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Digital Short-Run and One-Off Prototype Packaging

By Gretchen A. Peck

In 2009, Printing Industries of America valued the package printing segment of the industry at $22.96 billion, second only to commercial printing. Package printing is a huge market, both domestically and globally; it touches virtually every aspect of consumers’ lives. Nearly everything consumed requires some form of a package that serves both practical purposes, like portability, and marketing purposes—to distinguish a product from its competitors.


Digital inkjet was not conceived with package printing in mind, but the flatbed and roll-fed technologies introduced—and improved upon—in recent years have proven particularly adept at solving a decades’ old dilemma.


“I’ve been involved in package prototyping for 40 years,” recalls Ron Edhlund, president, Proofing Technologies, Ltd. “The problem wasn’t getting a million units, but getting just one of them made.”


Then inkjet printers appeared on the scene. With the advent of white ink, their abilities became even more enticing. Now, the question becomes; besides true one-off prototypes, can digital inkjet also be adopted for short-run package production?


“What we’re seeing is a shift in quantity,” asserts Edhlund. “Marketers who once ordered ten of a prototype are ordering 100 or more. They may require 50 finished packages to conduct focus groups, provide their sales force with samples, or supply retailers with enough to create a physical planogram. The issue now is not one; the short run is also important.”


Another creative and manufacturing dilemma that digital inkjet resolves is personalized packaging.


“Digital means variable data, which means that every package can look different. At minimal costs you can economically make multiple test runs, each with different colors, or customized to meet a variety of languages or niches,” notes Kristof Dekeukelaere, :Dotrix sales manager, Agfa Graphics.


“Unlike commercial proofing on paper, package proofing exists in a complex world,” suggests Larry Kaufman, product manager, professional imaging, Epson. “There are many foils, films, and different substrates; as well as special types of colors that go into building boxes, wrappers for candy, bags for coffee, or labels on water bottles. The market demands a high-quality, cost-effective way to create package proofs on a clear or metallic base, to produce color-accurate packaging mock-ups or prototypes.”


Epson meets the need with its UltraChrome HDR White Ink and the Epson Stylus Pro WT7900 printer. Companies with a creative department can now bring flexographic and gravure color proofing in house. For folding carton and box prototyping in small format, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 supports 17x24-inch Epson Carolina Cover—18-point, C1S printing stock. On a larger scale, the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 runs 44-inch Epson Carolina Cover 10-point C1S media.


Phase One: Prototyping

“We’re always trying to evolve and use the latest and greatest in printers and processes,” reports Bill Ramirez, president, Phase 1 Prototypes, based in Dallas, TX. Phase 1 specializes in package prototyping and short-run production for brands such as Ghirardelli Chocolate and Welch’s. It utilizes a JetComp system, which is comprised of Mimaki USA, Inc. printers with eco-solvent ES3 inks and JetComp packaging media from Proofing Technologies.


“We have three Mimaki JV33s and they run non-stop,” reports Ramirez. “They enable us to bring in jobs we once outsourced, and we want to keep it that way.” He plans to add additional Mimaki printers in the next few months.


Like other package print service providers (PSPs), Phase 1 has seen the demand for quantities grow. “There is the design, test marketing, and then the planogram phase; where a store wants to see what a product looks like on the shelf. They may need 200 to 500 samples, plus marketing samples for sales representatives. What we’re finding is, as our processes have evolved and we’re able to handle and manage longer runs, people request 500 to 1,000 bags, instead of ten to 20,” affirms Ramirez.


Versa-tile Packaging

Enabling PSPs and creative firms to produce package print is of great importance to Roland DGA Corporation. “For package prototyping and short-run label production, Roland offers a complete line of wide format inkjet printer/cutters, including the new UV-LED and metallic eco-solvent models,” reports Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Roland.


To support businesses creating prototypes, he recommends Roland’s VersaUV models, available in 30- and 54-inch configurations. These devices print, contour cut, crease, score, and emboss graphics for on demand production of packaging prototypes and labels. Besides traditional CMYK, VersaUV provides white ink and clear coat for custom matte and gloss textures, effects, and patterns. Printable media options range from self-adhesive PVD, metallic papers, synthetic and natural leathers, coated and art paper, mesh materials, and metalized polyesters, to cast-coated and metalized paper, foils, film, and synthetic paper.


“Producing realistic prototypes is expensive for designers and print service suppliers, requiring them to either use specialized proofing equipment or stop the press to run samples of projects. With proofing equipment, the running costs can be high—$20 per square foot or more—and the range of media is typically limited to coated substrates, which may not reflect the same look and feel of a production run,” advises Ono. “The only other alternative for proofing on specialized materials is to proof on press. Every time a commercial press is stopped, thousands of dollars in production revenue is lost.”


Roland’s VersaCAMM VS and SOLJET PRO III XC-540MT models are also well-suited to packaging and label applications. Both feature white and metallic silver ECO-SOL MAX inks. Metallic ECO-SOL MAX combines CMYK, light cyan, and light magenta to create bronze, gold, copper, and pearlescent colors.


Flatbed Print, 3D Output

“Océ North America re-evaluated our wide format portfolio and determined it represented a viable solution to not only address the creation of prototypes but short-run/custom applications. This digital approach now provides brand owners with new marketing opportunities, plus additional revenue streams for packaging providers,” explains Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Océ.


The manufacturer strategically pairs two solutions for package production—the Océ Arizona series of UV flatbed printers and the Océ ProCut digital cutter. Both the Océ Arizona 550 GT and XT and 350 GT and XTprinters offer white ink as an option. Océ ProCut Prepress software separates printing data from die-line data. Color is maintained within the RIP’s ICC workflow, which also supports Pantone-certified look-up tables, to provide the closest CMYK equivalent.


