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Digital Printing Transforms Packaging

By Thomas Franklin

As the old investing adage reminds us “the trend is your friend.” One trend that an increasing number of print service providers (PSPs) are eyeing is the demand for short-run packaging and prototypes. With a UV flatbed, router, and the right media, a PSP can cater to short-run packaging and prototype opportunities that larger, more expensive offset and screen technologies can’t execute profitably. The field is not uncontested, however, packaging converters are taking note and investing in the same technologies to keep business in house.


Why Digital?

Why use digital technology for short-run package printing and prototyping? The answer is simple—for profit. “The markup for package prototypes produced on inkjet printers can be as high as 1,000 percent or greater,” says Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. “For example, a single printed flexible bag prototype sells for around $75 to $100 per piece, or more, and the cost to produce is less than one dollar.”


Of course, there are other virtues as well. Digital printing allows for more flexibility and personalization, observes John Sarik, technical marketing manager, M-real USA. “Packaging is now targeted directly to the consumer by placing their name on the package and making them feel that it was made specifically for them.”


For high-touch events and promotions, digital offers a solid one-two punch—a high-quality, short-run process that can be personalized to the individual. “In some instances and depending on the graphics, consumers actually hold on to the package for an extended period of time rather than immediately throwing it away,” adds Sarik. Keeping a brand in front of consumers for long periods of time is, needless to say, the name of the game.


“Demand for digital is growing, but it wasn’t until recently that digital printing systems reached the necessary image quality and ability to print at high speeds on a wide range of media at reasonable production costs for PSPs to consider accepting some of these package jobs,” explains Oriol Gasch, Scitex category manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP).


According to Jack Skidmore, director of sales, CET Color, it is the introduction of white ink that really changed the game. “Now users print on any surface, regardless of the color.”


The economy also plays a role in driving printers toward digital. “Due to current market conditions, it doesn’t make sense for manufacturers to keep large inventories of packaged products on shelves waiting for stores to place orders to re-stock, notes Sarik. “The financial burden of tying up money is lessened by shorter runs on a digital press.”


Even creating proofs in house via digital yields significant cost savings, says Larry Kaufman, product marketing manager, Epson. “Most package proofs are still outsourced but market dynamics are slowly changing.” An aqueous-based proofer for agencies and brand owners could deliver savings up to a third of the price many pay for a package proof.


In-house capabilities also enable clients to view more alternatives—producing and evaluating from five or six different designs is no longer arduous or expensive, adds Kaufman.


Building Digital

For a PSP to enter into short-run packaging and prototyping, a UV-curable flatbed and a routing table for cutting and scoring corrugated media into its desired shape are common choices.


On the media side, corrugated cardboard and other packaging materials from established suppliers such as M-real and xpedx work almost seamlessly with UV presses. That’s the real benefit of the UV process. “There is no need for specialized substrates—in terms of media use, the possibilities are wide open,” says Ono.


Still, color consistency is a must in packaging, where multiple identical items may be situated close together. Media companies have taken notice. “We’ve seen more digital press manufacturers focused on the packaging side of the business,” explains Sarik. “Improvements in speed and resolution allow for a greater degree of creativity. Coated linerboards fit well for this market since they offer better color reproduction and fast drying,” he adds.


There are hurdles on the media front when it comes to testing products, admits Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Océ North America. “Small PSPs don’t need larger converters’ volumes, so it can be tough to find media to test.”


Two Angles

The short-run opportunity is certainly a growing market and somewhat up for grabs. Two businesses are angling for the work, explains Paar. First, there are high-volume package converters who would like to keep shorter runs and proofs in house or who don’t wish to tie-up equipment and bear the expense of making low volumes on existing processes. On the opposite end of the spectrum are PSPs with a flatbed or high-resolution proof printer that can enter into a new market.


Heritage Papers feels so. This Livermore, CA-based converter, with 130,000 square feet worth of facility space, was an early adapter of UV flatbed printing technology, having initially purchased an EFI VUTEk QS3200 and recently added an HP Scitex FB7500. “We were definitely early out of the gate with this and in a real sense testing the market to see if the demand is there,” says John Tatum, CEO, Heritage. What Heritage finds is that digital is “absolutely wonderful” for header cards and pallet skirts.


