Digital printing: the Swiss army knife of an ever-changing market -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

Digital printing: the Swiss army knife of an ever-changing market

by Tiziano Polito - Deputy Editor-in-Chief - Emballages Magazine - Infopro Digital Group

Already used for mass customization and multi-referencing, digital printing is now responding to the expectations of the public and manufacturers in terms of the environment, particularly in terms of reuse. Tomorrow, the process will undoubtedly enable us to solve even more challenges. Provided, however, that the rest of the chain follows suit. 

Like a Swiss Army knife, digital printing adapts to the market, according to the seasons and the needs .... Ten years ago, the process enabled Coca-Cola to personalize 800 million products with a few thousand first names, in partnership with HP Indigo, in a gigantic marketing operation called “Share a Coke”, which subsequently became a resounding commercial success. So much so that the subject has become a textbook case, studied in economics and marketing faculties around the world. These presses were then used to print ever shorter runs of packaging and labels, at affordable prices and with fast turnaround times, as the industry gradually moved away from mass production towards differentiation and multi-referencing. The market has indeed changed. Coca-Cola itself, along with Danone, Nestlé and even small chocolate and coffee brands, no longer produce millions of identical products as they did in the past, but variants of the same product, with different flavors (orange, strawberry, vanilla, etc.), tastes (full-bodied, light, medium), colors, sizes (33, 50 cl, 1 litre, 1.5 litres), etc., so that each consumer can find something to suit his or her taste. In this age of "me, myself and I", in other words, when every consumer wants to be able to find "the" product on the market that suits them, digital technology is the perfect answer. 

Digital technology also meets the requirements of an increasingly optimized packaging supply chain, with a view to ensuring the right cost and the right need. In the luxury goods industry, for example, perfume and make-up houses no longer need to stock thousands of packaging references. They consume on demand, depending on stock levels, in the various shops around the world, and then place orders with luxury packaging manufacturers, who use digital technology to print cartons in quantities of just a few dozen units, in colors to match the references to be produced: Thirty cases for lipstick reference 656, twenty-five in reference 543, four cases for gloss 334, one hundred and fifty in colour 25, etc. The ability to print immediately and without additional costs linked to the purchase of printing forms, as well as the reduction in makeready and waste times, are among the intrinsic advantages of digital processes as opposed to traditional processes. Since the end of the 2010s, the market has become accustomed to this way of working, with large runs produced using offset or flexo on the one hand, and digital printing on the other, for restocking and one-off requirements, or even for launches and special runs. Companies like MR Cartonnages Numérique, based in the Paris region, have based their business on this type of service. 

At a time when the environment has become the packaging industry's number one priority, digital printing is still making waves. And, once again, it's doing industry and consumers a favor. A good example comes from the Lyon region of France. It concerns the reuse of packaging, a practice that the Paris government is seeking to develop as part of the '3R' approach (reduce, reuse, recycle) to limit the incidence of waste. Didier Loffreda, CEO of the Lorge company, even believes that reuse will increase in the food and drinks sector, driven by regulations but above all by consumers looking for more sustainable solutions and prepared to take their packaging back to the point of sale. To support this movement, the label printer has invested last year in an HP Indigo 8K digital press.  "We're already in contact with major groups such as Bonduelle and Léa Nature or La Ravoire in the wine sector. They're all very interested in this project", says Didier Loffreda. The company has produced 750,000 labels for this segment by 2022, mainly for committed SMEs such as Lyon microbrewery La Canute. This type of company, and there are many others, in the wine and spirits, jams and honeys, luxury confectionery and yoghurt sectors, are focusing on short distribution channels and zero waste. Reusable packaging, whether returnable or not, is part of their strategy.

The benefits of digital technology? For most of these companies, the volumes ordered rarely justify the use of traditional flexo lines. What's more, these are products that are offered as multiple references. Canute, an 'artisanal and urban' beer, is available in five varieties to reflect the different districts of Lyon: Tête d'or, Croix Rousse, Confluence, Vieux Lyon and Grange Blanche. Then there are the autumn beers, the white beers, the IPAs and the cask-aged beers - some twenty varieties produced according to the season and the mood of the day from short-lived brews to beers that may never come back.

