Digital printing comes of age

4 March 2004 (Last Updated March 4th, 2004 18:30)

While digital printing still faces competition from established technologies, Packaging Technology International estimates that its advantages will lead to a sustained boom in demand in the coming years.

Digital technology for labelling, barcoding and container printing is on the rise. More end-users are now familiar with the technology, and it is anticipated that many will switch from traditional packaging printing technology to digital alternatives over the coming years due to the potential savings in time and cost.

A recent report from Packaging Strategies/BRG Townsend entitled 'Digital printing for packaging graphics' suggests that digital printing is the leading growth category among printing technologies for labels, folding cartons and flexible packaging. The report anticipates that the spend in these categories could rise from $91m in 2002 to over $220m by 2007.

The leader in the field

Digital press technology for packaging printing and graphics has been around for the last decade, but now, momentum is building behind both end-user investments and hardware development by technology providers.

After ten years, HP - which designs and manufactures a range of digital printing solutions for many applications, including labels and packaging - is emerging as one of the leaders in the field through its Indigo affiliate.

The HP Indigo Press ws4000 is currently one of the fastest selling digital presses on the market. Since the press was introduced, HP has seen sales in the digital label market grow by 150 per cent, and print volume has doubled in the same period.

The ws4000 system comprises finishing and workflow solutions that are easily integrated with other systems, and embodies many of the qualities that are fuelling the growing interest in digital printing solutions for the packaging market, not only in the USA and Europe, but also in the Asia-Pacific region and Australia.

This interest has, to a large extent, been driven by the demand for more economical printing solutions, particularly for the printing of labels. Fast turnaround is another key factor, as is flexibility, since the press - like other newly developed systems - is designed to enable the use of a wider range of colours and dynamic print capability.

The first implementation of the ws2000 in the UK was aimed at the printing of confectionery labels and packaging. Eclipse Marketing Solutions, which supplies product wrap prototypes on multiple substrates to the UK confectionery industry, deployed the system in late 2002, having been the first European company to adopt the Indigo Omnius web-fed packaging and label press in 1995.

The ws2000 offers runs of up to 2000m in up to seven colours, and can print full-colour labels on a variety of substrates at 16mpm. Like other developing solutions for digital packaging printing, the system offers greater flexibility in evaluating new designs during the development process, and allows a more accurate replication of the finished appearance before press production begins. These advantages manifest themselves in both time and cost savings.

Recently, UK-based Tumar Labels installed a digital press from HP to be able to offer its customers in the food packaging industry sequential numbering and barcoding capability, aiming principally at customers in the electronics and automotive industries.

Several benefits

Digital printing solution provider Xaar Plc invents unique technology solutions, which it patents and licences, and part of its focus is the manufacture and marketing of piezo drop on demand digital inkjet printheads.

These products are aimed primarily at the packaging printing and specialty graphics markets. The printheads go directly to OEMs who integrate them into their own digital printing devices. These printheads and greyscale inkjet technologies, such as Xaar Leopard, are among the examples of technology that are bringing near-photographic quality printing to office, commercial and consumer markets, as well as having an impact in both industrial and consumer goods markets.

If the cost benefits of digital printing need to be proved, Iconotech - which markets a range of digital case printers - offers a facility on its website that allows potential customers to compare the cost of traditional printing and coding equipment with its own products. The aim is to tempt potential customers to leave their existing technology and drive them towards digital printing technology.

On-demand printing

Digital printing also has the capacity to change the way in which firms active in the e-commerce marketplace look at packaging. Many such businesses are looking at short inventory times and just-in-time delivery, as well as rapid processing of orders. These orders, however, are increasingly destined for a global marketplace and, as such, need to be tailored to suit different customers.

Digital printing technology is making it possible to move towards on-demand packaging production as a means of streamlining the delivery process further.

On-demand printing allows packaging to be individually tailored to the customer, can potentially save on raw materials, and can release capital that might otherwise be tied up in stock. Cost savings in packaging production are thus possible. This is firmly in line with the strategy of agility that many companies in the world of e-commerce are seeking to implement.

Research into on-demand packaging printing and packaging logistics is currently under way at VTT Information Technology, one of the six research institutes of the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland. The results of the research are due to be obtained later this year.

A mature technology

The trend towards digital packaging printing is already gaining momentum, and as more and more end-users discover its advantages, this trend is likely to accelerate, which is also what research indicates. Ten years after the dawn of digital packaging printing, the technology and its perception in the market have matured significantly.