speed of the digital printer device under consideration. “Look at the market analysis from IDC and Keypoint Intelligence and see what market segments are showing digital packaging growth numbers.”
Progress with Vendor Partners
Finding the right match is essential. Here are digital label/packaging highlights from vendors mentioned in this article.
Fujifilm invests heavily in the digital packaging markets and believe that there exist tremendous growth opportunities in all areas in which Fujifilm has core competencies, such as flexographic and digital inks, flexographic plates and processors, digital workflows, and digital inkjet presses. “The combination of our expertise in all of these areas provides us with a unique strategic advantage and value proposition that we believe will enhance and enlarge our share in these growing markets,” shares Bennett.
Fujifilm believes in a customer-centric foundation featuring a consultative business approach that goes beyond technology itself. “Customers and converters today are looking more for long time partners that they can count on every day for support and guidance in a fast changing space. Whether we lead by developing our own technology or partner with other leading, forward thinking organizations, our values and leadership principles will continue to guide us,” he adds.
Komori offers B2—23×29 inches—and B1—29.5×41 inches—format digital solutions, providing the substrate freedom, wide color gamut, and color stability necessary to meet the demands of the packaging market. Furthermore, through its recent acquisition of MBO, the company offers many finishing solutions, including rotary die cutting, custom folder gluers, slitting, folding, and cutting.
“Komori has a team ready to assist in evaluating a commercial printer’s current business model and market opportunities and we offer a review of the portfolio of solutions Komori brings to the market that will make the move to digital packaging a smooth one,” shares Lahr.
Konica Minolta has solutions for folding cartons, corrugated, and labels from the entry to mid-range levels. “We look to grow deeper into packaging printers to handle many application types including packaging embellishments,” comments Bokuniewicz.
Konica Minolta offers digital packaging solutions with customer operator training and Professional Services to complement its DX Transformation strategy model.
For those in the label and packaging market, the time is now to embark on digital. While there are several concerns associated with making the leap, if you wait too long you’re bound to lose business to someone that can accommodate shorter runs and variability if you haven’t already. dps
Jul2021, DPS Magazine