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Opening the Box to Digital

A Look at Digital Package Printing and Prototyping

By Melissa Donovan

Print service providers (PSPs) experience results with package printing and prototyping. Epson and Roland DGA Corporation recently introduced white ink and LED technologies, respectively. White ink is an exceptional innovation for both packaging and prototyping, allowing vendors to print directly onto metallic or dark substrates. LED technology provides faster and eco-friendlier curing capabilities.

Advancements continue to fuel the movement, which is still in its infancy. Pira International’s study, The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging, projects that the global market for digitally printed packaging and labels is forecast to grow by an overall 182 percent and a compound annual growth rate of 23 percent to reach close to U.S. $6.8 billion by 2014. This is an expansion of nearly three times over, Pira projects the global market to reach U.S. $2.4 billion in 2009.

Proof to Print to Cut
According to Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA, Inc., inkjet proofing began gaining momentum about ten years ago. Germany-based Best Color/Colorproof found that a continuous-tone proof could simulate an on-press image. “The big driver was speed to print, remote proofing possibilities, and reducing the per print cost from $250 to eight dollars per proof,” he remarks.

Pira’s study notes that shorter press runs drive digitally printed packaging. “Digital, on demand printing is critical in the context of the economic downturn and waste reduction initiatives, since lesser material, energy, and inks are used.”

Flute, Durst Image Technology US LLC’s newsletter targeted toward corrugated and point of purchase (POP) display markets, regularly discusses the benefits of digital printing in packaging and prototyping. “Digital offers a straightforward process at a low cost. Like desktop printing, a digital file can be printed directly with virtually no setup time and plate costs,” states the September 2009 edition.

The newsletter compares traditional printing’s image quality to digital in POP/display printing, cost, time to market, special effects, media variety, and formats. Digital shows clear advantages in many aspects.

“Driven by consumer behavior and retail requirements, the function of packaging evolved and expanded. Brand owners create more product variations and brand extensions, which means shorter print runs and an associated requirement for converters to deliver fast turnaround times. This drives an avalanche of requirements, such as an increased amount of prototypes,” admits Jan DeRoeck, director solutions management, EskoArtwork.

The latest machines break new ground in terms of image quality and cost effectiveness, and capture production volume from conventional offset technologies for these applications, adds Don Knox, U.S. director of sales, Scitex, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Graphics Solutions Business.

The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging explains that traditional converters employing digital printing are capable of becoming true PSPs by offering a wider range of digital services, not just packaging and prototyping. Digital devices such as flatbeds expand the range of possible applications. Their growing popularity, paired with an increase in dependability, allow for direct imaging to substrates. This in turn allows for prototyping to existing stocks, shares David J. Cich, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color.

Gary Rudnick, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc. agrees. “Printing directly on a substrate gives the user a more accurate representation of the final package. This is great for prototypes that are too expensive to make with regular screening methods.”

The finishing component—whether print-to-cut or standalone—of a digital packaging workflow is also essential to the transition from converter to PSP. “Digital cutting systems were already gaining popularity, but combined with a digital flatbed printer, they greatly improve the packaging prototype process,” says Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Oce North America.

“Integrated printer/cutters combine digital printing with contour cutting on a single device through one seamless workflow for tremendous cost savings and increased productivity. With integrated print/cut capabilities, shops produce labels and prototypes of virtually any shape to match the specifications of the finished product,” explains Hiroshi Ono, senior product manager, Roland.

Investing in Innovation
Customers are far more knowledgeable today, points out Bob Scherer, VP/partner, CL&D Digital, based in Hartland, WI. The company was one of the first six HP Indigo roll-to-roll installations in North America. In 1995 they began producing short-run digital flexible, shrink sleeves, cartons, and labels. The shop utilizes EskoArtwork finishing software at the end of its workflow.

According to the Pira report, the usage of digital in packaging—especially flexible—is expected to grow four to five times during the 2009 to 2014 period. This is driven not only by the need for increased productivity, but by customers searching for innovation—in the form of hardware and PSPs’ design ideas.

Vendors respond to this in a number of ways, such as innovative inks. “We are investing in single-pass output of white with perfect registration so that the print times are not reduced,” shares Cich.

