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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