Opportunities and Challenges in Digital Printing for Packaging

(Originally published in Graphic Arts Monthly – Canada)

Digital printing for packaging has transformed itself in the last decade from a niche application to the accepted standard for packaging converters and brand owners. Digitally printed packaging can now enable innovative marketing and engagement, get products to market faster, boost customer loyalty, and most importantly, increase profits. For 2017 onward, a new paradigm has emerged – high-quality packaging that utilizes a variety of formats, substrates and inks on digital presses. The challenge, however, will be how ‘conventional’ commercial printers can add this technology to their shops cost-efficiently. For those not familiar with this market or its challenges, here’s some background.

According to Smithers Pira, digital packaging and label printing worldwide was valued at $10.5 billion in 2015 – and the digital print for packaging market will grow by an average CAGR of 13.6% in constant value (real) terms to 2020, with a print volume CAGR of 16.2% globally. But this is changing as new digital equipment to print on cartons, corrugated, flexibles, rigid plastics and metals is being introduced. Despite this projected growth, digitally printed output currently only makes up a small percent of packaging. Just 5% of labels are now printed digitally and less than 1% of all other packaging is printed digitally! Yes, digital printing has had a much slower adoption compared to commercial and document printing. But make no mistake – this technology can still be a key revenue producer in the years to come.

Right now, players in this space are making money in two different ways. The ‘older’ way is by developing new markets. It’s the sexy stuff like the Coca-Cola bottles or cans that can all be personalized using variable-data printing – without having to go through lengthy and costly plate changes. But what’s happening now is that the new digital packaging and label presses are providing production relief. They’re able to take complicated jobs off of a conventional offset press and put them on a digital press where they can be run much more effectively – and profitably! And their sizes can vary from large packaging presses to compact, desktop label colour printers. At the same time, new workflows specifically for labels and packaging are also streamlining production and reducing downtime.

But the packaging industry can be more difficult for other reasons. First, it’s subject to a larger range of substrates that tend to be more challenging to print on – such as clear films that require white-ink printing. Second, it’s heavily divided into many sub-segments. This can make packaging more problematic, because even with conventional printing, no one type of press can likely handle all the applications. Third, the markets for packaging are extremely diverse. The four main categories – labels, flexible packaging, corrugated and folding cartons – can be divided even further into sub-categories. Again, it’s a very intricate mix of different types of packaging with different requirements that no single press (even an offset press or a flexo press) may be able to accommodate.

In the future, I believe that the key to getting digital package printing mainstream will vary by application. For example, in the corrugated market, there are multiple single-pass digital printing options on the horizon. At the moment, corrugated digital printing is primarily relegated to specialty applications, due to the need for the printhead to scan the substrate multiple times. But single-pass printing will be the big hurdle. Once OEMs can overcome that, printers in this space will be able to take advantage of production speeds. Digital printing will face similar obstacles in the folding carton market. Everyone wants to get to production-length folding cartons. They want to be able to print 5,000 or more quality cartons efficiently and make money printing them on a digital press – as well as make every carton different by putting variable-data on it or using QR codes.

The conventional offset printers of today can seize opportunities that will be available in the expanding market of digital packaging printing. If I were a printer today, I’d do my homework first. I’d explore the capabilities of the new digital packaging and label-printing presses and workflows, know the challenges of printing on previously unfamiliar substrates with new inks, see if special operator training is required, and above all, assess my current opportunities for expansion before I’d invest. It might be prudent to start out with smaller label printers in-house. Then, if you see an opportunity for expansion into packaging, check out the larger packaging presses.