The Lure of Digital Packaging

Ink World magazine has published a useful summary of the post-Drupa state of the Digital Packaging opportunity:

But it contains one baffling statement, one misunderstanding and two serious omissions.
The baffling statement is that “the growth and success of the consumer packaging industry is related to the industrial, capitalistic, and market-driven interests and values of the Western World” – to which one can only respond “well, duh!”

The misunderstanding is the implication that commercial printers are not also active in packaging because they are unaware of the opportunity. This seems unlikely – commercial printers are well aware of the decline of print in the face of online means of communication, and that packaging demand generally grows with GDP (or at a greater rate, as products and package designs proliferate and life-cycles get shorter). The real reason is that there is significant barriers to entry, most of which are due to the fact that packaging has to fulfill more functions than commercial print – visual communication being only one. (The others include: product protection, logistics support, and convenience.)

The omissions relate to the technical challenges facing digital printing OEMs: first, how to deliver machines with the productivity and reliability that analog devices provide today; and second, how to satisfy regulatory and societal food-safety and environmental requirements. To give an example: single-pass inkjet arrays are susceptible to ‘jet-outs’ which cause streaks in the print. Water-based inks are more likely to dry in the print-heads than UV-curable inks, so reliability considerations argue for the latter. But even ‘low-migration’ UV inks are not widely accepted for food packaging. Perhaps the answer is electron-beam curable inks, which require greater investments in drying systems; or high nozzle redundancy in water-based print arrays – but the point is that these issues are only now getting addressed by OEMs. A related regulatory issue, also not mentioned, and one that absolutely demands digital technology, is the growing requirement for traceability of products – for food (“from farm to table”), pharmaceuticals, and industrial goods.

I remain bullish on the digital packaging opportunity for all the reasons cited in this article, and the article is a helpful introduction – but there is a lot more to be said on the topic, and much still to do to make digital print a significant part of packaging production. Let me know what you think.