Digital printing for packaging - a great promise for brand owners -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

Digital printing for packaging - a great promise for brand owners

By Alvise Cavallari – Strategic Packaging Marketing Consultant

Digital printing for packaging has garnered significant interest, yet its adoption rate seems to be slower than anticipated, especially when considering the market opportunity. What factors are hindering its growth? What does the future hold for digital printing? Has it been oversold, or does it still have a promising future? Alternatively, has it quietly reached maturity? This article will supply a comprehensive outlook on digital printing for packaging and explore barriers plus current and future opportunities.

It is widely acknowledged that digital printing excels in small-scale applications and ventures into areas where analogue technologies fall short. In simple terms, digital printing thrives in two key areas.

Firstly, it optimises the supply chain through smaller batches, lower ordering quantities and shorter lead times, which enables reduction in both production and logistics waste. Waste is a significant factor to consider as it is often inadequately documented throughout the entire process and not accurately accounted for in business budgets. Waste remains often hidden, much like an iceberg, resulting in unforeseen costs. Additionally, digital printing streamlines the graphical supply chain, from artwork design to print, resulting in fewer pre-press and makeready steps. Shorter time to market allows leaner operations and quicker product launches. Unsurprisingly, digital printing shines in label and in pharmaceutical, as it answers variability and SKU versioning needs.

Secondly, it offers marketing-oriented advantages, exemplified by successful promotions like the well-known "Share a Coke", “KitKat Personalised” or “PepsiMoji” campaigns. Through customisation, variable data, unique designs or personalised messages, digital printing enables brand owners to get closer and engage with consumers on a deeper level. Moreover, it facilitates new consumer experiences and enables new routes to market, including direct-to-consumer sales channels and personalisation.

But the true strength of digital printing lies in combining these two aspects, where it opens up new consumer experiences while bringing operational optimisations. This concept is tied with what is often referred to as "late-stage customisation". It is however often forgotten or misunderstood that this customisation must occur operationally at the very latest stage, typically just before or sometimes right after the filling and packing process: the printing step must then be integrated directly into the production processes, whether in a next-door or nearline approach, or in a fully inline integration with packing. Packaging printing-in-production has probably been overlooked despite its significant potential, and just a few brand-owners have yet invested in such operational and business opportunities.

Traditionally, an artwork is static and is analogue printed at the converter, while the variable data on a pack is limited to alphanumeric or machine-readable elements which are coded directly on the filling and packing line. In-house digital printing has the potential to bridge the gap between printing and coding, between static and variable, and between artwork and code, by seamlessly printing both static and variable artwork and data in just a single step.

As the past drupa exhibitions have clearly shown, in terms of technological advancements digital printing has made considerable progress in improving the balance between quality, speed, and cost. High-resolution printing has become commonplace, together with extended colour gamut, digital white capability, and high throughputs through both increased speed and printing width. Solutions now exist for most - if not all - packaging materials, and traditionally hard to print materials like flexible plastics are seeing constant improvements. From flat, reel-fed or sheet-fed, to direct-to-shape printing, near limitless possibilities are available. Digital has already become mainstream in label printing thanks to the versatility it brings; while in folding carton and most other substrates it is still used mostly for promotional printing, things will progressively change and follow the same path as labels printing.

Ink development is probably the most R&D intensive field, and most manufacturers focus on improving water-based inks to reach colour brilliance and good adhesion to a variety of packaging substrates while reducing costs. This move is closely related to compliance, particularly in terms of ink formulations for safe food packaging, where the requirements are increasingly stringent and where the usage of photo initiators for UV-curable inks is progressively reduced.

While the need to move from brand colours to process colours initially raised concerns over colour accuracy and consistency, improvements in digital workflows and colour management systems ensure consistent branding. It is now well known that colour accuracy can be achieved with standardised colour palettes or with extended gamut, to the extent that such efforts are now also being implemented into analogue printing. Furthermore, software tools exist that optimise and automate colour management for different print media irrespective of the print technology and colour gamut.

Despite the undeniable potential of digital printing both for supply chain optimisation and marketing, there are still gaps that often make analogue printing the preferred choice. One obvious challenge is the printing cost per item. Cost comparisons between analogue and digital printing still indicate a breakeven point of just a few thousand square meters of packaging material. Below this threshold, digital printing is more economical, but above it, analogue printing becomes more cost-effective. Reducing costs and extending the breakeven point are crucial to make digital printing more attractive to brand owners, knowing that analogue technologies -especially flexo and offset litho- are also making continuous progresses in flexibility at low volumes and cost. 

As batch sizes and run lengths continue to decrease the attractiveness of digital printing increases. However, brand owners often base their price benchmarks and decisions on the costs for long runs and expect shorter runs to be similarly priced. Of course, digital printing enables large savings throughout the graphical chain, such as reducing printing waste and write-offs of packaging material. But to be quantified, this requires new insight to calculate end to end costs beyond printing expenses, which also include savings in the overall packaging supply chain.

Another often overlooked aspect is the packaging substrate used. Optimal printing quality relies on the interaction between the printing system - the press and its ink-set - and the printed substrate. Current packaging materials are optimised for analogue printing processes and may not always be suitable for digital printing, particularly with inkjet technology, and a pretreatment such as Corona will not be sufficient to ensure consistent results. Transitioning from existing substrates to digital-ready substrates, when they exist, requires a lengthy re-certification process to ensure they perform well enough in filling and packing processes while meeting regulatory and compliance requirements.

Sustainability is a paramount consideration for brand owners in packaging development. Therefore, comparing digital with analogue printing through full lifecycle assessment (LCA) is essential. This assessment of the printing processes includes evaluating manufacturing, tools and consumables, printing, curing, cleaning, as well as production waste. Packaging end-of-life must also be assessed: compatibility with the returning streams such as the recycling and industrial composting, as well as the availability and effectiveness of de-inking processes. The printing and packaging industry must answer these questions for brand owners willing to embrace digital printing, and drupa 2024 will be a perfect arena for industry thought leaders to advocate for change.

While digital printing for packaging is not yet mainstream, except in certain key business areas, it has transitioned from being a buzzworthy and trendy technology to making substantial but less visible progress. Its adoption rate may still be slow, but it is gradually and steadily gaining traction. What can we expect now?

A period of consolidation is beginning, characterised by mergers and acquisitions. Key players will emerge as market leaders, while others may struggle to penetrate the packaging industry. Digital printing will become increasingly accessible in terms of cost and usability. Converters will develop new business models to leverage the benefits of digital printing, and brand owners will gain a deeper understanding of the opportunities it offers, thereby opening up more direct ways to communicate with consumers. Integration with other digital technologies, such as augmented reality and smart and connected packaging, will further enhance packaging interactivity, consumer engagement, and provide valuable product information to both consumers and brand owners. drupa 2024 exhibition will showcase these efficiencies and new opportunities.

Digital printing for packaging holds great promise for the future, and with continued advancements, it is silently and steadily revolutionising the industry, driving greater efficiency, customisation, and sustainability.

About the Author

Alvise Cavallari has nearly 20 years of experience in the machine industry, where he has gained extensive expertise and insights into packaging printing. He then moved to the brand owner side, and his career highlights include leading the corporate programmes at Nestlé R&D on digital printing, coding, and technical anti-counterfeiting. He has also supplied valuable assistance to multiple companies in these areas, helping them navigate the evolving landscape of digital printing and anti-counterfeiting. Alvise's profound industry knowledge and dedication to driving innovation position him as a leading expert in the future of packaging technologies.

Alvise can be reached under LinkedIn

Read more Guest Articles