For some, producing high-quality wide format graphics is a core business focus. Others see it as an opportunity to break into new markets or meet evolving customer demands. In either case, packaging is a unique application. Proofs, prototypes, micro runs, and lower volume production runs are all possible.
Two groups stand out as adopters taking advantage of the capabilities digital wide format print offers the packaging segment—traditional converters and print service providers (PSPs). Additionally, creative service providers, brand owners, and other marketing professionals benefit from in-house digital package printing capabilities.
To further analyze the possibilities digital wide format presents to package printing, it is important to look at the specific opportunities within the segment groups. For example, commercial PSPs offering point of purchase signage benefit by adding packaging to their current mix of services. For smaller sign shops or quick printers, prototype applications are an option.
On the other hand, traditional package converters take on digital to meet evolving customer demands, improve efficiencies, and remain cost competitive on smaller volume orders. Everyone benefits when it comes to adding digital packaging capabilities.
PSPs and Packaging
Through the addition of short-run packaging and prototype capabilities, PSPs generate new business. Already utilizing digital, new services are ripe for the printer open to offering anything. “Anything that expands application offerings is great. Signage and printing is all about branding. People want to brand themselves in a variety of applications, whether it is outdoor signage, banners, cars, or flooring. If they can buy everything in one place, they will,” says Michelle Pugh, marketing, Mutoh America, Inc.
As PSPs begin to fill prototype or short-run package needs, many aspects of the process should be considered, including finishing, workflow, sales training, fulfillment, and consumables. Each part is essential to the overall success found in implementing a new service.
Finishing processes and tools designed to perform related tasks, such as rapid cutting or varnishing, may be necessary. Randy Paar, marketing manager, Océ North America, suggests that PSPs work with customers to ensure they have the correct die line and matching artwork, plus accurate printing and cutting systems for proper registration.
Color management also comes into play. “Any PSP entering this market should consider investing in professional color management software. RIP software that comes with an inkjet printer is not typically powerful enough to handle the critical color tasks required in the commercial printing world,” warns Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.
Workflow wise, PSPs may need to expand design capabilities to include three-dimensional objects. Aesthetics and functional engineering aspects become an issue and require workflow tools not commonly found in print shops.
Sales training is a core component of success. “This is a whole different market. Sales personnel need to find packaging opportunities in their accounts, something they may not be accustomed to doing,” explains Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics.
He offers display accounts as an example. “Nine times out of ten, there is a packaging component to their displays. The eager and hungry sales representative will find them and get into other sales accounts that have packaging applications,” he adds.
On the fulfillment end, Micha Kemelaman, product marketing manager and Amir Shalev, product marketing manager, Hewlett-Packard, believe PSPs must develop an understanding of common package fulfillment processes in order to optimize products and kitting for folding, gluing, and stapling machines.
While there are many nuances to consider, Larry Kaufman, product manager, professional imaging, Epson, suggests PSPs are more prepared for adding digital package prototyping and short-run fulfillment than traditional converters. They have experience handling customer files, white and metallic inks, and different substrates.
Converting to Digital
The advantages presented by digital offer different benefits to the traditional package converter. They look to maintain current customer satisfaction while remaining competitive on smaller run jobs with digital package printing.
“Many traditional package converters have already invested in some type of digital technology for proofing using water-based inkjet technology,” says Ono. However, technology is limited in terms of substrate compatibility. Luckily, a new breed of high-quality UV LED inkjet printers are transforming the market.
When integrating digital, traditional converters face potential issues. Depending on current operations and future packaging goals, the transition can be straightforward in some areas, but adjustments will most likely be necessary on certain fronts.
For example, the finishing stage for prototyping greatly varies from the die cutting process used in mass production. These one-off prints may need to be performed by hand to remain cost effective.
However, when moving to higher production volumes within digital, the difference between finishing digitally versus traditionally printed work isn’t as drastic, as many converters already invest in a digital cutting system—or CAD table.
“These cutting systems streamline their ability to produce structural designs. With the addition of a flatbed, the converter produces a more accurate representation of the final product to come off its conventional production line,” says Paar.
For short-run package runs and prototype applications, package converters produce a variety of designs at a higher frequency compared to the traditional business model. “This inevitably leads to frequently changing the finishing setup, which traditional analog processes are not optimized for,” suggest Kemelman and Shalev. These smaller runs entail specific cutting, gluing, and stapling for each copy and are therefore only feasible on digital die cutting tables.
An efficient workflow is necessary to become profitable with digital. “Converters typically address the final step in the process by taking a pre-printed piece and performing the lamination, lacquering, die cutting, and folding. For this group to enter short run or prototyping, they need to get involved in the processing and correction of customers’ digital files,” notes Kaufman.
“This is one of the biggest hurdles we see in certain areas that are typically outsourced. It is the investment in experienced personnel or the alternative to fund the learning curve to bring those up to speed,” he adds.
Paar agrees, suggesting if there is a learning curve for a converter, workflow would be it—particularly if there is no digital expertise with design software and/or digital cutters or flatbeds.
“If a converter has an existing digital cutting workflow, the changes to accommodate the printing aspect in the workflow are easily integrated. Many of the digital cutting systems available utilize a camera-based system that looks for printed registration marks and aligns the cutting and creasing file to the printed image,” he explains.
Retraining a sales team and channel partners is integral to the success of any new endeavor. “It’s not enough to simply train, there must also be a marketing effort behind these new services to help the sales force be successful out of the gate,” points out Kaufman.
Kemelman and Shalev explain that sales teams need to understand the lifecycle of the package and the full value-added chain of the product, as well as the power of consumer influence on personalizing and innovation. “These understandings enable them to capture more customers and sell short runs and personalized packages to companies and brands that previously bought very large batches of stock,” they add.
Pricing is also a concern. When bringing in new services—whether it is packaging as a new venture for PSPs or digital as a component of packaging for a traditional converter—conventional pricing models won’t work. “They have to do some investigation as to how products are priced,” explains D’Amico. He adds that the return on investment must be very clear to the customer, so the overall advantages of a digitally created project are readily apparent.
Beyond the PSPs and traditional converters, a range of other candidates are taking advantage of digital packaging. For example, creative segments of corporate organizations or agencies are able to eliminate outsourcing in the early stages of package design. Digital is cost effective and offers a small footprint for companies without the workspace.
Quick print shops or smaller sign shops can also incorporate packaging prototypes into service offerings. With the right combination of design and color savvy, professional prototypes are created with the use of wide format inkjet printers, color management skills, an X-Acto knife, and a little patience.
Brand owners may want to internalize the printing and fulfillment of packaging materials to gain proximity, control, and reduced turnaround time. “As energy and transport prices rise and the need for customization and SKU proliferation become stronger, this may become a viable trend,” predict Kemelman and Shalev.
Manufacturers in general benefit by bringing UV LED printing capabilities in house. “This type of resource can greatly speed up the product development and packaging process,” suggests Ono. Professionals test packaging options while developing the product for better efficiency and a better end product. He adds that this helps to identify potential problems well before production. This aspect alone saves an organization while preventing lag times to market.
D’Amico sees in plants, retailers, and consumer product companies as all potential digital package printers, taking work in house, especially for prototyping and eventually short-run production. “It’s natural to convert many printing needs to digital. The benefit to them is lower labor costs and quicker turnaround. If you get it in house and it’s digital, it is much quicker,” he adds.