The Universe is Changing. Again (with Advent of Digital Packaging and Labels)

As part of a joint program between HP and Coca Cola, personalized labels were placed on Coke bottles across Australia, then replicated in Europe. Consumers could walk into a supermarket and find Coke bottles labeled with their own name or the names of friends, colleagues, and family members.

There are 40,000 SKUs in a typical supermarket, with brands and sub-brands in nearly every product category. The labeling must be identifiably different between brands and within each brand.

Set the time machine to 2000. Gas is cheap. We can actually take Swiss Army Knives and liquids on airliners. Heidelberg, KBA, Komori, manroland, and a couple others are the leaders of the offset print world. Mark Andy, Gallus, Markem and others are their counterparts in flexography.

Together, these companies dominate the process of putting ink on paper, plastic and fiberboard. Even though run lengths are dropping, revenues are strong, sales from drupa 2000 make vendors happy, and life is good.

Those pesky, arrogant technology companies like HP, Indigo, Kodak, Xeikon and Xerox are making noise, schlepping “digital presses” that smear some kind of powdered plastic on a page and call it printing, but they are just glorified copiers for Pete’s sake, all hype and no substance. That new digital technology they promote is interesting but it’s slow, expensive, low quality, and will take decades to replace real printing.

Then the universe changed.

What the analog print guys didn’t understand (or want to admit) was that technological advances feed on each other. That the more one learns about say, electrophotography, the faster it can be improved. Toner particles shrink, processing speeds increase, substrate options expand, image quality improves. Meanwhile, print runs continued to decline and the higher costs of digitally printed pages mattered less and less. Customers began wanting jobs turned around immediately, and more and more print providers—and their customers—began taking advantage of this new way to print.

Fast forward to 2013. The old guard of offset printing are shadows of their former glory and the digital press vendors are the lead sled dogs of print with their machines finding homes on many print shop floors. Those pesky upstarts of 2000 now dominate floor space at trade shows where the old school presses may not even show up. While offset pages still dominate total volume, the most profitable pages are streaming off digital presses. Shorter runs, often with variable content, have become business as usual and those former intruders are now industry leaders, with customers producing a vast array of documents that were once the bread and butter of offset printing.

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  • Chip Schindler

    Great Article! We have been utilizing digital printing for our packaging clients for several years. We find it very useful for putting together comps or short run projects. The clients love all of the substrates and quality of the images. Variable data for labels is an interesting idea! We have been using variable data for our direct mail clients for a long time. I can see some fun applications for packaging too. Keep the info coming!

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