27 March 2017 Digital Printing Technologies

Digital asserts its influence on world of packaging

Digital printing is well established in label production. And even if it is not established in flexible and carton production, its potential is already altering the way that brands and retailers think about packaging.

There is no question that digital thinking, if not digital printing, is coming to the packaging industry. Print runs are getting shorter as customers attempt to control supply chain costs or update and refresh designs in order to boost sales. And then there are the attempts to engage directly with consumers through variable data printing and personalisation, the place that litho cannot go.

But there is some way to go before digital printing truly ousts litho. Production speeds as painfully slow compared to the 16,000 or 18,000 sheets an hour that the modern sheetfed litho press is capable of. And few digital presses can compete with the sheet format of a litho press. Only the Heidelberg Primefire 106 prints on a B1 sheet.

At the same time automation is making litho competitive at ever shorter print runs by slashing makeready and delivering the colour control that is necessary to print the same job in multiple runs. The old way of thinking was to keep a job on press for as long as possible to avoid problems of colour consistency as press conditions change.

Improvements in colour specification and colour control mean that the same job can be printed in several batches confident there would no variation between the batches.

Gary Wilkinson, Heidelberg’s VLF product executive, says: “Colour management has become a given and there is a migration in the packaging groups towards Inpress Control. The brand owners are starting to specify Lab colour in an effort to ensure the brand colour matches when sourced from multiple suppliers.

“Colour databases are now being created by the packaging brands, using XRGA, Delta E2000 and CxF descriptions, the same as Pantone.”

A combination of spectrophotometric and density controls deliver the match for half tone and spot colours, while PDF comparator technology can guarantee that the file used to pass a job becomes the gold standard against which all subsequent sheets are checked. The press operator can mask out the areas where artefacts and glitches will not be important, such as in areas to be lost in the platen or gluing, while rejecting sheets that fail because of misprinted content in the important areas.

The technology has been adopted by the press manufacturers. Steve Turner, UK sheetfed sales director of Komori, says: “PQA-S v5, which we launched at Drupa 2016, will check each sheet in this way. And at the same time we are controlling colour density and quality on the run. And the technology provides a complete history of the run.”

As brands and retailers impose zero defect contracts on their suppliers, the audit of each production run is crucial. If magazine printers are used to fielding complaints from publishers after advertisers argue about how their artwork has been reproduced, this is nothing compared to the wrath of a brand owner whose corporate colour has been misrepresented.

Consequently inspection systems are not optional for packaging printers wanting to deal with the largest hyper-critical brands. KBA combines “our ErgoTronic ColorControl desk which allows capture and control of special colours automatically on the press,” says KBA UK marketing manager Craig Bretherton.

“In addition, our inline system QualiTronic colour control allows dynamic ink density control with every sheet being measured across a full colour bar and makes adjustments after every tenth sheet. This system reduces the waste produced at makeready by 60%,” he says.

It works. KBA has had a successful run with the Rapida 106. After installing a seven-colour plus double-coater press at Simply Cartons in March last year, it has sold a second to the same customer, and others to Beamglow, Qualvis, Printpak and Essentra.

The manufacturer has not had everything it own way. Komori started last year with a double press order from Firstan, has started this year with a press for Coveris and is on the point of announcing another, says Turner. Heidelberg meanwhile has capped these with the sale of an 18-unit behemoth to MPS in East Kilbride. This press includes inline cold foiling, the ability to print and coat on both sides of the board to meet demand from a fast expanding Scottish whisky industry. It needs to be able to cope with whatever the distilleries can throw at the printer for the next five years.

Equally the trend for seven-colour presses is about running the most flexible press configuration possible, capable both of standard four-colour work plus a special where unused units can be washed up while the press is running another job, or where the press can remain loaded with the four process colours and with orange, green and violet inks which extend the colour gamut and make it possible to achieve spot colours with a greater degree of accuracy than is possible with just CMYK.

Use of the secondary colours makes it far easier to achieve the crucial brand colour with greater consistency and with less waste. “The real benefit for customers is a significant reduction in washing times to add or remove special colours when changing jobs on press,” says Bretherton.

“The traditional press configuration for carton printers was a six-colour plus coater. Now it is seven or perhaps eight print units with a double coater,” says Turner. “More complex and sophisticated formats are becoming very much the norm.”

It allows printers to meet the changing requirements of packaging. As the impact of traditional forms of marketing fluctuate, the role of the packaging as a promotional tool is increasing. This means that brands want to use different coating effects, colours and foils to achieve the standout on the shelf.

