Despite this rapid growth, digital print remains a small proportion of the overall packaging market – just 1.68% of the volume of all printed labels and packaging in 2019. By contract flexo print is worth $162 billion in 2019, but its annual growth rate is a more modest 2.2%.
Digital is concentrated on certain high-value segment however, including short-turnaround short run work. By value digital represents 6.38% of the printed packaging market. This is why it is of great interest to brands, retailers, pack and label converters, and equipment and consumable providers.
Labels still represent the majority of this work, but the introduction of dedicated high-throughput machines for corrugated will see this segment accelerate fast through to 2024. North America is the largest regional market for digitally printed labels and packaging in 2019 accounting for roughly a third of the world market. It is shortly ahead of Asia and Western Europe, although demand in Asia will grow faster across 2019-2024.
Across the next five years, further developments in workflow and logistics will smooth the adoption of digital technology into analogue packaging supply chains.
A greater range of specialist toners will be developed electrophotography presses. The main shift in output will be from inkjet with improvements to quality and speed on standard substrates giving equivalent production levels to flexo, as well as gravure and offset litho. While poor print was seen as a reason for not utilising digital printing a few years ago, the situation has changed in 2019 as players take the view that while perhaps not all packaging volume is addressable by digital, the great majority certainly is.
For the flexo segment specifically the evolution of digital printing in packaging presents both challenges and opportunities. Improvements in inkjet presses will see these machines take work from flexo lines, especially at shorter production runs. Certain advances in automation and workflow streamlining can be adapted to flexo, boosting its competitiveness. Of particular interest is the potential of flexo-inkjet hybrid presses to combine the benefits of both systems.
These key impacts for flexo printers are discussed below:
There is a long history of using inkjet to overprint codes and numbering on flexo narrow-web press lines and this remains an important sector of the label market. As reliability and quality have improved the technology has been adopted, with manufacturers steadily improving press performance and introducing hybrid single-pass systems combining flexo printing and finishing to boost productivity. Hybrid solutions allow priming, base-printing, digital printing, postprinting/coating and finishing to be handled in-line, in a single pass.
Overall inkjet label work is growing and displacing toner presses. Higher resolution and speed improvements have increased output, and sales of new inkjet presses in Europe and North America overtook electrophotography machines in 2017.
Narrow-web integrated hybrid solutions are offered by several leading flexo press Providers, including Gallus’ Labelfire; Mark Andy’s Digital Series; Nilpeter’s Panorama; Edale’s Graphium and the XFlex from OMET and Durst.
These were joined in May 2019 by Screen with its modular Truepress Jet L350UV+ series. This combines flexo stations with finishing from Rotocontrol’s DT-340 finishing line for digital or flexo print, UV LED curing and label embellishments
Other hybrid markets
Beyond narrow-web label work, where digital and hybrid platforms are well established other packaging substrates are now attracting interest. For paperboard and flexible substrates are key applications.
HP’s T1100 series of machines for corrugated work has flexo priming and varnishing capabilities, while Georgia-Pacific has taken this further with the Conprinta flexo capability.
Kodak is placing its Prosper inkjet units into flexo lines, for cartons and flexible packaging. The Uteco Sapphire EVO features unwind, a flexo priming station, four-colour Kodak Stream 622 mm-wide continuous inkjet units, hot-air drying that supports the web, and a final flexo unit to print base white for reverse printing or a coating, then into a rewind station. It uses water-based inks for food-safe printing at speeds up to 300 m per minute.
This approach can threaten some traditional print markets however. For example Philip Morris has invested in a Gallus hybrid inkjet machine for tobacco packaging – bringing production in-house and printing at manufacturing sites. This gives the cigarette manufacturer More flexibility when introducing new products to a market.
Print room efficiency
For print service providers (PSPs) investing in a digital press can conversely boost the performance of their analogue equipment. As run lengths fall the actual printing time on large litho offset and flexo machines falls, with more time spent in changeovers and make-readies reducing the saleable capacity of the installed base of equipment.
Adding a digital press takes many of the short runs off the analogue equipment, making more production time available to handle long runs without interruption, while improving the speed of response for short runs with no need to interrupt longer runs.
Furthermore eliminating plates delivers major cost savings and reduces environmental impact. The simplicity of operating an inkjet press can also save labour costs – with for example a single operator as compared to a four or five person team for a flexo unit. This may become a further priority for the future as many experienced print room staff reach retirement age and PSPs have difficulty finding and retaining suitably skilled staff – compared with flexo, inkjet printing is much simpler to teach and operate.
Workflow systems are developing to reduce the load on administration and prepress that need to handle many more jobs coming in to plants, while the load on finishing and logistics is growing in parallel. Some converters are working to integrate their systems with customers to reduce their workload.
This involves changing the sales, ordering and administration processes to fit in with customer requirements. The converter can re-engineer its processes to take advantage via web-to-label and web-to-pack ordering systems for digital that generate press-ready artwork that is automatically loaded into the job file queue.
Web-to-print (WTP) is a broad term that covers the e-procurement mechanism of print buying. Its penetration in to labels and packaging commission is very low, with examples limited currently to personalised labels and premium boxes and packs for gifting.