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WTT: Thoughts from the Smithers Pira Digital Print for Packaging Conference

I had the privilege last week of attending the Smithers Pira Conference in Atlanta on the topic of Digital Printing for Packaging. Having been on the advisory board for the conference it was rewarding to see the fruits of our labor being so well received by those in attendance. Together with Tom Cooper of RockTenn, Aditya (Andy) Dwivedi of Xeikon, Eli Israeli of HP Scitex and Sean Smyth of Smithers Pira the advisory board brought a wide range of speakers to discuss not only where digital is today but where it is headed and most importantly, what needs to be addressed by the marketplace to get it there. To guide us down this path we assembled speakers that understand supply chain optimization, packaging, graphics, color management, workflow and digital printing. Then we arranged them to weave a coherent message looking at what is currently being done with digital and what can be done.

Day one opened with digital packaging pioneer Bob Scherer of CL&D Digital who spoke eloquently on how brand owners are currently using digital printing for successful branding programs. He gave examples of working with the multiple functioning groups within a brand (marketing, operations, purchasing) to get buy-in to a program and compromises that are needed to make the most successful program. One story illustrated how compromise allowed the project to work when the engineering group had to “give a little” by allowing 1/16th of an inch to be shaved off the top and bottom of a pouch. This would allow the pouch to run two across the web and allowed the job to meet the cost objectives for the project. Initial reluctance by the engineering group gave way to compromise and a successful project.

Later in day one, Jim Goldman of Global Innovation Professionals, and former Senior Supply Chain Manager for Coke, spoke on how supply chains within a brand are viewed and how digital printing could aid in the reduction in process steps and even entire process channels. Jim’s talk was extremely interesting and I would like to focus on two of his points in this article. The first point is an echo from Bob Scherer’s discussion that a Brand Owner is really a collection of many entities; marketing, procurement, engineering, design, legal, operations, QA, finance, sales, packaging and others. Jim highlighted that each group has different motivations and different metrics they are measured against. This makes it difficult to modify a part of the supply chain that crosses over many different parts of a company such as packaging.

Jim’s second point was more of an illustration. He gave two examples of how supply chain optimization occurred in the beverage industry that eliminated entire process channels. Both these examples were seen as major disruptions to the existing processes and were not embraced easily by those most immediately affected. However both are now standard practices. The first example is one that we in the printing industry can easily relate to, the use of on-site ink blending. Historically, ink manufactures would send mixed, press ready, inks to can manufacturers for use in decorating cans that were then shipped to the bottling plants. Most of the volume of an ink used in metal decorating is in the ink base, a small proportion of the ink volume is from the colorant. To reduce blended ink inventories and handling costs the process was changed so inks were blended from base and colorants to press ready inks in an ink kitchen on-site at the can manufactures facility.

The second example Jim gave centers around shipping air. Historically plastic bottles were blow molded and shipped to the bottling plant for filling. This sub-process required shipping millions of empty bottles around the country that we filled with air. In looking at the process from a broader prospective the idea of moving the blow molding process to the filling lines was born. Pushback to this idea most surely was strong. I can hear the argument now “if the bottle line goes down it will shut down the filling line, and where is the money made?” But today the practice is almost universal. Both in-house ink formulation and bottle blow molding process changes were not readily accepted by constituents at the time but are now standard operating practices. Both process changes took full process channels out of the supply chain and saved both time and money.

Just-in-time manufacturing and near-line (whole in the wall manufacturing as they call it in Europe) production of packaging materials are the initial steps to making a similar change in where packaging materials are produced. Sure there are a lot of reasons why it “can’t” be done. Just as there were reasons bottles could not be made in-line with bottling and why inks need to be mixed at the factory. But digital printing is not called a disruptive technology for nothing.

The advisory board planned on having panel discussions with the speakers at the end of each day’s presentations. Going into the conference there was much “buzz” around the recent European Coke Label Customization project and we fully expected the speaker panel to be asked for particulars on that topic. Surprisingly, day one’s panel discussion centered on brands bringing package printing in-house; it’s probability and it’s affect on package printers. Day two’s panel discussion was driven from the floor by a brand owner who had leapfrogged the idea of digital printing and went to the higher question of how can the entire process of product development and deployment be monitored and managed.

Coming out of this conference I feel a Sea Change in how the packaging supply chain is being looked at from both inside and outside of it’s own body. We used the analogy of an umbrella for how we wanted to discus digital printing for this conference. The handle of the umbrella represents the tactical uses of digital printing; the special labeling project, the new wider format web presses coming to market, the new digital die cutting systems being developed. While the top of the umbrella represents all the other things in the process that affect the handle; process management, color management, workflow, and integration with MIS and ERP systems. The top of the umbrella is represents the things that both day one and day two panel discussions were aimed at trying to understand. The big picture of where and how the supply chain will use digital printing and how the supply chain will be altered over the next decade.

For those of us who have been around digital for many years we hear the same statement over and over again, “It’s not a matter of IF we get involved, it’s a matter of WHEN”. By half way through the second day I realized that I had not heard anyone say that statement!  So holding my metaphorical umbrella I closed the conference by saying we have a new mantra; Digital for packaging is NOW, the question that remains is HOW.”

This article was originally posted on WhatTheyThink.com on 6/21/13.

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History Repeats Itself at Drupa 2012?

