Inkjet. The future for Corrugated Printing

by Marcus Timson

Next week I am hosting a 'Developing Inkjet for Corrugated' Seminar Programme at CCE in Munich on 12 March. Ahead of that, I talked to one of our speakers, Phil Jackman, about his view of inkjet and its future for this sector.

Phil, is Corrugated the next big market for inkjet?

Yes, it could be. It certainly feels closer to fruition than some other areas of digital packaging, not least because wide-format inkjet has been used for corrugated printing for many years but also the more recent emergence of larger, single-pass industrial inkjet machines with much higher productivity.

What kind of corrugated production is inkjet involved in?

The most established applications are using wide-format, flat-bed inkjet printers producing corrugated point of sale, pop-up displays, signs and outer packing boxes. This application has been around since the start of flatbed printing 15 years or more ago and uses UV ink chemistry.

From a technology perspective, this has evolved initially into single pass printers with higher productivity, such as the EFI Nozomi and Barberan Jetmaster, but these still use energy curable (UV or LED) inks. I believe that approximately 40% of printed corrugated is involved in food related packaging and therefore should be food safe. Since a lot of the conventional printing is performed with water-based inks, it is therefore little surprise that water-based technology is also starting to emerge in inkjet. The culmination of that is single-pass inkjet technology with water-based inks from companies such as Sun Automation and Koenig & Bauer which are aimed at the post-print, sheet-fed corrugated space.

There are also pre-print corrugated machines, printing water-based inkjet roll-to-roll onto the liner material before it gets corrugated, from the likes of HP (and also being developed by BHS with Screen/Inca) producing very high productivity machines.

The reality is that there is a range of sub-markets within corrugated and several potential entry points in the supply chain for inkjet.

What kind of challenges do you have from an ink perspective?

Energy curable inks (UV or LED) are not that desirable for the mass markets due to the food packaging requirements and/or health and safety concerns. For pop-up display applications however, they will likely remain with UV inkjet chemistry as it is established, easy to use and looks great with glossy, punchy images. Water-based inks tend to look flatter and more matt on the same corrugated substrates. But even though UV inkjet was first to market, I believe the penetration of UV will be limited and water-based solutions will soon be the leading technology by volume.

To augment the water-based technologies, enabling them to print onto a wider range of corrugated substrate types and to achieve the gloss, scuff resistance and slip specification requirements, combining analogue and digital technologies will likely be needed. The application of analogue primers and over-print-varnishes (OPV) together with water-based inkjet will bring the digital technology closer to the various market needs in a faster time.

Sun Chemical has recognised the synergies between analogue and digital and has aligned development in its coatings and inkjet groups accordingly. We now have a dedicated team & brand SunEvo that is focussed on coatings for digital applications.

What value does inkjet add for corrugated manufacturing and printing?

In my view, digital printing is best placed later in supply chain and closer to the consumer, regardless of the market, and corrugated is no exception. I think it is the customising and versioning possibilities that generates the attractive value-added benefit that digital offers.

Why isn’t digital printing becoming more widespread?

The existing analogue post-print corrugated market is highly evolved and split roughly into 2 printing types: - litho lamination (for high value, high quality, glossy boxes) and water-based flexo (for a lower value box).

The first inkjet printers aimed at these mass markets will be tasked with being able to do both ends of the quality spectrum and everything in between. Therefore, primers will be important to reduce the influence of substrate variance. The corrugated printers want to be able to do both with their first investment into digital print and this challenge could be slowing down adoption. Perhaps future inkjet machines may be more focussed on specific sectors as things become more established?

What retail trend is pushing converters to take digital seriously?

Shelf ready outer-packaging, versioning, product proliferation and shorter and more varied marketing campaigns are the retail trends that are pushed by brand owners to improve their competitiveness, but this also continues to reduce the run lengths for printers.

The reduction of lead times and run lengths has affected all sectors of print, not just corrugated. Providing operational flexibility to printing is probably the largest single driver to the desire for digital print. I don’t think that digital print has been exploited well from a marketing perspective in retail yet. However, advertising on shipping boxes is starting to use digital technology to personalise those messages.

Will operational efficiency or marketing value be the core reason for growth?

It will be both. Brands will like the marketing value and the printer will like the flexibility and efficiency.

There are 3 things that need to align in order for adoption to really work for industrial digital printing in new application areas.

  • Ink chemistry that works and meets all end use requirements

  • Print equipment and print heads that can deliver the quality, resolution, speed and reliability.

  • Marketplace. Customers that are ready and willing to invest in digital.

If you get all 3 aligned, then you get successful conversion to digital. Timing really is crucial. Sun Chemical launched a single-pass machine aimed at corrugated printing over 10 years ago called Fastjet. Whilst it was ground-breaking technology at the time and a very productive machine, it was with large drop, low resolution print heads (by today’s standards) and the image quality wasn’t quite up to expectation, but also the market wasn’t ready 10 years ago.

Now, however the timing is much better, the inks and print equipment have continued to evolve and improve, and the market is certainly readier for it. It could well be the next big market for inkjet.

Join us at the CCE Seminar Theatre from 2pm on Tuesday, 12 March at Messe Munich.

For more information, check out the website here