Million-Dollar Presses: High End Presses Remake the Role of Digital in Packaging (WhatTheyThink)

By Bob Leahey

Color digital printing is now long-established in packaging, but mainly for printing labels, which fit well on narrow digital webs such as HP Indigo and Xeikon presses and printers from companies like Allen Datagraph, Primera, and Quick Label Systems. Folding cartons and flexible packaging have been part of the story for several years, but primarily as crossover applications for presses that were designed to print labels.

This picture started to change at drupa in 2012, when HP Indigo and several of its competitors introduced B2 sheet fed presses for printing folding cartons and, in HP Indigo’s case, a 30” digital web press for flexible packaging. Two years later, the drupa B2 packaging presses collectively have 10 to 20 installations globally. Most of these devices are still in beta testing, but all of them were designed to print the bigger images and specialized media of folding cartons or flexible packaging. There’s been another, related change in the view since drupa 2012—the advent of other high-end digital print systems that print corrugated directly in full color or, amazingly, cans, bottles, and other shaped packaging such as tubes.

One thing that all of these new color digital packaging solutions have in common is their high purchase prices. Most cost about $1 million, but a few cost as much as $4 million. For the price, each device offers a new level of color digital print productivity, bringing a stronger competition to analog printers. Some of these devices have even come from suppliers outside of our industry, in particular makers of industrial automation for the beverage industry. 

The introduction of “million-dollar” digital packaging presses will bring about a fundamental market shift. Placements will be small in relation to digital label press placements—rather than hundreds of units each year, vendors of the new digital packaging presses together will annually place only tens of units globally, starting with perhaps 20 this year. Their purchasers will use them heavily, though, to justify their cost, and their output will far exceed the package printing volume that a narrow web digital label press can achieve. Meanwhile, the various installations include ones that will push color digital printing into bottle printing and the printing of shelf-ready corrugated—applications where narrow digital webs have never had a role. Finally, the new presses will appeal to companies that have mostly never created production-level digital printing, such as can manufacturers and folding carton converters. Many of these will be larger companies, and most will have annual revenues of over $10 million or in some cases a multiple of that figure.

Although these presses represent opportunities for a variety of sectors, the folding carton market is a particularly ready target. This application has attracted several press vendors, who are likely all alert to the following:

Nearly 100% of folding cartons are produced using analog print.

Most of the applications involve just single-sided (simplex) printing on paperboard.

There is little or no concern about contact with food.

The B2 sheet size is good not just for folding cartons, but also for commercial printing.

The very first placements of high-end presses for folding carton jobs occurred this year. Some of the key products that have been placed for this purpose include HP Indigo’s 30000, Screen’s TruePress JetSX, and Océ’s InfiniStream. The Océ product is intriguing because it is roll-to-sheet, specifically a B1 sheet (i.e., the next size up from B2).

Flexible packaging is another area of opportunity, but it presents more issues for digital technology than folding cartons do. First of all, flexible packaging uses thin, unsupported film media that is often problematic for digital presses. Additionally, there is the need to reverse print (mostly) or surface print (some) depending on the product. Finally, since most of these packages are used for food products, there are toxicity concerns. Despite these barriers, brands are still seeking the short runs that digital enables for their flexible packaging jobs. Furthermore, printing for flexible packaging is a huge and profitable market that currently represents over $50 billion in revenues worldwide Although HP Indigo is the only vendor with a digital flexible packaging press today, Landa has also announced plans to target the application.

Corrugated media represents still another area of promise for high-end presses, because many of today’s brands need short runs for their corrugated packaging too. A number of vendors will likely compete in this area, including Barbaran, Bobst, CorrStream, Durst, HP Scitex, and Inca. Of these, Durst, HP Scitex, and Inca make inkjet flatbeds that print corrugated in multiple passes, and Barbaran makes single-pass systems that print in color at high speeds with line heads up to 1.26 meters.

As for the products that end up in corrugated cartons (e.g., beverage cans, bottles, cosmetics tubes), brands want short-run printing for them as well, and their converters are only minimally able to meet that need with analog printing. Hundreds of billions of these bottles, cans, and tubes are produced on an annual basis, and essentially all of them are analog printed. KHS and Till are both suppliers to the beverage industry in Germany, and each has introduced a system to print PET bottles in full color at speeds of over 30,000 bottles per hour—fast enough to work in-line with most bottle manufacturing. “Direct-to-shape” digital package printing is still embryonic, but it is certainly promising, particularly since it will enable brands to target small groups and achieve mass customization.

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