Coming out of Drupa, I see history repeating itself for digital package printing. In the early 1990s Indigo entered the narrow web labels sector with their Omnius digital press which paved the way for single pass digital printing of labels. Also in those early days Xeikon, offered the DCP/32S a dry toner press and others introduced UV inkjet single pass systems. The common theme was that all these companies entered the labels market as digital printing specialists rather than label specialists. In hindsight, I think all these vendors would admit that back then they ‘didn’t know what they didn’t know’ about the labels business. In these early the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufactures) had a very limited understanding of the business dynamics driving the labels sector.

Indigo Omnius, circa 1995

In the mid 1990s as digital label printing was gaining a slight foothold in the sector, the OEMs decided it was a good idea to bring laser die cutting into the discussion. At the time, lasers were in the early days of development for this application but showed a great deal of promise, just like the digital presses. I remember many heated discussions among vendors as to the merits of placing the laser die cutter inline with the digital press or leaving it offline as a stand-alone station – a question still being asked today. I recall seeing a very painful LabelExpo demonstration in 2004 of a MarkAndy flexo web press with the Dotrix SPICE (Single Pass Inkjet Color Engine) with laser die cutting stations added. The purpose of the demo was to show how well the “combo” would work, but problems with the laser and the rewind did not help the demo showcase a ‘solution’.

Timing is everything, and it was not viable in 2004. LabelExpo 2011 and Drupa 2012 however, featured vendors such as Jetrion among others, who showed fully integrated laser die cutting options within their new modular systems. Timely solutions, delivered to a market that is ready to adopt them into a production environment.

So what is all this talk about history? As a packaging guy this Drupa really resonated with me as  “the we think we have a digital solution for Packaging” Drupa. There were so many companies showing systems that could handle “board” and they used that as license to say they are “packaging” presses. Let’s take a look at a few digital solutions that caught most of the packaging (in this case for cartons) press (pun intended). On the digital press side the obvious introductions are those of Landa, the S10 (S standing for Sheetfed) and the HPIndigo 30000 presses that have been designed from the ground up to address folding carton production.

It is clear to me that both Landa (who by the way was the father of the first digital systems and the Indigo printing system) and HP did their homework before coming out with these presses. Both companies are building on lessons learned in the days of developing digital label systems. For example, both companies used outside expertise to expand their core strengths for component development such as sheet handling. Both went to the carton marketplace to understand the needs of carton manufactures before they came to market with a machine they thought would work. And biggest of all, both seem to understand the business and manufacturing dynamics of the carton market better than their predecessors did in the label sector 10 years ago.

The next digital carton related technology that was shown was the Euclid system by startup HighCon. This system is the first of its kind digital die cutting system for short run cartons. There is a lot written about this system so I wont go into it in detail here. I do see the Euclid as a well conceived and developed first attempt at addressing the next bottleneck in the carton workflow. I also think more systems will be seen at Drupa 2016 that address this need. I expect acceptance of digital die cutting for the carton sector will progress, as the presses will, much faster than they did in the label sector. This will be partly due to the advancement in the laser technology itself, which is significant, but more so but the understanding OEMs are seeking of the marketplace they are trying to serve.

I also commend the HighCon team for understanding that this system should not just be tied to the digital printing engines, that it has a place in all of short run cartons. This is illustrated by their collaboration with Presstek and their 75DI digital offset press. This combination can be used for economical short carton runs of 500 to 20,000 impressions. This type of collaborative thinking is happening much earlier in the development cycle for cartons than it did for labels and bodes well for the evolution of the digital process for cartons.

For these reasons and for the fact that digital printing technologies (liquid toner, dry toner, Inkjet, and now nanography) have come so far over the past decade, I feel by next Drupa digital carton presses will be seen as viable production press options rather than cool new technologies that aren’t even in beta yet.

Kudos to the OEMs for learning from the past and for looking to the future…

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Drupa Day 2: Presses and Die Cutters

Kevin Karstedt and Tony Karg

Our first stop on Day 2 was a visit to Fujifilm Booth where we met fellow Tweeter, Tony Karg (@TonyKarg). It was good to put a face to the tweets and have Tony show us the very interesting new B2 inkjet digital folding carton press based on their Jet Press 720 but this is a press designed specifically for Folding Cartons applications.  The Jet Press line uses their own Dimatix print heads and inks, a point Tony makes as a strong point for Fujifilm. The samples I saw were quite nice. The system is slated for a 2013 release…seems to be a trend here…

Screen’s Truepress JetSX, is the only one of the “new breed” of presses that is ready to be installed today. Although not designed for packaging applications the press can handle board up to 24 pt with a CMYK water based inks. It will be interesting to see if the system gets traction in the Carton Sector, at 1,620 sheets per hour it could have some short run effectiveness.

FFEI

We then visited the FFEI booth to see their joint venture with Nilpeter for the Labels and Flexible market. The unit on display was a total digital model which will be sold either by FFEI or Nilpeter depending on geographic location. This unit has a CMYK digital ink set plus a fifth unit for digital white. The system uses the Xaar 1001 heads which FFEI says have a 5 year life expectancy – with UV inks and inner pinning the print samples were impressive.

Highcon Euclid

Most interesting today was a stop at HighCon, a new company with a digital die cutting system for Cartons. The HighCon Euclid uses lasers to cut the board and a special compound to make the creases. This addresses the issue with digital that lasers cannot crease. Currently in Beta, the system will be “ready for primetime” later this year. The HighCon booth got a lot of attention which tell me they are addressing a need in the carton market that is being pressed for short run efficiencies. The company sees their system going in shops that have short run needs with or without digital printing.

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