The bespoke approach

25 November 2019

As the market moves from the mass approach to targeted, local and personalised, companies are discovering the many benefits of digital printing to deliver varied and engaging forms of packaging. Does this mean the end for conventional printing techniques? Will Moffitt speaks to packaging technology consultant Ian Schofield, former own label manager for Iceland, about the potential for digital disruption.

The Non Valley lies in northern Italy’s Trento province, a lush green microclimate sandwiched between the Alps and the Dolomites, home to crystal blue lakes, quaint villages and rows of orchards that stretch over the horizon. For over 2,000 years local farmers have cultivated the apples of the region, with roughly 300,000t of the fruit harvested annually, sold under the brand name Melinda.  

Traditional cultivation techniques remain an important part of the Melinda franchise, passed down through several generations, and recently the group has used modern marketing campaigns to shine a light on these processes, seeking to establish a clearer relationship between the producer and the product.

This year the consortium brought a more human side to its branding, collaborating with corrugated packaging converter Ghelfi Ondulati to print 1,000 separate photos of local farmers, each with a personal message, on 3.2 million of its take-home-sized boxes.

The campaign produced favourable results, with an unusually high numbers of apples sold within the first two months, generating a self-perpetuating response on social media as farmers share their photographs on Facebook and Instagram and consumers follow suit.

For packaging technology consultant Ian Schofield, the Melinda campaign is a poignant example of a brand using modern printing technology to project an age-old message. 

“It’s a great example of using digital printing to project a desired brand image. In this case it’s a depiction of local farmers as authentic and caring by selling the apples they produce. Fundamentally, it brings the trays alive,” he says.

In recent years, digital print has generated growing excitement in the packaging industry, touted as a way to save time, reduce wastage and implement shorter printing runs. While still in its infancy, the technology is one of the fastest-growing markets in the sector, with market researcher Smithers Pira estimating that the segment will be worth $31.6 billion by 2024.

Where to begin?
Starting as a packaging technologist at Co-op in 1982, digital printing is a technology that Schofield has seen develop incrementally over the past 30 years, a solution that was just beginning when he set up his own label team at Iceland two years later.

“When digital print started I was right at the forefront of it,” he says. “The first digital presses were mainly used to print labels and the good thing was that it was really quick to market. The colour gamut was okay, it wasn't perfect; it wasn’t like today where you can get different kinds of silvers and metallic finishes.”

Clean labelling, legislative changes, and track-and-trace capabilities have only driven labelling further towards digitalisation as packs now need to convey more information and designs are updated more quickly.

Labels accounted for 93.5% of digital print volumes in 2015, and while they are poised to remain the majority of the sector, other segments are growing – with corrugated, cartons and flexibles set to become significant markets by 2020.

With digital evangelisation in mind, the print for packaging sector has a lot to thank the Coca-Cola Corporation for. Though some of us may tire at the mention of it now, the 2014 ‘Share a Coke’ campaign brought the capability of digital printing into the mainstream, allowing consumers to order glass bottle packs with their names on via a website. By making packaging its core selling point, the initiative demonstrated that people respond well to unique, tailor-made designs, with 150 million personalised bottles sold across 80 markets.

The move encouraged a raft of copy-cat campaigns brought to market with names, places or sports teams featured on packaging. Nutella and Marmite used forenames, while Oreo encouraged consumers to curate their own packaging designs online, sending these personalised gifts to friends and family members for special occasions.

While these kinds of inventive marketing strategies steal the headlines, for Schofield they are more reflective of a burgeoning counter culture rather than a mainstream shift towards digital adoption. 

“Obviously, the big brands like Coca-Cola get all the publicity, but they’re not the answer,” he says. “The key is using digital print for everyday needs; if digital is going to take over from conventional methods, it has to be able to do everything that you can already do on conventional printers.”

In an industry where a majority of the market serves packaging destined for the shelves of brick-and-mortar retailers, buyers will need convincing that digital can be a cost-effective alternative to current technologies such as flexographic printing, which enable mass production at high speed and quality.     

“For many businesses, increasing packaging costs is not an option, so you’ve got to make [digital printing] cost-neutral,” he says. “You have to offset it against your rights of packaging, no plates to pay for when using collectibles, you have to have to offset those factors against the initial cost, because on the face of it, digital printing is still more expensive. But actually, when you look into all the benefits it gives you it can become cost-neutral.”


