by Melissa Donovan
It’s no secret that the demand for digital printing in packaging is growing. According to Markets and Markets in its Digital Printing Packaging Market report published in June 2022, the digital printing packaging market was valued at USD 29.4 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach USD 45.1 billion by 2027—growing at a compound annual growth rate of 8.9 percent from 2022 to 2027.
Growth is related to packaging trends. “These include SKU proliferation, the need for velocity, regionalization, and a changing regulatory environment. Run lengths are declining, the number of jobs per day is increasing, and market turnaround times are becoming shorter—all impacting production. Planning complexity, the circular economy, and food safety requirements for packaging are other factors,” explains Chuck Slingerland, corrugated sales manager, Durst US.
Many substrates/materials are used in packaging. Corrugated in particular is still primarily printed using conventional technologies, but uses single-pass digital printers. Complemented by automated handling systems to maneuver heavy stacks of corrugated materials, converters and printers adopt these processes as they are both cost-effective and accessible methods of production.
Instrumental for Corrugated
Single-pass digital printers are instrumental for today’s converters and printers involved in corrugated.
There is increased demand for vivid designs on packaging, something single-pass digital printers can deliver.
According to Adi Shorer, product and marketing manager, HP PageWide Industrial, Post-Print, “digital print enables converters to provide high-quality packaging that excites consumers. Whether it’s detailed and personalized designs on shoe boxes or food and beverage packaging that excites on storytelling, the agility and flexibility of digital print enables innovative brand campaigns that excite consumers and ultimately, boost engagement.”
“Single-pass digital printing increases a converter’s output of high graphic corrugated packaging without the sourcing and waste associated with lithographic laminated labeling or the high cost of flexographic printing plates. The ability to go from file to print enables just-in-time shipping. With digital printing, job set up and changeovers are executed in minutes, and the first sheet is sellable with minimal waste compared to traditional analog printing,” explains Slingerland.
Sometimes these implementations are a collaborative effort, combining digital with analog technologies like flexography, which makes for a hybrid method. “Incorporating hybrid, single-pass technology offers cost savings and increased margins, higher quality of print, especially solid colors, and the ability to offer customers high graphic printing without the high investment and operator skill level needed for most analog machines offered today,” explains Lloyd Kent, VP sales and operations, Kento North America.
Digital is advantageous for sustainability reasons. According to the Markets and Markets report, “unlike conventional printing, digital printing does not use film plates or photo chemicals, which eliminates the prepress stages between the digital document file and the final print. Furthermore, digital presses do not emit harmful emissions. This eases their overall energy consumption.”
In regards to the EFI Nozomi digital single-pass printer for example, “this technology passed a variety of certifications including but not limited to the Fogra certificate on energy consumption, which states that this machine uses up to 30 percent less energy than other equipment, and the OCC certificate of repulpability and recyclability by Michigan University,” adds José Miguel Serrano, global business development director packaging, EFI Nozomi.
We are at the tip of iceberg when it comes to the adoption of single-pass digital printers in corrugated converting environments/print shops.
“The first digital single-pass post-print presses for corrugated were introduced to the market in 2016, generating interest but a lot of suspicion from the traditional industry,” notes Shorer.
Based on research by EFI as well as by analyst firms such as I.T. Strategies, InfoTrends, IDC, ICCI, and FEFCO, Serrano expects a global business opportunity of $176B in output value, and approximately 2,700 billion square feet printed. Less than one percent of this is digital today.
“We have seen our customers’ businesses grow by more than 80 percent year over year. This shows us that digital adoption is significantly increasing as more converters discover and embrace opportunities that come with single-pass digital print,” he continues.
Slingerland notes that over the last six years, single-pass printing has transitioned from early adoption to a fully accepted print production method because of evolved ink jetting technologies, increased resolutions, as well as increased printer reliability and technical uptime.
“In order to be competitive and offer similar print solutions, more converters will add single-pass printers to their portfolio of solutions. The cost per click and consumer packaged goods brands continue to embrace single-pass printing as it adapts to smaller minimum order quantities, regionalization of packaging and campaigns, and increased package graphic changes,” continues Slingerland.
Despite growth, Kent says that under 0.5 percent of worldwide corrugated production is handled via digital print. The reason—the cost of digital ink.
“Hybrid technology allows for huge ink savings, up to 80 percent, which means more business can move to single pass, adding to the bottom line and enhancing a machine’s return on investment (ROI),” continues Kent.
What Will it Take?
Accelerating the evolution of single-pass digital corrugated printing takes education in many forms. It is through instruction and real world success stories that corrugated converters and printers learn to embrace single-pass digital printing. Each vendor offering solutions in this space is playing a part in the growth.
Durst provides printers with a detailed total cost of ownership calculation to help embrace the change of single-pass printing as part of their processes. It offers transparent production data driven by Durst Analytics. As an established North American service and parts organization, including domestic ink manufacturing, Durst allows a converter to make a more technical and financial decision to grow their business.
“It is very important that converters understand the business model and what it takes to be successful in digital production. With that in mind, we offer all sorts of training to ensure our customers maximize digital production opportunities. This ranges from sales, marketing, and operator training right through to ink optimization. Our success is our customers’ success. From pre- to post-press, building digital volumes is something we achieve in partnership with our customers who really appreciate our support and expertise,” shares Slingerland.
