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With digital print costs predicted to be 50 per cent cheaper by 2005 and speeds to run five times faster, converters should now seriously consider the DP option. Des King reports from Pira's Digital Packaging World conference

The prevailing mood at Pira’s ‘Digital Packaging World’ conference (held in Birmingham, UK, July 2-3) was best captured by Tom Cannon, sales and marketing director of Simpson Label, who prefixed his case study presentation by remarking that “this conference hasn’t just been about digital printing; it’s been about digital thinking”.

Over 85 converters, materials suppliers, machinery manufacturers and brand owners attended the two-day conference to update themselves on the latest developments in digital technology and its marketing implications for the future role of packaging within the overall supply chain.

Key predictions to emerge from the programme included:

  • That further improvements within the supply chain can only be effected in production

  • Within three to five years, digital presses will be running five times faster than at present, and producing print at 50 per cent less cost than current values

  • Digital print will match conventional processes by 2010

  • Inkjet printing is likely to win through as the preferred mode of delivery

A recurring message to converters was that when it comes to adopting digital technology they should ‘take little steps rather than giant leaps’, but to take them soon lest they become displaced by a growing trend towards in-house or turnkey package print operations.

The programme was led by Kevin Karstedt, of US based industry consultancy Karstedt Associates, compiler of Pira’s recently published five-year strategic forecast: ‘The Future of Digital Printing for Packaging’.

He noted that 53 per cent of respondents surveyed for the report had confirmed they were planning to use DP, mainly for applications within the food and beverages, pharmaceuticals and healthcare sectors. He estimated the market for digital package print in Europe had grown from e40M in 1997 to a current value of e273M, and predicted it would be worth around e330M by 2005. The biggest application growth area was expected to be in self adhesive labels.

In urging converters to see themselves as part of a larger supply chain scenario, he noted that the principal factors determining the DP option were better quality; increased efficiency; a growing demand amongst end users; and more easily managed short runs at lower cost (runs of 50,000 are now fully viable, compared with 3,000 five years ago).

He was the first of several speakers to note that the high cost of consumables had been a major factor in inhibiting market growth.

Evolving technology

In reviewing the latest technical developments, Pira’s John Birkenshaw highlighted the ability of the web-fed Dotrix: the.factory to handle a wide range of substrates using UV curable inks. He also singled out Xaar’s Leopard inkjet head’s 318 nozzle array to achieve near-photo quality, and capability for printing onto PVC and other packaging plastics at 300dpi to speeds of 0.4/s. The same technology has recently been applied as the first commercially available drop-on-demand digital inkjet head to print direct onto food cans and beverage products (Canpet’s Printomat 400 system).

He also identified new digital workflow systems from Agfa (ApogeeX) and the Creo Prinergy PowerPack (from which co-developer Heidelberg has just withdrawn in order to develop its own job definition format (JDF) system). Agfa’s Grand Sherpa inkjet proofing system and the new QuarkWrapture 1.5 3D design and visualization were amongst other new software applications.

Also singled out for commendation was the new dieLESS foiling system developed by Inca Digital – according to John Birkenshaw, the most innovative new system on show at Ipex earlier this year. Its marketing manager, Heather Kendle, claimed what had previously been referred to as industrial inkjet was now being re-defined to cover an ever expanding range of commercial applications.

Apart from the high quality now achievable through piezo DOD and UV curing inks, digital inkjet competes favourably against liquid toner and dry powder systems. The dieLESS system is a joint development between Inca and API Foils, and incorporates Spectra heads. Running speeds have already increased by 300 per cent from time of launch, to 90m/min.

Other supplier presentations included Steven Wood, of Marque2 who, in pressing the case for early adoption of digital asset management systems, noted that “30 per cent of people’s time within a creative environment is spent looking for artwork that’s already been created”. Peter Walshe, of Sunjet UK, claimed UV ink technology had now advanced to only needing 5-10 per cent of cure energy to prevent droplets from freezing.