So how does it compare?
While flexo shines because of its versatility with respect to packaging substrates – working on varying sizes of corrugated board, synthetic layers, papers and cartons – its strengths can become weaknesses when it comes to short print runs and customised designs.  

Because it requires separate printing plates and inks for each job, the flexo model is less agile, requiring additional time and labour to complete the set-up and longer print runs to be economical.

In contrast, while digital inks are expensive, manufacturers can rapidly change the design for each packaging unit, cutting out the pre-press fee for form production and set-up costs. Converters and manufacturers can then view designs in real time, allowing for quick adjustments and improvements, while removing waste and improving quality in the overall workflow.

In a world where brands have become more agile than ever, digital print therefore becomes a tool better placed to interact with real-world events, driving and supporting social movements as seen in Smirnoff’s #chooselove campaign.

Moreover, with increasing legislative pressures on pack and labelling, digital enables manufacturers to make quick changes via a computer, adapting products to comply with the market regulations for specific regions. 

For Schofield, while these are all worthy reasons to consider digital, as with all good evangelising missions, more work has to be done educating retailers and suppliers on the capabilities of the technology.  

“Not everybody understands digital printing and you often get a lot of questions,” he says. “People will ask you, ‘are the inks different’, or ‘does it affect the food’. There are a lot of people to influence, a lot of technical teams, and product supply teams who have to understand what it means to them. It’s not just about price or the fact you can personalise something, it’s also the fact that you need to convince a lot of people that it’s a good thing to do.”


In the end, we must go green
One issue that might persuade manufacturers to take the plunge is the move towards sustainability. According to Grandview Market Research, the ‘green packaging’ market is poised to reach $237.8 billion by 2024.

Plans are already under way to make the industry more eco-friendly as the UK Government will impose a tax on all packaging that does not include at least 30% recycled material in April 2022, reforming the current system of recycling credits, which has been in place since 1997.  

While most businesses and customers think of eco-conscious packaging in terms of materials, the processes used to create them are equally important. Compared with traditional printing methods, digital is a more sustainable alternative, using up to four times less ink and dramatically reducing the overall waste produced.   

“We’re going through a period where we’re scrutinising all our waste. If you pollute your materials, then you can’t recycle them. So that places much more of an emphasis on product design, on how much ink, how much coverage and which varnishes you’re putting onto that card to make sure that it can be recycled. It’s no good if you have to cover your ink with another material because that’s defeating the object,” Schofield explains.

Asked about the future possibilities for digital printing in the sector, Schofield is unsure what the landscape will look like in 10 years’ time, although he believes that the next five years could see bigger brands implement the technology on a wider scale.

“It’s going to accelerate, but predicting how successful it will be in the long term is tough,” he says. “In the next five years, digital is going to be used on more materials, and on wider formats, so it's going to touch more areas. Inevitably brands will probably adapt to it quicker than the retailers to start with. Bigger names such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever are obviously more likely to adopt it because they’ve got more brands to experiment with.”

While digital printing remains an exciting prospect, as Schofield notes, it’s crucial to view it as part of broader trend, rather than a stand-alone innovation, given that packaging production is part of a much longer supply chain.

“Printers often forget this, but packaging production involves far more than just printing. Digital printing saves hours, even days, in a process that takes months,” he says. “As technology improves it has the potential to disrupt the larger supply chain, making printers, converters and retailers more interconnected. A broader digitalisation of the whole process will probably be the most important element when it comes to printing, because analogue printers will be tied into this system as well.”    

For now, at least, digital print remains an exciting, if unfilled prospect, representing roughly 3.25% of all printed packaging. But as brands seek to deliver more personalised, targeted campaigns, it seems inevitable that digital will grow, albeit gradually.

With the technology still in relative infancy, the industry will be seeing a mix of analogue and digital for some time, with larger brands embracing a hybrid model, resorting to digital for specialised campaigns with shorter run times. 

Just how prevalent the technology becomes will depend on how significantly the price of digital ink is reduced, how versatile it becomes and whether more retailers, along with larger brands, are willing to experiment with the technology.

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