A personal approach wins new ground for digital tech

Conventional wisdom has it that digital printing is best suited to short-run applications with very limited opportunities in packaging, which is mainly a business of very long runs.

But we have seen from the rapid growth in digital label presses that brands do value the added marketing opportunities that digital brings. Maik Laubin, sales director for KBA’s Digital Solutions division, says that this also applies to the wider packaging sector, which is becoming more interested in digital printing for the advertisement opportunities. He adds: “That’s the main communication that brands have with their customers.” 

There are some examples of personalisation for packaging, typically around online ordering of luxury goods, where the personalisation gives the added impression of value to the goods within. Brands have also used high-profile personalised campaigns to raise overall awareness. So, for example, Nestlé has worked with Ultimate Packaging to print personalised KitKat packs using an HP Indigo press. 

However, Laubin says that versioning rather than personalisation is more useful to brands, where it allows them to develop targeted campaigns, for example, around regional events or sporting competitions. Laubin says this might include a tie-in with a football team, for example, where different packs might reflect individual team members, adding: “So in this way one big job might be split across 12 parts, which is leading to more short runs.”

There’s little doubt that there are a growing number of short-run packaging jobs. Carlo Sammarco, sales director for packaging solutions at Screen Europe, says this is mainly because the number of SKUs (stock keeping units) is increasing, explaining: “In the past there might have been one SKU for a product which now might be separate SKUs for different flavours.” A digital press is an obvious solution, taking short-run jobs off of a conventional press to reduce time and media lost to job changeovers. 

Another potential use of digital printing is to help with track and trace systems used to combat fraud. This is mandatory now with pharmaceutical packaging in many countries but can also apply to some high-value goods as well as safety-critical items. Amir Raziel, flexible packaging business manager for HP Indigo, says there is also an increasing trend for just in time delivery. 

Folding cartons

However, not all packaging is equal, with the main issue being the relationship between ink and substrate. Most of the digital label printers use UV ink to cope with the wide range of substrates but this isn’t the best solution for packaging because of the migration risk of the ink contaminating food if it fails to cure properly. Instead most high-volume printers use water-based inks, which are cheaper and easier to formulate for compliance with food safety regulations. But this in turn limits the inks to paper and board substrates so it’s not surprising that most digital packaging presses are aimed at the folding carton market. 

Colour is another issue, given the heavy use of spot colours in most packaging. Consequently most presses designed specifically for packaging have at least seven colours and offer extended colour inksets, typically with orange, green and violet as well as CMYK. Those presses meant for flexible films will also offer white. Thus, the Indigo presses have seven colour stations but Raziel says that most customers using flexible films choose CMYK plus white, noting: “Customers want the ability to put spot colours in the press but in reality they opt more for four process colours, which gives them a good enough range and flexibility.”

What’s available?

There are several B1 digital presses in various stages of development that have been designed specifically for packaging applications. This includes Heidelberg’s Primefire 106, a seven-colour press that Heidelberg says will cover 95% of Pantone colours. It includes a coating unit and can run at up to 2,500sph. It uses a Fujifilm inkjet system with Samba printheads giving full 1,200dpi resolution. The inks are water-based and said to be suitable for food production. This was shown at last year’s Drupa show with the first beta unit heading to a Multi Packaging Solutions site in Germany. MPS specialises in packaging for beauty, consumer and pharmaceutical brands and is interested in the ability of digital packaging printing to offer customers significant added value at the point of sale.

KBA is working with Xerox to develop a B1 inkjet press, the VariJet 106, also specifically for printing to folding carton. The press is based on a Rapida 106 platform, which provides the basis for the feeder, pretreatment and post coating, while Xerox Impika is providing the inkjet side. It will be a seven-colour press with the aim of producing 4,500sph. However, the choice of printhead has yet to be fixed, with both a 1,440dpi binary system and a 1,200dpi greyscale approach being worked on. Laubin says: “We are doing a lot of testing quality-wise and how it’s impacting the workflow.” He says that it will be a standalone system, with further options such as cold foiling and offset units from the existing Rapida options. The intention is that the VariJet will be commercially available by the end of 2018.

KBA is also working with HP to develop a 2.8m-wide inkjet press for preprinting corrugated board. The T1100S is essentially a scaled-up version of an HP PageWide web press, using HP thermal printheads with HP’s standard four colour inkset. It runs at 183m/min and can print offset-quality on standard uncoated and coated liners from 80-400 gsm with an option for varnishing.

