Inkjet meets packaging

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lead-sideThis article will discuss the opportunities for inkjet printing in the packaging industry. Packaging as a whole is a complex industry with many processes and higher barriers to entry than traditional commercial printing. It is also an area of growth and opportunity that did not go unnoticed at drupa, as many vendors focused on packaging solutions. Some industry experts have told me that this article is a bit before its time; everyone I have spoken to is excited about what is to come. We will look at the challenges associated with inkjet packaging. This is a new and exciting market in graphic arts arising from improvements in technology and several changes in market demand, which we will also discuss. This is not a review of the technologies used in inkjet package printing, but rather a look at the market as a whole.

Compared to the traditional printing processes used in packaging such as flexography and offset lithography, inkjet as a primary method of package output is very new. On the other hand, as an auxiliary process in packaging, inkjet technology has been used for some time. We begin by understanding the nature of the current position of inkjet. One way that technology and its growth can be understood is by way of mapping a curve called a product life cycle, which begins with the introduction phase, followed by growth, maturity and finally decline. On this curve one could say that offset is a mature technology now entering decline, where as digital presses are in the growth phase. In many studies, inkjet technologies are lumped together with toner technologies, which are the more mature of the two. Separating them would put production inkjet printing (in packaging) into the introduction phase of the curve. This means that the technology has not yet diffused into the market and is not stable. Companies who invest in brand new technology are typically labelled as innovators or early adopters.

Innovators and early adopters for any technology are risk takers who typically comprise between 2.5% and 13.5% of the total market respectively. They usually pay more to have the technology first and thus are ahead of the curve when the technology stabilizes. A practical example of this is consumers who pre-order mobile phones or gaming consoles for premium prices. While the inkjet market is growing, few companies are using inkjet to produce a final package. One Canadian example of such a case is Lyft Visual, a division of Boehmer Box. Lyft uses a variety of equipment solutions, some completely proprietary. The company was the first in Canada to install an Agfa :Dotrix UV inkjet press, which allows them to print variable data on a large variety of substrates. “We saw a niche demand that can be filled using large format, multi-substrate print technology with pre and post production capabilities,” explains Pete Jesus, Director of Prepress and Technical Services at Boehmer Box. Craig McMeeken, Vice President and Corey Deschamps, Director of Operations talked to me about the potential of the digital market in packaging mirroring the proliferation of digital devices in commercial offset, where some of the market has been replaced, and new markets have been created using digital solutions.

As a technology across all graphic arts markets, inkjet is not new. For example, the signage industry has utilized inkjet technology for some time now. The packaging applications of inkjet on the other hand are full of promise and potential. InfoTrends has predicted a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for digital packaging in double digits ranging from the teens to the twenties (depending on the application) by 2014. In his book Inkjet! 2, Frank Romano predicts 30% growth across most packaging categories. Taking on inkjet opportunities allows for diversification of a company’s offerings as well as specialization in a new market. According to Ronnie Davis, Chief Economist at the PIA, both of these are seen as characteristics of profit leaders in our industry. It may be that as much as digital presses diversified offset, inkjet may do the same for package printers.

Why the lack of certainty, you may ask. In the printing industry, radical changes in our processes are largely driven by customer demand. Digital replaced some of the offset market because print runs became shorter. In turn, the ability to produce shorter print runs developed new areas of opportunity such as photo books. Packaging print runs are also shrinking; however when talking to industry professionals it seems that inkjet may not yet be mature enough to bridge the order quantity gap. While most professionals agree that there is growth in digital technologies, it is difficult to say whether it will be toner, inkjet or perhaps now even nanography that will satisfy most future needs. Thus, the important point is to understand the shifts in customer demand and not just to focus on the selected printing process.

The following are some changing demands that will benefit the inkjet market that I have gathered these from many conversations I have had with industry professionals:

  • Increased market localization requiring variable data on the package, to accommodate a variety of languages or regulatory standards.
  • The ability to print on demand and accommodate print postponement, thus reducing inventory charges and allowing more flexibility.
  • A reduced footprint for better sustainability as a result of shorter makeready times and in some cases decreased chemical and solvent use.
  • Time and cost competitiveness via reduced makeready times (which can be quite demanding in traditional flexographic printing).

As you may quickly realize, these demands reflect the abilities of digital printing in general and are not specific to inkjet alone. Perhaps this is why digital presses have been doing some great work in the area.

