The Evolution of Digital Flexible Package Printing

To a great degree, the integration of digital printing technology into print’s many segments is very much like solving a puzzle, where identifying a viable solution for printing on, for instance, glass or vinyl, requires a careful arrangement of technology, ink, substrate, and curing. Integrating digital printing into the flexible packaging segment is no different. For some flexible products, this puzzle has been vastly solved. This, in conjunction with a strong move by brands toward shorter, more targeted approaches, has opened doors of opportunity through which some package printers are now moving. The following will focus on the current state of digital printing for flexible packaging, while sharing the experience of two forward-looking packaging producers.

Technology Trajectory

According to Sean Smyth, a packaging industry consultant speaking on behalf of Smithers PIRA — who is heavily involved in creating the consultancy’s respected “Digital Print for Packaging” reports — there are a variety of reasons package printers are being drawn to digital printing. While in Europe, the need to create viable multilanguage approaches is a motivating force, the guiding reason in the U.S. is, rather similarly, the need to produce relatively short runs at an affordable cost as compared to traditional flexographic printing.

Digital printing, Smyth says, enables producers to add higher levels of engagement to the functions of packaging. Brands, he adds, have an increasing realization that packaging is an essential part of their messaging, and digital print can heighten the customers’ brand experience. Among other factors contributing to the move toward digital are both the proliferation of SKUs offered by brands, and shorter lifetime of products. This is coupled with an increasing number of companies Smyth says are breaking the rules of packaging. “These new customers want relatively short runs that traditional packaging producers don’t have time for,” he says, noting that with digital printing applications, the “sweet spot” is for those companies equipped to take on that type of business.

Historically, the hoped-for, widely hyped promise of digital printing for flexible packaging was quick turns, lower costs, and short runs — which are inherent features of digital across printing segments. Being that the flexible packaging space was not in the realm of short runs, Smyth says, short-run solutions for bags, for example, often meant a bag with a label, which he describes as being “less substantial.” But even as digital technology began to fulfill its intended capabilities, most of the solutions did not possess a print width sufficient to produce the bags most brands needed. As Smith notes, however, “the technology caught up” by gaining in print width and enabling acceptable printing on a wider range of films common to the flexographic printing segment. As the technology has outgrown its adolescent stage (having now entered adulthood), it has gained approvals for food packaging applications, and is seen as being sustainability-preferable over its analog-based alternatives.

Platforms and Capabilities

According to Smyth, the current, primary platforms for digital flexo are HP Indigo, which is a liquid-based toner system; dry toner systems typified by Xeikon; inkjet systems; and hybrid systems that can be integrated into existing flexo lines. Among those systems, he says HP Indigo has the early adopter advantage, meets expected performance requirements, and fits within other steps in the process. Particularly with the development of the Indigo 25K, Smyth says HP put great resources into defining what the systems could do. He adds that with about a $2 million investment, a company can equip itself with an Indigo 25K, a lamination system, and a pouch line, noting, “if they succeed, they could be the next ePac.”

Kevin Karstedt, president of Karstedt Partners, agrees, saying HP Indigo is a technology that works, and that HP “cracked the nut” with the introduction of the Indigo 20000. The expansion in width, from 13" to 30", he says, opened many opportunities in the flexible market. Many Indigo systems, he says, are going into startups and to small companies that need quick, short runs of flexible packaging.

For the other platforms, Smyth specifically mentions Xeikon, which offers a 510 mm (20.07") maximum print width, which he describes as “an advantage.” Karstedt notes that the expanded width Xeikon offers is delivering more flexible packaging opportunity and expanding capabilities for companies traditionally running narrow-web offset presses. When it comes to stand-alone and hybrid inkjet systems, he says the type of ink system used is critical for success, with water-based inks the way to go. For successful ink application to the wide variety of films used in flexographic printing, he says additional steps, such as applying primer, varnish, or an adhesive seal may be needed.

Karstedt says that inkjet presses used for flexible packaging — whether stand-alone or hybrid — are usually purchased with the intention of label production, and then used to expand into the packaging opportunity. At this point, he says, flexo-quality opaque white must be in place for successful access to flexible packaging, and that inkjet has by-in-large achieved that goal. An additional challenge, he says, is the successful pre-coating, printing, and curing — at speed — on a dimensionally unstable substrate. “That’s when this turns into rocket science,” he says, “and not everybody is good at rocket science.”

Ultimately though, Smyth says inkjet will grow at a faster rate than Indigo, “Indigo still has the early advantage.” Even with this reality, he says new systems to be launched by HP Indigo, which feature multiple imaging mechanisms, will change the realities, and expectations, of print speed.

