Press Releases

Flexing Muscle: Digital Printing Makes Inroads into Flexible Packaging Production

As digital printing continues its growth throughout the packaging industry, flexible packaging converters are creatively and intuitively implementing the technology.

According to I.T. Strategies, a Massachusetts based printing industry consulting firm, digital printing accounts for only about 1% of all flexible packaging production — but you’d never know it from the pace of flexible package printing at the digital shops ePac LLC and Quality Tape & Label.

Both are using HP Indigo 20000 digital presses to turn out work in volumes vastly higher than the packaging market usually associates with digital printing. They’re also taking full advantage of the equipment’s short-run and variable printing capabilities: assets that let the shops keep up with SKU proliferation and other trends now reshaping the demand for flexible packaging.

At ePac LLC, partner Carl Joachim and his team have divided very large jobs between two HP Indigo 20000 presses so that the entire run can be finished and delivered in a week. The machines are also showing their mettle in smaller quantities. Joachim says that in runs up to about 25,000, and often beyond that, digital printing is cheaper than flexography — the dominant process for flexible packaging — because it eliminates plate charges and other prep costs that his customers are perfectly happy not to see in their invoices.

In June, if all goes according to plan, Quality Tape & Label will complete the final stage of a flexible packaging job so massive that it could almost nudge digital printing’s 1% market share all by itself.
Rob Daniels, president, says it cumulatively comprises a staggering 260 million variably printed labels on 11.8 million linear feet of flexible material. He throws down the gauntlet to flexo with his claim that, depending on the size of the piece, digital printing can beat the cost of the conventional process in single-SKU runs of up to 3 million units — a new order of magnitude for digital production of any kind.

Flexography, however, is in no imminent danger of losing its sway over the flexible packaging market, where I.T. Strategies estimates it prints 75% of the volume.

For production in very large quantities, which is what most consumer-product packaging consists of, flexo still offers unbeatable economies of scale. Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies, notes that high resolution HD flexo plate imaging and hybrid digital/flexo systems are helping the process stay in tune with the market’s requirements for high print quality and responsive production.

So far, this has left little for digital printing to seize upon. But, says Boer, the fact that digital’s slice of the pie is tiny “does not mean it is not valuable and profitable. Per piece, digital printing demands a much higher sell price than all of the other technologies.” Flexible packaging customers will pay it, he says, because of the “pain points” that digital printing solves for them as their go-to-market strategies change. “The reality is, run lengths are declining, and this is not an economical hardship for most brands,” Boer says. “Most brands would rather bring a variety of flavors, scents, etc., to market than just one high-volume SKU.”

This is precisely the opportunity that ePac LLC and Quality Tape & Label are exploiting at both the high and low ends of the run length range. But, not without having to overcome some resistance.

Joachim says the perception still exists among print buyers that digital printing is too “slow and expensive” to be competitive for flexible packaging. To change it, “you begin to chip away and eliminate prepress” with a digital production workflow that saves customers money while it gives them the results they want.

“Knowledge and a little more speed” of output will be the tipping points for digital in terms of increasing its market share, according to Daniels. He thinks that when digital presses reach a point where they can print 200 linear feet of flexible packaging material per minute, it will be hard to cost-justify the setup charges that come with printing on flexo equipment.
The HP Indigo 20000 tops out at 135 fpm in a three-color process that HP calls Enhanced Productivity Mode; four-color print speed is 101 fpm. Currently, the device is the only digital press capable of flexible packaging production on the scale practiced at ePac LLC and Quality Tape & Label.

With a 29˝ image format, a gamut of up to seven colors, and the ability to handle film and label stocks up to 10 pt., the roll-fed, electrophotographic press is designed specifically for flexible packaging, pressure-sensitive labels, shrink sleeves, wraparound labels, and in-mold labeling. HP showed the press for the first time at drupa 2012 along with the HP Indigo 30000, a 29˝ digital sheetfed press for folding cartons.

Its print quality may be its clearest edge over flexo, say the printers. Daniels has found that “a lot of brands are willing to pay a penny more a unit to get that digital quality” when they see what the press can do. The quality of reproduction on the HP Indigo 20000 is among the reasons why one of his customers, a chemical producer, has migrated all of its flexible packaging production to digital.

