The packaging bandwagon that is worth jumping on
By Jenny Roper Thursday, 01 November 2012
Personalised and added-value packaging is on the rise, with big-name brands like Coca-Cola and Heineken already taking advantage. Here is what you need to know to ensure you are in on the action
When Coca-Cola runs a high-profile campaign enabling fans of Sprite to design their own can sleeves, you know that it won’t be very long before other brands are jumping on the bandwagon. And you also know that it’s time to take the idea of innovative, short-run packaging more seriously.
Indeed, a significant number of brands have already started to follow Coca-Cola’s lead in dispensing with the old practice of altering packaging only fairly infrequently, to explore more changeable and even personalised print. Heineken will now deliver a six-pack of beer personalised with your own message and a cherished photograph on the labels. And even brands historically wedded to a certain, very specific pack design, such as Weetabix and Marlboro, have started to change the aesthetic of their packs much more frequently in order to catch the ever-more fickle consumer’s eye.
Of course, for printers, all of this will bring just two words to mind: ‘digital printing’. It will also conjure a feeling of trepidation. Packaging has historically been the domain of conventional print technologies. It may cause anxiety for some to hear that, in these still-tough times, printers may need to invest in digital equipment to keep up with demand for variable data and short-run packaging jobs. They will want to know, then, how strong the case is for investing, or whether the hype surrounding campaigns like Coca-Cola’s has distorted the picture. Can they, for now, make do without digital?
Certainly there are plenty who would maintain that digital’s place in the packaging market, though very recently carved out, is indisputable. Personalisation on packaging is not just a short-term fad, says Vlad Sljapic, sales director at digital manufacturer Domino. Instead, it is here to stay and grow in the same way that it has within, for example, the DM sector.
"One application we’re seeing is increased appetite for adding QR codes that link to a free MP3 download that market research shows a buyer of that particular brand is likely to enjoy," says Sljapic.
HP Indigo business development manager Christian Menegon says that even where this kind of creativity isn’t catching on, the idea of changing the look of packaging much more frequently is.
"The 10m shampoos that Procter & Gamble put on the market next year won’t be one order of 10m prints any more, but maybe five orders of 20,000. Then it will be five orders of 10,000 and so on. This fragmentation is happening everywhere."
And even where brands aren’t seeking to revamp their look more frequently, they are, like everyone else, fast cottoning onto the idea of streamlining operations to save costs and the environment.
"Brands want to target markets with precision, and also to be lean in their manufacturing," confirms Bob Leahey, associate director at document technology strategy and consulting firm InfoTrends. "They tend to order more frequently and in smaller amounts now, to test out new versions and so that they don’t have to store the print or waste any. To a smaller extent, the move towards shorter runs is out of concern for the environment, as well."
That the business case for installing a digital packaging press exists, then, seems fairly indisputable. But does a dedicated digital packaging press exist? Up until very recently this was, after all, with the exception of reasonably low-cost inkjet printers for proofing and prototyping – a pretty much unheard-of concept.
But post-Drupa, printers may need to readjust their preconceptions about what digital can and can’t do. Certainly digital still isn’t – and perhaps never will be – a suitable process for many of the more specialised packaging sectors such as rigid plastics and metal decoration. But recent leaps in technology mean that digital machines are now more than capable, say some, of printing labels, folding cartons and flexible packaging. In fact, most digital vendors apparently have some kind of digital dedicated packaging machine in the R&D pipeline.
Easibind chief executive Harry Skidmore certainly feels that the technology is now advanced enough to handle a wide range of cartonboard printing. His company installed an HP Indigo 5600 press this July and has been very impressed with the range of substrates it will process as a result of the thick substrate upgrade HP offer with this and the 7600 model.
"What they’ve done is incorporate single and multi-shot technology, which means we can print on a wider range of materials, so we can print synthetics, polymers, plastics," he says. "Because of the thick substrate upgrade we can print up to 500 microns in thickness, so that takes us into substantial packaging such as rigid board."