Inkjet printing, more specifically, is divided into two categories: continuous inkjet (CIJ) and drop-on-demand (DOD). The differences between inkjet technologies stem from the inkjet heads and the handling of the substrate. Often the heads are provided by another manufacturer. One of the remarkable facts about inkjet is the number of patents that surround the technology. One company producing inkjet heads may have as many as 4,000 global patents! Some technologies are vastly different than others. Memjet technology is interesting in this regard, as the waterfall-like application of ink increases print speeds significantly. “A change in inkjet speed like Memjet’s has the potential to significantly change the nature of inkjet overall,” comments Larry Moore, Director of Software Services at Esko. You can also look at inkjet from a sheet size/roll width perspective ranging from narrow web label to the grand flatbed formats used in folding carton. Of course the greater the need for this technology, the faster the technology will change. During an interview with James Lee, Prepress Manager at Jones Packaging, he explained that there is still a quality and speed trade-off in inkjet. If you pick a technology that is very high quality it will be slower and vice versa. However, this technology is improving quickly, with some industry experts acknowledging that even just two years ago the market was very different.

Lee points out that when producing a package you always want to consider the customer and what they would be willing to pay for. Similar to the way that we don’t expect photographic quality to appear in our daily newspaper, there are places where new inkjet technology is a good match. Folding carton seems to be a good starting place. Here the expectation of quality is not as high and therefore the quality of inkjet can compete. In fact, there is an increased demand for colour on cartons along with a decrease in quantities due to the localization of promotions. In such circumstances, inkjet really begins to stand out as a great solution.

Toner-based technologies, which typically compete with inkjet in the digital space, are less suited to folding carton. Flexible packaging on the other hand is a less competitive market for inkjet. Toner devices can offer better cost and quality in this area. Some have said that printing on metals, glass and plastics along with many other substrates in packaging have unique inkjet potential as a result of being one of the only printing processes that does not require the ink carrier to come into contact with the substrate—though currently the technology sits very close to touching the surface. Today one of the most common uses of inkjet technology for coding and tracking. This is a mature use of the technology, though the equipment is still being incrementally improved. Coding is done using standalone or built-in units in a variety of possible places within the printing and manufacturing processes. At drupa we saw many of the offset press manufacturers providing built-in inkjet options. There are three main reasons for using inkjet in this way: to add value, meet legislation requirements and improve tractability. An example of a value-added inkjet application at Jones Packaging would be the printing of a special code for a customer rewards card program. Lee gives Aeroplan special offers on Nestlé products as an example. Another familiar example of the use of inkjet technology is the application of best before dates. This is a process driven by regulation. Finally, perhaps the most challenging and innovative use of inkjet attachments is for tracing products.

“The ability to trace a product may be beneficial for a few reasons but is necessary due to counterfeiting and the existence of grey markets created by product diversion,” explains Lee. Packaging security features can reduce counterfeiting. Some interesting work in labels has been done to improve product authenticity. On the inkjet side, it is the inks and the data processing that will help overcome issues of counterfeiting. Specialized inks such as thermochromic, UV and IR inks are some examples of ways to create products that consumers and/or retailers can identify as being real.

In addition to the problem of counterfeiting, another issue faced in packaging is tractability. You may be familiar with the term “black market”, in which illegal goods are sold/traded. In a grey market the goods are legal, but they are sold outside of the appropriate distribution channels. This typically happens internationally. For example, a shipment of shampoo is to be sold in Kenya at a low price, and it is then redirected to Switzerland where a much higher price exists. Aside from the fact that this is a clear problem for the brand owner, it is also a safety issue as each country has its own regulatory and safety standards. Matrix codes, created dynamically on the fly work well for tracing a product and being able to identify where it should be located. They allow you to store more information to better track the product. Companies like Videojet and Domino have units which can create high quality codes at production level speeds.

“Where there is still a challenge is in the data management side of the process,” says Lee. For example, one way to help authenticate a product is to mark both its carton and the actual product with the same matrix code. This is complex because the two printing process are separate and when a defect happens in one printing process but not the other the dynamic barcode pairing can be thrown off.

When we go beyond coding into variable data on short-run packaging, data is also a challenge. Craig McMeeken (Lyft) sees definite potential in a variety of variable applications including novelty packaging, quoting examples like mykleenex.com and the Australian personalized bottle Coke campaign (shareacoke.com.au). If you haven’t heard about these I urge you to take a look online. In the Coke example they even have unique songs for 150 of the most common names that you can enjoy (and download) while you drink your personalized coke! Other examples you may have heard about include personalized ketchup (myheinz.com) and beer bottles (yourheineken.heineken.com). Most of these campaigns are not necessarily creating complex packaging (relying primarily on labels and shrink sleeves). However, the personalized artwork and the variable production of these products is a challenge, which is often overcome using proprietary solutions.

Of course compared to coding systems, the use of inkjet for prototyping and short-run production is an emerging technology in its introduction phase (remember the product life cycle). Prototyping often requires the production of a single package, while short-runs are typically in the low to mid hundreds. There are many different solutions in this market, which use some combination of proprietary systems. Labels are a good example of a quick growth area for inkjet production. Complete packages on a variety of substrates (not limited to paper) are more complex. Those who have been successful in this space are highly specialized. “Short-run packaging is a natural fit for high-end consumer goods like cosmetics, food, and beverage where run quantities can be low. However, these are the very same markets that require post-press finishing that is difficult for inkjet to produce (foil embossing for example),” explains Tony Karg, Sr. Director of Business Development & Marketing (Graphic Systems) at Fujifilm.

