Digital Print Packaging: Poised at the Chasm

According to brand owners speaking at the recent Smithers PIRA Digital Print for Packaging Conference in Berlin, digital print must be better, faster and perhaps, even cheaper. In this event review I outline some of the insight gathered from the event.

The conference was a very successful event, with 150 or so delegates from across Europe's print packaging supply chain. The event was very well curated and managed by the Smithers PIRA team and very well hosted and chaired by Sean Smyth and Jan De Roeck. Content featured from Brands about their view on the relative development of digital print in packaging and perhaps what is stalling adoption, and where pioneers are successfully deploying the technology. The conference contained a good mix of case studies, insight as well as profiles of new technology and the standard of presenters was also high in my opinion.

What is clear is the relative state of integration for digital inkjet (for the sake of this article and relevance to InPrint I'm focused only on inkjet) in packaging was framed by the opening statements which was that their stance on digital printing continues to be entirely uncompromising.

Output must match conventional print for quality, price and speed.

I was quite shocked to discover this intransigence.

Largely because I think it entirely misses the point.

The key to success with digital in any industrial process is understanding its unique contribution, not what it can do which is already possible with analogue. Digital is simply not a replacement technology and all our surveys and reports support this.

It is a common problem in multiple industries that when digital is discussed, it is expected to transform and replace.  Not only that, it's expected to be easy. And we know integrating inkjet is hard and requires considerable expertise, investment and patience.

The reality is that ALL print quality deviates from a 'true' colour whatever the brand is, whatever the substrate, whatever the print process and wherever it will be printed in the world. This goes for any kind of conventional print. Even functional industrial screen printing will deviate in colour. Why? Because it is impossible to achieve as there are so many variables. So if using an analogue printing process just doesn't ensure a uniform print quality, why should inkjet be expected to do this?

In his presentation, Richard Darling from Xaar explained that consumers are unable to detect slight variations in brand colour. And they simply don't care enough to be able to spot any discrepancy.

On this basis, it makes no difference to the sales performance of a printed package, if the brand colour matches perfectly, and nor does it dramatically enhance the consumer experience. So why are the brands so hung up about it?

I would say the core reason is convention. It is safer to remain where you are as opposed to being the agent of change by taking a leap of faith with something new.

This kind of nonsensical scenario occurred in the early days of digital inkjet for graphics. Advocates of reproduction 'quality', (whatever that means), pulled out their magnifying glasses, scoffing at the 'inferior' quality of the digitally printed product. These people soon found their snobbery redundant as graphics converted to digital print technologies, compelled by the added flexibility it provided and the fact that consumers don't care how retail print is printed and if the reproduction is somewhat different.

For graphics, very quickly retailers, brands and consumers dropped their obsession with the old convention and joined the digital revolution.

When will this happen for Packaging?

All of our research, and the discussions had at the conference and with the smart online app was evident that the interest in digital printing for packaging remains high. In fact I would go as far to say that in my 10 years in the print industry, right now, the interest in digital is as high as it has ever been.

So does this mean that we are about to reach a tipping point?

I sense we are close. But (with the exception of corrugated), not yet.

The number of application segments that are poised at the chasm is testament to the fact that there is a coalescence of both changing consumer demand and the relative maturity of digital technology. This means that the technology is good enough and the demand from consumers is relatively speaking, strong enough.

Yet still these sectors have not leapt across the chasm.

Another good point made by Darling is that the large brands may be forced to change at some point as they will be 'out innovated' by craft producers.

The collective power of niches is beginning to add up to something formidable. For digital print this market provides some light relief from continually hitting their heads against a brick wall, positioned right before the chasm. 

Craft producers are a dream for digital technology companies. They are not entrenched in their thinking and they are not over invested in conventional technology or requiring conforming to its conservative culture. If these entrepreneurial businesses take the lead, and prove a point that using digital technology has enabled them to make significant gains either in productivity, by speed to market or by highly effective customisation, then change begins to occur.

Large brands tend to want to wait to see before taking the plunge and trying something new. The craft brands must reach new customers. They may not have the big budgets of big brands, but what they lack in money they make up for with creativity and ingenuity.  There is a growing consumer market for them, and by being clever and different they will most certainly try new things. Including digital print for packaging.

Will this ever change?

