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Getting the Perfect Package

Digital Opportunity in Package Print

By Thomas Franklin

In this new era of frugality, where consumers cling to their dollars as never before, it’s all the more important to craft packaging that leaps out and grabs shoppers’ attention. For print service providers (PSPs), there is opportunity to leverage design expertise and existing investments in UV flatbeds and cutting tables by capitalizing on package prototyping—helping marketers craft the perfect package.


One thing attracting print providers to packaging is its relative stability, says Kristof Dekeukelaere, :Dotrix sales manager, Agfa Graphics. While the graphics industry lives and dies by ad budgets, items must be packaged to be sold. “We like to say that the recession stopped people from buying a $20 bottle of wine, but they still bought an eight dollar bottle. From our standpoint, it’s the same outcome,” explains Jon Fultz, segment marketing manager, graphics systems division, Fujifilm North America Corporation.


Varied Adoption

The packaging industry is not monolithic, and the pace of digital technology adoption varies based on the business profile, shares Chris Howard, VP of sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US LLC. According to a recent study conducted by market research firm InfoTrends, 36 percent of packaging converters use some form of color digital technology. Digital print technology penetration is highest among label converters—47 percent. While it’s the least prevalent among flexible package converters, at only 19 percent.


Package companies experience good exposure to digital technology, observes Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., but many have yet to make the investment. Large-scale packaging converters still maintain extensive investments in flexo, offset, and gravure platforms. The packaging industry as a whole tends to be more conservative with its technology adoption, observes Howard.


On the proofing and prototyping side, however, the writing is on the wall. “The future of package proofing and prototyping is inkjet based,” predicts Mark Radogna, group product manager, professional imaging, Epson. “Currently, Epson inkjet technology is used to create contract-color proofs of final flexographic and gravure printing products. In addition, it is also used by designers to create high-quality packaging comps and prototypes for customers.”


PSPs also have an opportunity to scoop up short run and prototyping work that’s well suited and more cost-effective when produced digitally.


Many large scale packaging converters still make prototypes the old fashion way, says Randy Paar, display graphics product manager, Océ North America. They produce a print with a color proofer, cut it to form with an x-acto knife and steel straight edge, and glue it onto white cardboard stock. “This process is very time consuming and never looks as nice as a finished product—the paper gets dog-eared because the prototype is usually handled by many people,” explains Paar.


A digital UV press enables direct-to-corrugate output that can be laminated—so it’s tougher and won’t be damaged as it’s passed around. The quality is first rate too, suggests Ken Parsley, ValueJet product manager, Mutoh America, Inc. “Compared to screenprint, digital is as good or better. You don’t want to burn a screen for a one-up prototype.”


“Our digital technologies allow companies to skip the tooling, die cutting, and plate making a traditional screen or offset press requires with the ability to print directly to the substrate and deliver the job to the customer,” shares Moshiko Levhar, worldwide product manager, high-volume solutions, Scitex division, Hewlett-Packard (HP).


“Digital technology is dramatically changing the packaging/prototyping market,” observes Hiroshi Ono, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. “Shorter lead times, significantly lower costs, and greater flexibility are just a few benefits of digital technology. Brand owners can quickly produce variations of packaging designs or experiment with new concepts without incurring the high costs and longer lead time of traditional analog systems.”


Dave Cich, VP, sales and marketing, CET Color, concurs. According to him, digital technology not only allows for printing directly to the same substrates used in long-run screen jobs, but the ability to spot color and offer faster turnarounds.


However, the opportunity is not just in prototypes. “We see a lot of demand for regionalization, packaging that’s more regionally targeted and relevant for specific areas,” recommends Willis Reese, global director of business development, INX Digital International Co. There’s also the opportunity to create specialized custom packages for VIP events, adds Paar. “You can create boxes with variable data, so packages are personalized,” he says. For PSPs making standees and other corrugated retail point of purchase (POP), it’s not a big leap, notes Howard.


