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Kevin Karstedt

What Is the Current State of Digital Printing in the Folding Carton Sector and Where Is it Going?

Keypoint Intelligence’s latest State of the Industry report holds the answers

Jan 30, 2024 7:00:00 PM


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I’ve been so close to this project for the past few months—living and breathing the data, trying to find the best way to get the message across to those in the industry who crave insight and direction. Our State of the Industry (SOI) series covers the four mainstream sectors (prime labels, flexible, corrugated, folding carton packaging), with a report for each. We also focus on packaging produced by dedicated packaging converters rather than niche players, as this is where digital must perform effectively. These reports aim to identify what is necessary to bring digital to the usage level that warrants the hundreds of millions of dollars already invested toward developing and deploying solutions (which only address a fraction of the addressable volume).


Good News, Bad News—Looking For a Compelling Message

The good news is that digital printing has been able to deliver an intriguing message to the converting audience for 25 years. While this may facilitate a meeting with converters, moving the message from intriguing to compelling is what gets a customer. The bad news is that a truly compelling massage has yet to be developed outside of the narrow web label sector (the only packaging sector on the way to delivering on the digital promise), and it has taken over two decades to arrive at this point. Corrugated, folding carton, and flexible packaging are just beginning their journey.


Putting Volume into Perspective

A compelling message for digital printing for folding cartons will need to speak to the mainstream converters (those that are coming into the market after the innovators and very early adopters of digital technology), those who are pragmatic and need to see a clear path to profitability. As stated in the SOI report, converters—and their customers, for that matter—are not looking for a better printing method! They are truly in need of tools and processes that give them more flexibility in their production processes and ultimately make them more profitable. Where an innovator looks at what might be, the next line of users is looking for what is. Tools that have a large impact on a small part of their business are not as attractive as ones that have an impact on large chunks of their business.


Converters in the folding carton sector haven’t seen a digital printing solution that addresses a significant percentage of their work with greater flexibility and profits. Our report provides a view of the estimated 12.7 billion m2 of annual carton production that falls into troublesome order volumes for mainstream production tools (i.e., jobs that require greater flexibility to produce). This volume of work (roughly 20% of overall volume), if addressed with effective digital solutions could raise plant-wide profitability by 4%-5%. However, the current solution sets will only be effective on a fraction of that 20% (about 500 million m2), so the need to address the remaining volume still stands.


Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?

There are three phases of digital adoption that all print sectors have gone through. The folding carton sector is firmly in the first phase (print optimization), which has yielded about 90 presses installed in the globally converting market that address 500 million m2 of production. For the second phase of adoption (optimizing total cost), solutions will need to get to a throughput closer to offset levels on a B1 format, have uptime closer to 90%, and have consumable costs in the range of $0.11 per m2.


The next two years will be important to watch as solutions that address the throughput and format needs for Phase 2 are introduced/put into production. That now leaves system uptime improvements and consumable cost reductions left to address. Many in and around the folding carton industry are watching these developments closely.


When You Least Expect It, It Comes to You

Sometimes things fall into your lap unexpectedly. While contemplating this blog, I picked up the January 2024 edition of Paper, Film, & Foil Converter (PFFC) magazine to read with my morning coffee and came to an article titled “Automating Flexo Closer to Digital” by Garrett Taylor. In the opening paragraphs, Taylor outlines the issues facing label converters related to the need for production flexibility for smaller order quantities and faster turnaround times. He says, “You would think that plays solely into the hands of digital printing, but technological advances in flexography—particularly via automation—have made flexo a viable alternative.”


I had to read it twice for it to sink in. While we have always said that digital is a complement and not a replacement for analog solutions, this struck me as a flip in the thought process of digital. Instead of digital having to match flexo in this instance, the idea has fliped to flexo matching digital. This article is a good indicator of the labels sector now being in the second phase of adoption (i.e., optimizing total costs).


Intrigued? Get the Full Picture Today!

The world of folding carton packaging is transforming, and digital printing is paving the way. Are you ready to be a part of the evolution?


Join us on the journey with your copy of our State of the Industry report on folding carton packaging!