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Digital developments and converting the packaging landscape

Commercial printers have long enjoyed the benefits of digital print, but it is still considered a somewhat fledgling technology for many packaging converters. Increasing web widths, substrate handling and ink technologies that enable new product applications are changing that, making digital more attractive to converters than ever before, finds Tim Sheahan

Digital print has enjoyed a growing prominence in the commercial and wide format sectors in recent years. Shortening run lengths, the demand for personalised targeted marketing, and an ever-present focus on cutting waste levels have all contributed to the technology’s increased foothold within the production print mix.

Just as digital has opened up new revenue streams for companies in the commercial and display markets, the technology is rapidly becoming a mainstay and growth area in packaging and labelling. InfoTrends predicts that the colour digital label and packaging (CDLP) market will grow strongly between 2011 and 2016, experiencing an 18% compound annual growth rate in digital press revenues.

Infotrends’ new report cites high-end colour electrophotographic (EP) and inkjet presses, many of which were showcased at shows such as last year’s Drupa, as the key technologies that will steer colour digital further into the printing of folding cartons and flexible packaging.

Folding carton production

Dutch manufacturer Océ, an established supplier in the production print and wide format sectors, recently broadened its reach into the packaging space with the launch of its InfiniStream technology. Designed for the industrial scale production of folding cartons, InfiniStream is a modular tower concept press that is claimed to offer offset-level print quality on standard coated cartonboard substrates.

InfiniStream leverage’s the firm’s new liquid toner technology, which enables variable imaging on standard cartonboard stock up to 600 microns thick.

The new press concept will be available in up to a 7-colour configuration, offering top print speeds of up to 120m/min on a 711mm-wide web. This is equal to 14,400 B2 sheets or 7,200 B1 sheets/hour. Available in simplex-only configuration, as is required for folding carton production, the press features drying technology that helps both to remove the toner carrier oil – and to recover the oil, which is then used to continue with the hot air fusing process taking place.

According to Océ, InfiniStream will move the break-even point of folding cartons upwards without compromising on print quality. It has also claimed that it will be able to offer the ability to personalise packaging products with short lead times.

Widening the web

Another digital manufacturer that enjoyed a particularly active 2012 in the packaging arena was HP, which used Drupa to launch a raft of additions to its packaging portfolio. Already active in the label production field, HP announced its Indigo 20000 and 30000 digital presses, although these will not see commercial availability until later this year.

The 20000 model is a roll-to-roll digital press that has been designed for flexible packaging production for sectors such as food and drink. Equipped with seven colours and white ink, the Indigo machine increases web width to 762mm and media length to 1,100mm, features that InfoTrends have identified as growth catalysts for the digital packaging sector over current models in the market.

Capable of output speeds of 27 linear metres in 5-colour production and up to 45 linear metres per minute in Enhanced Productivity Mode (EPM), the Indigo 20000 also feature an inline priming unit on the press that is designed to aid compatibility on the majority of regular flexible packaging substrates such as PET, PVC and aluminum up to 250 microns thick.

According to Infotrends colour digital label and packaging service associate director Bob Leahey, such high capacity presses offer a significant width increase over existing technology on the market. "That difference in width and overall productivity will drive the use of CDLP presses to new levels in folding cartons and flexible packaging, two important applications where current models have only a limited role today," he says. "Both EP and inkjet technologies will contribute to this new generation of high-end CDLP presses in a receptive, growing market."

While HP’s 20000 model has been designed for flexible packaging, the 30000 addition to the Indigo family is a sheet-fed press that can handle a maximum 750 x 530mm format substrate size. Level with the flexible press, the 30000 offers 7-colour output and will be commercially available later this year. Capable of handling carton stocks up to 600 microns thick, the machine can reach 3,540 sheets/hour in -colour output and up to 4,600 sheets/hour in EPM.

The first global installation of the new press went into Illinois, US-based Nosco last November.

Game changing technology?

While Océ and HP are among the manufacturers developing new machines for folding carton production and flexible packaging, companies such as Screen have found that existing technology has enabled commercial print houses to move into digital packaging. Retford, UK-based printer RCS became Screen’s first European customer for the Truepress JetSX B2 sheet-fed inkjet press in late 2012, and is already using it to produce a raft of different packaging applications.

Capable of 1,440dpi output onto a maximum sheet size of 740 x 530mm, the JetSX has allowed RCS to tap into the migration of certain packaging products to short run digital. "The mass-produced items you find on your supermarket shelves are not going to disappear overnight, but I firmly believe that we are seeing a movement that plays into the hands of digital print," says Michael Todd, managing director of RCS.

The £7.5 million turnover business is using the B2 duplex machine to produce short term packaging and is currently in discussions with a major retailer interested in the digital offering.

"It is the only B2 inkjet press that can print onto pre-scored and pre-creased boards, which allows us to produce dozens of web2print packaging solutions very efficiently and extremely competitively," he says. "It’s logical that digital’s prominence in packaging will continue to grow, due to the applications and avenues it opens up. Arguably, we are only at the start of the curve, but it’s something we want to be part of."

Digital finishing development

Although activity in digital folding cartons continue apace, the question of finishing such short runs, to a degree, remains to be seen. One new technology that has garnered much attention is the Highcon Euclid, a digital creasing and cutting machine that aims to eliminate the need for conventional dies in the folding carton converting market.

The Euclid employs precision laser optics and polymer technology to streamline and migrate the diecutting and creasing process from analogue to digital. The machine uses Highcon’s patent-pending Digital Adhesive Rule Technology (DART) to crease lines direct from digital data, which helps cut set-up times.

Each crease line job is created digitally after the data is received from the design and production software. This is claimed to remove the costly diemaking process and the associated set-up times involved.

Multiple lasers and precision optics are then used to cut the sheets up to a maximum size of 760mm x 1,060mm and up to a maximum weight of 550g/m2. According to the manufacturer, the Euclid can handle runs from a single unit up to 10,000 items on a maximum thickness of 0.6mm.

Aviv Ratzman, chief executive at Highcon, says the past two decades catalysed key areas of the supply chain to move to digital, except for packaging finishing. "Converters and their customers have been unable to benefit from the speed and flexibility that digital solutions could provide to finishing. But this is about to change," he says.

Earlier this month, UK-based Glossop Cartons became the world’s first company to invest in the Euclid. Jacky Sidebottom, director at the Derbyshire business, says the machine will enable the firm to move into bespoke, short run packaging and react to seasonal product changes in a cost-effective manner. "This direct-to-pack concept fits perfectly with our company values of innovation, responsiveness, competitiveness and customer focus," she adds.