But for some, this is not quite enough. This Drupa, Glossop Cartons managing director Jacky Sidebottom invested in a Fuji Acuity LED machine to print one-off or very short runs of, for instance, personalised chocolate boxes. But she is still holding out for a dedicated digital production press for run lengths of over 100, but still lower than her offset equipment can do economically. So what Glossop and other carton printers could do with, she says, is a press designed specifically for packaging, as distinct from kit such as the Indigo 5600 and the Fuji Acuity, designed for those, like Easibind, who want to process a wide range of POS, display, stationery, mailing pack and packaging work on the machine.
"We want a purpose-built machine that is able to cope with the variety of stock that we want to throw at it," says Sidebottom. "Topping out at 400 microns is no good to a carton printer really, we need to print up to 650 microns."
She adds: "We are in touch with a lot of the digital manufacturers, but nobody has anything concrete to offer us at the moment, they’re all in development and the timescale seems to be rather flexible. They will be ready eventually; it’s a question of time. My feeling is that in perhaps 18 months or two years, there will be a digital carton press available commercially."
But even once this new ‘digital production press’ technology arrives, packaging printers still won’t necessarily need to rush out and buy it. That is, while short-run and variable data packaging work is certainly becoming an ever larger part of the market, this type of job will never become anywhere near as ubiquitous as the long-run order, say some.
"If you take the whole packaging market and look at the percentage done on digital and the percentage done on litho, there’s no comparison," says KBA key accounts director Chris Scully.
"I think most converters of true packaging will eventually have digital presses as part of their kit, but truly long runs will be printed by conventional presses for many years to come," agrees InfoTrends’ Leahey.
So although the next generation of digital production presses promise to be much faster than their ‘jack of all trades’ counterparts, most jobs will apparently continue to be into the tens and hundreds of thousands, and so requiring the speed of a litho machine to complete.
Another argument to bolster the case of those yet to be convinced of the need to add digital printing technology to a packaging operation: in some cases, ever-shorter runs have actually become the domain of litho in recent years.
"Heidelberg Anicolors can now do run lengths as short as 300 economically because of fast colour control and make-readies," reports Heidelberg UK marketing manager for B1 and B2 presses Matt Rockley. "There’s such low waste on them, only about 10 sheets, which is very similar to a digital device. The same goes for our XL presses. We’ve got customers going from last good sheet to next good sheet in less than 15 minutes when changing jobs."
So while a traditional packaging printer may well want to add a digital device to diversify their product offering, their survival may not yet hinge on this. As long as those long runs keep coming in, a traditional packaging printer enjoys, after all, the enviable position of being at the centre of by far the strongest growth area in print.
Which perhaps begs the question of whether those not quite so lucky should in fact be the ones trying to capitalise on the growing availability of short-run packaging orders. That is – should commercial printers who already own digital kit, actually be the ones most seriously considering the possibility of digital packaging printing?
Certainly, in the face of declining demand for commercial print, many owners of this kind of operation will now be looking for other strings they can add to their bows to bolster profits. And the packaging market, is of course, a very good string to add.
"People don’t realise how big and how strong this market is becoming," says KBA’s Scully. "We are taking more tablets, so the pharmaceuticals market is huge and growing day by day. People aren’t going out to restaurants to eat as much, so are eating more packaged food. So this market is really growing."
And commercial printers (particularly those producing direct mail and marketing materials) may well be better placed than the average packaging printer to really capitalise on a growing trend for packaging as intelligently targeted marketing collateral.
"Those in commercial print will have knowledge they can use here," confirms Domino’s Sljapic. "There is a real drive of using promotions in packaging. Brands are being driven to introduce gaming for example to increase the dialogue with the customer, and many commercial printers are already very knowledgeable about these sorts of strategies."
But the question remains: is the technology in place for digital packaging printing? This could pose more of a constraint for
the printer hoping to utilise existing kit than the printer with the luxury of investing in the latest more packaging-ready digital press.