While it may seem fairly straightforward today to print multi-reference labels on a digital press, it is still necessary to make these labels perfectly suitable for re-use, as these brands are asking. That's what Lorge is all about. Making a label for reusable packaging is no easy task. First of all, it has to be able to be printed correctly to catch the eye of the consumer on a shelf, then it has to remain perfectly stuck to the container until it is used, and then it has to come off when it has to be washed and refilled.

"It's a real headache because you have to find the right printing process, the right substrate and the right adhesive," observes Didier Loffreda. He adds: "If the labels don't peel off at the right time, the whole business model collapses, because the washer ends up with soiled bottles that are unusable for a second rotation ». During these three years of development, the company manager studied the specifications for the washers. And carried out dozens of tests. He realized that, among the digital printing technologies, HP Indigo's liquid electrophotography (LEP) was better suited to his needs than inkjet, since the latter process involves a higher ink load, and therefore more waste for the washer. For its part, HP Indigo helped the printer to achieve this by softening its primer varnish. "As it is formulated, the primer prevents water from penetrating the paper, but to achieve our result we needed a completely hydrophilic substrate," explains the manager. He adds: "We also had to give up all kinds of gilding and varnish because these decorations, although appreciated by the marketing department, act as a barrier to water. In terms of materials, Lorge uses 90 g/m2 Avery Dennison adhesive paper, which is slightly heavier than the usual 80 g/m2. The acrylic-based adhesive has been developed to come off more easily when sprayed with water by the machines. Didier Loffreda explains: "Because of the low volumes ordered and the particular nature of the substrate, the material costs us two and a half times more. We are looking to reduce this extra cost by playing with formats, pooling and amalgams. 

These experiments are destined to multiply, with, on the one hand, LEP, inkjet and toner machines offering technical solutions for low-cost printing of small and (increasingly) medium-sized runs, and, on the other, companies that know how to anticipate changes in the market, in terms of marketing, regulations, distribution methods (e-commerce, for example) and logistics. In the past, digital technology helped manufacturers with marketing, mass customization and the supply chain, with multi-referencing; today it is helping them with environmental issues. Tomorrow, it will help them again with new issues, issues that we don't even know about yet. Because everything evolves very quickly.

MR Cartonnages, to come back to him, told us that in the future, supplies of folding cartons could one day be triggered directly from the cash registers in shops, and the packaging delivered by drone to luxury houses. This will enable us to move even faster and be even more efficient.

While digital printing technologies represent an indisputable asset for tackling the challenges of the future, there are still many obstacles to solve linked to the digitalization of the graphics chain downstream of the whole process, such as cutting, finishing, with 2D and 3D varnishing, embossing and metallization, right through to packaging and delivery, remain to be resolved. A great deal of progress has been made in all these segments, as demonstrated by the experience of Highcon in slitting and creasing, and of Scodix and MGI in finishing, SEI Laser in cutting. What now remains to be done is to link all these processes together and make them more fluid, so as to obtain a 100% digital and 100% flexible production line, capable of printing, finishing and shaping a few units as well as a few thousand units of cases or labels, and then preparing - again automatically - the parcels. This will undoubtedly also require the creation of a single working document, a 'super-PDF', containing information not only on the visual to be printed - as is already the case today - but also on the printing, finishing and converting process and, no doubt, on the customer and his packaging machines. We're not there yet. But we will do, probably sooner than expected and you may see it at drupa.

About the Author

Tiziano Polito is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Emballages Magazine - Infopro Digital Group. For more than 20 years, Tiziano witnesses the packaging transformation. He strongly believes in innovations and radical breakthroughs. Founded in 1932, Emballages Magazine covers the world of packaging and packaging materials. It caters to packaging users, designers, packaging manufacturers, as well as packaging machinery suppliers. Emballages magazine is a point of reference for the entire packaging industry.

 You can reach Tiziano under LinkedIn


“Market conditions force many companies to require digital packaging production"


“There are still many obstacles to complete the full digitalization of packaging production but a great deal of progress has been made and more will come.”


“In the past, digital technology helped manufacturers with marketing, mass customization and the supply chain; today it is helping them with environmental issues”

Read more Guest Articles