Digital printing technology has been making great strides in packaging over the past few years, especially in label printing, and is now beginning to penetrate other flexible packaging applications.
Its importance in the labels and corrugated sectors has so far been in short-run business where it has proven very successful especially in new product trialing and focused promotional applications. Brand owners are increasingly recognizing the marketing potential of digital print in seasonal redesigns, and versioned/personalized packaging. One of the most high profile and successful applications has been Coca-Cola’s use of HP Indigo technology, where it has been used for customized wraparound labels and consumer personalized shrink sleeves on its bottles, and rolled this out very successfully in a campaign across many countries worldwide.
Digital printing has also been gaining traction in the flexible packaging market where a growing number of both large and small converters have been installing digital presses, especially HP Indigo, as they recognize the potential of the technology. Digital print offers some potentially major benefits over flexo and gravure including:
- It is now possible to produce short runs of digitally printed flexible packaging that match those produced conventionally in longer runs.
- Digital presses can print on the same film stock as gravure and flexo presses.
- Digital print quality is now very good and achievable with accurate colour matching.
- Its use in short runs can reduce production costs and storage of large inventories of packaging materials and goods and therefore potentially reduce wastage.
The trend towards shorter print runs plays to digital’s strengths. However, digital printing for reel-to-reel flexible packaging is still in the early stages of development. Converters currently investing in digital print require considerable time and effort to develop the necessary expertise to profitably exploit the technology: digital presses and associated inks are expensive. At the moment there is a lot of capacity but some experts suggest there is as yet no clear vision on how to best utilize it. For now flexible packaging converters are investing and gaining experience in digital printing in order to be at the forefront of developments when the technology really takes off, working on the hope that in the meantime marketing and brand management teams think up new ways to deploy this technology.
There are perhaps some niche areas of flexible packaging where digital printing could, in the medium term, be profitably applied such as for die-cut labels where order sizes and printing speeds using UV flexo or flexo stack presses are not too much greater than what can currently be achieved with digital printing. It is claimed that digital printing for flexible packaging is already profitable for run sizes of less than 5,000 square metres: however, some industry experts question these claims. The question also arises as to whether a major brand owner would accept two print technologies (and therefore qualities) on their brand.
This is not to say that digital flexible packaging will not ultimately be successful in carving out an important position, even within what is a highly conservative industry. Our view is there are huge opportunities for the technology over the longer term, especially as marketers and advertisers come to fully appreciate the advantages of digital print and cost improvements continue to be made to this print medium. Latest news suggests that the first 150 metres per minute digital press will be launched at Drupa this year. Along with the rest of the industry, we will be watching progress with great interest.
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