Xaar hails 'next important step' in the digital packaging market

Simon Nias
Thursday, October 3, 2013

Xaar has highlighted the first "direct-to-shape" digital packaging printer launches, from its OEM partners, as having the potential to "accelerate the digitisation of packaging" over the next five years.

In a progress update on the packaging sector, the Cambridge-based manufacturer highlighted the first public demonstrations of direct-to-shape digital print systems by four of its OEM partners at last month's Drinktec exhibition in Munich.

Xaar declined to comment on the identity of the OEM partners, although based on an analysis of the recent direct-to-shape technology announcements, KHS, Krones, Sacmi and Till are the most likely candidates.

Ian Dinwoodie, chief executive of Xaar, pointed to the ability to print to irregular shaped bottles as an example of the disruptive potential of the technology.

"One of the partners is looking at this so that they can actually change the shape of the blown bottle and when they change the shape of the blown bottle to quite an irregular shape then fundamentally you can't stick a label on the thing," he said.

"That's a completely different driver in their space - there're a number of interesting drivers, we don't expect this is going to change overnight but it's another interesting step forward in the evolution of the technology."

With the first OEM machines just going into a field trial period, Dinwoodie said commercial installs could be anything from one to five years away, although he said that beyond that it was likely that the direct-to-shape market would begin to impact on the digital labels market.

"Clearly it's a subset of labels so our overall view at the moment is that the digital print of labels using stock will progress quite nicely over the next few years and then this may well be a process that accelerates the digitisation of packaging a couple of years further out from now," he said.

"We don't see this direct-to-shape technology cannibalising any of the stuff we're doing over the next couple of years, but you put yourself five years out and we may see an acceleration in that conversion."

Dinwoodie described the firm's latest generation 1001 printheads, which are used by its direct-to-shape OEM partners, as "an enabling technology" adding that Xaar was dependent on its OEM partners' success for its own success - in the same manner Intel is in the computer market.

"The key in any of these applications is [that] the end market conversion is predominantly up to our OEMs and the fluid suppliers and we enable that to happen," he said.

"The first digital presses based on our technology showed up at Drupa 08 so that shows you the time that some of this stuff takes, but it does appear to be gaining some momentum in the end marketplace and packaging looks like the next important step for us."

While Xaar's involvement with its OEM partners typically dwindles as the products get closer to launch (due to the fact it will typically be working with multiple rival partners on the same application), Dinwoodie said the company was heavily involved in the earlier feasibility study, laboratory phase.

"There's a lot of co-development work that goes on for many years prior to these kind of launches. That's actually where the sell is done - it's still very much a technical sell particularly where it's a brand new application to see whether it can disturb an established market," he said.

"The trick [in direct-to-shape printing] is with our OEMs; the first thing is that bottles aren't flat - they're all kinds of shapes and sizes - so you need to achieve the primary label quality direct onto substrates, which are not flat and moving at the speed of a bottling line and that is tricky to do.

"You're firing dots of ink still, but the heads are standing vertically rather than pointing downwards and it's all about achieving the image quality on all kinds of shapes and sizes of substrates where throw distances vary because of the size of the substrate, [so] the mechanical handling, the electronics and the software has to go with it in it completely integrated solution."

He added that the run lengths for both technologies were virtually identical, with both digital label and direct-to-shape manufacturers looking at 100,000 impressions or less as the digital space and over 100,000 impressions without change as analogue progress.


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