LabelExpo overview: The evolution of package printing

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The printing of flexible packaging, cartons and tubes using narrow-web conventional and digital presses will be the focus of a new Package Printing Zone at Labelexpo Europe 2011 due to take place in Brussels in September. Live demonstrations and seminar sessions will all be part of this new visitor attraction. Mike Fairley looks at the evolution of this fast evolving sector.

There can be little doubt that package printing is one of the most dynamic of all the printing sectors. Indeed, flexible packaging and carton production alone in Europe are estimated to be in excess of a €20 billion market. Driven by consumer demand, changing legislation, higher quality and performance requirements, environment and sustainability, the rise of ‘own label’ products, and pressures on prices and costs, package printing is constantly under review.

One of the challenges faced by brand owners and global retail groups is how to launch more and more products, have more variations and versions, increase their ability to personalise packs, react with consumers, and yet print shorter runs economically. A key solution to many of these challenges is to move to narrower web presses or, like the self-adhesive label industry, begin to install increasing numbers of digital printing presses.

Analyse the label printing industry today and it is estimated that as much as 15% of self-adhesive label converter output is now taken up in producing shorter runs of sachets, pouches, small cartons, packets, tube laminates, flexible packaging and the like, where press widths of between 250mm and 440mm are most common and web widths of up to 500mm plus being introduced.

Whether printed on conventional quick-changeover narrow web-fed analogue flexo, offset or combination process presses, or on new generations of digital roll- or sheet-fed presses using dry toner, liquid toner or UV inkjet, package printing is undergoing significant changes in everything from origination to pre-press, proofing, workflow, printing and finishing.

Like many other sectors, flexible packaging is not immune from the changing requirements for reduced run lengths, differentiation in SKU proliferation, test marketing for new product launches, minimizing stockholding and inventory reduction, faster delivery and expanded promotional opportunities. These changes certainly begin to favour printing on narrower webs and the use of digital printing technologies.

In a forthcoming presentation as part of the Package Printing zone at Labelexpo, Randy Parish, Director, Fasson® Rapid-Roll®, will review the key flexible packaging market opportunities for narrow-web converters as being in the food, personal car, pet food and nutraceutical sectors where unsupported films are typically surface printed and then protected with varnish or an over-laminate.

Examples given of food products suitable for narrow-web printing are indicated as including single serve snacks, powdered goods (soup mixes, gravy, spices), coffee and regional foods, while in personal care the opportunities are seen in items such as shampoos, conditioner, lotions, travel kits and promotional items.

Pet food possibilities include single serve pouches, treats and promotional items. Narrow-web nutraceutical applications are in products such as bars, supplements, protein powders, snacks and drink mixes.

In a similar vein, a recent study by ExxonMobil Chemical to find out which flexible packaging market segments would be easiest to penetrate with digital, they saw narrow/mid-web digital printing of flexible packaging as particularly being able to create added-value solutions in the ice-cream novelty market, followed by opportunities in confectionary packaging.

Certainly in the ice-cream novelty market, Massimo Ferrari of ExxonMobil Chemical, will tell Package Printing zone visitors about the need for short runs to eliminate stock-outs, notoriously difficult to forecast because ice-cream demand is highly sensitive to both the weather and days of the week. Add to this the fact that frozen goods are expensive to store and transport and it can soon be seen why narrow-web, conventional and digital, printing starts to come into its own.

The same sector, says Ferrari, also sees novelty packs as impulse-buying items that are able to capture lost sales due to stock-outs, and with narrow-web digital printing of single pack novelties offering a significant opportunity to enhance profitability.

Key challenges to be put forward by ExxonMobil Chemical at the show are for narrow-web converters to create designs that can be printed in more vivid colors; to simulate the printed result at the time of the design creation; to maintain high color fidelity; and to increase speed of approval and launch of new products and promotions.

