Digital kit developers turn up the volume

Printing folding cartons digitally is not a new idea, but until very recently it has been limited by the small formats available in digital presses that could handle realistic production volumes. However, the past year has seen the announcement of much larger digital press formats in the B2 and B1 range, with manufacturers targeting the carton market. With one exception, these new presses have not yet reached any users yet, but they will start to do so during this year.

Right now, nobody is quite sure what the applications or demand will be for short- to medium-run cartons, because you can’t buy the presses. However, by looking at the presses in development, it is possible to gauge what sort of opportunity there will be for both commercial and existing packaging printers to use digital for industrial-scale carton production.

So far most digital production presses have been confined to SRA3 formats, usually taking 300-350gsm board as a maximum, which is a bit lightweight for larger cartons. The largest carton you can get out of SRA3 is, very approximately, 370x250x40mm or variations of those dimensions. In practice, most packs produced on SRA3 seem to be much smaller, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics boxes.

Size matters
B2 is the most common format for the new breed of dedicated digital carton presses. These are built to take heavier weight, stronger boards, usually up to 600gsm. Moving to B2 increases the carton size to, say, a medium-sized cereal pack. Or you can gang up several smaller packs. Going to B2 also makes it easier to fit into finishing workflows alongside established offset presses.

Xeikon has actually been able to print B2 cartonboard for years on its 500mm- or 520mm-wide web toner presses, albeit slowly. Its Xeikon 3500 simplex 520mm five-colour machine was designed for label work, but can be modified for carton needs with a decurler. It can handle up to 350gsm, which slows it down to 9.6m/min, equivalent to 810sph.

"We do have a section of users doing cartons, though it is not huge for us," says Danny Mertens, a director of segment marketing and business development at Xeikon. "They are mostly being used for test marketing or for short runs of products such as pharmaceuticals."

The forthcoming sheetfed B2 HP Indigo 30000 is much faster than the Xeikon, though still much slower than an offset press. It will accept sheets up to 750x530mm and up to 600 microns thick, producing CMYK B2 sheets in simplex mode at 3,450sph. However, there’s provision for up to seven colours (CMYK plus orange, violet and green), although this slows down throughput considerably. The machine won’t be installed anywhere until well into 2014. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but as a guide, the 10000 commercial press will be about £1.5m.

That will go up against the Screen Truepress JetSX, a sheetfed B2 inkjet press that was originally announced for commercial printing, but that is able to handle cartonboard up to 600 microns. It prints B2 sheets at about 1,800sph and costs around £1.2m. The first European buyer, RCS in Retford, UK, is using it for personalised cartons, though, not for short- and medium-run industrial scale production (see Simon Creasey’s feature, p14). Whether it can do longer runs remains to be seen.  

Fujifilm, meanwhile, showed the B2 Jet Press F at Drupa, a modified version of its Jet Press 720 commercial press, dedicated to carton printing. This has a new straight-through media path, for board up to 600 microns. According to marketing manager Jon Harper Smith, "the first F presses will go into Beta in Q3 and Q4 this year, with commercial availability soon after that."

The press will use a brand new water-based UV-cured ink. As with the Jet Press 720, it’s confined to CMYK, but with a very wide gamut.

Two other forthcoming B2 inkjet presses that can handle cartonboard are the Komori Impremia IS29  (a joint venture with Konica Minolta that calls it the KM-1) and the MGI Alphajet. Both use UV-cured inks and both are likely to reach users early next year. MGI predicts a price of about £850,000.

So far, only Océ and Landa have announced B1-format carton presses and both seem confident of suitability for industrial-scale applications. The roll-fed Océ InfiniStream is much closer to delivery than the sheetfed Landa S10. Its first installation is scheduled for Q1 this year and up to six more will be delivered in 2013, according to Roland Stasiczek, director of InfiniStream marketing.

 This is a 1,110mm web-fed electrophotographic press using liquid toner and seven colours. It can take 400 micron board, although the company is aiming for 600 microns soon. The process has points in common with the Indigo ElectroInk, but significant differences too.

