Digital print technologies have profoundly changed the way consumer packages are conceptualized, created, and proofed. But is the packaging industry ready for digital print to replace traditional press technologies, such as offset and flexography?
Print industry veterans may laugh at the notion that digital print may one day be the technology of choice to produce consumer packaging. Then again, many people in this industry once neglected the ideas of computer-to-plate (CTP) imaging, film-less workflows, and soft proofing. Just look how essential these technologies are to the printing process today.
Digital printing has been the savior of some industry segments, such as large format signage and so forth—but packaging?
The very nature of consumer packaging makes it seem unsuitable for digital printing. Packages are typically produced in long runs, require spot-on color accuracy, and use non-traditional printing substrates and, often, specialty inks.
Digital printing isn’t likely to soon replace the offset, flexographic, and gravure presses currently printing the nation’s large format packaging jobs. But, one day, it might. In the meantime, digital printing has found a home in the packaging workflow, offering its services for production duties, such as proofing, creative conceptualization, and printing of mocks and samples. Some say the next generation of large format digital print engines will be capable of taking on more than production, and excel at final job runs, too.
A Reality Check
"I suspect that less than two percent of all wide format packaging is printed digitally," suggests Craig T. Reid, director, new business development, DuPont Color Communication.
Don’t count digital out just yet. Reid says that just a few years ago, less than one percent of narrow-web package jobs were printed digitally. That figure has steadily grown ever since, with companies like HP Indigo capturing some of the tag and label markets with their digital solutions.
"Narrow web is the perfect example for how fast digital may take over," Reid suggests. "And, of course, digital inkjet has been used for marking applications for many years, printing variable data, such as born-on dates, codes, and so forth."
There are other digital press manufacturers getting into the wide- and narrow-format packaging markets, as well. Kodak Graphics Communications Group, for example, is positioning its Kodak NexPress 2100 Plus Digital Production Color Press as a solution for a wide range of variable data print (VDP) jobs—everything from transactional and direct-mail printing to POP signage and packaging.
Xerox Corporation’s iGen3 Digital Production Press also targets producers of such VDP jobs, boasting speeds up to 6,600 impressions per hour.
Despite the small percentage who have adopted large format digital for packaging, Reid and other digital print technology manufacturers suggest that the packaging market is just as ripe for them as other segments of commercial print.
"A high-quality, high-speed digital printing solution for wide format packaging would be fantastic for the market," Reid suggests. "Unfortunately, production-speed digital packaging does not exist today. The digital print technology to achieve the quality and print speeds needed is still under development."
Realizing a digital solution for final large format packaging output is a lofty goal, and may require many more years of research and development. There are some considerable engineering obstacles to overcome, Reid suggests—big issues like speed, print width, electronics, and ink.
The need for faster production speeds is obvious, and DuPont and others are making great strides at getting their machines to ramp up and print faster.
"Currently, almost all digital wide format technology represents inkjet printing in an index-and-scan mode," Reid explains. "The substrate or the print head is moved, and then the print head, or the substrate, scans across to print a swath of ink. These swaths widths can range from sixteenths of an inch to several inches, and sometimes require multiple passes."
"To become speed-attractive for packaging, this method of index-and-scan would have to be replaced with a single-pass print bar," Reid continues. "True print bars are not only very early in prototypes, they are very expensive. The earliest versions came out years ago, but have yet to improve in relative quality and speed. To really achieve the ability to make such a high-quality and speedy print bar is going to take at least another generational change in the way inkjet print heads are manufactured."
Think About Inks
Digital print engine manufacturers have swiftly engineered UV-curable solutions. The consumables used are more environmentally and substrate friendly. Even with these innovations, however, there is still work to be done so inks lend themselves to the rigorous and unique demands of packaging.
"The required science involved to make a digital ink that has the desired color gamut, and can adhere, and dry or cure to a wide variety of packaging substrates is a hefty task," Reid notes. "For digital packaging to truly gain any traction, the inks must be 100 percent compatible with standard—meaning, no extra cost—substrates. This means that the ink must have color quality to match a customer’s corporate spot colors, have great adhesion, and scuff resistance. While today’s wide format, UV-cure inkjet technology is the hottest thing for producing point-of-sale and POP rigid signage, UV-cure ink is still not acceptable for things like primary food packaging."
While these technological obstacles may seem overwhelming, they’re not stopping people from using digital print solutions to produce packaging.
