High-speed digital targets corrugated

Often seen as the carton’s less profitable and glamorous relation, corrugated packaging can often be overlooked. And yet, while digital printing of conventional cartons seems to have stalled, this is exactly where a new breed of purpose-built single-pass inkjets with specialised feeders for high-speed production are being targeted.

Some of these were detailed in June at a seminar held in Brussels by the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO). Entitled ‘High Volume Digital Printing on Corrugated Board’, it saw presentations by users and suppliers including Barberan, Bobst, Esko, HP and Sun Automation. 

The broad theme of the event was that digital print will allow corrugated board to be transformed from packaging and protection to a new marketing communications medium, thanks to increased print quality, and the possibilities for customisation and creativity. “It is a real revolution,” says FEFCO secretary general Angelika Christ.

“The demand for digital printing mainly comes from the customers, packers and fillers and from retailers,” states FEFCO. “The need for versioning and personalisation, regional marketing, last-minute changes, rapid response to customer demand and accelerated time to market are the principal factors pushing the industry to move from analogue to digital printing.”

While these potential variable data benefits should certainly get more marketers interested in the technology, it’s likely its immediate appeal will be more cost-orientated. 

Because corrugated is, on the whole, low margin, you need high total volumes to make it pay. This favours fast inkjet print engines with automatic loading and unloading for material handlings, and the potential to reduce consumable costs that this new generation of printers brings. Likely to be of more immediate appeal for now too, is this technology’s potential to improve image quality.

While a lot of the attention surrounding these machines has been focused on corrugated packaging, display is another key potential market. 

Display work is already being handled by digital presses, in the form of large-format flatbed inkjets with UV-cured inks. These use multi-pass heads that offer a balance between quality and speed. 

Handling difficulties

Durst and HP make dedicated corrugated versions of their high-end UV flatbeds that feature specialised systems to handle the large, heavy but relatively floppy corrugated sheets. Last year Fujifilm, which sells Inca Digital’s Onset family of printers worldwide, announced a specialised corrugated loading/unloading system that it commissioned for the Inca S40i high-speed UV flatbed, together with lower-cost UV inks formulated for corrugated media.

However, even the fastest multi-pass flatbeds only manage a fraction of the throughout of the single-pass presses that have been introduced in the past year or so by Barberan and Sun Automation, suggesting that this new breed of single-pass machines may well gain traction with some. Sun Automation, in particular, is targeting display work as well as packaging, as it reckons it has the quality as well as the speed to succeed here.

The economics of boxes tend to particularly favour high-throughout single-pass digital printers, though. Dennis van Ijzerloo, export manager of Barberan, explains: “In display there is a lot of margin as people will pay for quality, but there is very little in boxes, where costs matter down to the cent. So digital costs need to be lower or at least the same as flexo.” 

He goes on to explain how digital can drive costs down: “This is not all in the inks and process. There are no plates and downtime is less by 160% than flexo; there is less labour. All those costs have to be taken into account. Yes, UV ink is expensive, but other costs are less.”

Sean Moloney, product manager for the Sun Automation CorrStream high-speed digital press, has a similar cost savings argument: “We have uptimes in excess of 80%, which is more than flexo, so we are very productive. Standard litho and flexo presses struggle to get to 50% due to make-readies on shorter runs.” 

So far, so familiar, as pre-press and makeready savings can be argued for any digital process. The new, and potentially exciting bit though, is the argument that these digital presses manage to also improve image quality while lowering consumables costs. 

Van Ijzerloo says that the image quality is comparable to offset printing, but without the need to pre-print onto white paper and then laminate, meaning that inkjet can, like flexo, print directly. 

“For high-quality flexo you need a certain paper thickness,” he says. “This is to avoid the ‘guitar’ effect of an impact process that will otherwise mark the flutes of the corrugated. Digital is non-contact, so you don’t get the guitar effect. This lets you use thinner paper but get higher quality. As the paper cost is the highest part of corrugated, then digital offers big savings.”