EFI’s expertise in industrial digital printing, its broad install base of single-pass equipment, and its history of innovation make it an ideal consultative technology provider for converters making the move to digital corrugated packaging production.
“Corrugated converters/printers have already embarked on the journey to adopt digital solutions. We believe that if a converter sees the business opportunity enabled by this new technology, and, at the same time, is realistic about the investments it requires—in terms of adjusting workflows and managing print loads in a different way, but also looking and testing new applications—this will help tremendously in the decision making process,” explains Serrano.
HP partners closely with brands to help them understand the possibilities with digital print. It works directly with converters to analyze their production and evaluate the overall cost and time reduction, which can later be turned into increased capacity.
Personally, Shorer believes that for more to embrace single-pass digital printing, it is a “combination of brand demands and the understanding that the financial model should be calculated end to end and not just compared ink cost to ink cost. What we often hear is that ‘digital ink is too expensive compared to flexographic inks.’ This is indeed a true statement, however comparing end-to-end costs, including plates, warehouse, waste, water, and labor shows that digital has an advantage over traditional printing and not just in hundreds of copies, but in thousands.”
Kento North America is “removing the cost barrier that has been a major drawback for so many by providing a hybrid solution, along with an open ink system,” explains Kent. “Add to this upgradeability, rotary die cutting, and even two-sided print and many now realize that single pass no longer means only digital print.”
Robotics in Play
AI and robotics are used in manufacturing facilities of all types, and corrugated converters/print shops are no exception. With large, heavy pallets processed daily it seems only fitting that automated material handling powered by AI and/or robotics become part of the process to keep pace with the speeds single-pass printers reach.
“Automation is the driving force in making every aspect of digital production more efficient and profitable—with material handling being a big part of that. No matter whether in printing or cutting/finishing, if there is anything impeding the flow of materials that keeps your printer or cutter operating non-stop, you are not getting as much ROI as you should on your equipment. And naturally, the faster the printer—with single-pass capabilities—the more likely it will create bottlenecks downstream,” attests Beatrice Drury, marketing and communications manager, Zund America, Inc.
Automation in material handling was once unattainable, according to Kent because of “cost and space requirements due to the custom requirement of pre-feeders. Few manufacturers offer a sheet size that works with standard pre-feeders and stackers.”
However, as technology advances, larger runs are processed with digital print. “These higher run jobs now bring into the equation the need for more automation at the front and back end. Add the automation and this can be a game changer for many plants,” explains Kent.
“Reducing human touch points is key,” seconds Slingerland. Material handling devices like continuous feeding and stacking systems must be automated, efficient, and accurate. “This is particularly important when industrial-scale digital production involves huge amounts of separate jobs that all need to be processed and loaded for delivery to customers fast.”
Serrano agrees that “adding robotics to feed materials into the printer or taking it out of the stacker for further processing is a vital step in the overall manufacturing process.”
Single-pass digital printing for corrugated increases demand for automated material handling systems.
Caroline Bell, marketing coordinator, Elitron, admits her organization has experienced increased demand for automation in relation to the growth in single-pass printing. “We now offer many different levels of automation, based upon individual production requirements. Workflow can be upgraded as production levels increase and extra automation—loading, unloading, sheet turning—can be added as required.”
“Absolutely,” seconds Drury. This is why Zünd launched its dual-beam Q-Line with BHS180 board handling automation, designed specifically for the corrugated market. With robotic board feeding and offloading/stacking systems, in conjunction with UNDERCAM scanning, the system is fully configured for largely unattended, pallet-to-pallet processing of six-foot stacks of printed corrugated board.
According to Slingerland, “the corrugated market is volume driven and high production output is standard.” Some of Durst’s customers’ plants are completely automated, with most of the material handling mechanisms integrated directly into customer logistics.
“This ability to run larger job lengths converters will desire to add automation where it makes sense so the single-pass machine of choice needs to marry up to standard automation machinery, taking up as little space as possible,” shares Kent.
Converters/printers need to adopt automated material handling mechanisms at scale and ensure implementation is done both safely and effectively.
Most converters or printers have adopted automation in other forms before. “For those who do desire to add automation, they will do this as they have with other machines throughout their plant, assuming their single-pass machine has the right format size to support standard automation machinery,” advises Kent.
Safety mechanisms like fences and light curtains enable secure environments and eliminate risks, says Slingerland.
“Elitron fully trains operators so that they can operate all of our systems. We naturally address safety issues during training and explain the safety systems in place to ensure the safety of all within the production site,” shares Bell.
Another example, the new Zünd cutting system. “The speed and scale of the Zünd Q-line with BHS180 necessitated developing a sophisticated safety system with components ranging from light barriers/curtains to retractable glass shields preventing access to the working area—without obstructing the view, as well as safety fencing surrounding the load/offload areas,” explains Drury.
Just the Beginning
Single-pass digital printers and their automated material handling counterparts are increasingly necessary for corrugated converters and printers. They check all the boxes in terms of meeting packaging trends and sustainability efforts. We are at the beginning of adoption, with manufacturers and industry leaders taking the helm to educate on the advantages of these worthwhile technologies.
Jun2023, Industrial Print Magazine