Another speaker was Kristin Käseberg, of Avery Dennison Fasson Roll Europe, roll to roll stock supplier for Indigo and Xeikon systems. In answer to criticism by ex-Indigo marketing director Mike Englander (Data Science) of AD’s apparent reluctance to respond to low stock orders – DP only represents annual sales of around 2-3Mm2, a fraction of the supplier’s total turnover – there was an indication that this issue would be given new consideration. Whilst AD also claims to be looking at UV ink substrates, it is still only at the experimental stage.

Focus on marketing

Most speakers noted that digital print should be viewed as a marketing tool rather than an extension to the existing production line. Case studies presented by two UK based DP users convincingly illustrated the point that the technology’s greatest strength lay in its ability to meet specific customer requirements that might otherwise have been unfeasible.

John Beardmore, managing director of specialist pharmaceuticals supplier Medica Packaging, reported that in its third year of operation the company’s Indigo Omnius system was now regularly producing finished cartons: non glued for short run orders, reverse tucked in neck and end, and interior and exterior printed.

Eighty per cent of Medica’s turnover comes from folding cartons, and the company produces over 100,000 per day. An estimated four per cent of revenue is now generated by digital print, with the facility currently being offered to over 30 pharmaceuticals manufacturers.

Amongst the drivers for digital print, he noted the requirement for regional pack variants; reduced life expectancy of brand design; pressure within the supply chain to print to order rather than inventory; and a general trend towards shorter runs.

“The world is full of warehouses stocked with unused packaging,’ he observed, contrasting the fact that 50 per cent of all orders processed by Medica are below 15,000 off. The company regularly delivers within 12 hours of receipt of order. Its message to customers is quite simply “don’t bother to encourage your existing supplier to introduce DP – go straight to the new breed of digital printer instead”.

Simpson Labels has been one of the new breed since 1997 and, according to sales and marketing director Tom Cannon, was the first UK adopter of the Xeikon dry powder system (now marketed as the MAN Roland DicoPack 320). The same team sells across all technologies and digital print now represents 10 per cent of total business. Whereas two years ago the company was undertaking sample trials and test runs, the capacity for that kind of activity no longer exists. Furthermore, sales of digitally produced labels have doubled over the same period.

As an added driver to taking the digital route, he noted that less than five per cent of all new retail products remain on the shelf beyond 12 months of launch.

To illustrate DP’s cost savings and time to market advantages to the end user, he cited several examples of recent work. These included labelling for a range of energy drinks individually branded with one of six different Manchester United players. Orders are now running at around the 5,000 mark, but were initially averaging out at around 700 per featured soccer star, and the project has resulted in enquiries from 20 other leading teams to date.

Equally practical was the application of digitally printed labels for a range of paints incorporating 158 variants to be test marketed through one outlet. Tom Cannon noted that the origination cost would have been in excess of £1,000 before a single label had been conventionally printed.

Sean Fortune, director of structural design at SiebertHead, asked: “Has anyone ever tried to explain digital printing to designers?” and commented that the process should be viewed as an extension rather than a replacement technology. Hitherto it appeared to have been in danger of dictating the solution. He also made the point that whilst “marketing sees packaging as art – industry sees it as waste”.

Andrew Streeter (CPS International) also felt digital print was a technology still looking for a purpose, and reminded delegates that packaging was, above all else, concerned with consumer engagement. Steve Whiting, of Whiteink UK, made the telling point that whilst the take-up of digital technology had to date been held back by the absence of appropriate business drivers, it was ideally positioned as the preferred method of delivery for e-commerce transactions.

Ian Welsh, packaging design controller for Safeway UK, took the view that “the only barrier is the psychological one”. Over 50 per cent of Safeway’s business is achieved through some 7,500 own label products (a third of its total offer). The introduction three years ago of digital imaging at the design stage has resulted in cost and time savings of 50 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively.

Whilst the impact at the front end is clear enough, he cautioned that “speed of commercially viable production will have to improve significantly before the adoption of digital print by the multiples”.

The future

In summary, John Birkenshaw stressed the future role for digital technology in enabling greater integration of supply chain functions, including print, pack and dispatch, and the ultimate elimination of warehousing of finished goods. The burning question, however, was who would take the lead in re-organizing the existing structure. The technology’s capability is beyond debate. But will converters seize the opportunity to retain ownership of it?