By Melissa Donovan
Many areas of packaging are influenced by digital printing and finishing techniques. Some of the more popular include labels and folding cartons. However, the technology now plays a role in flexible packaging. Brand owners and print buyers are attracted to digitally printed products due to trends towards smaller order quantities with increased customization. Adapting to digital print is a cost-effective method of meeting these demands.
According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), flexible packaging is any package or any part of a package whose shape can be readily changed. Common examples include bags and pouches.
“Our clients are doing bags, pouches, sachets, shoppers, or even printed wraps,” shares Zsolt Tarjanyi, GM, Rigoli s.r.l.
Kodak’s definition of flexible packaging is similar to the FPA, including primary—bags, pouches, and sachets; and secondary—wraps and films constructed with flexible film, resins, or paper/foil substrates. This does not include rigid containers, folding cartons, corrugate, or labels.
“Sachets, stick packs, and flow wraps are all forms of flexible packaging. Designers are constantly working to deliver new packaging formats that leverage the attributes that only flexible packaging provides,” explains Brent Holloway, NA flexible packaging category manager, HP Inc.
Xeikon considers flexible packaging a paper or synthetic-based substrate that acts as a primary container. The container can then become the packaging via lamination. In this scenario, there are some exceptions such as wraparound or cheese labels applied to the primary container.
Appealing to Brand Owners
Digitally printed and finished flexible packaging is appealing to brand owners because of the rising popularity of minimum order quantities and multiple SKUs. When implemented correctly, digital printing technology is a cost-effective option for both of these trends. Adopting digital print and finishing capabilities allows brand owners and print buyers to expand into new, previously unachievable markets.
Tarjanyi provides an example of how digital printing helps overcome challenges like multi-SKU packaging. “Imagine a company producing cakes and sourcing their vanilla flavor from two different suppliers. One supplier processes nuts, the other has a nut-free plant. In such a case, the brand owner needs to adapt its packaging for each batch according to the supply chain they use.”
This example is financially possible with digital presses. “Digital enables variable data printing, which allows for one-to-one marketing campaigns not achievable with traditional printing methods. Brand owners can introduce more versions, targeted marketing campaigns, and targeted product releases,” explains Mike Barry, business development manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
“Digital printing enables personalization and versioning with minimal waste and inventory, with fast turnaround and speed to market. It is also efficient for providing package prototypes and versions for market testing,” agrees Rick Mazur, WW director of marketing development, enterprise inkjet systems division, Kodak.
Testing and prototyping is sped up with digital printing and this fits in nicely with today’s demands for tighter turnarounds. “With a faster time from design conception to product delivery it allows for a more responsive approach to support special promotions and targeted versioning. This dynamic delivery creates a buzz around the product and enables brand owners to test, assess, and adjust in a more timely way while also being able to capitalize on opportunities as they arise,” shares Danny Mertens, corporate communication manager, Xeikon.
As consumers become increasingly educated about their products and purchasing power, it makes sense that personalization and versioning become essential for brand owners looking to promote products. “Recent market studies revealed that consumers have a preference for local, rather than global products. With digital technologies a brand owner can get much greater flexibility, easily customizing their packaging for local demands,” adds Tarjanyi.
According to Holloway, digital print delivers unique capabilities—offering new ways to drive consumer engagement to help support brand loyalty.
Previously unattainable markets due to cost and efficiency concerns are now available to brand owners. “These emerging markets at early stages require such small quantities of products that it is not affordable for the brand owner. For example, the first order for the actual product could be worth less than the cost of the packaging media, especially when the product has expiry limitations,” shares Tarjanyi.
Flexible packaging produced by any means of print is growing. Smithers Pira reported in its The Future of Flexible Packaging to 2022 that the market for consumer and industrial flexible packaging is projected to grow at an annual rate of 4.3 percent, reaching a total value of $283 billion in 2022. The same report says that the volume of consumer flexible packaging will grow at an annual rate of 4.1 percent—increasing from 27.4 million tons in 2017 to 33.5 million tons in 2022.
