by Cassandra Balentine
Flexible packaging like liners, pouches, seals, sample packets, and bags are composed of a range of materials including film, plastic, paper, or foil. These solutions offer easier transport compared with more traditional glass and metal options, and when digitally printed present shorter run capabilities, no minimums, eliminated tooling, improved turnaround times, better supply chain efficiency, variable data capacity, and reduced waste.
“A label printer or converter enters new markets with a digital printing press because smaller print jobs can be realized with a better cost-per-label ratio than with conventional printing. In addition, the opportunities that come with a digital press support the trend that clients order at local print shops,” says Matthias Marx, head of marketing, Gallus Ferd. Rüesch AG.
According to research firm Smithers, over the last ten years, flexible packaging has taken off, doubling in size to $228 billion in 2019. Its latest market report, The Future of Flexible Packaging to 2024, forecasts that it will continue growing by an annual rate of 3.3 percent, reaching $269 billion in 2024.
Changing the Landscape
Digital print is making its way into flexible packaging, particularly for ultra-short runs and customized products.
Print providers as well as label and packaging converters look for ways to apply digital technology for short-run production in addition to variable data. “The flexibility of digital print is attractive to those striving to expand market share and print capability. Digital printing also offers quick turnaround time, which helps meet the growing, just-in-time and quick-to-market needs of many,” shares Nicole Onesti, senior communications specialist, Paper Converting Machine Company.
“In a world where forecasting the success of new products is becoming a difficult task, digital printing enables brands the freedom to create and easily print a variation of artwork for an array of product SKUs and campaigns,” shares Eli Mahal, head labels and packaging, HP Indigo. This is an advantage for any brand and a life saver for smaller organizations.
Packaging is growing and is one industry that saw a boost from COVID-19. “The need for flexible packaging is increasing due to various factors such as the need for eco-friendliness, lightness, inexpensiveness, and less carbon dioxide. Flexible packaging has been approached by many brands—even micro-local brands—seeking short runs,” offers Gustavo Guzzi, EMEA sales manager, Karlville.
The demand for shorter runs is rising since it is now economically accessible for quantities below 5,000. Digital allows quick shifts in product marketing, ingredient, nutrition, and legislation, which can change rapidly. “More fragmentation and versioning, as new small businesses and boutique retailers join the market and have more exposure thanks to ecommerce,” adds Guzzi.
Digital print technology has been available in the flexible packaging market for the past seven to eight years. “There are far more label converters with many years of narrow web digital press exposure that transitioned into digital flexible packaging more successfully than traditional flexible packaging converters,” comments Matt Bennett, VP, Global Packaging Business Strategy, Fujifilm Graphics Systems Division.
Jerry Henson, sales manager, Mark Andy, points out that since printing is only one part of the manufacturing process, other equipment suppliers have stepped up by providing accompanying equipment like laminators that serve the short-run market as well. “The combination of these pieces of equipment are a cost-effective process for printing and laminating product that meets the needs for the ultra-short run flexible packaging market.”
Specific Features and FunctionsFrom quality to control, several features and functions are expected from digital flexible packaging.
Guzzi says features to look for include easy-to-use equipment with quick set-ups, low waste, a small footprint, production control, storage, connection to external devices, integration to upstream and downstream processes, and smart solutions.
“Flexible packaging is complex and not only expects high print quality and special brand color matching characteristics from a digital press, but must also be able to print on a variety of media such as plastics, paper, foils, and recycled and post-consumer recycled stocks, just like their analog counterparts,” says Bennett.
Onesti agrees, noting that print and graphic vibrance and durability are essential as there is a trend towards less packaging.
A flexibile production format is important to producers looking to utilize a single production line to produce a variety of products, according to Onesti.
Marx says a hybrid press is an option that gives converters the possibility of producing flexible packaging applications in one single pass. Inline finishing with slitting/die cutting can be combined with or without primer and with or without lamination depending on the respective print job.
Accurate tension and temperature management throughout the entire process is essential because flexible packaging utilizes multiple layers of thin, unsupported films.
“With tension requirements as low as 0.25 pounds per linear inch, a closed-loop tension system with high accuracy is needed to maintain repeat and throw length to the level required for consistency through the entire process,” explains Henson. In addition, lamination tensions are equally as important to ensure minimal curl.