Joachim’s experience is that there are times when superior color from a digital press can be a little too superior. He says that although he can get better color from his Indigo platform than a flexo press can deliver, he often finds himself “dumbing it down” to flexo’s level for the sake of visual consistency between the processes when a packaging customer is printing with both.

The two shops operate on business models that depend heavily on digitally printed flexible packaging. In ePac LLC’s case, the reliance is total. Joachim describes the company as a “100% greenfield” startup that came into being “with no building and no customers” less than a year ago. Its first HP Indigo 20000 came from partner Emerald Packaging, a California-based flexible packaging printer that had been beta-testing the device.

The entire production workflow, including job input, file preparation and postpress, is keyed to the high performance of the two HP Indigo 20000 devices that the shop now operates. There is no non-digital production. Most runs are from 5,000 to 25,000 units, but Joachim says that by maintaining a low-cost infrastructure and eliminating plate charges and inventory, ePac LLC can also compete with flexo in the 50,000-piece range. He claims it can even play in six-figure territory when multiple-SKU jobs are involved.

Pouch making in various formats is a specialty, and the company prints and converts them for producers of snacks, cheese and dairy items, pet food, lawn and garden products, natural foods, and nutraceuticals. Joachim says that he’s been seeing strong interest in flexible packaging from dispensaries of medical marijuana, a pouch-friendly product, if there ever was one.

Daniels, who thinks it will be “only a matter of time” before the flexible packaging industry makes a wholesale shift from flexo to digital, now prints 80% of his volume on digital equipment. The complement includes three HP Indigo presses that process 2 million linear feet of flexible material per month for labels, pouches and shrink sleeves, sometimes handling 30 jobs per day.

Runs average 20,000 to 40,000 linear feet and 30,000 to 50,000 units, but as Quality Tape & Label’s giant job-in-progress demonstrates, quantities can go much higher than that.

Daniels speaks of a nutraceutical producer with a hot product selling so fast that the customer needed 1 million shrink sleeves per week as just-in-time inventory. Quality Tape & Label has also turned out frozen-dessert wrappers and stick packs — skinny pouches for single-serve quantities of liquids and powders — in digitally printed batches of millions. “Customers are surprised we can do it at the price we do it at,” Daniels says.

Atypical success stories like Daniels’ and Joachim’s don’t necessarily contradict Boer’s assertion that flexible packaging remains a tough nut for digital printing to crack. “The flexible packaging market is still a high-volume market, and digital printing will take a long time to truly penetrate the market,” Boer says.

Technical issues such as substrate performance remain to be solved. Another impediment, according to Boer, is the fact that “there is still only one true digital production flexible packaging printer in the market.”

The HP Indigo 20000 will not have the field to itself indefinitely. Rivals are on the way, most notably the 41.3˝ wide, 200 m/min. inkjet web press for flexible film being brought to market by Landa Nanographic Printing.

At drupa 2016, Fujifilm unveiled EUCON, a 21˝ wide inkjet press featuring specially formulated, LED-UV curable inks and an oxygen purging system that is said to make printing with the device safe for flexible packages containing food. Xerox showed a prototype of a 20˝ wide inkjet press for UV printing on plastic packaging substrates. Inkmaker Kao introduced a water-based, VOC-free inkjet ink for high-quality printing on flexible materials; a partner, Think Laboratory, has built a 21˝ wide roll-fed press on which the inks can be run.

But for now, the formidable HP device gives a good solo indication of what digital technologies will be able to accomplish in a market that they have been all but shut out of until now.

That’s more than enough encouragement for Joachim, who intends to order two more HP Indigo 20000 presses and says he “probably won’t stop at four.” He envisions a network of ePac LLC branches in as many as 15 locations around the country, all of them dedicated to the same kind of production he is pursuing at the founding site.

“There is nothing but upside for digital printing in the label and flexible packaging space,” he says.

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Getting Down with Digital

As digital package printing continues to improve, brand owners are exploring the technology’s benefits and opportunities.

