Promise of a digital future proves difficult to deliver

By Simon Eccles, Monday 29 September 2014

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More than two years have passed since Drupa 2012 saw the announcement of a whole raft of digital carton printing presses, but so far we have not seen any real signs of an impact on the packaging sector.

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Only a handful of that crop of dedicated carton presses have been delivered in Europe, with just one that we know of in the UK. High time, then, for a progress check.

The big German show saw prototypes or announcements of dedicated digital carton presses from Canon, with the Océ InfiniStream web press; HP, with the Indigo 30000; the Fujifilm Jet Press F; and Landa’s B1-format S10. 

Others promising forthcoming B2 sheetfed inkjets able to handle carton thicknesses included Konica Minolta, with its KM-1 (also to be sold by Komori as the Impremia IS29) with early installations expected next year; MGI promised the Alphajet, but that now seems to be on hold; and Screen, which adapted its Truepress JetSX to take cartonboard up to 600gsm. 

Xeikon has been promoting its web-fed 3000 series simplex presses for thinnish cartonboard since 2008, and has more recently integrated them into its dedicated Folding Carton Suite.  

Progress report

So where are we now? At first glance, the situation looks somewhat familiar. In the mid 1990s, manufacturers such as IBM/Hitachi and Océ were producing the first high-speed web-fed toner presses and aiming them at the book sector. 

The potential for just-in-time, on-demand printing was obvious even then, but other than for a handful of scientific/educational and reprint specialists, it took more than 10 years for the publishers and book distribution chains to start to take advantage of this. In the 2000s it was the same story with labels.

Simon Lewis, director of strategic marketing for HP Indigo, feels that the carton sector today is a little like labels were a decade ago, but with a significant difference. 

“Carton companies today are more digitally savvy than the books market was 10 or 15 years ago, as they have already seen digital labels,” he explains.

“Talking to printers’ customers, they are more enthusiastic than the printers. They are often digital label users already, so are already aware of the possibilities for short runs and fast response that have not been possible with cartons before.”

HP is in a good position to capitalise on this, as its W-series digital web presses are sales leaders in the digital labels sector, and it’s also the only maker apart from Screen to have shipped more than one or two digital carton presses. It has been delivering the Indigo 30000 carton press to commercial customers this year, following its announcement in the months before Drupa 2012. The price is about £1.5m.

Lewis says that nine 30000 presses had been delivered by the start of August, to businesses in Holland, Germany, Israel, the US and Australia. Printers in the US have bought five while the other countries have one each so far. Another one is due to go into a company in Taiwan, and Lewis says he expects to see 20 installations by the end of this year. 

“It’s too early to say what customers are doing with these, as they are still learning themselves. It seems to be cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food in some cases. It’s across the range of folding cartons,” says Lewis, while conceding: “It’s hard to imagine cornflake packs going digital.”

So far there are no UK orders, although Lewis says that a British company signed a letter of intent over the summer. “We didn’t have any dedicated go-to-market approach in the UK until recently, so people came to us,” Lewis adds. “We now have a dedicated folding carton salesperson in the UK, Stuart Fox, who joined HP in April.”

The first UK printer known to have installed a sheetfed B2 digital carton press is RCS in Retford, which put in a Screen Truepress JetSX at the end of 2012. This is used for on-demand boxes, folders and advent calendars onto pre-cut and creased sheets, enabling very fast job turnarounds. RCS hit financial troubles earlier this year and has sold some kit, but the Screen press remains in place. 

The only other Screen SX press in commercial use in Europe is at Vögeli in Switzerland, which is using it for much the same sort of applications. “The ability to print digitally onto pre-scored and cut 600-micron packaging boards is crucial for us,” says owner and director Renato Vögeli. 

“This really changes the value chain of personalised folding carton printing. The Truepress JetSX is the only digital B2 press that can even print inside the creases of pre-creased boards, which enables us to step into the new business of personalised packaging and gifting.”

Apart from Xeikon, only Canon, nominally at least, has a B1-format web press – the firm’s liquid toner InfiniStream features a 1,110mm-wide web. It can run at 120m/min, equivalent to 14,400sph for B2 or 7,200sph for B1, on standard offset cartonboard. Predicted crossover costs against offset are between 3,000 and 4,000 B1 sheets. 

The first customer site is at Joh Leupold in Schwabach, Germany, but Canon is confident of finding more buyers. “We are in close contact with potential candidates and plan the next installations throughout 2015,” says Roland Stasiczek, Canon’s director of marketing for InfiniStream technology.

“We are making good progress at Leupold in completing the production line towards the final configuration,” he adds. “We upgraded the system to seven colours in May this year. Additionally we added an inline varnishing unit and a heavy-duty cross-cutting and stapling unit, which fulfills industrial demands.” 

This configuration can handle any sheet size between B2 and B1 formats, up to 1,060mm length. 

Two other dedicated carton presses announced at Drupa 2012 are some way off their first installations. Fujifilm’s Jet Press F is a modified version of its existing B2 sheetfed Jet Press 720 simplex inkjet press, with a straight-through feed path for board up to 600 microns and new hybrid water-based UV-cured inks. Early last year Fuji said it expected initial beta sites for the press to be announced by the end of 2013, but it is now saying the machine will be “commercialised in the first half of 2015”. 

The Fuji design is CMYK only and probably around the same speed as the Jet Press 720, so 2,769sph, compared with the Indigo 30000 running at up to 3,450sph (for CMYK) and up to seven colours. Pricing hasn’t been revealed, but the Jet Press 720 costs around £1.2m. 

Landa, whose elaborate stage shows for its new Nanography offset inkjet digital process were the hit of Drupa 2012, aims to deliver a B1 carton press as the first of a wide range of configurations. However, to date the company is still not in a position to deliver anything. 

The S10 is a simplex sheetfed press with speeds of up to 6,500sph for B1 and a likely cost of around £1.8m. It prints on standard carton stocks of up to 800 microns with no pre-coating, in up to eight colours. This time last year, Landa revealed a redesign, with an inline conventional coater and a new ‘cockpit’ fitted out with touchscreen control panels at the delivery end. 

Founder Benny Landa was predicting the first beta installation in Israel before the end of 2014, but this has slipped back again. 

According to Gilad Tzori, vice-president product strategy manager at Landa, the important thing is to get the technology right. “We will ship presses only when they meet our customers’ expectations and needs, which we now expect to be during the first half of 2015. These presses will have the same basic configuration that we announced in September 2013,” he says.

Landa expects subsequent units to go to North America and Europe. 

Xeikon is now offering its 3000 series presses as the core of its dedicated Folding Carton Suite, with CMYK plus clear toners, an inline sheeter and an Esko front-end. 

The first UK user is food packaging converter Colebourne & Partners in Bowerhill, Wiltshire, which brought its printing in-house by installing a Xeikon 3500 earlier this year. There are also installations in the US, Canada and Chile.

Market hole

Despite a rash of Drupa announcements now nudging nearer to fruition, there are still some printers in this field who haven’t yet seen anything suitable for them.

Glossop Cartons has run the UK’s only Highcon Euclid digital carton cutting and creasing machine for a year and director Jacky Sidebottom is very pleased with it. But so far she still hasn’t seen a digital press she wants. 

“There’s definitely a hole in the market, but the press needs to be cost-effective as there’s no use printing digitally for the sake of it,” she stresses. 

“We looked at the HP Indigo, but it’s too big and we weren’t thrilled with the anilox roller coater. We’d want a small footprint press without pre-coating and with digital varnishing, but there’s nothing there yet. Packaging will go digital eventually I’m sure, but when, I’ve no idea!” 

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