Yes is the short answer. But don't think that the Revolution will be either fast, predictable or entire. What happened with inkjet in the ceramics sector, is unlikely to take place within packaging.  Ceramics was an outlier. For ceramics there was a clear and compelling economic case for shifting to digital. The two major centres of production in Europe, neatly confined to Italy and Spain, consequently shifted. So I believe this example is misleading.

Packaging is a more complex and multifaceted market, packaging printing is more technically challenging, and a faster moving industry. Just factor in the fact that most supermarkets have to contend with 42,000+ SKU's, and this helps explain its complexity. Added to this, the economic advantage of adding digital is yet to be strong enough for that chasm to be leapt. It is as simple as that.

The fact that brands clearly stated that digital printing must be better, faster and cheaper, for me says a huge amount. They either do not want to accept digital prints unique value proposition, or they do not understand it. Either way it's yet to happen for them.

Perhaps there has been a failure from the technology owners to educate and inspire brands of the advantages of digital printing? Perhaps a lot more inspiration and better education is required to effect positive change.

Corrugated and leaping the chasm

But there is hope. There is the corrugated segment which seems to have successfully leapt across the entire chasm and is set to play a growing role in production. 

The fact that corrugated is adopting inkjet first shouldn't be that surprising. The technology is largely already available and working. Of course ink needs continual development to increase production, and handling the substrate is tricky but converters, brands and possibly most importantly, retailers really want it.

The corrugated sector is a highly commoditised market, the recession left it lean and consolidated. The market now has little choice but to look at new ideas.  This is simply not the case with flexible packaging, folding cartons and direct to shape.

Second to that, retail is changing and the humble box has shifted from being purely a practical way to stock goods, but into a powerful and useful branding and sales tool.

So how is retail changing?

At the Digital Print for Packaging Conference, Sean Smyth gave an interesting piece of insight on day 2 related to corrugated packaging.

Retail is changing which means people shop less frequently.  So when they do go, retailers want top optimise sales by ensuring their people help and sell to customers effectively. This means all the retailers shop floor staff must be sales focused, meaning there is little time for operational work. By this, we mean the running of the store, stock taking, the lifting and the loading of products into the shop.

This means stores need corrugated to be both a point of sale presentation, and to provide the retailer a practical shelving solution. This streamlines the packaging of a product that is primed and ready to be sold with minimal effort on behalf of store management, limiting cost.

Smyth explained that for large retailers employing 2 x people to just fill shelves is an economic nightmare as it adds $Billions to their bottom line.

Corrugated also offers a technical solution for the retailer as FMCG products are increasingly sold in pouches as opposed to cans. The problem is that these product pouches don't fit on retail shelves as they were designed for cans and cartons, so they tend to slide or fall off.

According to Smyth, the answer is to put them onto corrugated printed shelves.

Indeed, some retailers are not even bothering with shelves. We already see it with Aldi and Lidl who simply place product in the store and don't bother with conventional shelving at all. They move pallets and place them into aisles with raised areas with more and more corrugated. This is fast, functional but overall, effective.

So corrugated is now rated as being high value as the corrugated is now challenged to perform point of sales structures to assist a sale.

Boxing above your weight

Cardboard boxes is another packaging application set for major change. Amazon is beginning to use the boxes they supply their products in with digital print. We have started to see them using sticky tape to market new shows such as Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. In addition, Amazon also have been experimenting with digital personalisation with Minions, using online retail postal packs.

Smyth went onto explain that Martin Sorrel, possibly the most influential man in advertising, believes the physical or tangible methods for promotion are of more importance than social media going forward, so there is a place for advertising onto substrates that interface with customers in new and exciting ways.

For example, as people order TV's, the boxes will now feature the next TV season to be promoted, or membership to Netflix. This gives relevancy, immediacy and solus advertising coverage.

So for packaging, digital print is poised to play a larger role. The technical challenges are steadily being met and problems will continue to be solved. What seems a far larger requirement is a greater desire from brands to break the shackles of convention and take a bigger risk. To help this transition, we can all do more to educate and inspire, just as this conference was doing.

It will be interesting to see whether craft producers do take the lead and gain competitive advantage from using digital print in the future. Indeed perhaps this is the kind of evidence of success that larger brands require in order for them to make that leap across the chasm.