Finesse in the finish13 November 2019
With the industry gearing up for Labelexpo Europe in September, print and labelling are at centre stage for packaging, printing and converting companies. One area that is often bundled under ‘print’ as a topic is finishing, but it is so much more than an ancillary process. Tony Snyder, vice-president of product portfolio management and deployment at Philip Morris International (PMI), and Andreia Fontes, the company’s director of printing and converting, explain PMIs interest in digital printing and finishing for cartons and the potential it has for the future of the industry.
The idea of having a dual benefit where the finish not only decorates and accentuates the product, but is able to do so without adding further waste or cost, is one that is garnering interest from the industry in 2019. Finishing that improves the end product and increases or supports more efficient productivity is an enormous benefit that these experts and others are seeing across the industry.
This flexibility is even seeing technology for digital print and finishing being used in industries like tobacco that were previously devotees of conventional print. While usually suppliers are the ones proposing solutions to end users, occasionally the brand owner capitalises on an opportunity and drives development themselves; this was the case with Phillip Morris International (PMI), who saw the rising trend for digital printing and finishing in cartons, and the growth it could provide first adopters who could make it work for the industry.
According to Tony Snyder, vice-president of product portfolio management and deployment at PMI, “It’s not a question of ‘if’ digital print will take a larger share of volume, but ‘when’. Companies need to decide if they will sit back and wait for the advances still needed to make it economically attractive, dip their toe in the water, or dive in head first. Why sit patiently and wait ten years for what we need to be ready when we can push things forward by putting some skin in the game?”
Step by Step
The first step was through the installation, in 2017, of a Gallus Labelfire 340, a specialist hybrid press that allows digital print as well as the main benefits of conventional print and finishing technology.
However, Snyder soon realised that “Digital wasn’t ready for us, even if we were ready for digital. It had been driven largely by the wish to personalise. It was about niches. But we’re not a niche business, we’re a volume business, where ‘small’ volume is still counted in the millions of packs. If you take a look at the cartons in our particular business, there’s a lot going on, from metallics to embossing to lacquers and right on into creasing and die-cutting. So we could see from the start that we would never realise the full value of going digital if we didn’t make the whole thing digital, including not just printing but also embellishment and finishing. Of course, that simply wasn’t available three or four years ago, though we believe in time it will be. But rather than wait, we installed what was available – namely, a hybrid system that is absolutely modular. Embellishing, cold-foiling, embossing and other finishing operations on the Labelfire 340 are still analogue, but as digital solutions become available we’ll plug them into this highly modular line.”
According to Andreia Fontes, director of printing and converting at PMI, the DEU will occupy a position downstream from the digital printing station. Once it’s operational, PMI will be able to do in-line coating and apply matte, gloss or tactile spot-coating effects in various thicknesses—all digitally. Fontes sees it as another significant step in the company’s ongoing quest to advance digital printing and finishing.
“Others who have an interest in digital see things becoming commercially available in five or ten years,” she notes. “But here, partly because we have this new product portfolio with IQOS, there’s a much greater sense of urgency. The conventional ways of working are just not going to cut it going forward. That’s why we decided not to wait, even though some pieces of the digital puzzle are not in place yet. We’ve failed a few times, but we’ve also learned a lot, and we are proud to say that we have successfully completed our concept validation. We know what is possible because we’ve done it.”
Snyder couldn’t agree more about redefining ways of working. “PMI’s Smoke-Free Future initiative brings many operational challenges, but it also brings the opportunity to reinvent the way we work,” he says. “There’s still much to be done. We need to work on speed and ink prices, and on water-based ink options in addition to the UV-cured inks we now use. And of course we want to plug in digital processes in parts of the line that are currently analogue. But that’s all part of the plan. What we didn’t want to do is wait. Technically speaking, this is a developmental operation as opposed to a true commercial converting line. But we’ve done real commercial packaging production on it, which is important, because I don’t think you can make real progress any other way. We want to show people that we are serious about the opportunity digital represents, and not just as an extra piece of printing technology that’s nice to have in the arsenal. We think this could be the new way of printing in large, commercial-scale volumes.”
Show converters the way
PMI enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with the converters it relies on for the vast majority of its cartons. But thought leaders in the company understand that there are times when waiting for the supplier community to develop the next big thing isn’t always the best idea.
“This is especially true for something like digital printing of folding cartons,” says Snyder. Which is why the company developed its own in-house hybrid digital-folding carton-printing and converting operation at its Neuchatel Innovation Development Center. This is not about vertical integration or self-manufacturing. The goal is to demonstrate to those on the supplier side just how keen PMI is about moving digital converting technology forward.
“We can’t do it ourselves,” concluded Snyder. “We need to connect with the equipment makers, the converters who buy that equipment and the makers of the inks and lacquers, too, and show them how strongly we believe there is a marketplace for these technologies. If you’re making digital converting equipment today, you don’t need to be persuaded to make it for flexibles or for corrugated, because the markets for those materials are pretty well defined. But if you don’t see customers pushing for the kind of digital equipment we need for our cartons, why would you spend your R&D dollars on digital carton printing and finishing equipment? That’s why we want to show people how keen we are to have such capabilities.”
Digital to underpin evolution of print-finishing market
A new Smithers Pira report, ‘The Future of Print Finishing Markets to 2023’, highlights how postpress will increasingly look to incorporate digital technologies as it adjusts to changing nature of the global print marketplace.
Almost all printed material has to be finished and converted into a saleable item. In 2018, post-press equipment is increasingly sophisticated, with computer control driving servomotors to automate set-ups. There are in-line integrated single-pass solutions, near-line solutions where finishing is close to the printing machine and the finishing is controlled by the same software, or completely separate off-line solutions.
According to the new Smithers Pira study, the global market for new post-press equipment in 2018 was $4.87 billion. This is a little down from $5.10 billion in 2013 – a reflection of the general slowdown in demand for printed products – but the market is expected to rebound slightly across the next five years to reach to $4.90 billion in 2023.
This period will see a further decline in demand for finishing platforms in several traditional segments. Mailing equipment and systems are forecast to see the biggest decline, falling by nearly 40% across 2013-2023, while sales of post-print equipment for commercial application will fall by 22.2% over the same 10 years.
This negative situation will be ameliorated to a certain degree by expanded demand for digital print finishing equipment as the boundaries between digital and commercial machinery increasingly merge. Many of the established equipment suppliers are developing machinery suited to the smaller formats and lower run lengths that are associated with toner and particularly inkjet work.
Source: Smithers Pira