Digital Printing for Packaging - What Do the Numbers Say?
Addressing the opening session of the Digital Packaging Summit, Bob Leahey of Keypoint Intelligence began his report on the state of color digital printing for labels and packaging by saluting makers of conventional printing equipment. He noted that these vendors, whose systems still account for a large majority of all labels and packages produced worldwide, deserve respect for developing digital solutions of their own in partnership with the digital-only providers.
Having said that, Leahey went on to sketch an overview of the label and packaging market and the digital production solutions available to printers and converters in it. By all processes, the market’s four major segments — labels, folding carton, corrugated and flexible packaging — generated a combined total of about 700 billion square meters of printed material in 2016. Also counting as packaging are the billions of plastic bottles and aluminum cans that can be printed digitally as well as conventionally.
Leahey said that color digital printing still produces only a “tiny” share of all packaging, probably on the order of about 1%. But he predicted rapid growth for digital as brand owners recognize what its special abilities can do to help them cut through the clutter of retail store environments. “This world wants to go mass customization” to engage consumers and build brand loyalty, he said.
As SKUs proliferate and line extensions increase, the brand owners’ need to produce short runs of products drives their demand for equally short runs of packages. Digital presses, said Leahey, are made for small-quantity production, but some of them are producing economically in longer run lengths as well. At the same time, long-run conventional presses are getting better at handling short runs that ordinarily would belong in digital territory.
Leahey said that although most of the images printed in digital short runs are static, brand owners are recognizing the potential of varying and even personalizing the visual content of labels and packages.
He then went on to review available digital production solutions. Some of the vendors, he noted, have been developing high-capacity digital presses for more than 20 years. The dominant technologies continue to be electrophotography (EP), with either dry or liquid toner; and, more recently, production inkjet.
According to Leahey, digital press prices range from around $200,000 at the low end to over $1 million for digital hybrid systems. There are about 1,200 color digital label presses in operation in North America, with about a 60/40 split between EP and inkjet devices. By 2021, this equipment is expected to print some 700 million square meters of label material.
Leahey said that 13˝-wide rollfed label presses are sometimes also used to print folding cartons in color, which printers and converters see as an attractive adjacent opportunity to labels in roll-to-sheet applications. 13x19˝ and 20x29˝ cut-sheet digital presses also are platforms for folding carton production.
Digitally decorated in color, corrugated is winning new friends among brand owners as a packaging material. Leahey said, for example, that single-pass printing systems for corrugated will help to increase the popularity of retail-ready packaging: corrugated shipping containers that look good enough to double as display units on store shelves.
Leahey concluded with four “Bob’s picks” for the next advancements in color digital printing for labels and packaging:
- Color management technology improving to a point where a match of ∆E 2 or less can be made among multiple presses in different locations
- Further progress in finishing technology and management combining analog and digital techniques
- “Cyber everything,” i.e., end-to-end automation of all production processes
- Intensified gathering, measurement, and analysis of production data, including with the help of smart phones