By Ashley Roberts

There’s a problem many brand owners are facing: They need high quality short-run packaging at a desirable price point. The solution could be digital printing, but the biggest hurdle for converters is educating brand owners on the technology’s benefits. With price being one of the biggest driving factors behind production runs, some brand owners have resorted to sending jobs overseas, unaware of the possibilities that are available domestically. As more converters adopt digital technology, it’s imperative that they demonstrate the advantages it could provide to brand owners.

It’s not as though brand owners are hesitant to try a new printing process. Jennifer Dochstader, founding partner of LPC, Inc., explains that brand owners aren’t picky about how converters are printing their packaging, as long as it matches the expected quality and a desired price point. Robert Ludlow, owner and chief chocolatier at Fleurir Chocolates, is one example of a brand owner who was able to achieve these benefits through digital.

“If someone told me they could produce the same quality product for cheaper [with a different printing process], then sure I would give it a shot,” explains Ludlow. “I don’t exactly see that happening with everything I’ve learned about digital. It’s so personal and simple. … Having something that works and you don’t have to worry about is invaluable.”

Alexandria, Va.-based Fleurir has worked with Cleveland-based Tap Packaging Solutions to create customized folding cartons for its line of regional chocolate bars. Being a small chocolate company, Fleurir only requires short runs of packaging and Ludlow explains that after experiencing six-to-eight-month lead times and color inconsistency when sending jobs to China, which he describes as an “atrocious” process, it was time to find an alternative solution.

Ludlow traveled to Tap Packaging Solution’s facility to see the capabilities of the company’s HP Indigo 30000 digital press. Although he admits he doesn’t understand the intricacies of the printing process, the quality, turnaround time, color flexibility and price point of the digital press were what won him over.

“I love the fact that digital printing allows me to say, ‘This is what I imagine, can you produce it for a reasonable sum?’” he says.

Ludlow isn’t alone as a brand owner who has turned to China for a cheaper solution. Nuts About Granola, a York-Pa. based granola company, also sent production runs to China, but found that with plate charges, freight expenses and lead times of 10 to 12 weeks, the more economical price didn’t last.

Nuts About Granola had used flexographic technology to meet its short-run needs in the past, but was up against challenges resulting from its high volumes of inventory and waste from packaging design and product changes.

The company was introduced to Middleton, Wisc.-based ePac, a digital only joint venture of Emerald Packaging, that runs two HP Indigo 20000s. When Nuts About Granola approached ePac, it was the price, print on demand capabilities, low minimum order quantities and a lead-time of two weeks that cinched the deal.

“We were a little apprehensive at first, but as the technology evolved and we started to launch new items … we wanted to test the market,” Sarah Lanphier, CEO of Nuts About Granola, explains. “We were looking at digital from an aggregate cost savings to where it saved us thousands of dollars because we didn’t have to invest in plate charges or minimums.”

As Nuts About Granola works to transition all of its packaging to digital, Lanphier says that the turnaround and setup times have been reduced to the point where products are launched to market faster and more efficiently, changes can be made to its packaging based upon consumer input and there is greater flexibility in color choices leading to increased creativity.

Fleurir has experienced similar benefits. “When we were first starting out, we had to choose from limited colors, so to be able to do full-color at reasonable rates and short runs has allowed Fleurir to get really creative with design,” Ludlow says.

A Growing Demand for Digital

Expedited delivery times, shorter run sizes, high quality, low inventory and a low price point are the key drivers in the shift to digital. Additionally, brand owners not currently utilizing digital capabilities want to have the option in the future.

“We have seen a tipping point in the last six to 18 months where we have seen an increase in the percentage of brand owners [specifically in labels] demanding or requiring their label converters to have digital press production capacity in-house, even though they’re not buying digital labels from them,” Dochstader says. “It’s a huge shift.”

Labels are currently the most embedded in digital packaging growth, but there is a market for flexible packaging, folding cartons and corrugated. Although in general, she says flexible packaging growth rates are the highest, she points out that less than 2% of the segment would be justified for digital because the run sizes are still so large. However, she says that drupa 2020 may turn out to be a pivotal point for the burgeoning technology.

“We are going to see some inroads made in flexible packaging and folding carton technology,” she says. “It’s going to get faster.”

Ludlow cites versatility and the ease of ordering as a catalyst to shift to digital. The company currently has seven different varieties of chocolate bars for which it has seven uniquely designed packages of the same shape and size. Ludlow explains that the company only needed to order approximately 20,000-25,000 packages.