Printing and Production
Digital printing is very much in use throughout the packaging industry. Virtually every type of print-focused company is looking at digital, from the packaging designers to creative and prepress shops, from commercial printers to package printers themselves.
According to Reid, print companies are buying large format digital print engines, if not to produce final output, but to assist in package production. This is one of the roles DuPont’s latest digital printer will play in the packaging market.
"The new DuPont Cromaprint 22UV digital printing system, which we’ve been installing since November 2005, is the first of our line that’s able to print color-accurate packaging prototypes and sample runs, even though the main purpose of the system is for the production of POP and signage."
Reid says that DuPont’s Cromalin digital proofing systems are also being used for color-accurate package proofing and comps.
Digital printing solutions have been used for package production for many years. In 2002, Agfa introduced its Grand Sherpa, a piezoelectric inkjet that was specifically billed as being a solution engineered for package proofing.
At the Print 05 show in Chicago last Fall, Agfa introduced the :Dotrix, a high-speed digital inkjet press that images up to 24.8 inches wide and is compatible with UV-curable inks. Agfa bills this digital print engine as an ideal solution for short- and medium-run print jobs, including packaging.
One of the first U.S. print suppliers to install Agfa’s :Dotrix was Rock-Tenn Corporation’s Alliance Group, a POP display and package printer.
Alliance Group had been exclusively an offset and flexo shop until the :Dotrix purchase. The printer invested in digital technology in response to the demands of its Fortune 100 customers who were seeking just-in-time fulfillment, customized labeling, and short runs of folding cartons and signage.
This is a growing trend among commercial and packaging printers who have been long-time users of conventional offset and flexographic presses. More are looking to digital not as replacement for these tried-and-true methods, but as a complement to them.
"I’d estimate that between 85 and 90 percent of commercial printers have now bought wide format inkjets for proofing," suggests Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA. "And they’re using them for [packaging] comps."
"At a number of trade shows, Mimaki has shown how to create package designs using UV-curable inks, where we print on either a paper stock, like a cardboard, or we print directly to a substrate like a PVC or polycarbonate," Urmano adds. "We’re also showing printing on thin films that may be used for gravure packaging."
While Urmano acknowledges that Mimaki’s market strength has been in sign graphics, package production is very much a segment they’d like to serve. They’re banking on their existing family of inkjets to fulfill the requirements of creative, production, and print teams who are producing packaging.
Mimaki’s UJF-605C Flatbed Inkjet—a seven-color, variable-resolution piezoelectric, drop-on-demand solution—and the UJF-605RH Hybrid Roll-Feed/Flatbed printers are prime not only for sign applications, but also for comps, sampling, and proofing. And Mimaki’s UJF-605R is a dedicated, roll-to-roll, digital color proofing solution that prints on soft films for flexible packaging simulations.
Digital and Analog
"Another trend we’re seeing," Reid adds, "is with package printers who may have 60-inch KBA Planeta presses but are adopting wide format digital—both solvent and UV-curable printers—to complement their services with point-of-sale displays. And for short runs, below 100, sometimes it makes sense to put the packaging job on a digital press, so you’ll see more customers using digital for that, too."
HP ScitexVision promotes its HP Scitex FB6700—previously known as the CORjet Premium—as an essential digital technology for print suppliers doing a lot of corrugated work—both for packaging and display applications. The company is marketing the solution directly to printers in need of producing test marketing samples, packaging for new product launches, promotional campaigns, and signage.
Besides proofing, sampling, and ultra-short runs, digital technologies are also becoming increasingly popular for packaging applications that require VDP and special personalization. Here, digital is the only way to go.
Odyssey Digital Printing is using two digital presses from Xeikon to produce ultra-short-run customized packaging—a Xeikon 50D, a duplexing solution that prints simultaneously on both sides of a substrate, and a Xeikon 50SP single-sided printer.
Being able to offer customized packaging jobs has enabled Odyssey Digital Printing to land key accounts like Titleist, the golf merchandise brand. Titleist is reported to have 75 percent of the custom golf ball market, and for these sales, the manufacturer sought a way to personalize the packaging, as well. Thanks to digital printing, it can now create a customized package that includes variable print, such as a picture of a golfer’s favorite course or hole. John Roberds, Odyssey’s president, reports that his company is printing between 40 and 50 of these jobs each week.
"We see more and more of the packaging trade services companies branching out to offer more services to the packaging buyer," Reid suggests. "30 percent of printed POP being produced today is being done via digital methods. Wide format inkjet is rapidly growing—almost begging for digital packaging to also happen."