Applications and Outlook 

According to Smyth, the applications most produced using digital printing for flexible packaging are pouches, which he says have become very popular. Compared to boxes, he adds that pouches are more sustainable, given that more of them can be packed into a container, leading to a reduced shipping of air. Also adding to pouch production’s environmental favorability, Smyth says, is the recent development toward mono-materials, which can easily enter existing recycling streams. Other packaging applications of note, he shares, are sachets and “V-shape” packages, except where the current width of digital is not sufficient (e.g., a large bag of dog food). He adds that the primary vertical markets into which digital is being utilized comprise “a wide range of products,” including human and animal foods, and pharmaceuticals.

The Path Forward

While the technology to digitally print flexible packaging has entered adulthood, it is by no means “mature.” Smyth says packaging printers are still working to sort out the cost mechanisms involved, such as finding the right combinations of specific print technologies, substrates, and lamination. However, he notes the positive development in that an increasing number of materials are being approved into that mix. Smyth says a further understanding of digital’s business benefits, for both converters and brands, will help build speed-to-market and variability, and help build technological momentum. Finally, he adds that for companies working with — or seeking to work with — large brands, accreditation of the process used may be required. While this is an extra, complicating factor, he says accessing the brand’s business may be well worth the work.

Karstedt says the true drive toward digital printing for flexible packaging is coming from the customers. Large brands are adding more SKUs and additional versioning to their products, he shares, adding that the U.S. currently has “roughly 300,000 small manufacturers with fewer than 100 employees — all of them needing packaging of some sort.” Collectively, Karstedt estimates, these companies do around $600 billion worth of manufacturing, and most of them are not being served by the “big companies with the big presses.” Because of this opportunity, he says, commercial printers are jumping into certain packaging opportunities, and large packaging companies are equipping themselves to take advantage of short-run customers.

Digital Printing in Action

One operation that has heavily invested in flexographic printing, as well as rotogravure, technologies is American Packaging. Simply put, this company is massive, as a $500 million packaging converter operating five facilities across the U.S. According to Louis Dolgin, corporate business development and marketing manager, digital technologies are helping American Packaging “satisfy existing customers with specialized needs.”

American Packaging, Dolgin notes, bought an HP Indigo 20000 printer as an experiment roughly four years ago. “We believe in the future of digital, and think it will play a big part in the industry,” he says. While the company bought the press with a “build it and they will come” mentality, Dolgin reports it has worked well as a stepping stone toward launches, promotions, and new business. American Packaging has an average press age of less than 10 years, so, as he says, “Efficiency is at the top end.”

That said, Dolgin sees digital printing as being highly effective for jobs requiring shorter runs and/or quick execution. He says two developments he looks forward to seeing in digital is a blend of lower ink costs and print widths sufficient to complement the company’s analog presses. “That will be the jumping-off point, and I think it’s coming. It will be the opportunity to take on more disruptive order sizes,” he says. “If the technology today was a meter wide and [printed at] 300 ft/min., we would have six of them today. He states he has heard of pending leaps forward in the development of digital for flexible packaging, and a couple of manufacturers touting new capabilities, but that “we haven’t seen the machines run.”

Regarding the integration of digital printing into its current production mix, Dolgin says American Packaging is doing some “heavy investigating to understand front-end needs to have digital work better than it currently does.” Among other factors, the company is seeking the ability to blend custom coating and traditional printing with its digital output, but finds the systems “don’t play well together.” This complicates production aspects like workflow and scheduling. Dolgin says the company may stop trying to link the processes together and instead “make digital its own enterprise.” He notes that companies that are doing well with digital have a “highly automated point of entry.”

Dolgin says digital printing has provided the capability for more specialized work — for instance, linking products to specific sporting events or teams. Further, he says it has helped the company say “yes” more often to customer needs and requests. American Packaging is also using digital internally for prototyping. “If a customer wants a small run,” he says, “digital is a good solution for that.” He says that while the increased granularity of marketing campaigns is fully achievable from a printing standpoint, fulfillment of the product becomes increasingly — even prohibitively — challenging.

Currently, Dolgin says, digitally printed work comprises less than 5% of the company’s total production output. Looking five years ahead, he expects that number to grow. He reports American Packaging expects to be much more invested in digital packaging, saying the company is reserving a segment of its capital expenditure budget for digital printing, and is waiting for the right solution.

While digital printing technologies for flexible packaging will surely rise — taking a slightly larger chunk of the traditional flexographic printing market with each passing year — it, like other digital printing technologies, should not be viewed as a full replacement of traditional systems. Some day? Yes. Now? No. According to Karstedt, for digital technologies to take a significant chunk — say, 15% — of the flexible packaging market, “it’s going to have to take a breakthrough technology. We will need to have high speeds in order to get there.”

In the meantime, digital represents a strong opportunity to serve customers differently, and meet their changing needs. Karstedt says that the need for packaging is expected to grow over the next 10 years, and that print capacity, a reliable supply of films, and sustainability will all factor into successfully filling that need. 

Dan Marx
Dan Marx, senior content editor for NAPCO Media, holds extensive knowledge of the graphic communications industry, resulting from his nearly three decades working closely with business owners, equipment and materials developers, and thought leaders.