“As the advertising industry shifts to a model with shorter and more versioned campaigns, medium runs of test marketing or local promotions are increasingly printed with digital solutions,” continues Levhar. “With the evolution of technology, higher productivity, image quality, and cost-effectiveness continue to drive the breakeven point for digital technologies into much higher quantities.”


Converters, however, aren’t sitting on the sidelines. With presses such as the Agfa’s :Dotrix or HP Indigo, they’re bringing in quicker turn, shorter run, digital platforms to compete. Each market segment, PSPs and packaging converters, present their own unique strengths and weaknesses to the market, explains Mike Wozny, strategic product manager, EFI. Package printers are only cautiously getting their feet wet with digital technologies, while print providers need to ensure they invest in the finishing end of the packaging business if they wish to compete. This is one market trend PSPs must realize is rising and capitalize on.

Finish Line

To properly build package prototypes, PSPs require cutting tables that not only cut, but score and crease. The finishing process for one-offs and prototypes will never be completely inline because the router is able to accomplish its job faster than the printer, explains Larry Moore, director of software and services, EskoArtwork. The new Kongsberg XP table cuts at 60 linear inches per minute with an auto feeder, making longer runs above 2,000 pieces possible.


The other issue with inline is the debris generated when a corrugated box is cut, shares Océ’s Paar. “When there are two separate systems, it’s more flexible. You can do a lot more, such as pre-cut sheets or double-sided registration.”


However, some presses offer inline finishing options that cut and coat. “We offer a hybrid press—flexo and inkjet, which allows for certain processes to be inline,” says Agfa’s Dekeukelaere. 


For other packaging applications, such as label printing, an integrated print-and-cut solution is more viable. “The biggest advantage is the ability to produce the desired output with little or no user intervention,” shares Roland’s Ono. “It also dramatically simplifies the operation, enabling users with little or no knowledge of complex cutting systems to produce professional quality prototypes with minimal training.”


FDA Ink?

When it comes to package printing, it’s UV all the way. Depending on the curing technology, you can even create prototypes on shrink films or other heat-sensitive materials that would be used during the production process. “The end result is a prototype that closely matches the final product,” says Ono. 


The big race in high-volume packaging is for UV inks used on packages and containers that comes in direct contact with food. Today, when a UV ink is cured, it freezes the ink monomers at the surface of the substrate, but those beneath are still active and can migrate through the substrate and into food, explains Reese. Not exactly appetizing.


In response, some ink makers are attempting to formulate UV inks ultimately certified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe to come in contact with food. “The opportunity is huge,” adds Reese, but the challenges are steep, particularly for products sold internationally, which have to meet U.S. and more stringent European standards.


“It’s not in our roadmap to go direct-to-food,” shares Dekeukelaere, “but our target is to go to the indirect food market with a low-migration ink for the :Dotrix press.” Such ink, he says, prevents 99.9 percent of the monomers from crossing through the substrate and into the food after the ink is cured. 


Food-safe ink won’t work its way onto short-run platforms such as UV flatbeds anytime soon, predicts EFI’s Wozny. “UV ink technology is changing so fast and the certification process takes so long that by the time an ink is certified, the technology would have already advanced a generation or two.” Those waiting would miss out on new capabilities of the latest formulations.


Besides, says Howard, such FDA standards wouldn’t be relevant for a short-run play. “Most printing devices in this category aren’t set up for real package printing, so the lack of FDA certification isn’t an issue for secondary packaging.”


Lamcom Carves Packaging Niche

Montreal, QC, Canada-based Lamcom Technologies inc. is a full-service sign and display shop with 65 employees. The company was founded in 1975 and adopted digital in 1995. It operates in 45,000 square foot of space, where it produces everything from trade show and exhibit graphics to vehicle wraps, fine art reproduction, wayfinding displays, corporate signage, and retail POP. Lamcom prides itself on being able to print, “on everything, tables, glass, aluminum, you name it, if it fits in the machine it can be printed,” boasts Amélie Dubreuil, director of project management, Lamcom.