Durst offers a specialized UV ink set for the corrugate market and features white ink printing, which is primarily used in a spot-under print function when printing on a non-coated or bleached board.

Mark Radogna, group product manager, professional imaging, Epson, outlines the science behind Epson’s UltraChrome HDR White Ink, which debuted in December 2009. The ink utilizes Organic Hollow Resin Particle Technology, which forces light to randomly scatter, producing the illusion of the color white. “Unlike traditional white ink chemistry, Epson UltraChrome HDR White Ink is a safer, water-based resin particle—void of any known carcinogens," he says.

“HP’s innovative, retail-friendly HP Scitex WB300 Supreme inks are pigmented, water-based inks and are water- and abrasion-resistant. Because they are flexible, they do not crack when folded and provide high image quality, including four-point text even at the fastest print mode,” explains Knox.

INX Digital develops white and metallic inks and alternative curing methods. Some substrates are very sensitive to heat and require looking at other, cooler ways to dry or cure ink sets. With substrates such as films and foils, the company is creating LED curing methods to ensure the ink sets are fine tuned to work within the functioning wavelength of the LEDs, shares Jim Lambert, VP/GM, INX International Co.

Package and Prototype Digitally
Many digital printers and finishing devices are suitable for package printing. CET’s X-Press FK512 flatbed printer is capable of printing white and comes with a six- by ten-foot table that allows oversized imaging in perfect registration, with a high-resolution mode of 1,440x720 dpi.

“Durst introduced the Rhopac line of UV inkjet printers in 2006 to address the needs of the packaging/prototyping market,” shares Chris Howard, VP of marketing and sales, Durst. These printers feature specialized transport systems for the feeding of corrugate board such as sheet guidance, a specialized vacuum, and automated loading and stacking.

The Epson Stylus Pro WT7900 printer is specifically designed for proofing flexographic and gravure print jobs requiring the color white. The 24-inch device prints directly on roll or cut sheet films.

For finishing, EskoArtwork’s Kongsberg DCM boasts a full automatic load and unload mechanism that handles up to a half ton of corrugated material. The Kongsberg i-series of short-run production cutting tables feature a camera-based system for automatic print-to-cut registration.

HP’s Scitex FB6700 features unique material handling capabilities with the ability to print on corrugated and compressed cardboard, foamboard, foam PVC, and other rigid substrates up to five by 10.5 feet in size and up to .79 inches thick.

INX Digital offers a variety of printers for prototyping and packaging. The MD660 flatbed prints on flat sheets used in the metal decorating, corrugated, and folding carton markets. The NW100 UV narrow web printer moves material under a fixed printhead at very high rates of speed. With a print width of 5.5 inches, it prints at 80 linear feet per minute, and allows the user to print variable data without plate or die changeovers as an alternative to current, smaller, traditional label presses. The CP100 UV digital printer prints two-piece beverage cans. This platform is ideal for metal water bottles and plastic cups; essentially anything cylindrical in shape is held by either end.

At 64 inches wide, Mimaki’s UJV-160 handles roll and flatbed material. It comes with a roller table and features user-refillable bladders of 600 milliliters per color to save waste. The JFX-1631 is a five- by ten-foot LED flatbed that prints on media up to two inches thick. It will soon be offered with a roll-to-toll option and prints around 145 square feet per hour.

Mutoh’s ValueJet VJ-1608HA prints on both rigid and roll-to-roll substrates at 1,440x1,440 dpi resolution. The printer includes a medical-grade air pump to drive heated air nozzles. The air pump incorporates external filters that reduce condensation and damage from foreign particles.

The Oce Arizona series of flatbed UV printers print on nearly any rigid surface, paperboard, and corrugated board. A White Ink Option increases the available printing substrates to include colored or clear materials. The Roll Media Option enables printing on flexible stock. The Oce ProCut line of digital cutters and specialized software for intelligent nesting and workflow management offer an ideal solution for package prototyping including through-cutting, creasing, trimming, contour-cutting, kiss-cutting, and routing.

Roland offers two inkjet lines ideal for the production of package prototypes—the VersaUV series of 30-inch LED-UV inkjet printer/cutters and the SOLJET PRO III XC-540 and XC-540MT 54-inch eco-solvent printer/cutters. Both are available with a white ink option, integrated print/cut capabilities, a maximum print resolution of 1,440 dpi, bundled VersaWorks RIP software, and Roland Intelligent Pass Control technology. Both are backed by Roland’s two year warranty.

