Value packaging: branching out needn’t break the bank

By Jon Severs, Monday 29 September 2014

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The development of hover boards and flying cars may not seem to have much in common with commercial printers taking on packaging printing, but there is a key similarity: for years all three have been mooted as being ‘just around the corner’ without ever quite materialising.


Okay, perhaps that’s not quite true. While hover boards and flying cars remain the stuff of Back to the Future, several commercial printers actually have made a success of packaging. And yet, particularly considering how potentially huge this opportunity is, the proportion of commercial printers that have actually made the leap is pretty tiny. So why the hold up?

“The most obvious reason of course is the severe economic situation we have seen over the past five years or so. Generally speaking, during this period, commercial printers have not been investing in capital equipment, so to look into other areas of the market has not really been an option,” says Neil Handforth, sales and marketing director at Ryobi’s UK distributor Apex Digital Graphics.

Graham Leeson, head of European communications for Fujifilm Graphic Systems Europe, adds: “The move for commercial printers into labels and packaging has been, and remains, slow and complex.”

Awareness issue

However, Mathew Drake, business manager for commercial print at Roland DG (UK), says it might actually be an awareness problem, and reluctance to take a risk. With an affordable wide-format machine it is in fact very easy to enter the market. 

“The barrier to entering these markets might be a lack of awareness of the technology – not realising how simple it is to use and how high the quality is, and also how affordable it is. Sadly, there is a tendency to stick with what you know, even in the face of ever-decreasing margins,” he says. 

Of course, the ideal scenario would be for printers to enter this market with kit they already own.

Wincanton Print Company is a good example of this. It is a commercial printer with sales of around £5m, and while conventional litho production still forms the backbone of the company’s business, wide-format and digital sheetfed printing have become increasingly important. It is with these presses that it saw an opportunity to get into packaging.

“While I would not describe us as a packaging printer, there is no doubt that we have seen an increasing number of packaging applications being produced on our UV flatbed printers,” says managing director Steve Taylor. 

“The key to providing this service has more to do with the finishing than the printing – you must be able to cut and crease the finished product. We are one of the few printers in our area who have made this kind of investment and it has certainly paid dividends. 

“The same is true of labels. We don’t do high volumes of labels, but UV’s ability to stick to different substrates allows us to produce proofs and short-run labels, which again are finished on our digital cutter.”

But many commercial printers do not have existing wide-format kit, so what are their options?

“Any printer with a Speedmaster XL 105 or 106, Speedmaster CX 102 or a Speedmaster CD is equipped to print onto heavier materials,” says Matt Rockley, marketing and product manager for sheetfed B1 and B2 presses at Heidelberg. 

Heidelberg’s product manager for B2 and B3 presses at Heidelberg, Paul Chamberlain, adds: “A printer willing to invest in the new B2-format Anicolor could also step into the arena. The short ink train enables producers to get to sellable print in a very few impressions and the savings in board waste are significant. But be warned: many established print groups are already looking at this technology. Worldwide, Heidelberg has installed 57 Speedmaster XL 75 Anicolor units since it went into serial production in December. Most have gone to packaging printers producing pharmaceutical packaging.”

“It is interesting that packaging materials are generally becoming lighter, which of course plays into the hands of commercial printers, especially if run lengths also decrease, adds Handforth. “All Ryobi presses B2 and above are capable of printing up to 600 micron as standard, with 800 micron as an option. We do have customers who are already utilising Ryobi presses in packaging areas. These presses can be conventional or UV, and we see this as a major growth area for LED-UV, and especially once the inks are declared food-safe.”

M Partners director Murray Lock says commercial printers with digital kit can also get in on the action, but that generally this will need to be bespoke work or labels.

“The economics of producing digital packaging where there is no need for personalisation – the majority of packaging products – still generally make digital too expensive,” he says. “Label production is one obvious exception, with short runs making digital a viable and fast growing force in this market. For mainstream packaging volume issues, predictable quality, press format and production speed are all still issues that digital still has to master.”

But what printing kit to invest in is only half the story. The other, very important, half, is finishing.

“A product needs to be cut, folded and glued as well. For those who do not have those machines in-house, we’d recommend they employ experienced suppliers to ensure that those processes are trouble-free,” says Paul Thompson, product manager for die-cutters, folder-gluers and guillotines at Heidelberg. 

“Commercial printers will need to understand the terminology and re-educate their sales teams in terms of carton design, construction and the principles of folding carton production. For example, the importance of pre-folding cartons, especially if machine erected, or not varnishing glue flaps so that the glue can penetrate the surface. Using the correct glue for the material and print finish is another important factor.”

“Trade printers are becoming rarer now as there is simply not enough margin for printers to sub out work,” warns Bryan Godwyn, managing director of Intelligent Finishing Systems (IFS). “Petratto is one example of the solutions the commercial printer would need to consider to start offering a serious packaging option.”

This is the reality Falkland Press had to face when it got into the packaging market. It uses its Speedmasters for packaging work, but had to add a Petratto Metro folder-gluer to meet client demands. Managing director Jon Lancaster says finishing is the trickiest area to get right. 

“Learning about die-cutting and gluing is still an ongoing curve. It’s a different animal altogether, packaging. It’s tricky and costs a lot,” he says. 

Think ahead

Tricky it may be, but finishing is unlikely to be the area holding commercial printers up, it just requires some forethought to get around the problems. More of an issue may be the other demands that packaging clients may place on commercial printers. 

“The requirements for packaging are likely to be a lot more diverse than the markets they have been in until now,” says John Corrall, managing director and founder of Industrial Inkjet. “The packaging market is usually looking for special effects, so a customer will want to choose a print system capable of more than just CMYK.”

“The ability to offer design, print both short and long runs, manage the print and finishing, deliver excellent colour control, print sustainably – using IPA-free processes, etc – and an understanding of the packaging service – those are essential,” adds Heidelberg’s Rockley.

Again, this shouldn’t be insurmountable, says Roland DG’s Drake. It is about finding the right clientele.

“Some expect design, some don’t. If you have great designers, offer a design service. Plenty of clients have their own artwork or use agencies to produce their artwork,” he explains. 

Fujifilm’s Leeson agrees. “Design is one aspect of the solution expected by customers, but packaging printers inevitably address this in different ways,” he explains. “There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Each commercial printer needs to evaluate their customer base and work out the best set of solutions to meet their customers’ needs. That’s why it’s much easier to tap into what some of their existing customers need rather than attempt to enter a completely new market with little knowledge.”

Admittedly, addressing all these areas adds up to a considerable effort and it won’t be for everyone. As IFS’s Godwyn says: “Printers are nervous about investing to break into markets they don’t know, which is very understandable.”

However, none of these problems should dissuade printers who can identify a real opportunity that fits with what they are already producing and the kit they already have. Unlike the flying car and the hover board, the technology and know-how is already here for packaging. So commercial printers just need to give some thought as to how to make it take off.  

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