Lamcom invested in a range of wide format print technologies. The company boasts an EFI VUTEk UltraVu 2360 and VUTEk 3360; a d.gen, Inc. for textile sublimation printing; an HP Designjet 9000; and a Canon U.S.A., Inc. imagePROGRAF iPF9000 for fine art and photographic printing.


The company also established a niche in package prototyping using an EFI VUTEk QS3220 UV flatbed and an EskoArtwork digital finishing system.


Package prototyping was not a niche that the company consciously worked to carve out for itself, shares Dubreuil. Instead, a client asked for it. “Our rule—if they want it, they get it.” The company’s background in producing unique output helped make the segue into package prototyping straightforward.


“We specialize in very unique, one-of-a-kind projects. We could technically handle higher volume orders but do not want to compete with packagers,” she adds. As you move beyond short runs or one-offs, the business model changes and would put Lamcom at a disadvantage versus dedicated converters.


The package workflow is straightforward, explains Dubreuil. They require a print-and-cut vector file linked in Adobe Systems Incorporated’s Illustrator. The file is prepared in Illustrator so that marks can be added for the cutter. “We usually direct print on 12-, 20-, or 24-point cardboard stock.” When it rolls off the QS3220, the piece is brought to a heat laminator where a gloss laminate is applied. “This is usually something that is going to be handled a lot and occasionally wiped down, so it needs to be sturdy,” she notes.


The laminated corrugate is then die cut and scored. Depending on client request, Lamcom can complete the construction and hand-over a finished package or ship it to the client who will then assemble it on their own.


While packaging work wasn’t sought out, it’s now done regularly. The company recognizes the trend toward digital packaging and prototypes and realizes its endless potential.


Promotional events are one of the quickest turnarounds Lamcom experiences, with customers requesting products that must be finished in one or two days. The busiest season for these projects is typically the Spring and Fall as companies gear up for campaigns, admits Dubreuil.


Great Northern Corp.

With five locations—four in WI, one in MN—Great Northern Corporation (GNC) is a packaging empire. The firm produces commercial, custom, consumer display, laminated edge protection, and creative carton packaging for a host of market segments.


They maintain a vast arsenal of printing platforms including flexo, offset, sheet-fed offset, and web offset and now, digital with an HP Indigo 7500 press.


True to form, the company deliberated long and hard before making the leap. “It was a lengthy decision,” admits Mike Schliesmann, senior VP, business unit manager, GNC Consumer Packaging and Display, in part because the company’s first foray with digital print technology was a two year beta test for a product that never went to market. After that, the company spent almost another year evaluating digital printers before making a final decision.


The company branched into digital to capture more business, explains Schliesmann. Before the HP Indigo, the company outsourced short run and prototype work or ran it on its offset printer. With the digital device, GNC uses speed of turnaround, expertise, and competitive pricing to bring back the work lost to print-for-pay providers.


More packagers are getting up to speed on digital technology, adds Schliesmann, but the recession placed a damper on a lot of capital investment. Nonetheless, he says the industry sees the writing on the wall. “We realize digital is the wave of the future.”


Packing It In

While packaging converters hover warily around digital printing, PSPs have the chance to carve out a niche in prototypes and very short runs. From print to finishing, technological advancements are changing the landscape of the packaging and prototype market. Like all applications, UV is a prominent catalyst.


Lamcom and GNC recognize the appeal, recently implementing digital presses into their shops. Both found their way into digital for the sole purpose of capitalizing on more business.


The unique advantages of a digital workflow make it a more cost-effective alternative compared to the traditional method of prototype manufacturing with the added benefit of exposure to a new market segment. And these days, who could argue with exposure to new business?  


Oct2010, Digital Output

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