Printable Substrates
Industries such as cosmetic, retail, food and beverage, electronic, home, healthcare, hospitality, agriculture, pharmaceutical, entertainment, and consumer products utilize packaging and call on PSPs to create prototypes in short runs at fast speeds.

“Many customers use the HP Scitex FB6700 for packaging or prototyping, including primary and display packaging, test marketing, product launches, promotional campaigns, 3D displays, shipping cartons, custom packaging, folding cartons, counter displays, and medical waste boxes,” shares Knox.

Most print devices that qualify as converting machines print on corrugated board, folding cartons, labels, and other atypical substrates. For example, the Mimaki UJV-160 prints on shrink-wrap films, foils, and Kraft cardboard. CET’s flatbed device also prints on Kraft stocks, as well as non-Kraft.

Metallic films are a popular draw, the Epson Stylus Pro WT7900 is capable of printing directly onto both inkjet coated clear and metallic films. “It even prints on clear shrink-wrap films for true high-quality shrink-wrapped packaging products such as water and tea bottles,” says Radogna.

Another attraction is the addition of a clear coat during the print process that enhances the packaging or a prototype. Printers included in Roland’s VersaUV series are capable of this. According to Ono, users add a layer of clear coat for unique patterns and textures such as faux leather, crocodile skin, and Braille.

Finishing tables allow for a variety of substrates to be cut. “The Kongsberg table finishes preprinted materials from paper stock to rigid, from vinyl, folding carton, foam, to triple-wall cardboard, wood, and acrylics, all up to one-inch. Anything from labels to folding cartons, top corrugated samples, and multi-part POP displays are created on Kongsberg tables,” shares DeRoeck.

And what about irregular objects—such as cans or glass bottles? Has technology advanced enough where the printer can directly print to this material, while in its cylindrical shape? “The answer is yes, definitely maybe. Depending on the imaging area, if you prepare a jig to hold the object and are able to turn the object as you print,” states Urmano.

INX Digital’s CP100 UV digital printer is already able to do this. “Prototype cans, two-piece beverage cans, three-piece aerosol cans, metal water bottles, and wine bottles on the cylindrical side are able to run through the printer,” admits Lambert.

Food Safety
The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging states that the use of digital devices in food and beverage packaging and labels is expected to rise to $2.1 billion in 2014, which is an increase from $606 million in global sales in 2009. Pira believes this growth will occur due to the overall growth in general production packaging and labeling.

However, inks used on food or beverage packages or prototypes must be U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compliant. UV and electron beam (EB) inks are slowly gaining approval thanks to a movement by RadTech Food Contact Notification Alliance. In March 2008, the group achieved its first FDA clearance on a range of UV/EB curing materials in any combination of direct food contact.

The majority of hardware featured in this article utilizes inks approved for the non-food side of a product. For example, HP’s Knox points out that the HP Scitex WB300 Supreme inks for the HP Scitex FB6700 are approved for printing on food packaging on the non-food contact side.

Down the road, as PSPs capitalize on shorter runs and ability to create packaging for this type of niche, ink manufacturers should take the appropriate steps to gain approval from the FDA. “In many cases temporary display types house final package products and this is generally considered safe as a secondary package display. As the print production speeds increase on these devices, the application for primary packaging will become more prominent and ink sets will need approval,” shares Durst’s Howard.

Equal Growth
Shorter runs, the ability to print directly to the substrate, and revolutionary inks propel digital printing and finishing equipment to the front of the packaging and prototype industry. Advancements allow traditional converters to transform into the role of a PSP. These companies were once limited to creating packaging and prototypes due to manpower, resources, and efficiency restraints.

Alternatively, traditional PSPs with digital printers already instituted, can add package printing and prototyping to their services. Based on the statistics from Pira’s report, the number of brand managers, advertising agencies, and corporations looking for digital packaging and prototyping is positioned to grow. The amount of shops must increase at an equal pace to keep up with demand. Is package printing and prototyping in your future?

Apr2010, Digital Output

 
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