The whir of a digital inkjet printer that spits out crisp, vibrant documents in mere seconds is a familiar reference to most Americans. Just as this innovation transformed home and office printing when it replaced legacy tools like the dot matrix printer, industrial-scale digital inkjet technology is now transforming the packaging space.
“It’s very similar to a home color printer,” said Jim Williams, vice president of sales and marketing at printing equipment manufacturer Kirk-Rudy. “Inkjet technology in packaging is revolutionary.”
Digital printing technology is expected to disrupt packaging on multiple fronts, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Leading advantages include the ease and speed of propelling decorative designs from concept to printed image as well as a drastic reduction in waste.
Packaging companies including DS Smith, Georgia-Pacific, International Paper and WestRock are “among the digital innovators” experimenting with digital printing, said Ken Hanulec, vice president of worldwide marketing at equipment manufacturer EFI. Other primary equipment manufacturers include Barberan, Domino, Durst and HP.
On a volume basis, digital printing covers about 2% of the total packaging market’s needs, according to data from consultancy Keypoint Intelligence. The technology is in the early stages for packaging amid a slow transition away from analog systems, but momentum is expected to accelerate. Market research company Smithers predicts that digital will prove to be the fastest growing printing technology for packaging from 2022 to 2027.
“Inkjet is a smaller share of the market, but the value is much higher,” said Sean Smyth, print analyst and consultant at Smithers, during an October webinar. “This is why more and more converters are thinking about digital: Because it offers high value-add opportunities.”
Digital printing’s road to achieving mainstream market acceptance for packaging bifurcates between printed label suppliers and those who print directly onto the packaging medium, according to Keypoint Intelligence analysts.
While the digital journey for narrow web labels began in 1994, the use of this technology directly on packaging has only been getting attention for roughly five years. Its use for corrugated packaging first started in 2001 and then re-upped in 2016 with the release of next-generation technology, according to Keypoint analysts. Technology exploration for folding cartons and flexibles is just beginning.
“We’re at very different stages of market development as it relates to digital printing,” said Jeff Wettersten, vice president of packaging at Keypoint. “In the core markets of corrugated, folding carton and flexible packaging — and if you want to include rigid in that as well — it’s really just entering.”
Nearly three-quarters, 73%, of converters consider the technology disruptive and transformational for the future, according to a Keypoint survey. As with most innovations, digital printing in the packaging space must overcome early-stage barriers to convince users of the value over tried-and-true systems. Many early adopters and proponents of the technology contend that the efficiency and flexibility gains compared with other printing methods are worth the investment and learning curve.
Converters might initially delve into digital printing to reduce the long-term cost per copy, but “they can and should expand that to drive productivity plantwide,” Wettersten said, explaining that better digital utilization aids overall line optimization, thus improving systemwide productivity. Converters stand to achieve a 5% equipment utilization improvement, which “has a big impact on profitability,” he said.
“Print is the traditional bottleneck in a converting facility, and if you remove that bottleneck you can streamline both upstream and downstream processes,” Wettersten said. “That’s where transformation begins to occur [with digital printing]: aligning systems and workflow and enabling new capabilities around responsiveness and flexibility.”