When Superfast Labels installed the UK's first Epson SurePress L-4033A last year, it wasn't just adding affordable digital print to its capabilities. The machine's ability to print on textured surfaces also meant the Sittingbourne-based company could target a lucrative new market - local food and drinks producers looking for bespoke labels at short notice.
But with new opportunities, come new challenges. "Very often, smaller producers won’t have the same design expertise as larger companies," explains managing director Andrew Miller. "That’s where we have to step in."
Only recently, Superfast helped one local cider producer make the leap from a raw design to a properly laid-out label. "He had a logo produced on a cheap laser printer, so we used that and worked on a colour-scheme, fonts and the overall layout. He’s just a small cider brewer, so you couldn’t expect him to be an expert designer as well," explains Miller.
Of course, in the commercial print world, offering added-value services, such as design, apps and data storage isn’t anything particularly new. But if a printer wants to buy a short-run digital label press or a B2 digital press capable of printing basic cartons – and by doing so, compete with existing packaging printers – it seems these services become that much more important.
So what services do customers typically expect from their packaging print supplier other than the printing?
According to James Duncan, pre-production manager at Duncan Print Group, it’s the sort of prototyping and construction services that packaging printing companies, such as his, provide that are really valued by customers.
"With packaging, we tend to be positioned higher up in the supply chain and are often involved with the client at the concept stages," he says. "In many cases, the customer will approach us with the end-product they want packaged and we will design a product for them. We will also provide them with construction samples to test out, and templates for designing their artwork on."
To enable such services, Duncan says the company has computer-aided design and manufacturing capabilities, staffed by operators with the necessary experience and skills.
"Packaging requires a different skill-set from commercial printing. You need packaging design and construction capabilities, and you need technical specialists who are able to communicate their knowledge to their clients," explains Duncan. "With most of the cost of the job being elements other than the printing, the added value of jobs is generally lower and there is less scope for automation."
This means mistakes can prove very costly, says Duncan. So that risk has to be factored into the initial quote. However, there is much more potential for a printer to add value to a job at the design stage.
"Often, clients are looking for a partner on a specific campaign or product launch rather than a machine operator, so there is more scope for adding value in the design and concept stages of a job than there is with its production."
Clearly then, it would be a considerable advantage for a printer to already have an internal design agency. Last year, Grimsby-based Ultimate Packaging launched a new subsidiary company, Shere Print, solely dedicated to digitally printed flexible packaging. It took on the UK’s first HP Indigo WS6600 digital press – and later this year it will become the beta test-site for the 30in-wide (722mm) HP Indigo 20000.
Not only does Shere Print benefit from the expertise of the parent company, it adds value by working alongside Sharp Iris, the group’s creative design and photography partner.
"Through Sharp Iris, we are able to offer a full service – from food styling and photography, through to design and 3D visualisation," says Chris Tonge, sales and marketing director at Ultimate Packaging. While Tonge doesn’t think customers expect such a comprehensive service, he does believe it gives his company a distinct advantage.
"I can’t judge the merits of other printers, but I think it has set us a long way ahead. We’re getting plenty of interest from brands of all sizes, and I do think it’s what attracted HP to us as well," says Tonge. "They know we’ll really be able to put the Indigo 20000 through its paces."
Another company that believes it has a competitive advantage is Paragon Print & Packaging. It too has its own creative agency in the form of Imagenet (see box). The company, which operates eight sites around the UK, also offers an in-house stock management service based on post-launch reviews to retailers. In addition, it has a recycling and waste management service that enables it to recycle up to 90% of packaging waste, saving 10,000 tonnes of waste from landfill every year.
One issue printers moving into digitally-produced flexible cartons will have to consider is ever-tightening food labelling legislation, with a raft of new measures set to be introduced in 2014. Added to that is the ongoing concern of ink migration. According to Paragon marketing manager Sian Bates, the company’s in-house food science centre tests all packaging that comes into contact with food.
"The centre can also help test such things as improving a product’s life-cycle," she adds.
Of course, for digital label printers, food contact generally isn’t an issue. However, producing labels for certain food products still does require a degree of expertise.
"A simple label you stick on a cardboard box is entirely different to the kind of label that goes on a jar of chutney, for example," suggests Miller at Superfast Labels. "With the jar, we have to use exactly the right type of adhesive so the label doesn’t fall off."
But there are advantages in producing labels digitally too. In conventional label printing, and in fact with conventional carton printing as well, there is often an issue of stock holding. A large run for either packaging format would not necessarily all be used in the same instance, and therefore there is generally a requirement for a certain level of product to be stored. Often, it can be the printer that ends up providing this stock-holding role.
With digital print, however, shorter runs are possible and, as a result, the need to hold stock is reduced, if not completely eradicated. "Most of our label work is on a just-in-time basis," explains Miller. "We’ve got contracts whereby if a client gets an order to us by 10am, the printed label must be at their factory by 10am the following morning, or we get fined."
Miller says some label printers charge a premium for 24-hour delivery, but he doesn’t. Furthermore, he claims customers rarely order more than three days in advance, because they know they don’t need to.
Other label providers agree that holding stock isn’t an issue when printing digitally. Adrian Steele, managing director at Mercian Labels, says the speed to market that digital is able to achieve means stock is rarely held.
"One of the beauties for everybody concerned – be it the end-user, packing lines, or the manufacturer – is that you don’t hold stock. If you need it, we will just put it on the machine and go, because the set-up time is negligible. So, we literally make exactly what you want on demand, and ship it the same day," he says.
That’s not to play down the other skills needed here, though. While holding stock may not be an issue, everything from advanced cardboard engineering, 3D design and food safety test labs may well be. And while most believe that the digitally printed packaging market will grow considerably, some offer a word of caution that printers entering this apparent gold rush may come unstuck. "We’re not particularly keen on printers moving into packaging – there are enough of us already," argues Glossop Cartons director Jacky Sidebottom. "It is a specialist market. I wouldn’t expect us to go into brochure printing, for example."
A specialist market it might be, but there seems little doubt that if printers are able to understand the intricacies involved in the design, construction, testing and job fulfilment of the products being created, it’s likely to prove a highly profitable one.
Established a decade ago, Paragon Print & Packaging’s art and repro business aims to deliver consistent print across all of the company’s packaging formats and print processes.
Through its 40-strong team of designers and technicians, Imagenet claims to work closely with clients to reduce costs and provide technical assistance where possible. However, marketing manager Sian Bates is keen to stress that Imagenet stops short of being a design company.
"They’re not designers. They interpret brands’ house styles and guidelines around packaging, which then get passed to repro," she explains. "What we offer is a closed loop, effectively streamlining the production process to make it failsafe for us and the customer. This small chain of command is very advantageous for both us and the retailers we work with."
Meeting what it claims is the critical importance of brand integrity, Imagenet is able to provide real-time information on the line status of any given project. The company can also facilitate both retailer and supplier job approval, all online. Other services include artwork creation, 3D visualisation, right through to sourcing photography, directing art shoots and, ultimately, reprographics.
"It’s all about getting consistency of brand across different food ranges and packaging formats," says Bates.