By Cassandra Balentine
Print service providers (PSPs) looking to expand service offerings should consider short-run packaging and packaging prototypes. Flatbed and hybrid printers are well suited to handle corrugated packaging applications, expanding the revenue potential for shops with existing equipment and presenting an option to those looking to invest in new technology.
Flatbed printers provide the ability to print on a range of substrates, advanced media handling, and priming capabilities to address the specific needs of prototyping and short-run packaging applications.
“The technology is so accessible and easy to use that the print and finishing process is demystified,” says Ken VanHorn, director, marketing and business development, Mimaki USA, Inc. “Using tools in which they’re already familiar, designers can implement a complete prototype solution that gives them the flexibility to go from design to final mock up within hours, and at a fraction of the cost.”
To accommodate select packaging applications, large format flatbed and hybrid printers are ideal tools. “The current use is primarily in developing prototypes,” suggests Terry Amerine, director of product marketing, Durst Image Technology US LLC. “Allowing for the ability in flexibility to support market studies and testing.”
From prototypes to short production runs, wide format digital flatbed and hybrid devices provide a suitable technology for corrugated and folding carton packaging applications.
The opportunity for digital packaging—including wide format—is expansive, and should not be overlooked. Because digital technologies enable faster turnaround times and reduced waste—critical for short-run work—concepts are taken from design to completion in minutes.
PSPs accustomed to providing these quick turnarounds on traditional applications can extend the service to prototypes and short-run packaging applications. Additionally, design agencies and brand owners may consider investing in the technology themselves for in-house production.
Micha Kemelman, senior product marketing manager, Scitex, Hewlett-Packard, states that digital print is growing steadily and there is a significant potential for digital large format flatbed presses in corrugated packaging. “Packaging converters who produce high-impact packaging and displays are currently experiencing sharp reductions in average run lengths. Driven by brand and retail demands, run lengths have gone from 5,000 to 10,000 units per run five years ago to 2,000 to 3,000 units per run today,” he offers. “While analog printing technology is challenged with printing short runs, digital printing can easily and efficiently address this demand.”
Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Canon Solutions America, says the potential for wide format within the overall packaging segment is substantial, especially when considering that packaging has only recently moved towards digital production. “As flatbed image quality and productivity has seen continual improvement, flatbed printers now play an important role in this transition to digital.”
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, says that interestingly enough, in the past the vast majority of print shops producing prototypes were packaging houses. “Today, we see more print facilities catering directly to graphic design firms, as well as design firms that handle printing themselves.”
Roberts says it is the ability of UV flatbed printers that enable printing directly onto larger and more unique substrates in addition to handling sign production and more traditional packaging jobs that allow a number of package prototypes to be produced at a variety of companies and print shops.
In addition to printers leveraging digital print technology to provide customers with versioning and test runs, Kemelman says another interesting trend is that converters who traditionally printed only to paperboard are leveraging digital platforms with UV-curable inks to explore new, high-margin opportunities with plastic media.
David Conrad, director of marketing, Mutoh America, Inc., notes the advantages of wide format digital include space-saving technology and the ability to create multiple applications in addition to prototypes and comps at a reasonable price point.
“The advantages of flatbed wide format digital printers for the packaging segment are many,” says Mark Swanzy, COO, Xanté Corporation. “Without the need to create a plate, digital printing has brought about fast turnaround times and printing on demand. Shops can affordably add four-color capabilities and print customized, variable material on demand. Box printers can also run customized or rush jobs on digital printers while simultaneously running other existing presses, increasing production capabilities and profits with higher margins,” he adds.
Considerations for Packaging
When considering adding prototypes versus short-run packaging, the many similarities between the two make it an option for PSPs to tackle both. However, there are factors to consider that better position a shop or press for one over the other.
“There isn’t much difference in the desirable feature sets for the two application types,” suggests VanHorn. “When looking at flatbeds, the print technology should be a primary factor.”
Although he does not see a significant difference between the equipment feature sets for prototypes versus short-run packaging applications, Amerine says a shop’s goal makes a difference in which application is right for them. “A shop focused on prototyping is more design oriented and works with a larger variety of materials and packaging options,” he explains. “Production and finishing capacity is crucial for a shop doing short-run work that is typically time sensitive,” he adds.
Paar also points to volume as a determining factor between prototypes and short-run packaging. “If you are only producing prototypes, chances are you don’t need a high-speed flatbed,” he says. “The customer is still going to recognize the benefit in getting his prototype in a couple of hours for less cost and likely better quality compared to what they’ve been doing previously. Short-run printing obviously has different needs related to higher volumes.”
Conrad advises looking at the job split and anticipating production capability before making a decision. “If the focus is mostly producing prototypes, then a hybrid device that provides production capacity for other applications as well as prototype production is a good investment.” For example, having the cutters, trimmers, software, and finishing equipment needed for these jobs qualifies a shop to produce actual packaging pieces versus creating a prototype for job approval.
Kemelman shares that the goal with prototyping is to capture business by establishing the capabilities of the manufacturer through a one-off sample or limited number of samples. “To offer prototyping, print providers must have the capabilities to manufacture very small amounts and quickly tweak output performance.”
Kemelman adds that prototypes are required to look like the product it represents, so they need to be produced on the same media with the same colors and appearance as the final product.