"The big difference is that we do not build up multiple colours on the blanket," explains Stasiczek. "We have one unit per colour. This is one of the major reasons why we achieve higher speeds. The rated speed is 14,000 B2 images per hour (7,000 B1 sheets). This is four times the speed of the Indigo 30000. We claim that we have the fastest liquid toner technology so far. We hope for cost crossover with offset at about 5,000 B1 sheet equivalents."

Landa predicts that its Nanography process (essentially offset inkjet with dry transfer from a belt) will be able to compete with offset on cost grounds for much longer runs than any other digital process. However, deliveries are still years away. Its S10FC sheetfed carton press, announced at Drupa, will be configured for board of 200-1,000 microns. It will run from 6,000-13,000sph (in either 600dpi or 1,200x600dpi) with four or eight colours. "A B2 press is also on our radar and is being evaluated for the next implementation phase," says Sharon Rothschild, Landa’s packaging product manager.

Be it B1 or B2 then, manufacturers seem to be talking up the potential for digital presses to become viable production machines for cartons. And yet there is no guarantee customers will see it the same way.

HP, however, is confident. "Remember the labels market a few years ago," says Christian Menegon, industrial business development manager. "There was no market for digital because there were no presses. Nobody had any ideas and there was no demand for short-run labels, because they couldn’t be produced. Once our label presses appeared, the demand followed. We think carton demand will ramp up much quicker than for labels, because now the industry knows it can be done."

Sample output
Many carton printers already do have some experience of digital output, but in their sample making departments. For instance Glossop Cartons installed a Fujifilm Acuity 1600 LED flatbed late last year, and uses a Zünd plotter to cut and crease them.

Glossop Cartons director Jacky Sidebottom feels that customers will be attracted by the ability of digital presses to produce cartons in runs of a few hundreds or thousands, with the ability to change the image on the run. "Very much so," she says, "they will be thrilled with this."

However, she points out that modern offset presses, such as Glossop’s Mitsubishi D3000LX, can change jobs very efficiently. "We can do short runs already," she says. "As a manufacturer, we will have to look very closely at the cost of a digital press, length of life, click cost, service cost, against what we know with our offset machines. It will be a great step for a printer, a bit of a leap into the unknown!"

Mark Kerridge, managing director of food packaging printer Benson Group in Bardon, Leicestershire, is more cautious. "Yes, digital printing technology has its applications, but litho is setting very high standards," he feels. "The evolution in litho printing technologies continues at a pace and is delivering step-change improvements in quality, flexibility and productivity. One specific challenge that digital printing and nano technologies will need to meet relates to food safety."

It’s not just about presses, though: finishing becomes an issue for short runs. Modern autoplatens and folder-gluers can be changed pretty quickly, but they’re not intended for 10 or 20 jobs per shift. The UK company Creazy offers pre-cut and creased sheets that will go through some SRA3 digital presses, so no finishing equipment or setup is needed. So far the company hasn’t said if it’s considering B2.

At Drupa, Israeli startup Highcon showed the Euclid, a B1-format digital carton finisher, suited to short runs. It uses powerful lasers to cut out the shapes (which can therefore change for every carton), plus a polymer extrusion head to form non-variable creasing matrices on a cylinder. The matrices are good for about 10,000 impressions.

Euclid makes sense if you’re running a lot of unique short-run jobs. For standardised carton jobs where only the image changes, conventional metal dies may be better as they can be re-used, with the main issue then being changeover times.

The finishing, however, will not be called upon until the presses get their act together. Industry forecasts suggest that may be soon. According to InfoTrends, label and packaging converters billed customers less than $60m (£38m) globally in 2012 for folding cartons printed on current ‘narrow format’ colour digital presses. It forecasts that the total will increase to $628m for 2016, with most of the revenue attributable to larger presses, both electrophotographic and inkjet, that will begin shipping in the next 12 months.

Yet until digital carton press installations start in earnest, it’s impossible to know what all the questions will be, let alone predict the answers. It’s likely that, as with the first print-on-paper digital presses of 20 years ago, customers will have to see them in action before deciding what to use them for.


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