Digital to play greater role in furture converting

25 December 2017

With brands constantly evolving their packaging, converters must continue to expand their use of digital presses. As Dave Howell discovers, the ability to develop new packaging form factors using a variety of substrates and finishes is pushing converters towards a future dominated by digital output.

Digital print’s rise to dominance has been verified by the latest market forecasts and shows no signs of slowing. According to Smithers Pira, digital print for packaging will reach $23 billion by 2022, from $13 billion today. With a forecasted annual growth of over 10%, no converter can afford to ignore these print technologies.

With label converters already taking advantage of this lucrative sector, the major growth will come from producers of flexible plastics, bio-substrates and folding cartons who have employed and developed the use of digital over the past few years.

The recent prominence of digital presses in the packaging industry is of no surprise given the advantages that they offer; allowing converters to meet the rapid timescales demanded by customers, they reduce costs and boost process-efficiency gains. Such perks are placing digital on the strategic-development roadmaps of the entire converting industry.

Modern converting

Converters are at the epicentre of what looks set to be a revolution in how they deliver services to a widening range of clients.

As machine developers continue to innovate, the possible applications of digital print also expand. HP, for instance, recently launched its Indigo 12000 HD digital press with, what they describe as, “breakthrough high-definition imaging”, which delivers 1,625dpi for finer print definition.

“We see more graphics businesses reinventing with HP digital,” says Santi Morera, general manager at HP Graphics Solutions Business. “These new technologies can help print service providers address a wider range of commercial printing applications and open new revenue streams.”

Anyone visiting drupa last year will have recognised that digital print is rapidly expanding, with products not only from existing machine developers, but also from newcomers to the market. More agility across the packaging supply chain is the mantra here. Converters using more digital print and finishing technologies can accelerate development times, and move decision-making about final packaging print and finishing to much later in the production cycle. This is clearly the experience of Bennett Packaging.

“There are a couple of pressure points that digital printing is relieving, the first being speed to market,” says Robert Sweet, national sales manager for the company. “Our clients need to get their products into the retail space faster than ever before. A project that is digitally printed can be in the marketplace, on average, five to 20 days sooner than a litho or preprinted-produced package or display. The second pressure point is that of sustainability. A large percentage of our clients have initiatives in place to reduce the raw materials used in packaging. Digital printing for packaging and displays eliminates the need for litho labels, therefore reducing the amount of raw materials consumed and wasted during production.”

Digital in action

Offering high levels of flexibility to clients is also a major advantage to converters with a digital output capacity. Springfield Solutions, for instance, offers short-run shrink labels for prototyping and market research. The ability to change artwork based on test group responses is a powerful service that more converters could take advantage of.

This level of flexibility is echoed by Nick Kirby, CEO at Swanline Print Group. “The impact of developments in digital is significant; text and graphics quality have improved no end, and capabilities in terms of applications, finishes and substrates are broadening,” he says. “Key developments have come in the form of advances in software and hardware. For example, software that can digitalise the process from artwork to delivery across the print supply chain is one of the most significant progressions positively affecting the speed, accuracy and responsiveness of the industry.”

Digital print has been keenly felt in the label sector. It’s not surprising, therefore, that suppliers have been quick to deliver new substrates and materials. Demonstrating at Labelexpo in Brussels, Avery Dennison brought its silver water-based inkjet film and its premium range of textured UV inkjet materials. With the popularity of UV and water-based inkjet, the unique topcoat Avery Dennison has developed – which retains the feel of any textured base paper – adds to the armoury of label converters looking to expand the capabilities of their digital presses.

More converters are also making substantial investments in digital systems as they expand their capabilities. Qualvis Print and Packaging, for example, installed a Xerox iGen four-sheet-fed digital printer with a iGen5 automated line. The five-colour iGen5 enables an even larger gamut of Pantone colours to be matched, while delivering 2,400×2,400dpi resolution. The presses include inline TRESU Pinta coating units and a KAMA DC 76 cut and crease line, offering the same finishing effects and varnish levels as Qualvis’ larger format litho print process.

“We spent 18 months researching the best match for our needs, and the two Xerox digital presses are ideal,” says Qualvis’ managing director Jason Short. “As a leading print and packaging business, we are seeing diminishing run lengths and increasing demand for innovation from our customers, including personalisation and localisation.

“Brands and retailers are looking for variety, so having the ability to produce quick-to-market packaging is essential.”

Company Springfield Solutions doubled the size of its digital-print service, with printing capacity increasing by 30% thanks to the installation of a new Screen Truepress L350UV ink jet digital press and two new finishing lines. Joint managing director Dennis Ebeltoft says, “Having more digital presses means we have more capacity, consistency and continuity, allowing us to innovate and push the boundaries of what digital print can do, which is great news for our clients and the industry as a whole.”

In the corrugated sector, where digital print is still in its infancy, converters can see a digital future for their output. “With our 2015 investment in a Barberan Jetmaster, Bennett became the first in North America with a large-format, high-speed, direct-to-corrugate digital press,” says Robert Sweet. “The education phase in the industry was just beginning, and the lack of trust in digital was our first hurdle. Now, two years later, digital printing has proved itself – the quality is comparable to litho, the speed is as promised and the efficiencies are undeniable. The demands made by brands are picking up, and the packaging industry is beginning to embrace this printing evolution. The next stage will be an increased investment in digital printers within our industry. We are so certain of the success of this evolution, that we have just purchased our second press from Barberan, which is expected to be delivered in early 2018.”

Meeting brand needs

Finding new innovative uses for digital print output is a core driver across the converting market. For instance, visitors to Labelexpo would have seen the new fluorescent ink created by Domino. Developed in reaction to a need within the security-printing sector, the application of this digital output could be much wider, with the cosmetics, beverage and even food packaging sectors being possible markets for digital print effects like this.

For converters, digital print has moved from a niche technology to one that is at the forefront of their business development. The changing needs of brands are the key driver here. There won’t be a wholesale move to digital just yet, but, as Swanline Print Group’s Nick Kirby concluded, digital has a major role to play in the future of converting.

“Digital printing is enabling the printer converter to drive value in a highly competitive market place and allows the converter to respond to increasing demands for process agility,” he explains. “Using traditional print methods, such as flexo and offset litho, runs the risk of excessive downtime for the converter when handling multiple job changeovers. Digital printing removes this element – with make-ready time being essentially zero – and drives overall equipment effectiveness, which is critical to minimising costs. Cost optimisation is also front of mind for the brand – packaging SKU proliferation drives inventory costs upwards and the printer converter is tasked with minimising that impact, as well as producing high-quality, stand-out and consistent print.”

Converters and their brand partners are constantly evolving how they communicate with their customers – with customisation, personalisation and regionalisation being the trio of options that converters can offer via digital print output.

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