Beware Nirvana Mañana

By Barney Cox, Monday 18 March 2019

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At the beginning of February, Xerox took the wraps off a new printing technology under development in its PARC laboratory and, in so doing, opened a can of worms.

bobst-m5-digital-flexo

Unveiling the as-yet-unnamed process, chief technology officer Steve Hoover made pronouncements that would make Benny Landa blush: “Brands want digitally printed packaging, but the materials – the inks and toners – are too expensive, and packaging materials, especially foils and films, are hard to print onto. We’re working on a new printing technology that is not inkjet or laser-based electrophotography, as those techniques aren’t compatible with the ability to produce low-cost print on those materials. This is a new-to-the-world technology.”

Despite its bold claims, the firm has declined to provide any additional information on the process or its claimed rationale. Fortunately, despite the firm’s coquettishness and without its further involvement, it is possible to assess its analysis.

So, is the firm right, are there limitations to the current crop of inkjet and toner technologies, and is there a market for less expensive digitally produced packaging that they are unable to address? As is so often the case, there isn’t a definitive answer. It does have a point in its analysis, but the implied solution of hold off investing in any other technology and wait for our panacea to your packaging printing woes is wide of the mark.

“The risk as a printer is that if you’re constantly waiting for the next thing, you never get started,” says HP Indigo UK marketing manager Andy Pike.

A good place to start is the current state of the market or, more accurately, markets.

“It is an oversimplification to talk about a broad packaging market,” says Bobst senior communications advisor Francois Martin. “It is necessary to sub divide it into the major categories: corrugated, flexibles, folding carton and labels.”

Figures quoted by Xerox suggest that the adoption of digital printing to date is highest in the labels sector at 25%, with the levels in the three others all at around 1%. 

With that level of adoption in label printing, it is fair to say digital printing is an established option and even though it is expected to gain further share, it will never completely replace other processes.

“Even within labels, you need to consider the requirements of different sectors and brands,” says Martin. “For very large brands producing billions, it is clear digital is not for them. For some territories, there will come a time when there won’t be a need for flexo.”

Next month, Bobst is holding an open house in Florence, Italy, where it will show developments in inkjet and flexo technologies for label production that to some extent blur the boundaries between the two that, while making picking a process harder, will offer economic benefits to printers and brands. Its Mouvent digital division will be showing both water-based and UV-cured inkjet, while along with its Revo partners, it will be showing what it terms digital flexo, which digitises parts of the flexo process to improve efficiency, quality and consistency.

Digital flexo is an example of the importance of looking more broadly at a supply chain to maximise gains, rather than focusing too narrowly on optimising just one part. This view is shared by John Snow, a partner at packaging consultancy Ahead of the Curve: “You should not isolate the pieces in a solution or system. Using descriptions as ‘too expensive’ with a focus on one piece of the puzzle is not correct if the total solution is better value, lower cost, faster to market, more sustainable and so on. We had the same issue at Unilever. Co-packing and packaging procurement both wanted to lower their spend. In order to get the best total cost, we had to design a more costly packaging system, +10%, to ultimately reduce total cost by 35%. 

“The value digital print provides today in regards to the flexibility and, most importantly, the speed of graphic change (marketing competitive advantage), in most cases will provide more value than the higher costs of the printed component.”

Another example is Tonejet, a Cambridge-based firm that has developed a novel digital printing technology that in its first commercial application – beverage can printing – has the potential to turn a supply chain on its head.

“We get around the need for high volume printing at high speed by printing onto standardised containers at the point of fill,” says vice-president of technology Jonathan Halls. “We believe that’s where everything will end up – direct to shape and direct to pack.” 

Chief executive Rob Day adds: “Our process is cheaper [than analogue print] for beverage can production below 50,000, which is plenty enough for most craft brewers. For low-margin FMCG goods, there is no scope for expensive ink, foil and film that are hard to print onto – in that sense, we echo what Xerox is saying.”

Changing technologies

Tonejet has taken 12 years to get from where Xerox is now – announcing its new process – to the early stages of commercialisation, highlighting the time it can take for technology to become viable. And in that time, existing technologies can change a lot, as can the markets they serve.

Back in 2007, inkjet for packaging was in its infancy and toner was only just starting to get toddling. Since then, we have seen amazing developments in both. HP Indigo’s three series of B2 plus liquid electrophotographic presses have opened up folding cartons and flexible packaging with hundreds of machines in the field. Even so, most are being used for proofing, prototyping and very short run production. Folding cartons are just getting started with the early installs of B1 aqueous inkjet machines such as the Heidelberg Primefire 106 and the Landa S10, while Xerox’ position in the folding carton market is in doubt. 

Previous partner Koenig & Bauer recently revealed that Durst is now providing the imaging technology for the VariJet slated to be shown at Drupa 2020. When first announced, at Drupa 2016, Xerox division Impika was the inkjet partner.

In corrugated, numerous vendors including Bobst, Inca, Koenig & Bauer and HP are using water-based inkjet.

There are also promising signs in flexible packaging – an example is the Uteco Sapphire Evo press with Kodak Prosper inkjet technology. It can print flexible packaging applications like food and snack packaging on substrates such as BOPP, PE, PET and OPA with water-based inks at a cost competitive with flexo printing for volumes up to 20,000sqm. 

“For the first time, water-based inkjet can robustly and permanently print on flexible films at speeds of 150mpm or higher,” says Kodak Enterprise Inkjet Systems business development manager Dan Denofsky. “We have created a system approach to using water-based ink with flexible films using a primer that is tuned for flexible film substrates and Kodak’s low-cost, indirect food contact certified pigment inks.”

The firm claims that the process is “four times the productivity and half the running cost of electrophotographic [HP Indigo] colour presses”.

While there are limitations to dry toner, liquid electrophotography and inkjet (both aqueous and UV cured), those technologies’ adoption in labels, flexible, folding carton and corrugated aren’t currently being held back. Firms have products in or near the market based on those technologies that will meet an appetite for digital printing of packaging in the near term.

“Quality, we have it, speed and cost, we don’t have, and to that extent Xerox is right” says Martin. “But it’s not that the current technology isn’t working, and it’s not the fundamental economics, it’s the total cost of ownership. Corrugated will be the next market for widespread digital adoption after labels, then folding cartons, then flexibles. Brand owner requirements are very different in each sector.”

With the diverse needs of different sectors, applications, production volumes and customers, there is a place for gravure, litho and flexo in addition to inkjet, toner and any digital processes in development. As the technologies and the markets evolve, their sweet spot and market shares will inevitably shift. None may be perfect, but holding out for that runs the risk of missing the boat entirely. 


CASE STUDY: ALEXIR

Kent and Sussex-based packaging firm Alexir Partnership – which spans design, manufacturing, filling and logistics – was an early adopter of digital printing for packaging, installing a Xerox iGen 4 as part of a folding carton production line four years ago.

“Our digital department gives customers the chance to run mock-up or print trials to test the market before committing to a larger litho run,” says digital department manager James Rhodes.

“For the start-ups we work with, going from generic ‘off-the-shelf’ packaging to their own bespoke print can be a bit of a jump in cost, but digital gives them the opportunity to have short runs with their own designs. 

“The Xerox meets a majority of our customers’ requirements, but it would be great to see a process such as inline digital foil incorporated.”

“I wouldn’t say we are too limited with what we currently offer, but there’s always room for improvement, as with anything. 

“Each technology will have its place – for example, digital will never be able to target the volumes that gravure is set up to run and likewise it wouldn’t be cost-effective for litho to run the small digital volumes. However, the digital technology being developed will be able to process higher volumes.”

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