The company is setting its sights higher. With the HP Scitex FB7500, Heritage produces multiple-up prints that are easily brought into its finishing plant. “We believe there are many industries where companies are forced to buy a plain box with a label on it that would otherwise want something that’s higher quality,” he adds.


Wine is big business in CA and Heritage sees potential in the region’s smaller wineries. “For many of the 12-bottle cases, these companies would put them in a less-than-desirable box because it isn’t worth spending the money for high-quality packaging in the quantities they need. We think they would love a high-quality solution and we can compete with digital in that space up into the several thousand unit range—maybe even up to 10,000—with the HP Scitex FB7500,” shares Tatum.


Competing in new markets is also luring PSPs. “Larger converters have installed digital presses in order not to lose any potential business to the smaller shops, but the smaller shops are finding that the versatility of digital printing is opening up a lot more opportunities for them, with business coming away from offset,” observes Sarik. “There’s a growing amount of Internet companies, and the need for a wide variety of packaging, where orders may be 500 in one run. This type of business makes sense for the service provider.”


It certainly made sense for Icon Sign Company of Grand Rapids, MI. Icon is a family-owned PSP specializing in wraps, trade show graphics, wall signs, and banners. They purchased an X-Press FK512 four- by eight-foot UV flatbed from CET to capture packaging business from an existing customer. “We were printing adhesive-backed vinyl and they’d cut it by hand and mount it to a box to show retail customers a mock up,” explains James Mikrut, owner, Icon. “Now, we’re printing those direct to box and it saves time and looks much better.”


The experience of producing short-run packaging inspired Mikrut to look further afield. Currently, the company does not own a router and leaves the final box finishing to the client. Now, they’re considering adding a routing table to its equipment portfolio. “It’s going to push us deeper into that line of work but it’s always good to throw what you can at your printer,” he admits.


Learning Curve

Just as two different business profiles converge on the short-run packaging and prototyping market, different learning curves emerge as new technologies and media are put to the test. For a PSP, there are a few hurdles to overcome before entering packaging. “Shops need to educate themselves on color management, including on the various software packages common in the commercial printing world,” observes Ono.


For Icon, digital presses and digital printing were familiar territory, but packaging media, especially some pre-formed corrugated media, proved challenging. “Often we are given pre-cut boxes by our clients and told to print on them. Getting the registration correct and putting those through the printer was a challenge,” says Mikrut. One reason why Icon took on its first packaging assignment was so it could learn on the job—while getting paid.


At Heritage, corrugated media was familiar—it owns a company that produces the substrate. “We’re able to get fresh, flat, and perfectly constructed corrugated media, so that was a huge advantage for us,” says Tatum. But the workings of a digital press were initially, if not mysterious, than certainly a bit challenging. “We learned quickly that it’s important to have the right people in place, especially in the graphics department, to maximize return,” he shares. The company went through three prepress employees before finding the right fit. Getting the files correct and learning the ropes of a RIP were also part of the learning curve.


During the uphill climb, support was also critical. “We believe HP has a huge commitment to service. When we visited, we came away reassured that we would get our questions answered and people would be on hand to help us,” adds Michael Musgrave, VP and COO, Heritage. Another challenge was determining proper pricing. “We know how to price corrugate but for some of the other materials, like banners or Coroplast, we didn’t know,” explains Tatum.


A Need for (More) Speed

One thing everyone agrees on is if digital technology is going to make a play for the packaging market, speed is paramount. Flatbed printer manufacturers don’t expect to match the volume specifications of existing screen presses anytime soon, but if there’s one thing they’re working on, it’s wringing out even better performance from their presses. “Digital has to become more industrial, like a conventional press, a beefier piece of equipment,” says Paar. Speed enhancements will come not just from the printer itself but also from the workflow surrounding it, adds Gasch.


As printers become faster and more industrialized the race will be on to see which segment of the printing industry can grasp the brass ring of the short-run market.


Oct2011, Digital Output

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