This means also that there is little hope that the boxes will become standard in shape and size. Heidelberg’s post press packaging specialist Paul Thompson points out: “There is a resistance to standardisation of box sizes and templates but we can see an increase in demand for even faster response (24-48 hour turnarounds are not uncommon) and while sectors like fast food and cereals remain long run, other sectors want reduced stock holding and to call off in batches with the option to add marketing messages or special offers. This makes reduced set up times even more important.”

It also opens the door to completely different ways of printing, namely using digital print technologies. Currently Xeikon, Xerox and HP Indigo fly the flag for the mature electrophotographic processes.

Heidelberg, Konica Minolta and Kodak are offering direct inkjet presses and the joker in the pack is Landa with nanography or indirect inkjet. This has yet to reach the field trial stage, the first deliveries being put back from Q1 this year in the last few weeks. But there is plenty of time, the market is far from settled.

Digital packaging presses are installed only sporadically, well behind the installed base of digital presses for label printing for example. Suppliers of course hope this will change and the potential is clearly there.

Quality is no longer a concern thanks to built in colour control devices and greater awareness of issues that led to variability during the day. Format remains a concern, but digital is about small batch production so less of a problem if the issues are examined deeply.

HP has more skin in the game than most with products across label printing, flexible packaging and carton converting. Marcelo Akierman is HP marketing manager for Indigo and PageWide presses in EMEA. And while he points to the strong take up of Indigo presses for labels (“we sell more machines than all conventional presses together”) the same conversion has yet to happen in other styles of packaging. But it is only a matter of time.

“I firmly believe that disruptive change starts with consumer behaviour. That leads to brands trying to fulfil the new customer requirements and questions about how brands can make those changes happen,” he says. Consumer habits have changed. Where once a choice of three shampoos would be enough, now a consumer can select from 25 sizes and types of shampoo under one brand, he says.

“There is a big transformation in the number of Skus. In the past 10 variations of a Sku would be enough, now each wants 60 variations and instead of accepting delivery of a huge number of packs or labels every two months, converters are having to deliver 30 Skus every couple of weeks,” he says.

This has happened in label printing and will cross into other forms of packaging.

At Drupa last year, HP introduced the Indigo 8000, a label press which coupled two print engines together to extend the ability to address longer production runs. The 8000 also comes with a full finishing line. It also showed the 20000 having first introduced this four years earlier. This time around it had a bulk supply of white toner and a dedicated laminating unit.

There is no point in being able to get a job on press within a few minutes and running only relatively few metres of film if that film has to sit on the shelf for a few days after lamination. Likewise the 30000 carton press now includes the coaters that were absent at Drupa 2012.

A second factor which has slowed the uptake has been the shape of the sectors. Small agile business proliferate in the label sector while flexo printing and carton printing is typified by large groups which are more conservative about change. But for Akierman, change they must despite the advances in technology which have reduced the waste levels from the thousands of sheets or thousands of metres of film lost at each makeready.

“There was no concept of short run in flexible packaging,” he says. “It was impossible to produce short runs economically.”

There would, however, be little demand for digital printing if all it is capable of is short runs. The growth of artisanal farmhouse table brands has necessarily favoured small batch production, a trend mimicked by larger brands; brands want to hasten time to market, something that drives demand for designs for product testing purposes; and there is the desire to create brand loyalty where campaigns such as Share a Coke and more recently My KitKat have delivered huge social media impact.

HP is not alone. Both Xerox and Xeikon have packaging in their sights, both with fully integrated production lines, including coaters and in the case of Xeikon cutting and creasing. The company has designed a platen that can work in line or offline and which has a shorter repeat length than any standard platen. Its Fusion concept will also include integration of foiling, varnishing and other processes that are involved in delivering a finished box.

As with commercial printing, the advantages of short batch production are tied in to automation. If there is too much physical handling of a job the margin will be lost.

This starts with a website designed for the customer, or perhaps a consumer, to adapt a package design and place an order. For KitKat, Ultimate Packaging developed a website that allowed winners to upload their picture and short caption. This had to be filtered to eliminate those deemed inappropriate, and then loaded to the press.

The job was printed on its Indigo 20000 and supplied to the chocolate company for wrapping and then to Ultimate for shipping to the address that the consumer has supplied.

It means that the general packaging market is poised on the threshold of the digital era. The sector seems to be holding its breath for the arrival of Landa presses, able to print digitally in high quality, with benign consumables and at acceptable speeds. If packaging is all about boxes, the technology is starting to tick them.

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