Existing options

So just what exactly are those active in this single-pass corrugated area bringing to market, and how many takers are there so far?

Barberan’s Jetmaster BIJB-1260 corrugated press is 1,260mm wide, with a lead-edge feeder that leaves 5mm between sheets, with delivery onto a conveyor that can lead to a stacker. It prints at up to 55m per minute at 360dpi resolution and three grey levels. “So far the 1260 is our widest printer, but we have projects to go wider, up to 1,980mm,” says van Ijzerloo.

Van Ijzerlo won’t be drawn on price, but a machine of this size and throughput no doubt won’t be cheap. It’s a safe bet that the Barberan machine will be comparable in price to the only other high-speed digital corrugated press that’s shipping, the Sun Automation CorrStream.

The CorrStream family costs from £1.3m for the 537mm-wide Series 20, with the 785mm Series 40 costing £1.7m and the 1,345mm Series 66 between £2.5m and £2.6m depending on configuration. All models take sheets up to 1.6m length and run at the same linear speed of 70m per minute. Throughput depends on width; the Series 66 will hit around 5,000m2 per hour. By comparison HP’s dedicated multi-pass FB15000 with corrugated handling equipment outputs about 500m2 per hour, though with higher claimed quality. 

The forerunner of this machine was the FastJet. It was designed to run at up to 100m per minute, but proved very complicated and only three were installed. Sun Automation then spent several years developing its own high-speed inkjet, first trying Kodak’s Stream continuous inkjet heads and water-based ink before adopting a so-far unnamed drop-on-demand head and UV inks. The CorrStream’s front-edge feeder is an important part of the CorrStream’s performance, says Moloney.

So far there is just one CorrStream installation, at an unnamed southern US company. Although CorrStream’s capacity suggests that it’s mainly for box work, Moloney says that display work is also in the company’s sights.

Then there’s Bobst. Last year the Swiss carton finishing manufacturer made a brief announcement, saying it was developing a fast corrugated single-pass sheetfed press based on Kodak Prosper continuous inkjet heads and water based inks. It’s said almost nothing since and wouldn’t comment further for this story, though it did attend the FEFCO Brussels workshop in June. 

HP is also adapting its single-pass technology for corrugated. In June it announced the High Speed Corrugated Solution, based on a simplex configuration of its 1,066mm wide T400 inkjet web press, to run at up to 182m per minute. This is not a direct digital corrugated printer, instead it pre-prints white liner paper that is combined with the other layers on a separate corrugating machine. The price isn’t announced, but around £2m would be a fair guess.

Xanté’s Excelagraphix 4200P stands out in this sector because of its relatively low £60,000 cost, thanks to a combination of its 1,066mm wide Memjet single-pass printhead array (and water-based dye inks) and manual sheet feeding and stacking. 

There’s a reason for the low cost though. While Memjet technology is fast compared to comparably priced multi-pass printers, its top speed of about 18m per minute is only a fraction of the 55m and 70m per minute that Barberan and Sun are hitting. 

Melissa van Gelderen, general manager of Xanté Europe, says that around 50 Xanté Excelagraphix 4200Ps have been installed worldwide. “There’s a requirement for printing on-demand of corrugated and nobody has been able to do this before in this price range,” she says. “When we ask the customers, the majority, I’d say 99%, have flexo presses. They want test runs or they see the opportunity to personalise. For instance we have a customer printing pizza boxes, personalised, and we have smaller converters and box makers too.” 

There are, then, already several options for corrugated box printers looking to save costs – and potentially up quality and dabble with versioning – with digital. And, with manufacturers specifically targeting this market as well, display printers may well also want to take a look.

Digital presses for folding cartons may have to wait until brand owners and printers have modified their marketing concepts and supply chains. Whereas digital corrugated may be a surprise first hit – if the costs savings pan out.  


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