In an interview with Allan Lee, the owner of Tier One Promotion Packaging, we discussed some of the advantages of specialization. Allan’s company started by producing packaging for television commercials, and has now grown to include advertisers and graphic designers in its client portfolio. Tier One’s sweet spot is a single, complex package, which they are able to reproduce to look nearly identical. Using inkjet is a part of this equation, along with other integrated stations that allow the company to produce any type of package from paper, to glass, to bag. While Allan did not share his trade secrets with me, he was optimistic about inkjet technology, acknowledging that the landscape is likely to completely shift within just a couple of years.

Examples like Lyft and Tier One show signs of the future promise of inkjet packaging. “The digital packaging market is small and fairly invisible,” points out Jan De Roeck, Director of Solutions Management at Esko. “However I’m sure that we will look back at this conversation 15 years from now and the application of digital in the packaging space will be so ubiquitous that we will think we were crazy,” he laughs. De Roeck believes that as market demand for digital packaging increases, the technology will come to maturity. With a market this small, the technological development is a bit slower as R&D teams pool scarce resources into larger markets.

We have already established the market needs which inkjet can satisfy. There are of course also several obstacles to consider. There are some very small but impactful difficulties. For example, at the front end, De Roeck points out that changing substrates often for variable data package printing is challenging, especially given the large variety of substrates in packaging.

lead-pullquoteThe inks are also a challenge explains Tony Karg. Packaging relies heavily on spot colours to maintain brand consistency, a clear hurdle for the current gamut of inkjet devices. There are interesting technologies such as software from GMG that improves colour matching. UV spot coating is also a challenge. Samplepak, a division of SGS has installed DL-5400 Roland devices to address this issue. “The equipment is starting to be much more multifunctional, improving leaps and bounds,” explains Ken Leonard. This particular Roland device allows for printing, UV spot coating, simulated embossing and even cutting on one device. Leonard is also impressed with its ability to handle a variety of substrates. The company’s decision to purchase the technology was a response to customer demand and some strategic planning, all good signs for the inkjet packaging space.

In addition to the quality/speed trade-off discussed earlier, another obstacle is package size. Many digital presses are limited in this way. However there is a variety of grand format or jumbo inkjet presses available that currently participate in the signage and POP markets. With the appropriate demand, these devices can be seen transitioning into packaging more specifically – especially as the finishing solutions continue to evolve.

It is finishing that is another obstacle for inkjet packaging. Some of the difficulties stem from a difference in process. For example, De Roeck points out that cardboard being much thicker, stacks a lot faster, so there are sheet handling challenges. For standard finishing like folding, slitting and gluing, traditional offline options do exist. The difficulty is the makeready precision required. If the advantage of printing digital is to run 5 sheets to create a prototype, then finishing has no room for error. Cutting tables such as the Kongsberg tables offered by Esko are an example of a solution to this problem. These tables come in a variety of sizes and offer some of the fastest speeds available. They are a perfect candidate to pick up that grand format market. Larry Moore explains that not only can they handle a one-off prototype, but they can also cut variable data printed products off a roll-fed system at fairly high speeds. It is as easy as using the i-cut software to generate a barcode that is printed on the sheet and can be read by the table to pick out the cutting paths.

The finishing solutions for any new technology will be limited of course. However, it is great to see that new developments are being made. At drupa, Highcon showcased the Direct-to-Pack solution with the Euclid digital cutting and creasing machine. This is a new technology that uses lasers and polymers to cut and crease. It also happens to be a project supported by Benny Landa, who is the Chairman of the Advisory Board for Highcon (if you don’t know about Landa type ‘nanography’ into Google). Stora Enso also has some great finishing technology for the digital space with their Gallop print packaging line that is integrated with Xerox iGen technology.

James Lee shared a Gallop example with me: Mediaware Digital, an Irish company, used the system to manufacture the boxes for Microsoft’s Windows 7 (there is a really great youtube video you can check out). Technology is a good market for short-run printing because the boxes change so often and exist in so many languages. Further, the packaging for software is often not structurally complex. Another digital press success story is Skin It, which prints personalized covers or skins for your electronic devices on HP Indigo presses. Here, the Kongsberg tables are used to cut the skins out using the variable data functionality, shared Larry Moore. While both of these examples are not inkjet specifically, developments are clearly being made in the digital finishing space.

There is nothing more exciting than technology changing the manufacturing process and creating opportunities for new markets. This article summarized some of the current and potential future applications of inkjet technology in the packaging industry. Hopefully exploring the challenges and opportunities in this space has left you feeling optimistic about the future of this market. While still in its infancy, I am certain that a review of the same topic in a couple of years will show tremendous progress. Here’s to hoping that you will be one of the runaway success stories we read about in the future!

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