Opportunity in the bag

Nessan Cleary
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Digitally-printed pouches offer label printers a way to diversify into packaging with minimal investment.

There has been a trend in narrow web label printing over the past few years to diversify into packaging, which has led to wider, more automated presses. Digital label presses have been slower to follow this trend, partly because the nature of shorter runs means they are more focused on the label market, but mainly because it’s more of a challenge to handle flexible films with a digital press, especially for inkjet.

Nonetheless, both HP Indigo and Xeikon showed off solutions for producing pouches at last year’s Labelexpo show and several British label printers have recently ventured into this business. There’s an obvious attraction for brands as Filip Weymans, vice-president of marketing for Xeikon, explains: “Brand owners looking for a diversity of containers for their products are drawn to the pouches’ ability to stand and stack, their light weight and their sustainability. This new application development is taking digital production to the highest levels.”

Pouches can be used for a variety of different products, particularly food stuffs including liquids such as soups. They are also widely used for pet foods, but can equally hold other items such as hearing aids or small spare parts.

The process involves printing the image, usually in reverse on the outer layer, and then laminating this to one or two further layers to form a barrier between the toner or ink and the contents – the exact composition depends on the product and the type of barrier required. This is then sent to a pouch-making machine to form the pouch and add the enclosure, such as a ziplock.

HP complete solution
HP has put together a complete solution that can be based around either an Indigo 20000 B2 press or an Indigo 6900 narrow web press, plus a Karville Pack Ready laminator and a choice between two Karville stand-up pouch making machines. This is all driven by a HP PrintOs web-to-pack workflow.

Baker Labels, based in Brentwood, has used HP’s pouch solution as the basis for a new division, BakPac, which will take on flexible packaging work such as stand-up pouches, pillow pouches, shrink wrap and printed film. Baker Labels is a family-run trade label printer and is offering short to medium runs of digitally printed pouches as a trade service. Typical applications include seasonal or event-driven promotions, market testing packaging and product life cycle solutions.

The printing is done on an HP Indigo 20000 B2 press. Baker Labels already produces labels on three HP Indigo 6900 presses and has a long established relationship with HP since first producing digitally printed labels on an HP 4050 in 2006, so it was a natural progression with the move to flexible packaging to continue the investment with HP.

Once printed, the materials have to be laminated together. Bakers commissioned a thermal laminator from Enprom, a Spanish company that was set up in 2012, and bought in 2019 by AB Graphic working in partnership with Kocher & Beck. Again, this was a good fit for the firm which uses AB Graphic’s Digicon presses for label embellishments and finishing. The eTL laminator installed at Bakers is Enprom’s first thermolaminating machine and has been designed specifically for flexible packaging, with a short web path to reduce waste by up to a third. It allows different types of flexible packaging products to be laminated.

Bakers has opted for Karville’s dual web pouchmaker, the KS-DSUP-400GSW, which can be used with both the Indigo 20000 and 6900 presses. This folds the web of material to create a pouch with a doyen or K-seal, and also allows the production of pouches with different materials on the front and reverse, as well as another for the gusset. It has a very low scrap rate during machine start-up, changeovers and roll changes, thus reducing waste. It allows printers to manufacture three-side-seal pouches, stand-up pouches and zipper pouches from multiple reels up to 420mm width.

Steve Baker, managing director of Baker Labels, says: “It’s a big step to move into the manufacture of flexible packaging, so we’ve been planning this for a couple of years. Making the equipment investments, designing the factory refurbishment, and the training and educating of our staff all took meticulous planning and a lot of time, but it’s been a brilliant journey and we’ve had great support from HP, ABG and Karville along the way. I’m more than confident that it’s the right decision for Bakers and I’m excited about the future.”

CS Labels, based in Wolverhampton, has also moved into pouches, setting up a new brand, CS Pouches. CS Labels has been a long-term Xeikon user, having several Xeikon presses. The company is using a Xeikon CX500 dry toner label press and has developed the laminating and conversion lines itself. There’s a choice of different materials that can be combined with a polyethylene barrier, depending on the product and the degree of resistance required for water, oil or odours. It can cope with a variety of sizes up to 214mm tall and 200mm wide. There’s a choice between different types of pouch, including a doy-style that has a domed bottom gusset, for lighter products that won’t otherwise stand up, or a K-seal, for heavier products, as well as a three-sided seal flat pouch that’s simple to fill.

Xeikon has subsequently developed its own pouch solution that it calls FlexFlow. This combines a Xeikon dry toner press with a Xeikon LCoat500 for inline thermal lamination and packaging construction. Weymans says: “We have developed Xeikon fleXflow for stand-up pouch production to answer the growing consumer trend for ‘on-the-go’ consumption of food and drinks.”

Working with inkjet
It’s perhaps not surprising that both Xeikon and HP Indigo would have developed digital pouch solutions, since toner generally prints well to a wide range of media stocks. However, most narrow web digital presses use inkjet, which can be a bit more fussy over substrates in general, and flexible films in particular. We contacted several inkjet label press vendors about pouch solutions, all of whom said that it was not currently possible to use inkjet for pouches.

However, Hine Labels has developed a process that does work with inkjet, and has established a separate division, Houp.com, to market it. Hine Labels is using a Screen L350UV+LM, which uses low migration UV inks. However, Richard Warne, general manager of Houp.com, says the low migration inks are just a precaution and that in theory it could work with other UV printers, adding: “There’s no way the ink could offset to the inside of the pouch because of the way we are handling the web.”

This process appears to be mainly down to the materials used and the finishing rather than the press. The key element of these pouches is that the printing is done directly to the surface of the material, where most other companies are reverse printing to the back of the pouch and then laminating it.

The process uses two layers, with the image being printed onto the facing surface of a polyester layer, which acts as the barrier material. The second layer is made of polyethylene, which is laminated to the polyester and melted to form the shape of the pouch. Hine Labels has designed and commissioned a purpose-built finishing machine to form the printed material into a pouch and heat seals them ready for filling, where a ziplock or other closure can then be added. Warne says: “We have put a lot of work into developing the materials and a hell of a lot of work into designing the finishing equipment.”

Consequently, the intellectual property belongs to Hine Labels and so, unlike the other vendors here, Screen is not in a position to offer this solution to its other label printer customers.

Houp.com offers pouches up to 260mm tall and 200mm wide, as well as sachets up to 210mm high and 150mm wide. Warne says most other processes are using three layers, so that the two-layer Houp.com pouches use less plastic and can be seen as a more environmentally-friendly option. Warne says that Houp does not see the other digital toner-based pouches as competition, noting: “We are targeting smaller volumes than they are. We have very little set up waste and disposal waste, so we can produce volumes from 500 and upwards.”

In conclusion, there’s little doubt that brands are becoming more interested in pouches because they are an extremely efficient way of protecting and transporting products with a minimum of waste, which both saves money for the brands and appeals to today’s more environmentally-aware consumers. They’re waterproof, tamper-resistant and reasonably durable. They allow for vibrant designs with good shelf impact and can include clear windows to display their contents, something that many customers now expect. Digitally-printed pouches tick all the same boxes as for labels, allowing for shorter runs, which can be used for targeted campaigns, or for market testing, or simply to frequently refresh the packaging design to catch the eyes of busy shoppers.

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