Suggested opportunities for converters looking to grow their digitally-printed narrow-web flexible packaging capabilities are said to include fast product promotion at major events, such as music festivals, or the development of on-shelf packs that track progress of the World Cup, Olympic Games, etc, major drama series or new films, as well as the development of limited edition packs.

Undoubtedly it will be single-web markets where narrow-web printing gains most initial advantage. It is less complex than multi-layer films, while further improvements in press technology, process control tools, and packaging materials will be required to fully capture narrow-web opportunities in the flexible packaging world.

And talking of narrow-web conventional and digital presses for flexible packaging, where does the market stand today. Certainly most of the leading narrow-web label press manufacturers now have models developed specifically for flexible packaging.

Nilpeter for example, launched a new 22” (570mm) wide flexo press (the FA-6) for printing unsupported films as thin as 12 microns and this is claimed to complete an eight-color job in 4.5 minutes, including a change of ink pans. This press has attracted particular interest from converters looking to enter the flexible packaging market. MPS too, a Dutch press manufacturer, has showcased its EXL-packaging press with Crisp Dot technology for the flexible packaging arena, as well as new EC and EF models with standard short web paths and print sleeves for label and film conversion.

Likewise, the three main leaders in narrow-web digital label presses have also introduced digital press versions for the flexible packaging. Market leader HP Indigo − with over 1,100 presses now sold into the label industry − now offers its WS6000 press for printing shrink sleeves and flexible packaging films down to 0.47 mil. The press comes complete with an in-line drying system that reduces flexible packaging curing times.

Xeikon, a manufacturer of dry toner-based digital narrow-web presses, has recently added a 20” wide models (the 3500) to complement its 13” model 330. Both are LED-array-based digital presses that print at 1,200 dpi image resolution on a wide variety of substrates, including films such as BOPP, PVC and PET.

At the same time another digital narrow-web press manufacturer, EFI Jetrion, has also introduced its latest 4830LED UV inkjet system and a newly developed flexible ink set that allows printing on unsupported and heat-sensitive materials, including shrink sleeve, and has opened up new opportunities for label and other converters to move into the flexible packaging market. The company also offers a single-pass digital white targeted at printing on clear film and metallic substrates.

Similar innovative developments have been taking place in narrow-web carton production technology. Carton manufacturers looking to produce fast turnaround, high quality and streamlined multi-SKU production on-demand and in short runs have the option to print digitally using the latest HP Indigo WS6000 press technology. Complemented with an AB Graphic Digicon carton converting system, it enables carton producers to manage their brand customers better. At the same time, brand owners using digital label printing for their packaging work gain the ability to affordably launch new products and gain better visibility on the shelves.

Offering a web width up to 516mm, the Xeikon 3500 is another digital press that closes the gap with traditional printing presses, making it viable to digitally print cartons beyond 4,000 linear meters. Demonstrations of carton, tube and pail decoration will be given by Xeikon as part of the Package Printing zone at Labelexpo, while Agfa:dotrix and Xerox are also tackling the short-run carton market and will both be speaking as part of the zone seminar presentations.

Conventional narrow-web press manufacturers with carton capabilities which they will be presenting during the Package Printing Zone seminar sessions also include Omet and Gallus.

Put together, narrow- and mid-web presses, both conventional and digital, now offer carton and flexible packaging converters the opportunity to target new short-run  package printing applications, drive differentiation and personalisation, offer quicker delivery and reduced stockholding − and become more profitable.

The Package Printing Zone at Labelexpo Europe this year will undoubtedly provide carton and flexible packaging printers with an ideal opportunity to see and hear the latest innovations in narrow-web conventional and digital presses for printing on unsupported films and a wide range of board or tube laminate materials.

The driving forces behind the move to narrow-web conventional and digital package printing seems set to continue − even grow − with those bold enough to make the investment in new presses, solutions and applications reaping the benefits. Don’t get left behind. See the latest developments at Labelexpo Europe 2011, 28 September to 1 October in Brussels.