InPrint USA: Inkjet Printing Ramping Up in Packaging

Visitors to the first “InPrint USA” in Orlando, FL April 25-27 will see a big array of digital print technologies, all for industrial uses, and inkjet technologies will be the most numerous and important ones at the show. In this blog Bob Leahey of InfoTrends helps us to prep the way there, by offering a quick summary of inkjet in a key industrial sector, packaging, and why packaging’s a focus now for many of the inkjet technology vendors that will exhibit at InPrint USA.

First: Why does anyone print packaging digitally? The answer lies in the wishes of brand owners—the makers of foods, beverages, health and beauty and other “fast moving consumer goods”. Brands want to achieve “mass customization” by targeting markets and sub-markets precisely and in turn they want to package their goods for sale to smaller and smaller segments. Brands thus test new designs often and

Color Digital Printing for Packaging Enables Creativity, Variety, Engagement

Source: Vistaprint

market multiple versions of one product to different markets. That in turn has driven upward the total number of products that brands offer—the average U.S. supermarket today holds over 42,000 stock keeping units (“SKUs”), more than 4X the average in 1975.  Brands also want to achieve operational efficiency, by cutting waste and speeding up turnaround times. All these wishes have spurred brands to order package printing more often and in smaller amounts, and that in turn has led to growth in short run printing.

Digital printing, of course, excels at short runs, and as a result brands value it as an alternate to flexo, offset, and other analog print methods. In the U.S. and Canada, brands spent about $1.05 billion on digital printed packaging (see chart); InfoTrends forecasts steady growth in that print value, especially in folding carton and flexible packaging printing, to yield a total value of about $2.7 billion in 2020.

North American Packaging: Value of Digital Print, by Application

Source: InfoTrends

Inkjet got its start as a digital tool for package printing about 10 years ago with the introduction of the first color digital label presses by EFI Jetrion and few other suppliers to print “prime” labels (high graphics labels for use on bottle and other primary packaging). Since then the list of inkjet label press vendors has grown to at least 20 companies globally. Meanwhile, inkjet has gained a foothold elsewhere in packaging, namely in the direct printing of everything from folding cartons to metal cans.

In fairness, inkjet is still in second place as a digital print method for the label market that so far is the packaging world’s biggest user of digital printing. In first place is electrophotography (EP), mainly because of the dominance of HP Indigo and its liquid toner EP print method. HP Indigo has by far the most digital label press installations, more than 1,500 globally, and those are augmented by hundreds of dry toner EP label presses from Xeikon. Inkjet, though, is ascending in the label market, with lots of press suppliers, of which five are now dominant: Domino, Durst, EFI Jetrion, Epson, and Screen.  

Brands, though, need digital printing for other packaging formats, and inkjet technology is rapidly growing its role there. Some notes:

Folding carton: EP presses from HP, Xeikon, and Xerox are most of the installations today, but inkjet will soon change that, as presses by Heidelberg, KBA, Konica Minolta, Landa that print B1-sized sheets will ramp up in 2018. B1 size (40” x 29”) equals the dimensions of the offset presses most folding carton converters use; that’s important because existing EP presses (13” x 19” and 20” x 29”) are too small to handle many big folding carton images, limiting the use of digital.  

Flexible packaging: HP Indigo 20000, prints film bags and pouches for foods and other products with its 20” wide web, but that EP press is nearly alone today as a digital option in the flexible packaging market. The first inkjet options to it from two Japanese vendors, Fujifilm and ThinkLab, were unveiled last year, and there will be at least a few others.

Fujifilm EUCON at drupa 2016: UV Inkjet Printer for Flexible Packaging


 Source: Fujifilm                                                                      

Corrugated: Digital is tiny now in corrugated, but it’s all inkjet technology and the options are growing. The best known systems are “multi-pass” inkjet, namely the scanning head, flatbed-type printers from Durst, EFI VUTEk, HP Scitex, Inca, and several others that print prototypes and some short runs. Just starting are “single pass” systems—wide web or sheet printers from, Barberan, CorrStream , EFI, HP, Kodak, and others, where inkjet heads from 39” to 110” across print the media in one pass at speeds that exceed 600 feet per minute.

Direct to shape: The direct printing of shaped surfaces such as plastic bottles and cans has inkjet options in three categories: tabletop wide format printers (Mimaki, Roland), kiosks (Dubuit, Xerox, others), big production systems (KHS, Tapematic, Tonejet, others). Print speed is low for tabletops and kiosks, no more than 200 or so per hour, but production systems are vastly quicker, some printing up to 36,000 units per hour.

KHS Innoprint Direct to Shape System at Martens Brewery (Belgium) & Print Sample

Source: KHS                                                                                                

Looked at broadly, all these inkjet options for packaging printing fit the market in a particular way: each of them serves as a useful or even vital alternate to conventional printing. The label market’s use of both inkjet and EP color presses is indicative: Nearly all of these digital label press installations are placed side by side with flexo or other analog presses; they’re placed that way to enhance workflow (they do the short runs, freeing analog presses to print long runs) and to allow converters to offer new types of services, such as true variable data printing.  Inkjet will follow a similar path in other packaging applications, working in tandem with analog printing to bring efficiency and creativity to the operations of many types of packaging.

At InPrint USA, visitors will see a lot of core technology that will help inkjet advance in packaging. We recommend a few topics to keep in mind during booth visits there:

Line heads: “line” heads (long inkjet heads, usually multiple heads stitched) are becoming commonplace with many vendors deploying them in single pass systems that offer high productivity. With the advent of MEMs manufacturing we see printhead yields growing and quality, accuracy, and reliability all improving. Top printhead manufacturers include companies such as Fujifilm Diamatix, EPSON, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Memjet, Panasonic, Ricoh, Seiko, Toshiba, and Xaar. All bring innovative products to market and many will be at InPrint in Orlando.

New inkjet inks: New “low migration” inks are increasingly a tool for printing packaging with inkjet. For regular UV curing inkjet inks, the migration of uncured monomers from UV cured inkjet inks into food products is a concern of brands; low migration UV inks are a good option. Other inkjet inks to look for: ones that yield flexible images, which are helpful in packaging that is folded or creased; ones that have reducedVOC’s; also new, water dispersed UV inks, which both cut environmental impact and improve print quality. Last: new inkjet inks are emerging that are suitable for energy curing using electron beam systems; “E-Beam” has no ink migration issues so inks cured that way are safe for food applications.

Water-based inkjet inks: In package printing, water-based inkjet increasingly competes with the dominant UV curing inkjet. Look for aqueous chemistry for labels and flexible packaging uses, because it generally has no migration issues. Developments in water-based inkjet inks from Kao (Japan), Kodak, and maybe others will offer the possibility of a new tier of competitive, very high speed printing devices in this complex segment.

InfoTrends’ Opinion

We expect manufacturing industries in North America and other regions to embrace Industry 4.0--the trend toward automation and data exchange in manufacturing technology that includes cyber-physical systems, cloud computing, and the “Internet of things.” A notable feature of Industry 4.0 is that it supports the mass customization that brands want, and that converters increasingly achieve in part by printing digitally. Industry 4.0 will advance in the manufacturing and packaging of consumer products, and digital printing will advance with it, in particular to augment mass production solutions with ones that offer timely, economic, and efficient options for mass customization.  

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