“If prototype packaging is all that you are after, print quality is the primary feature to look for,” says Guy Cipresso, VP sales and business development, Novus Imaging Inc. He says that variable drop sizes down to four picoliters are required for customer package prototypes, and features such as white ink, varnish, and spot colors are desired. “These printers tend to be a lower initial investment and typically have slower print speeds in quality mode,” he continues.
For short runs, Cipresso says faster print speed is required, while maintaining the image quality of the prototype. “This will require a higher priced printer investment,” he adds.
With these considerations in mind, Cipresso believes that a shop with a full creative team and experience with in-store retail and point of purchase packaging requirements is better suited for packaging compared to a shop whose focus is outdoor signs, banners, and yard signs. “The shop should have print experience with packaging materials like folding boxboard, corrugated, blister board, and white-lined chipboard,” he says.
For both short-run and prototype packaging, printers should consider speed and media handling capabilities.
VanHorn points out that UV technology can print on a range of paper, synthetics, and natural materials. Additional considerations should include the type of UV. Because it cures as a lower temperature, UV LED further expands the range of substrate options.
Media conveyance is also important for packaging applications. “If the mix of media includes pre-cut or non-square media, or includes tough-to-feed materials such as mylar or thin films, then a flatbed table with a vacuum system is necessary, as a hybrid will be more susceptible to skew or feed distortion,” shares VanHorn.
“The biggest challenge is properly handling the corrugated material,” agrees Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, North America, Agfa Graphics. “It has a tendency to bow and curl. Unless the system can properly handle it, it might be difficult to image.”
He adds that a true flatbed typically works better since the material does not need to be pulled on a belt and remains stationary. “In addition, a strong vacuum system is required to deal with the material issues,” he shares.
Primer application is another factor. This step may be necessary when decorating pre-manufactured pieces, says VanHorn. “Some substrates require a boost for best ink adhesion and primers are available. A flatbed printer that includes the ability to print the primer layer—either as a flood or spot, rather than the PSP having to manually apply it—will provide a productivity boost to the workflow,” he adds.
Roberts admits that no single UV inkjet printer can fulfill all of the needs of every individual. “I feel it’s imperative to select a printer based on its unique capabilities. When it comes to package prototyping, being able to print with gloss and white, and then cut and contour, is crucial,” he says. “Quickly and cost-effectively creating mock ups or prototypes that look just like the printed product is where smaller UV printers flourish. The ability of these UV printer/cutters to print prototypes incorporating special effects and then cut to produce precise sample pieces reduces not only pre-production time, but also the time required for customer approval of the finished goods.”
Those with existing print capabilities must consider the initial investment before committing to packaging services.
One consideration is the staff. “Preparing the sales team for the new offering is key so that they understand all of the new capabilities and applications,” recommends Heather Roden, associate product marketing manager, Graphic Systems Division, Fujifilm North America Corporation.
Eric Xu, overseas marketing manager, Teckwin Technology Development Co., Ltd., also warns that operator skill is essential when dealing with printheads on packaging applications. “If any printhead is operated the wrong way, it could cause damage to the nozzle and affect print quality,” he says. Therefore, during production, factors like printhead maintenance and color management are important.
Communication is integral to success. “Too many times, a project is delayed because of poor communication throughout the job’s lifecycle. Sometimes, not asking simple questions about the requirements of a job, or the end use of a package prototype can derail a project right from the start. “In prototyping, having the ability to print onto specialized substrates using gloss or white can greatly affect the end result. Effective communication regarding the product and where it’s being sold can ensure a clear understanding of the target market and the desired graphic message—elements crucial to the success of any packaging prototype,” believes Roberts.
“Try to gain more knowledge about packaging,” advises Paar. “Learn the traditional packaging workflow to understand the value proposition, and definitely learn the lingo. First off, strike the word ‘cardboard’ from your vocabulary—it’s either corrugate or paperboard,” he says.
Investments in finishing and software tools are also important. D’Amico says the real issue for anyone wanting to get into package printing is to understand the market. “The segment has a lot of nuances beyond simply output. The finishing needs to be seriously considered since creasing, scoring, and other requirements are particular to this industry,” he stresses.
“An investment would have to be made in finishing systems that could cut/score the printed board to create a final box. In addition, some knowledge and software would need to be obtained that allows you to manipulate the image data. Color management and placing images relative to die lines are important application requirements for packaging,” adds D’Amico.
“When it comes to both short-run production and prototyping, there is one element not to be forgotten—finishing,” warns Roberts. “If you have a flatbed or hybrid, the importance of cutting and finishing each piece cannot be underestimated.”
Cipresso says those with existing capabilities benefit from a full creative team and experience with a range of materials and finishing processes. Access to a supplier for die cutting and specialized finishing is important if it’s not available in house. “Prototyping requires more one-on-one interaction. It may take several iterations to arrive at the design that meets the customer’s expectations,” he shares.
Amerine suggests that those entering packaging must have all aspects covered from design to production to finishing. “Packaging is a very different segment. It demands lots of flexibility and the shop must have the workflow to handle it. A fully integrated workflow system is essential. Having personnel with solid design and production experience in packaging is helpful—if not a requirement—while adapting to changes, revisions, and edits throughout the process,” he explains.
Packaging applications are an option for PSPs looking to add new services and revenue streams.
Oct2015, Digital Output