The report cites several reasons for the increase, including consumers’ growing concern about health and requiring fresh packed fruits and vegetables; heightened awareness about what ingredients go into products—requiring concise labeling; and choosing products that offer convenience and portability. These reasons are part of the movement to replace rigid pack formats with flexible packaging.
On the brand owner and retail side, there is public pressure to reduce the environmental impact of packaging. This results in light weight, recyclable units. In manufacturing, new vertical form-fill systems offer faster production speed, greater versatility, and improved sealing techniques for stand-up pouches—a popular flexible packaging component—according to the Smithers Pira report.
Now, the percentage of flexible packaging produced digitally is small, but continues to increase. Barry notes that digital is under one percent of overall flexible packaging production.
Mazur says that based on industry analyst information, despite digitally printed flexible packaging being such a low percent of printed volume, it is expected to grow to over five percent by 2023.
“While that is low in percentage terms, it is significant in volume. The growth will continue to rise as run lengths decline and the technology improves to deliver wider widths and colors, with economical running costs expanding from short to medium runs,” shares Mazur.
Increase in digital print usage is related to market trends, specifically customer preferences, according to Tarjanyi. “A product in a customized package has higher customer engagement rates compared to gray boxes. To target these segments and trends—where quantities are relatively small—digital printing technology is the only answer,” he continues.
“Digitally printed flexible packaging will continue to grow as brands seek more ways to connect with customers and new ways to drive growth. This relationship building through localization and personalization is vastly more important with the growth of ecommerce and the production of craft products that target specific lifestyles,” agrees Kevin Shimamoto, CMO, Memjet.
Many are still not aware of the advantages of digital printing in packaging, but increasing demand for the right product makes digital more popular. “They do not consider it a service for everyone due to the fact that traditionally it is still too big for their needs. Imagine a business event or a trade show where a company wants to serve coffee with branded sugar packets. As a common flexographic print run someone would need to purchase over 100KG of sugar to meet the minimum requirements,” shares Tarjanyi.
Other limitations holding adoption back, according to Mertens, include “the limited number of available solutions that deliver a reasonable production capacity, low investment rates equaling fewer success stories for brand owners/print buyers to build on, and print providers tending to stick to what they know.”
Ink Set Considerations
The inks used in a digital production process as related to flexible packaging solutions must have certain characteristics to address specific needs. With flexible packaging popular in the food industry, ink must meet environmental and health concerns while still offering printhead reliability and print quality.
“Inks that are optimized for the highest image quality, dry time, and substrate comparability are critical for success in flexible packaging. These inks also need to provide the broadest color gamut, detail, and durability required for the trials of flexible packaging,” says Shimamoto.
Many different types of inks are used for digital flexible package printing. “HP Indigo uses a mineral oil-based liquid electrophotographic ink for its package printing presses. Many narrow web label printers use solvent or UV-curable inkjet inks,” adds Mazur.
“Most digital inks used in flexible packaging are currently toner based,” shares Barry. “As inkjet technology enters the space, we will see more utilization of other ink types, such as aqueous. Inks need the ability to print and adhere onto thin flexible materials, have a low pile height, and meet safety standards for the packaging.”
For example, Kodak recently released water-based inkjet system that prints on a variety of flexible packaging and label materials. The water-based inks are customer friendly and passed U.S. and European certifications for food safety and food service products. The company just announced a new water-based ink set for direct printing onto personal care products such as diapers, napkins, and paper towels.
Memjet VersaPass inks—made of 70 percent water—are 100 percent free of reactive chemistries. They hold no phthalate esters, benzophenone, BPA, SVHCs, heavy metals, or aromatic amines. Dyes are used as colorants and are water soluble with high color strength.
On the toner side, Xeikon launched next-generation QB toner for the Xeikon 3000 series and Cheetah digital label presses. The dry toner is compliant with current and future regulations, according to Mertens. For example, it is FDA approved for specific indirect and direct food contact applications.
When considering digital printing for flexible packaging, food safety plays an important role. Mertens cites that more than 60 percent of all flexible packaging solutions are food related. “Food safety is a critical part of the brand value to build consumer trust in product safety and authenticity,” explains Mazur.
