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Digital goes mainstream

Although it currently only represents a fraction of total output, indications are that digital package print now has the capability to become the FMCG market's technology of choice. Des King gets up to speed on some of the latest developments on offer

It’s no longer a question of if; more like a matter of when. Digital printing has undoubtedly made the transition from curiosity to contender, and is all set to assume the mantle as preferred means of delivery for just in time marketing.

When technology front-runners Indigo first appeared on the scene at Ipex 93, more than a few industry pundits were inclined to dismiss its evangelistic vision of an achievable and cost-effective print on demand future as so much snake oil.

Less than 10 years and two Ipexes later, there’s hardly an offset press manufacturer who isn’t including some level of digital capability within its total offer.

Indeed, no less a pillar of the establishment than Heidelberg chairman Bernhard Schreier is on record as predicting equal status for the two competing technologies within the next 5-10 years.

And, with over a third of all print going straight to packaging appli-cations, the current value of digital package print at around €258M is clearly set on a steep upwards curve.

As many as 57% of respondents interviewed during the compilation of a recent Pira International industry report: The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging confirmed that they were intent upon using the technology by the end of next year.

Furthermore, it was anticipated that digital printing would represent over 30% of total packaging production – with food products, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, and cosmetics singled out as the primary application sectors.

Interestingly, take up in Europe is running ahead of North America, with Pira estimating that the EC currently accounts for 72% of the world-wide total of digital print used for packaging at a value of €186.2M as at the end of last year.

The principal arguments in favour of digital printing are well rehearsed and have barely deviated over the past nine years: cost-effective short-run and the ability to work with variable data.

Translated into retail marketing terms, this dual facility directly impacts upon the entire economic and logistical structuring of the supply chain. Costs are slashed, time scales are reduced, wastage is kept to a minimum, and risks associated with new product develop-ment are no longer a cause for budgetary concern.

Why then has the industry been comparatively slow to adopt the process? There are four primary reasons – natural caution in the face of fast-moving technological change; existing capital-expenditure commitments; an insistence on the part of the developers to major on the engineering and to target printers rather than the ultimate end-user.

What’s under the bonnet might be interesting enough in its own right but the equation between distance, time and cost is what really counts in determining the best route from A to B.

With the funding and management of digital printing technology now increasingly being taken on by the likes of corporate giants such as Xerox and Hewlett Packard – new owners of Indigo (see leader column alongside) – the message is at last being directed straight to the boardroom.

Early adopters within the tail wagging dog package print sector may have deservedly enjoyed the advantages of a lead start but, for digital printing to realise its full quantum growth potential, the real driving force has always needed to work its way back from the point of final delivery.

The capability to introduce variable data – and, within the context of a pan-European market, variable use of language – has predictably emerged as digital printing’s strongest suit and no more so than in the production of self-adhesive labelling.

Edinburgh based Simpson Label Co. claims to have been the first UK label printer to instal a digital press. It was a Nilpeter DL3300 incorporating the Xeikon engine.

This recently emerged as winner of the annual Xeikon Diamond Digital Printing Awards, ahead of users representing over 20 different countries for labelling produced for a Manchester United branded range of energy drinks.

Available through the Old Trafford shop plus a selected number of additional outlets, each can prominently features one of six different players. Orders are now running at around the 5000 mark but, initially, were averaging out at between 700-850 per featured soccer star.

Given the cult status of players such as David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, the scheme has undoubtedly captured the fans’ imagination and has resulted in a flood of copycat enquiries from a further 20 leading teams to date.

Simpsons has also supplied similarly branded self-adhesive labels to the Royal Bank of Scotland in connection with its student banking services programme, in addition to a good number of Scottish based hotel groups.

Printed full colour onto a self-adhesive PP substrate to allow the can’s natural metallic finish to shine through, the labels are digitally printed, varnished and die-cut in a single pass and supplied to fit standard applicating equipment.

Simpsons also took runner-up spot in the previous year’s Xeikon awards with its work for the Room Raiders new product launch of 69 different variants of paint test marketed in a variety of sizes and formats through just two outlets.

According to marketing manager Stuart Martin, the job could only have been undertaken through the use of digital printing technology. “The greatest number of labels for any single component of the trial range was 4000, with some products requiring as small a quantity as 300.

“Had the job been undertaken through a conventional process, it wouldn’t even have been possible to cover the cost of the plates let alone the actual print itself.”

As it turned out, the product failed to progress beyond its trial stage – but the DP option ensured that the end-customer’s specu-lative costs were comfortably restricted to within a much more acceptable level of risk.

German foil specialists Hueck Folien has recently developed its own proprietary heat-resistant digital print ink to counter scorching difficulties previously associated with customised aluminium lidding, enabling short-run sample food packs to be produced on conventional filling equipment.

Capable of withstanding temper-atures of up to 250°C, Hueck’s new process is claimed to deliver a comparable quality to flexo or gravure in a shorter time frame and at a significantly reduced cost.

It is being aimed specifically at restricted runs for test marketing, trade events and personalised sampling.

Hueck is also extending its capabilities in heat-resistant digital inks by targeting the potential of pre-production clinical trial applications within the pharmaceuticals market.

Inca Digital has also introduced a new digital foiling solution based on the production of metallic foils without the need for heated dies, make-ready materials or printing plates allowing for variable images to be applied during print runs.

Echoing the prevailing focus upon net result rather than technical wizardry, Inca marketing manager Heather Kendle comments: “As a specialist in piezo inkjet we have to be discerning about applications that make commercial sense, not ones that are just technologically interesting.”

While its printhead technology forms an essential part of Inca’s Eagle 44 flatbed press for wide format reproduction, Xaar is another leading inkjet specialist supplier to also now be extending its interest towards targeting the packaging sector, prin-cipally through strat-egic partnerships.

As well as introducing a new UV curable inkjet ink for specific application onto non-porous packaging subs-trates such as PVC and PP, Xaar has developed the first full production greyscale inkjet print-head in conjunction with Toshiba TEC.

This achieves near photographic quality reproduction using relatively low print resolutions onto plastics based packs such as CD box covers and other carton and label applications.

Copies of The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging report are available from Shelagh Patterson at Pira International, tel: +44 (0)1372 802080, e-mail: publications@pira.co.uk. It costs £250.