Digitally Printed Packaging: Opportunity for Commercial Printers?

Karstedt also points out that packaging printing can add value in several ways, including product protection, track and trace, brand protection, marketing and brand building (see chart to the upper right).

A Value Proposition Disconnect

While the potential is understood by more forward-thinking brands and converters, Hanley of IT Strategies notes that variable data—the real value and real future of digital—has not taken hold yet. So far, the demand for variable data has largely been confined to label and niche opportunities. All too often, the value proposition is not well understood: digital people don’t know about packaging and packaging people don’t know about digital.

Packaging must protect the product, convey information and sell the product. This means that package printing is often more demanding than commercial printing, and a number of technical factors have limited the use of digital print for packaging. Since consumer packaging must sell the product, this means high ink coverage. So far, high-speed inkjet has been problematic beyond 40 percent ink coverage.

Substrates such as coated papers, heavy-weight paperboard and flexible packaging films also present different challenges for printing. Digital presses at 20˝, or even 30˝, are wide enough for labels, but not wide enough for most folding cartons or litholam. And, many digital presses cannot handle paperboard as thick as 18-pt. to 24-pt.—key calipers for folding cartons. Moreover, most digital presses are not designed to be compatible with diecutting, folding and converting, and do not offer in-line converting systems.

For folding cartons and litholam, applications have generally been limited to niche products and test markets. Kevin Waldvogel, print sales with New Berlin, WI-based The Printery, now part of Consolidated Graphics, explains: “Very often buyers don’t understand the whole supply chain total system cost.”

Labels have taken the lead and demonstrated the potential. Track and trace, brand protection, and warehousing and logistics savings have driven the value proposition. Some of these factors could potentially apply in folding cartons and other packaging, but the small format of labels makes them more suitable for inkjet, at least for now. However, because of the requirement for high-quality graphics and high ink coverage, many inkjet labels are printed with UV inks or solvent-based inks, and this can be an issue for packaging where these inks come in contact with food.

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