“What I love about it is that when we order bars, we have seven different designs, but because it’s digital, I just order a particular quantity of each type and they’re all counted as part of a lump sum because they’re all the same shape,” Ludlow says.

From a converter perspective, Carl Joachim, CTO of ePac, says there has been a rapidly increasing demand from CPGs since the company began commercial operations in May 2016. As brand owners begin to learn more about the advantages of digital technology, they are excited by the myriad possibilities.

“Several customers have gone through the process of contacting us, asking for a quote, sending artwork, and when they deplete their inventory, we have it ready to print on demand,” he says. “So the ramp up time from initial contact to production is pretty quick.”

Spreading the Word

As beneficial as digital packaging could be for some brand owners, it’s not universally understood and accepted yet. There is an opportunity for printers and converters to reach out to brand owners and describe the advantages to going digital.

“We have a job ahead of us to articulate the value proposition of digital, why and where it is a more economical solution and how it can benefit a brand owner from a marketing perspective,” Joachim says.

He explains that there needs to be a shift in how packaging is perceived and purchased. The brand owner should be aware of its uses, such as promotions, test marketing and sales samples. For example, if a brand reaches out to a big retailer, such as Costco, to pitch a new brand to execs, it’s helpful to have the product’s packaging to show them, rather than a mock-up.

However, even though customer demand is growing and brand owners are learning the benefits of transitioning to digital, adding digital packaging capabilities isn’t for every converter. ePac’s all-digital model began when Emerald Packaging installed the first HP Indigo 20000 in North America, but soon realized that developing the market for digital would require a clear strategy, focus and dedicated resources. Emerald’s infrastructure, specifically its downstream processing, was set up for long runs. Emerald Packaging then turned to Joachim and his partners at Arion Partners LLC, an investment advisory services firm focused on the flexible packaging market. ePac was launched a short time later, with the intent to serve an untapped digital market. With a focus on digital, in addition to CPGs, ePac has developed relationships with converters seeking a partner to outsource short run jobs.

“Since we are 100% digital and have no plans to move upstream into longer runs, the converters that work with us see ePac as a true partner as opposed to one day serving as a threat,” he says.

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ePac to Add Three HP Indigo 20000 Digital Presses to North American Operations

HP Inc. announced that ePac LLC, an Emerald Packaging joint venture based in Madison, Wisconsin, has agreed to purchase three additional HP Indigo 20000 Digital Presses to enhance capacity in line with demand and expand operations in North America. The company is also leveraging a next-generation end-to-end digital workflow platform to streamline production and offer a highly automated customer experience.

“Built on a value proposition of high quality, quick turn-around and economical short runs, the market response to ePac has been tremendous,” said Virag Patel, COO, ePac. “Since we first announced ePac in February of this year, we’ve seen a growing stream of interest in ePac. Aside from our short-run, quick-turn capability, the fact that we are a full-service supplier providing design, pre-media, digital printing, laminating and pouch making services also resonates with our customers.” 

Expanding on the company’s fast-to-market business model, the HP Indigo 20000 Digital Press offers proven quality to meet strict brand requirements, print-on-demand and variable data for unique, customized packaging content for consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs). The HP Indigo 20000, combined with HP PrintOS and ePac’s down-stream finishing systems, enables ePac to produce high-quality multi-format pouches and laminated roll stock.

“With our entire business engineered around a digital platform, ePac is responding to CPG market needs and developing market-specific packaging on demand with HP Indigo 20000 Digital Presses,” said Jack Knott, CEO, ePac. “With HP Indigo technology and support as our digital ally, we’re confident in delivering the highest quality products to our rapidly growing customer base.”

