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The next evolution in digital flexible package printing

Recent examples, and future technology and supply chain developments, demonstrate how digital flexible package printing is increasing in importance.

From artisanal producers to multinational conglomerates, there is growing evidence that digital package printing, especially of flexibles, is occupying a more prominent place in the minds of brands.

A recent campaign in the UK has seen iconic Nestlé brand KitKat offer consumers the chance to win a four-finger chocolate bar wrapped in packaging featuring their own image and personalized message, while artisan brands are using digital for market testing with short runs and to get their products on the shelf in as short a time as possible.

‘The opportunities are absolutely huge,’ says Simon Smith, managing director of CS Labels, a Xeikon press user and a pioneer of printing flexible packaging using the dry toner process.

‘We are at a very exciting stage with digital, and at a real crossroads,’ adds Chris Tonge, executive director at Ultimate Digital, a user of HP Indigo technology, and the company that facilitated the KitKat campaign.

Investments all over the world illustrate how converters are embracing the opportunities presented to them through digital package printing. Rolf Kindler Label Service has installed an HP Indigo 20000 digital press to open new production possibilities for flexible packaging, while Siti Tea, a provider of customized tea packing services, has installed an HP Indigo 20000 digital press to expand its in-house printing capabilities. While printing is not the company’s core business, it has previously invested in HP Indigo digital printing technology as a key element in its end-to-end tea packing offering. Before the installation of the new press, Siti Tea printed 20 percent of its tea bag tags, labels and packaging in-house. Now with four HP Indigo digital presses, two HP Indigo WS6X00 series presses, a 5600 model and its new 20000, Siti Tea prints 60 percent on-site, outsourcing only the folding cartons, for which it does not yet have its own printing option. In the area of digital carton printing, Rehms Druck has selected Konica Minolta’s AccurioJet KM-1 to enable it to grow into new markets using one digital inkjet technology that can handle packaging and direct mail.

But in an increasingly marketing-driven world, alongside a growing understanding of the possibilities of digital, the technology is no longer sold purely as a production tool. A growing number of converters are seeing the importance of offering more than printing, even going beyond converting, to meet the evolving market position of digital.

‘We are in a different world now,’ says Christian Menegon, worldwide business development manager, labels and packaging, HP Indigo. ‘When digital was introduced, the technology was moving towards the needs of the market, but now the market’s needs are changing and moving towards the technology.’

To expedite delivery of the KitKat campaign, Ultimate Digital used its proprietary technology, Smartflow, to handle the web-to-print element of the project, while it also took on responsibility for fulfillment of the campaign. ‘The KitKat project was really exciting for us,’ says Tonge. ‘We weren’t just the printer, but were able to provide them with a full service to realize the potential of digital. It has got the whole of Nestlé, globally, asking how it was done.’

And leveraging the group’s established expertise in converting, through sister company Ultimate Packaging, Ultimate Digital was able to ensure there were minimal problems running the packaging down Nestlé’s packing lines at 600 packs a minute. ‘The variable element was relatively straightforward,’ continues Tonge. ‘The biggest concern was putting one of our personalized reels on the production line and seeing if there were running issues, but in the end it all packed really well with minimal wastage.’

Technology upgrades

Converters are also embracing new technologies, such as as Amcor and Inland with HP Indigo 20000 digital presses, Toppan Printing with Pack Ready Lamination and Germany’s colordruck Baiersbronn, which has been confirmed as a pilot user of Primefire 106, the first industrial digital printing system in B1 format from Heidelberg. And Landa has detailed beta sites for its S10 nanographic printing press, with customers in Israel, Europe and North America to receive machines this year. S10 is Landa’s press for folding cartons, and precedes the W10, a 41in web press that prints up to eight colors at 200m/min (656ft/ min) on plastic packaging films.

‘Once Landa delivers on 200m/min,’ opines Tonge, ‘then it becomes more of a replacement technology and starts to become a mainstream process.’

Xeikon’s presence in digital flexible package printing will receive a boost in the near future. CS Labels is working closely with Xeikon to produce a digital flexible packaging option to overcome the challenges presented by dry toner technology.

‘We started out direct printing onto a tripartite material, which is very challenging to run through a digital press,’ explains Smith. ‘We are now working towards a less complex process for a broad variety of constructions, with different barriers, etc, involving laminating. This specific laminating technology is extremely suitable for digital production; being instantly ready and with minimal set-up for both the printing and laminating processes, it is suited for short runs. The next step is being able to convert the pouches ourselves.

‘We’re really quite close to bring it to market and showing how to do flexible packaging on a Xeikon press, and overcome the challenges that come with a digital production process,’ he adds.

This technology will form the basis of any future Flexible Packaging Suite offered by Xeikon. ‘It’s a work in progress although we’ve made substantive progress since we started working on this project two years ago, and are on the cusp of something that I believe is quite revolutionary,’ Smith states.

Evolution of the supply chain

To support advances in hardware, Menegon explains that the entire supply chain needs upgrading in order to capitalize on the potential of digital. ‘The biggest bottleneck is not printing, but the ability of the supply chain to use digital print.

‘What we can influence today is the appearance of the product, and deliver products that are visually appealing to individuals. The next step is products that match our individual needs and preferences. This will require upgrades to brand owner level manufacturing lines and the logistics supply chain. Currently, they are unable to handle such item-level complexity.

‘The world is changing, however, and such legacy machines and systems can’t meet today’s demands. When they are updated, they will move to something more flexible. This will result in a more active role for digital printing. Then digital will become even more important.’

For producers, Smith identifies ongoing difficulties in the supply of materials as a major barrier, with conventional material suppliers still working to long lead times – 6-8 weeks in some instances – and big orders. ‘Whereas we’re looking at short runs, and the quick turnaround of low volumes. To make the two compatible is very difficult. We’ve also struggled with converting pouches, as existing converters demand 1,000 linear meters of material for set-up. We’ve demonstrated to them that they don’t. We’ve made progress, but they’ve still got an analog mindset. It’s a different way of thinking, and digital will only work if you put a digital mind to it.’

Menegon says this is true for converters too: ‘Some sell the vision and the idea, others sell production specifications and print.’ This is evidenced by Tonge, who says: ‘The campaigns we are now talking about have changed the business completely, and opened doors to the world’s biggest brands. I’m not interested in selling conventional print to them, but want to be a digital champion.’

‘Digital flexible packaging printing will be presented across the halls of Labelexpo Europe 2017, making the show a must-attend event for those looking to enter new markets and embrace new flexible package printing and converting technologies.

David Pittman


David Pittman is former deputy editor of Labels & Labeling.

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