He adds that temperature management is necessary as materials used can have a lower melt point that will be effected if not controlled in the manufacturing process.
“Production waste is under scrutiny, so equipment needs to be able to change over quickly and run with minimal waste,” says Onesti.
“Packaging applications have to meet various requirements, for example sachets have requirements regarding heat resistance and the sealing of the inks,” says Marx.
Low migration ink is also key, especially those that meet regulations and requirements like Good Manufacturing Practices and Nestlé guidance or Swiss Ordinance.
Traditional converters incorporate digital print technology into their service portfolios, as digital capabilities make it possible to produce short and medium runs quickly and profitably as well as incorporate variable data.
“As printing technology—and the packaging market—continue to evolve, package printers and converters who once focused on analog processes are making room for digital inkjet printing solutions in their business,” says Onesti.
“In our opinion the ‘typical’ label converter also addresses the flexible packaging market, so it is logical to look for the best way of production in order to meet the customers’ needs and requirements. In this regard conventional and digital print technologies are placed next to each other on the production floor,” adds Marx.
There are many ways to incorporate digital, such as offering it as an alternative to conventional printing for existing customers or as a method of solving inventory issues and support customized packaging, shares Guzzi. Or, one could opt to create a different business unit focused in looking for new customers, businesses, and markets.
Mahal agrees, pointing out that conventional converters take various approaches to digital printing; some operate a separate business model for digital printing, offering new products as complementary to the standard products they sell and try to attract new customers and win their analog job basket as well. Others use digital printing as a tool for express deliveries and recovery of analog off-spec deliveries to their existing customers. “All use the option to serve large brands on large personalization and customization campaigns.”
Bennett says the most successful converters are those that put together a business strategy around digital and how it is integrated into their existing business and workflow and set up under its own P&L.
Guzzi feels that traditional converters hold the big advantages of already knowing the materials, printing, lamination, and converting process; but have the disadvantage of being anchored to a different business model and a slower internal order process.
Where there are pros, you also have to consider cons. Digital work is often more complex with a lower profit margin and more room for error.
Guzzi believes managing a bigger amount of small orders impacts internal processes, documentation, organization, and shipping logistics.
“Digital print is more computerized and requires fewer production materials, so makeready and other processes are very different,” agrees Onesti. Producers need to embrace the faster pace of digital print capability to optimize its value within their organizations. “Operators and support staff also need to recognize the different needs of digital print equipment when compared to more traditional print equipment platforms.”
Digital is a proven printing process capable of producing short-run work at much lower cost than gravure or wide web flexographic presses. The challenges can be the management of a much larger quantity of short-run work through the digital press that is capable of producing a large volume of SKUs in a short amount of time. “Most converters underestimate the amount of work needed to feed the digital process. Order entry, prepress, material handling, shipping, and billing will see a great deal of increased activity as the short-run business grows. Having a plan in place prior to the installation of the digital asset will soften this even if there is still a learning curve,” says Hansen.
Workplace culture is another issue. “The biggest challenge leaders of flexible packaging companies today face is getting the entire organization to ‘buy in’ and adapt to change; to think differently than they’re used to. They need to incorporate—operationally speaking—a different digital workflow than the analog one, from preprint to post finishing, depending on the level of automation that currently exists,” says Bennett.
A digital sale is a different sale than many traditional label printers and converters are used to.
“Salespersons at traditional converters will typically manage a few medium and large accounts with millions of dollars of revenue. Their mindset is how can I get the largest run jobs and compensation is based on volume. In digital, most customers are emerging and small brands that order shorter runs with lower volumes. From a production perspective, conventional converters find it hard to set an optimized end-to-end workflow for digital and they allocate their digital business on the same converting lines as used by analog, which becomes a burden both operationally and economically and ‘kills’ the digital business model,” explains Mahal.
From there it is finding the right personnel for the organization. “The technical background of a digital print operator differs immensely from that of a machine operator of a conventional printing system,” cautions Marx.
Digital print technologies offer a variety of advantages in flexible packaging, including time to market, supply chain efficiency, waste reduction, and variable data support. As quality improves and costs come down, we expect digital penetration in this space to increase as traditional package printers and converters adopt and move work to digital to keep pace with new client demands.
Oct2021, Industrial Print Magazine