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Flatbeds - A Natural Fit for Rigid and Corrugate Package Print

By Amber E. Watson


Digital print plays a significant role in rigid and corrugate packaging. It reduces manufacturing costs, specifically for short runs, personalized production, and variable data printing (VDP).


As the demand for short-run packing increases, the features and capabilities of digital flatbed printers follows a similar pattern. Compared to more traditional screen and offset printers, digital flatbeds offer faster speeds, diverse media handling, and quality that rivals conventional printing methods. Large and small print service providers (PSPs) introduce flatbed printers into their shops in order to expand offerings and to better meet customer demand.


Flatbeds Forge Ahead

In the past, screen and offset printers primarily handled corrugate and rigid display and box packaging, but with the emergence of inkjet, new devices target this segment. Wide format flatbed printers are perfectly positioned to impact this space.


According to Ran Emanuel, CEO, MTL Print Ltd., recalls that digital flatbeds, when first launched, aimed to complement screen, offset, and flexographic technologies in the packaging market by offering cost-effective solutions for short-run production.


“Today, however, some flatbeds challenge traditional package printing technologies on medium to long runs as well. Flatbeds, such as MTL’s NURStar and others, offer speeds above 1,500 square feet per hour (sf/h) and are capable of substituting screen and flexographic in longer runs,” he says.


The speeds at which UV flatbed presses currently run, combined with the quality level achieved at such high speeds, are primary drivers influencing the role of wide format digital print in the packaging market.


“These two factors in combination allow for work to move from offset and screen to digital, which gives greater production flexibility and higher margin rates on the short- and medium-run length projects,” shares Christopher Howard, SVP marketing and sales, Durst Image Technology US LLC.


“Durst’s Rho 1012 printer, for example, is often utilized in this space with a production speed of 5,000 sf/h, and a native 12 picoliter droplet for high-quality imagery at fast production speeds,” he continues.


Still, Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist, display graphics, Canon Solutions America (CSA), points out that, “compared to conventional printing methods, digital inkjet printing of packaging is not yet as productive for high volumes. It still provides an obvious advantage in its significantly reduced makeready time to generate the first digital print.”


David Conrad, director of marketing, Mutoh America, Inc., explains that where one notices the true advantage of screen or offset is in the speed for printing large extended runs of the same image.


Digital printing leverages all the features and benefits that a digital workflow supports. Paar highlights VDP and digital die cutting as opportunities that become present when digital is used.


Micha Kemelman, product marketing manager, Scitex, Hewlett-Packard (HP), adds, “manufacturers benefit from additional capabilities enabled by digital that add value to the package, such as the ability to print more colors for the same cost, VDP, and direct-to-board print instead of litho-lamination.”


Hiroshi Ono, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation, states that digital UV printers, such as the Roland VersaUV LEJ-640, deliver outstanding image quality and allow for the incorporation of white ink and unique varnishing/embossing effects. “It is more cost effective compared to traditional methods because users can switch jobs quickly and there are virtually no set-up costs. It also allows for just-in-time production, reducing inventory costs and waste,” he adds. With a digital approach, there is less labor and media waste. In addition, time is saved in clean up and space concerns are minimized by eliminating the need to store screens.


While screen and most offset technologies offer single- or two-color due to the cost of manufacturing, Larry D’Amico, VP digital imaging, Agfa Graphics, points out that digital inkjet presses combined with new ink sets produce four-color work or feature unique options such as white ink. “With digital, it is easy for PSPs to run full-color continuous projects, where this is a much more complicated process with screen and offset.” This gives PSPs with digital capabilities a competitive advantage.


“Due to the ample board size that a digital flatbed printer supports, it lends itself to printing onto large press-size sheets of paperboard as well as thicker corrugate that is not easy, or even possible, with a smaller in dimension sheet-fed digital printer,” notes Paar.


PSPs also gain flexibility with a digital flatbed device. “With a hybrid printer, for example, not only does a PSP have the ability to print on rigid, but also rolled media, making it a versatile piece of equipment,” adds Conrad. “In addition to expanded media options, users easily and quickly print short runs or specialty items without a long set-up or preparation time.” 


Solutions Business Imaging of Vista, CA runs out of a 3,000 square foot shop with ten employees. A decade after opening, the company purchased its first flatbed printer and began using it for cardboard box prototyping.


The PSP selected a Mutoh ValueJet 1617H hybrid printer that allows for rolled media and flat media up to a half-inch thick. The device runs daily with a mixture of rolled and flat media such as paper, vinyl, and adhesive.


Adding a flatbed printer expands the services the shop offers its mostly high-end business sales and marketing clientele around San Diego, CA.


Packaging Caters to All

Digital printing impacts the corrugate space, particularly in high-end applications as it relates to retail. Emanuel notes that packaging made of corrugate boards, corrugate plastic, cardboard, and other rigid materials are placed both indoor and outdoor in various types of retail environments. Moreover, such media is often used for point of purchase (POP) displays in stores. Rigid packaging products are also utilized for product promotions such as three-dimensional floor sitting signage.


Howard agrees that much of what is produced is utilized in the retail space and product placement category. “This includes items such as product dump bins, end caps, and standees.” Some displays are even built into a standee display to hold any number of items. “By nature, standee displays are created per store/per package in shorter runs and are ideal for short-term POP applications,” adds D’Amico.