“The golden rule for food packaging is to not change the food in any way and do no harm. The print cannot impact the performance of the packaging in its role of preserving food and the printed materials need to continue to inform customers in common-use scenarios. It should also not endanger human health nor change any of the food’s characteristics,” advises Tarjanyi.
The substrate used; printing conditions; type of food packaged; use conditions of the end product; and ink are all variables that influence food safety—according to Tarjanyi.
Digital inks must follow the same rules as their analog counterparts. “Packages with direct food contact to ink need to utilize food-safe inks. If an ink is not direct contact food safe, then the converter must ensure that the package structure provides a functional barrier between the ink and foodstuff,” recommends Barry.
“Inks and other migratory components are under high levels of regulatory scrutiny as brand owners and consumers want to ensure that flexible packaging components don’t adulterate food products,” cautions Holloway.
Despite advancements, there are challenges to overcome involving digitally printed flexible packaging products.
“Finding the right digitally printable materials with proper barrier and/or sealing properties can be challenging but more suppliers are presenting products for this,” says Tarjanyi.
Barry believes jetting technology and web transportation systems already exist to meet the requirements of the flexible packaging market. “The main challenge is the formulation of food safe inks/systems with inkjet inks.”
It’s also worth noting that currently, digital printing is best for short-run jobs as it is expensive to print long runs with this technology. “Traditional analog techniques have an exponentially decreasing per-piece price, whereas it is constant with digital printing. Many factors are influencing the breakeven points, such as the used technology, ink coverage, artwork size, the number of colors—and it varies around one meter squared with offset, five meters squared with flexography, and ten meters squared with rotogravure,” explains Tarjanyi.
“Digital faces challenges in differentiating from its conventionally printed counterpart to realize its maximum value. Converters seeking to grow with digitally printed flexible packaging must adopt new strategies and tactics to deliver value that only digital printing can provide,” advises Holloway.
Mazur says the biggest challenge is education. Converters, design agencies, and brand owners in the packaging value chain need to understand the benefits. “Brand and creative agencies are now able to make printed packaging a physical touchpoint to digitally connect with consumers, unleashing creative flexibility with color palettes and substrates along with operational efficiency to get to market faster,” he continues.
Digital Devices for Flexible
Several digital print engines target flexible packaging production.
The HP Indigo 20000 opens up a realm of possibilities for flexible packaging converters by enabling them to efficiently and profitably cope with changing market demands for shorter runs, more varied SKUs, and customized campaigns. HP Indigo matches gravure quality and is safe for primary food packaging. At a 30-inch web width, it runs at 55,118 square feet per hour in four-color mode.
Kodak’s newest product line is the PROSPER Plus. Four presses make up the portfolio—two narrow format and two wider format. Both are designed for packaging and product decoration applications. The Uteco Sapphire EVO four-color digital press uses the Kodak Stream inkjet writing system. Water-based ink makes for an environmentally friendly product certified for indirect food contact.
The Rigoli MVZ printers are powered by Memjet’s single-pass wide format technology. Running with Memjet VersaPass water dye-based inks, the solution runs offline or is placed inline with many types of finishing equipment like cutting, laminating, or filling systems. In particular, the Rigoli MVZ1000 supports media widths up to 1,067 millimeters. Equipped with an industrial unwinder and rewinder it can accommodate jumbo rolls.
Xeikon’s flagship presses designed to serve the flexible packaging market include the Xeikon 3500 and the Xeikon CX500. The Xeikon 3500 runs at top speeds of up to 19.2 meters per minute in widths of up to 20.3 inches and 1,200 dpi. The Xeikon CX500 is built around a next generation dry toner platform. It features a web width of 20.47 inches and full rotary printing needs are 98 feet per minute.
Flexible packaging is becoming one of the more prevalent methods of packaging. This increase—attributed to more health and environmentally consciousness consumers—is why many digital printer manufacturers design hardware that works well for flexible materials, including the correct ink sets.
Oct2019, Industrial Print Magazine