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ePac, LLC Begins Operations in Middleton, Wisconsin

“Wisconsin is the perfect location for ePac”, Jack Knott Ceo, ePac, LLC

ePac, LLC today announced it has begun commercial operations in its Middleton, WI plant. Announced in February 2016, the new company is dedicated to the growing short-run, multiple SKU, quick-turn flexible packaging market.

ePac, is the first flexible packaging company in North America based exclusively on a digital technology platform. Built around the revolutionary Hewlett Packard Indigo 20000 digital press, front-end workflow and down-stream finishing systems have been engineered to leverage the value provided by digital technology.

ePac is geographically positioned to serve both national brands, as well as regionally based consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs). According to Jack Knott, ePac CEO: “Wisconsin is the perfect location for ePac. We selected the Madison area for its proximity to suppliers, and to be close to regional producers of goods such as cheese and snacks.” Added Knott: “ePac’s digital solutions are well suited for large and small CPGs alike. With our digital platform, not only is turn-a-round time accelerated, but plates and inventory are eliminated providing an economical solution for short to medium length runs.”

Markets served by ePac include pet food, naturals and organics snacks, coffee, and lawn and garden. Offerings include variable data printing, lamination, multi-format pouch making, and roll-stock. For more information visit

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Press Release: ePac, LLC Created as First Flexible Packaging Company Based on Digital Printing

ePac, LLC Created as First Flexible Packaging Company Based on Digital Printing

New company launched to focus on growing short-run, quick-turn flexible packaging market

ePac, LLC, a joint partnership between Arion Partners, LLC and Emerald Packaging, Inc., today announced it would begin operations in Madison, Wisconsin in April 2016. The new company is dedicated to the growing short-run, multiple SKU, quick-turn flexible packaging market.

ePac, is the first “Greenfield” flexible packaging company in North America based exclusively on a digital technology platform. Building on Emerald Packaging Inc.’s success as the first flexible packaging HP Indigo 20000 beta in the US, this new partnership marks a significant commitment to the growth of digital printing. With the HP Indigo 20000 as the print platform, complimentary front-end workflow and down-stream finishing systems have been engineered to leverage the unique value provided by digital technology.

ePac digital solutions will provide consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) the ability to rapidly produce test market packaging, quickly roll-out marketing promotions, and eliminate excess inventory through print-on-demand and design-to-print services.

Arion Partners’ Jack Knott, Virag Patel, and Carl Joachim will serve as the management team for ePac. Mr. Knott has an extensive background in creating and managing flexible packaging companies, most recently with Exopack Holdings Corp. and Coveris Holdings. Mr. Patel has significant experience in global market development for Exopack and Coveris, while Mr. Joachim has successfully developed production digital printing businesses for Xerox, Océ and Ricoh.

“SKU proliferation, declining run lengths, and the growing desire among CPGs to offer market-specific packaging are key drivers behind ePac’s go-to-market strategy,” according to Jack Knott, Arion Partners Co-CEO. “With our total operation engineered around a digital platform, ePac will offer a new, cost effective alternative for customers,” added Knott.

ePac is the evolution of initial entry into digital printing by Emerald Packaging through a joint venture with OEC Graphics. According to Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packaging: “We’ve proven there is a market for digital flexible packaging. To capitalize on that success it makes sense to form an entity entirely dedicated to this business model as opposed to one attached to an analog printer. With the significant expertise brought by the Arion team, we’re confident that our growth in digital will rapidly accelerate.”

ePac will start customer engagement immediately in preparation for beginning operations in April of 2016.

About ePac, LLC:
ePac is dedicated to the short-run, quick turn-around flexible packaging market. Offering digital printing, laminating, and pouch making services; ePac offers solutions for consumer packaged goods companies, converters, and contract packagers.

Address: 8233 Forsythia Street, #116 Middleton, Wisconsin 53562
Contact: Jack Knott
Email: jknott(at)epacllc(dot)com
Phone: 561-371-8903
Web Site:

About Arion Partners, LLC:
Arion Partners pursues strategic investments in plastics processing and packaging businesses for select global investors. Arion’s Senior Partners average more than 25 years of experience in the industry including the successful execution of varied and unique growth, operational M&A and restructuring initiatives.

Address: 200 Chambers St. # 2J New York, New York, 10007
Contact: Virag Patel
Email: vpatel(at)epacllc(dot)com
Web Site:

About Emerald Packaging, Inc.:
Emerald Packaging is one of the largest flexible packaging manufacturers on the West Coast and a major supplier of produce packaging within the United States.

Address: 33050 Western Avenue PO Box 5038 Union City, CA 94587
Contact: Kevin Kelly
Email: sales(at)empack(dot)com
Web Site:

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