Opportunities and challenges in digital print for packaging – for the commercial printer

Digital printing for packaging has transformed itself in the last decade from a niche application, to an accepted print process that complements the other printing processes for packaging. By including digital printing in their production mix, brand owners and their suppliers can now enable innovative marketing and engagement, get products to market faster, boost customer loyalty, and most importantly, increase profits. A new paradigm has emerged:  high-quality packaging that utilizes a variety of formats, substrates and inks on digital presses. The challenge, however, will be how ‘conventional’ commercial printers can add this technology to their shops cost-efficiently. For those not familiar with this market or its challenges, here’s some background.

According to Smithers Pira, digital packaging and label printing worldwide was valued at $10.5 billion in 2015 – and the digital print for packaging market will grow by an average CAGR of 13.6% in constant value (real) terms to 2020, with a print volume CAGR of 16.2% globally. But this is changing as new digital equipment to print on cartons, corrugated, flexibles, rigid plastics and metals is being introduced. Despite this projected growth, digitally printed output currently only makes up a small percent of packaging. Just 5% of label volume is printed digitally and less than 1% of all other packaging is printed digitally! Yes, digital printing has had a much slower adoption compared to commercial and document printing. But make no mistake – this technology will be a key revenue producer in the years to come.

Making money

Right now, players in this space are making money in two different ways. The ‘original’ way is by developing new markets. It’s the sexy stuff like the Coca-Cola bottles or cans that can all be personalized using variable-data printing – without having to go through lengthy and costly plate changes. But what’s happening now is that the new digital packaging and label presses are providing production relief. They’re able to take complicated jobs off of a conventional offset press and put them on a digital press where they can be run much more effectively – and profitably! And their sizes can vary from large packaging presses to compact, desktop label colour printers. At the same time, new workflows specifically for labels and packaging are also streamlining production and reducing downtime.

But the packaging industry can be more difficult for other reasons. First, it’s subject to a larger range of substrates that tend to be more challenging to print on – such as clear films that require white-ink printing. Second, it’s heavily divided into many sub-segments. This can make packaging more problematic, because even with conventional printing, no one type of press can handle all the applications. Third, the markets for packaging are extremely diverse. The four main categories – labels, flexible packaging, corrugated and folding cartons – can be divided even further into sub-categories. Again, it’s a very intricate mix of different types of packaging with different requirements that no single press (even an offset press or a flexo press) may be able to accommodate.

Single-pass digital solutions are emerging for folding carton, corrugated and display applications on both the high end of production and the low end. Commercial printers may be able to take advantage of some of these entry-level options to gain a technological foothold in these sectors.

If I were a commercial printer today, I’d do my homework first. I’d try and leverage my expertise in digital workflows and imaging while exploring the capabilities of the new digital packaging and label-printing presses and workflows. I’d also learn about the challenges of printing on previously unfamiliar substrates with new inks, see if special operator training is required, and above all, assess my current opportunities for expansion before investing. It might be prudent to start out with smaller label or corrugated printers in-house. Then, if you see an opportunity for expansion into packaging, check out the larger packaging presses.