“The ability to cost effectively produce short runs enables brand owners or retailers to customize packaging to a regional event or demographic, or test market a new design. When we look at the scope of consumer packaging on a national basis, the ability to test market can translate to millions of dollars in determining the perfect design,” continues Paar.


David Cich, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color, notes that it’s the X-Press FK512 flatbed UV printer’s vacuum table that makes it well suited for package printing and proofing. It outputs directly to the same substrates and stocks that the packaging industry is standardized on. This is accomplished by utilizing white ink, as well as UV technology, which places the ink on top of the substrate. This is instead of the inks drying through absorption, which affects the quality of the finished product,” he explains.


The Package Printing Workflow

According to Craig Heavener, digital print and development, Midwest Graphics, Inc., located in Indianapolis, IN, the investment in a Fujifilm North America Corporation Acuity HD 2504 was instrumental in enabling the company’s packaging endeavors.


“In 2007, Midwest made a commitment to digital print to provide direct print prototypes and short-run production. In the few years leading up to this, samples and prototypes were done using adhesive-back material, mounted to corrugated board, and then cut, either by hand or on a sample table,” recalls Heavener.


He recognized the need for more efficiency and the Acuity’s flatbed nature and grayscale technology, along with a simple user interface and a slim design, earned Midwest’s favor. The printer was installed in 2007.


“We have gone on to develop a line of work providing not just prototypes, but also production runs from a few to several thousand pieces at a time,” explains Heavener. Demand grew and an Acuity Advance with white ink was added over a year later. In addition, an EskoArtwork Kongsberg i-XL24 cutter and another Kongsberg table with i-cut technology were included into the existing portfolio.


Orbytel—a Cleveland, OH-based PSP—made a name for itself in the high-quality label market.  “About a year ago, we decided to take the expertise we’d learned and accumulated in the label world and leverage it for digital packaging applications, which is what brought us to the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Scitex devices,” recalls Mark Uvlin, president, Orbytel.


The company recently installed a HP Scitex FB7500 printer, capable of printing on both flexible and rigid media, using six-color process UV-curable pigmented inks. Eviatar Halevi, director of technology, HP Scitex, notes that the FB7500 offers significantly higher productivity than its predecessors, achieving print speeds of up to 5,380 square feet per hour.


His colleague, Eli Israeli, strategic marketing, HP, adds that the print engine is but one component of the package printing workflow. To create an efficient solution that supports the needs of print service suppliers producing packaging—whether short to medium runs or prototypes—the printer must be complemented by finishing and software tools. In the case of the FB7500, a digital cutting table from EskoArtwork aids finishing, while three dimensional (3D) design and color management software by Caldera Graphics and EskoArtwork and a remote Web-to-print interface facilitate the work on the front end of the job.


Orbytel’s investment in the FB7500 enables the company to offer an array of print, including packaging prototypes, folding cartons, and corrugated point of purchase (POP), from jobs that require one or two units to hundreds.


“I have a customer who we sell labeling to,” Uvlin explains. “They went to U-Line, the packaging supply house, and were going to buy a box from U-Line and come to us for a custom insert to go inside the box, and a label that would go on the outside. When we told them about our new capabilities—how we can print directly on the corrugated—they ordered 300 pieces. The job consisted of three different versions, 100 each, direct-to-surface print,” he notes.


Another client previously worked with a supplier that required a minimum of 1,000 pieces because of dies. The cost was approximately $8,000 to print and cut everything. The customer never used all 1,000 units. When they came to Orbytel, thanks to its digital capabilities, they only had to print 250 pieces at a time—minimizing their initial investment.


Take Your Pick

“For prototypes and very short runs, we offer the :Anapurna or :Jeti, depending on size and speed requirements,” explains Agfa’s Dekeukelaere. “When prototyping and very short runs become short to medium runs, we offer the :M-Press for the corrugated market and the :Dotrix for the folding carton, flexible packaging, and label markets.”


Though Cranford, NJ-based Keenan Associates specializes in POP display design, several years ago it expanded its offerings to include short-run packaging and prototypes. After scanning the market for equipment that would support both POP and packaging it invested in an :Anapurna Mv from Agfa.


A hybrid printer—in that it accommodates both rigid and flexible media—the piezo drop on demand inkjet leverages six UV-curable :Anapurna inks and varnish. It accepts media up to 63 inches wide and up to 1.75 inches thick.


“I traveled to Agfa’s demonstration center, with a bundle of my own substrates—media we use often—and printed some samples so that I could see, first hand, the quality. Color and quality are very important in our industry,” affirms Don Keenan, owner, Keenan.


Keenan cautions that there remains a gray area between what is most effectively produced in short runs on digital inkjet printers and what crosses into the more cost-effective realm of traditional package printing methods. So much of it depends not only on the throughput of the print engine, and the cost of consumables, but also the complexity and time required for pre- and post-press handling of the job.


“If you calculate what the printing preparation is and plate and die costs, you’ll find a significant upfront investment. You can be into it for as much as $12,000 before receiving the first unit. Potential buyers should be mindful of where the tipping point is,” he adds.


The Growth Market

It remains to be seen how profound the influence of digital inkjet will be on package printing. Interestingly, 3D printing is experiencing an increase in the creation of prototypes and even final products.


In the February 12, 2011 edition of The Economist an article entitled The Printed World cited that more than 20 percent of 3D printer output is final products rather than prototypes. It is predicted this figure will rise to 50 percent by 2020.


True one-off package prototypes may not be a compelling enough incentive for print service suppliers to add the service to their menu, but short-run prototype production makes package printing appealing. With some media expertise, equipment capable of impressive throughput, and the advent of white inks; digital print suppliers should find themselves poised to cut into a slice of the package printing pie.


Apr2011, Digital Output

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