Our Associate Editor Natalia Lumby reports live from the Digital Print for Packaging U.S. 2013 Conference


Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the two-day Digital Print for Packaging U.S. 2013 Conference hosted by Smithers Pira in Atlanta, Georgia. Pira is an organization based out of the UK that hosts many events and also provides the industry with a broad variety of resources such as books and whitepapers. About 60 industry professionals from a variety of areas including brand owners, equipment vendors, printers and others attended the event. In addition to well orchestrated networking opportunities and a good list of exhibitors, the conference hosted about a dozen speakers. Some of the concepts from these sessions will be covered in my lead article in our July-August magazine.

Natalia Lumby, Associate Editor at Graphic Arts Magazine and Assistant Professor at the School of Graphic Communications Management (GCM) at Ryerson University.

Natalia Lumby, Associate Editor at Graphic Arts Magazine and Assistant Professor at the School of Graphic Communications Management (GCM) at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

The event focused primarily on label printing, which has had its greatest successes in adoption. Dr. Sean Smyth, Pira Consultant and Editor of Digital Labels and Packaging Magazine, projected that the flexibles market would likely be another area of growth in the future. Most of the speakers agreed that obsolescence is a driver for digital packaging because it allows you to print just in time. The cost of printing and warehousing products that you don’t use right away is high. More importantly, the cost is very high if the labels are never used and end up in a landfill. As an example of the impact, Jim Goldman, Consultant from Global Innovation Professionals and a Coca-Cola veteran, shared that, on average, 10% of packages are never filled. For a company as large as Coca-Cola, that translates to 1.5 billion labels! Just in time also allows companies to be more responsive, which is increasingly important with today’s rates of change.

Another important driver discussed by the experts was the proliferation of SKUs. Pictures of what seemed like acres of grocery store shelves were shared in more than one talk. The number of products in stores is growing exponentially. This is directly connected to digital through the product lifecycle. The product lifecycle shows us that the launch and the maturity stages require lower volumes. As such, digital printing can better cater to these products. Rick Ferreira, Operations Manager at Action Packaging Systems, shared that a side benefit of this is also increased press time on your analog devices. In flexo in particular, switchover for short jobs can take up a lot of press time.

Connected to the concept of moving jobs between flexo and digital, there was also a lot of conversation about managing client expectations in terms of colour and quality. The difficulty is that jobs that start as digital are difficult to convert to flexo because of the quality challenges. Some of the attendees explained that for jobs that were hopefuls for long-run production in the future, they would simulate some of the flexo difficulties to the digital jobs (by applying flexo traps, for example). Michael Naughton from Ekso also talked about using better solutions on the flexo side to match the digital quality at the outset. Shoshana Burgett, Strategic Marketing Director at X-Rite, also discussed managing colour in the cloud using Pantone Live as a way to manage quality. Chris Yanko, Workflow Solutions Manager at Xeikon North America, further explored the need for integrated workflow solutions using technology such as JDF to cope with the increased number of jobs that digital offers.

packingus1-inIn addition to speaker sessions, there were also some great panel discussions. The room buzzed about how likely it would be that label printing would be absorbed by the fillers, as well as what this would mean for the converters. Near-line printing for straightforward products is not far-fetched, and does in fact occur in the industry already. We also discussed the need for a holistic supply chain management system. Packaging has a complex workflow with many hand-offs and stakeholders.

“When we think about finished, decorated packages, global brands face the challenge of a fragmented supply chain, that operates in silos with each part transferring to the next one, their finished jobs” said Nilton Mattos, Packaging Manager at Coca-Cola. “It’s not surprising to find products packaged with outdated labels, colours that do not meet the brand specs, misspelled texts, etc. Digital printing may bring a unique opportunity to connect all digital technologies currently available – from the creation of new graphics to tracking the application of the right labels to the right packages at the right moment – a big challenge to the current industry, and a great business opportunity for those who will develop seamless, integrated solutions,” he added.

The room was full of digital believers from both traditional and digital sectors. In particular, it was interesting to see attendees who are traditionally focused in the commercial sector. For example, Alan McLean, Sales Director at Duplo USA, attended to further explore what type of finishing requirements digital would create. Eric Frank, VP of Marketing at KBA North America, also attended with a vested interest in understanding the space. Chris Echevarria, the Customer Experience Center Manager at Canon Solutions America, explained that the packaging sector holds definite promise for the vendors, growing more rapidly in Europe and thus gaining speed in North America. She shared that many digital offerings are now catering to this market, using the Océ Infinistream digital packaging press, which just had its showroom installation in Poing, Germany this spring.

Attendance from a variety of areas is critical because, as many agreed, consumers are ‘process-agnostic’ as long as they are happy with the end result. Thus, Bruce Miller from Schawk! pointed out that “digital print can be a disruptive innovation depending on how we use it.” One of the steering committee members, Kevin Karstedt, CEO of Karstedt Partners, summed up the event beautifully. He shared that while a couple of years ago the big question of the event might have been “If digital, then when?” this year the focus has shifted to “If it’s now, then how?”