Landa is also targeting the packaging market with its S10 Nanography press. This is a single-sided B1 inkjet device that can handle folding carton and corrugated boxes. It uses Fujifilm Samba printheads with a resolution of 1,200dpi, together with Landa’s Nanographic process of laying down the inks on a transfer belt and thence to the substrate. There are up to eight colours – CMYK plus orange, blue and green with room for one further colour. Landa is claiming a speed of 6,500sph for the standard model, with a high-speed option of 13,000sph. The first three beta sites, including two packaging printers, go live this year. 

In addition, Landa is developing a webfed version, the W10, which will be able to handle flexible packaging including BOPP, PET and PE films. This should run at 100m/min, with a high-speed option for 200m/min.

The B2 market

The situation is somewhat different in the B2 market, where there are a number of presses available. HP Indigo, for example, has long been interested in the packaging sector. It is the dominant digital player in the label market thanks to its web-fed presses, such as the 80m/min Indigo 8000, which has a maximum web width of 340mm. HP has also developed two B2 Indigo presses for packaging, the 20000, which is one of the few printers designed for flexible films, and the 30000, which is for carton board. They use the same liquid toner approach as the standard Indigo presses, with more or less the same process in that the image is transferred to a blanket first and then to the substrate. The electro-inks have been modified to comply with food packaging regulations. The main difference is that they use HP’s one-shot approach as Raziel, explains: “All the inks are accumulated on the blanket and only then are they transferred to the substrate.” 

He adds: “This is important because the contact between the heated blanket and the substrate is a fraction of a second so we can print to heat-sensitive materials like film or metallised materials.”

Xeikon has created a digital folding carton suite around its 3000 series web presses. There’s a choice between the entry-level 3050 and the 3500. Both are dry toner devices and can handle a wide range of substrates. They are capable of 1,200dpi resolution with 516mm print widths for producing B2 sheets. They accept various types of boards and are certified for food packaging. The solution also includes Xeikon’s Flatbed Diecut Unit, or FDU, which can cut, crease and emboss in a single pass at a rate of up to 2,000sph. 

There are also three sheetfed B2 presses, developed for general commercial work but able to handle thicker materials such as folding carton. Fujifilm has developed the Jet Press 720S, a four-colour B2 press that can print 2,700sph. It’s a sheetfed simplex press though sheets can be turned over and reloaded to print on the second side, with a barcode used to match the correct images for each side. It uses Fujifilm’s Samba printheads to produce 1,200dpi print quality together with Fujifilm Vividia inks. 

Konica Minolta sells the AccurioJet KM-1, a four-colour B2 sheetfed press with 1,200dpi resolution that uses Konica Minolta printheads. It can handle media up to 0.6mm thick as well as folding carton and will produce 3,000 simplex sheets per hour. Head of market Mark Hinder says that packaging is a target market for it. However, it uses UV inks, which does help to give good image quality but limits its use for food packaging. Konica Minolta has a distribution arrangement with MGI to pair finishing options to the KM-1.

Screen also has a B2 sheetfed press, the Truepress JetSX, which can print on boards up to 600 microns thick. It can produce single-sided sheets at up to 1,620sph, although Sammarco says that speed is less of an issue as you can queue jobs together without stopping on a digital press. It uses greyscale printheads with resolution up to 1,440dpi. Screen has targeted the personalised gift market with one customer, RCS, based in Retford, Nottinghamshire, using it to produce bespoke gift boxes for wine bottles. 

In addition, Screen has developed a UV label press, the L350UV. Screen has also worked with its subsidiary, Inca Digital, in developing further solutions, such as an arrangement to build a page-wide print bar with Samba printheads for a BHS corrugating printer.

However, Sammarco says that Screen’s “number one priority” is developing low-migration inks. This, of course, is the holy grail for all the press manufacturers, opening up the market for flexible packaging. Kodak has demonstrated some capability to print to flexible packaging with its Prosper printing system, albeit using a primer, with a reasonable level of print quality. Fujifilm too has demonstrated its Eucon system for flexible films using nitrogen to fully cure the inks though health and safety regulations limit this to the Japanese market for now. 

For now most press vendors have concentrated on the low hanging fruit of folding cartons. But the  development of B1-format presses demonstrates their belief that the packaging market is finally ready to embrace digital printing as a mainstream solution. 


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