D’Amico also sees packaging aligning with the trend towards personalization. “Some companies already have Web sites where consumers load a personal image for use on a packaged product, such as a Kleenex box. Marketers use this for promotional purposes as well, for example, putting a company logo or quick response code on a package.”


Digital flatbed printers offer a cost-effective and efficient means for creating these short-run, customized, and highly personalized products.


“Private labeling and proliferation of SKUs drives more versioning of printed output, resulting in ever-shortening runs,” adds Kemelman. “Furthermore, as competition on the shelf toughens, manufacturers search for ways to differentiate products. As a result, the market is seeing a growing demand for creative product packaging and higher impact retail graphics.”


With a growing demand for shorter runs and customized package printing, it is an ideal offering for many print environments ranging from full-on production facilities with conventional equipment to smaller design/prepress areas within a shop. “Many companies involved in producing packaging already have a digital cutting solution. This is the perfect companion product to a digital flatbed printer and is a highly recommended for optimal capability,” notes Paar.


Cost-Effective Short Runs

Heritage Paper in Livermore, CA produces corrugate packaging and POP displays, fulfillment services, high-end wood crating, packaging supplies, digital folding cartons and labels, and digital print for trade partners in the area, largely serving the Northern CA industrial and food and wine markets. 165 employees are housed across multiple locations, totaling 300,000 square feet.


Heritage Paper opened in 1982 and bought its first digital printer in 2008. “At the time, we recognized an increase in the number of quotation requests from our customers for smaller quantity, high-quality jobs,” shares Michael Musgrave, VP/COO, Heritage Paper. “Our ‘then-current’ offering of flexographic printing equipment was not well suited for this type of work, so we often had to present customers with quotes that were above budget. Our first digital printer helped us meet the growing demand for these types of jobs, as well as enter new market segments.”


At the time, screen was giving way to digital, “but screen is not a competitive technology in corrugate anyway,” notes Musgrave. “And offset requires too much investment for such a high direct cost and long lead times.” Heritage Paper wanted to be an early adopter of digital print in packaging because it differentiated them from the competition—offering clients a new type of service.


The print provider started with an EFI VUTEk QS3200. In 2011 it decided to purchase an HP Scitex FB7500 Industrial Press to meet the expanding needs of customers. Since then, the shop upgraded to an HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press, and most recently purchased the new HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Press to complete its wide portfolio of hardware found on the production floor.


“The HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press is reliable, and offers a lower ink cost, along with a throughput capability, which allowed us to expand our digital packaging sales eight times over in the past two years,” says Musgrave. It also features optional gloss mode and variable data capability for value-added solutions. The shop keeps the press running around the clock, typically six days a week.


Heritage Paper is the first facility in the U.S. to install the new HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Press. “This press allows us to compete with offset technology at speeds that allow us to enter high-quality and high-volume markets that digital printers traditionally did not possess the direct cost structure and/or print quality to enter,” shares Musgrave. At press time, Heritage Paper was just finishing install and training but anticipates the press will run two shifts, five days per week.


To complement the grand format digital UV press offering, the shop recently installed an HP Indigo WS6600 Digital Press to help customers in folding cartons and labels. The shop also owns a corrugator, a full offering of flexographic printing and converting equipment, and digital finishing options that are all industrial-level hardware running around the clock.


On a smaller scale, Digital Impact of Yeadon, PA was formed as a division of the VT Group in 2004 to further support the business’ relationship with various POP display manufacturers and leading consumer products companies across Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.


Digital Impact works from a 23,000 square foot facility with nine employees to deliver eye-catching interior and exterior applications on a variety of flexible, transparent, semi-transparent, and rigid substrates for consumer products companies, retailers, and agencies.


The shop integrated the Durst Rho 900 and recently added the Durst Rho 1000 flatbed printers into its workflow to enhance product offerings to its customer base. Digital Impact runs the devices all day at eight hour shifts and enjoys the cost effective and fast production of packaging applications like counter displays, dump bins, and counter cards.


Proofing environments are also popular for rigid/corrugate packaging produced on digital flatbeds. “The ability to produce mock packages and designs in a hurry make flatbed or hybrid printers ideal for markets such as advertising and promotional printing environments,” says Conrad. “Proof of concept is huge; you only get one chance to make a first impression. Producing packaging with high-quality graphics and color helps make selling the concept to both small and large manufacturers easier.”


Paar agrees that digital printing is ideal for the production of prototypes. Even if the item is eventually printed on a high-volume press, it facilitates a faster design and development process in the beginning phases.


Conventional vs. Competition

As for the tipping point of profitability, it comes down to cost over point for digital conversion versus conventional. As printers become faster and more efficient, conventional production with plate expenses and manufacturing dyes do not compete as well with the cost-savings achieved by digital, particularly with shorter runs.


It is increasingly difficult to profitably produce packaging applications on analog equipment as demand for shorter runs and faster turnarounds increases. Digital presses offer added versatility, expand color, and provide faster turnaround on a large quantity of runs that once proved a challenge for PSPs. 


Oct2013, Digital Output

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