Leahey’s answer is that existing digital kit can certainly be used for some applications – such as labels. "The typical web width of most digital machines is around 13 inches, which is similar to what most label converters print with their flexo presses," he says. "So much activity has been around narrow web digital presses that accommodate the label application pretty well."
"Some people can absolutely run some packaging work on an existing digital machine," agrees HP’s Menegon. "The commercial printer may want to offer the service of packing the book that he’s just printed, for example, into a personalised box. All he needs to do is create a thicker carton, something slightly out of the range of substrates he would normally print, and suddenly he’s shipping in a box he’s printed himself."
But some would point out that supplying a brand with something they’re used to getting from elsewhere could be more difficult than creating a new added-value application. The sorts of scenarios someone printing packaging will be supplying into can be very diverse, explains Leahey, with part of the cutting and wrapping work often carried out at the customer’s end. For this reason, he explains, printers may struggle to print in a format that the customer’s machinery will also be able to process.
"A key limitation for digital presses in folding cartons and flexible packaging or any kind of non-label packaging application is the web or throat width that digital offers," he explains.
"Up and down the country, the converting will be handled very differently," agrees Domino’s Sljapic. "Moving into packaging, a commercial printer will encounter very different landscapes of supplier and customer relations."
But even if a digital firm does have potentially the right technology to cater for a packaging client, the radically different landscape that the packaging market presents may still prove tricky to navigate.
"It gets confusing for printers trying to branch into this area, because there are a lot of unfamiliar names," reports Peter Walczak, international director of product management for packaging at Goss. "There are a lot of companies they’ve never heard of, so they have to learn about a whole new supplier base. And the terminology used is very different. On a web version of a press you don’t call it a ‘cut off’, you call it ‘a repeat’ or ‘image length.’ It’s very different in terms of nomenclature."
"I’m not sure commercial printers have the knowledge to produce packaging," agrees Glossop’s Sidebottom. "Cartons are quite unique, they’re not general commercial print, there’s lots of construction knowledge that’s gained by experience. They could well struggle with a 3D piece as opposed to 2D."
And it is in the area of finishing where non-packaging specialists could really struggle, says Leahey. "With flexible packaging, the customer may require you to create seams or to create laminations," he says. "That’s all done by the sort of equipment an average commercial printer normally wouldn’t have."
So the question of whether packaging printing has truly arrived in digital’s domain remains contentious, whichever way you look at it. Those already with digital kit may well want to turn their hands to running a bit of packaging alongside their established work, to capitalise on such a strong growth sector and the fact that packaging runs are certainly falling in length and experimenting more and more with variable data. And it may well be that they can gain this sort of work from their existing customer base, as long as the brand isn’t so large that contacting the packaging buyer will be as tricky as approaching a completely new client.
But with some feeling that even the latest digital technology on the market isn’t quite up to the job of some types of packaging work, those with digital machines installed a few years ago may struggle even more to process the right sorts of substrates and the right web widths at an economical rate.
And those already in the packaging sector will need to consider whether there is demand within their customer-base for short-run work or whether they can carry on, business as usual, and still make a tidy sum from the long runs coming their way.
Certainly there are now more versatile digital machines on the market promising to very effectively process not only POS, mailer and display work but also some sorts of label, folding carton and flexible packaging jobs, too. But those packaging printers who feel they have plenty of time before the short-run becomes king may well want to wait until the next breed of dedicated digital packaging presses – currently in the pipeline – are launched to really offer the full package.
Latest jobs Jobs web feed
- Sales Executive (Home based) Key Recruitment £40K ( negotiable ) plus commission plus car and mobile, Essex, London, Hertfordshire, Surrey
- Print Buyer Pyramid Consultancy Ltd £25,000 - £30,000pa, London
- Print Estimator | Exhibition & Display Print | North West Mercury Search and Selection £25k , Manchester
- UK Sales Manager | Self Adhesive Labels | UK - Home Based Mercury Search and Selection £32k-£40k + Attractive commission structure, pension, life insurance, car, laptop & smart phone , UK - home based
- Account Director - Reprographics/ Mail Room - London asg Up to £45,000 + bonus + benefits, London