In years to come, all printing processes may well be digital, but there are still cases where traditional techniques have the edge. Both analogue and digital equipment are the focus of innovation, and some market-leading product manufacturers are aware that while the future may belong to digital technology, for now there is a need to blend its advantages with analogue processes.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) has one of the largest and strongest portfolios of brands of any consumer goods company, including Pampers, Tide, Ariel, Always, Pantene, Pringles, Charmin, Iams and Crest. Its products are sold worldwide, with its global reach aided by a supplier base of over 400 printers.
"We try to leverage all advancements in visual technology, including printing, and there are many digital technologies in pre-press and printing stages that interest us," says Paul France, principal engineer and technology entrepreneur at P&G. "We want the whole workflow to be digital and we are building that capability with our supply base, but we are aware that a lot of effort is being made to bring digital technologies into analogue techniques such as flexo and gravure. For example, the HP Indigo Digital Press still has some analogue processes such as die cutting and screen printing, although people are trying to make those processes more digital."
The company is passionate about digital printing, which it sees as being the future in the consumer goods industry. At this year's launch of the HP Indigo WS6000 Press, France stated that printing partners wishing to work with P&G would do well to invest in digital technologies.
The message was clear: those who don't may find themselves at a disadvantage.
Digital printing bring many benefits for the consumer goods market. For one, it enables brand owners to respond quickly to the needs of customers, such as putting packs into shops to congratulate a winning sports team on the same day it has won a tournament.
Personalisation is another key benefit that allows products to be customised for individual customers. For example, nappies can come printed with the name of the baby who will wear them.
P&G already prints directly onto the individual snacks in a packet of Pringles, so it is a natural extension to look at digital printing to create the packaging for that product and others.
As well as the capacity to tie customers more closely to certain items and, therefore, generate more sales, there is also a direct impact on the cost of supplying those goods.
"Digital printing can also be done on-demand," says France.
"There is no platemaking, so you have a quick turnaround. The quality, too, is very high. You get photographic-quality images, although efforts are being made to improve the quality of analogue technologies. By going digital we can reduce our inventory and, therefore, supply chain costs. It increases our agility. The important things are cost innovation and design innovation."
Best of both worlds
Despite France's willingness to expound the benefits of digital printing technologies, he does not believe they are the best solution in every case.
"There are disadvantages and the biggest is that the technology is geared towards short runs," he explains. "P&G does a lot of long runs with large volumes, so that tips us towards the advantages of analogue processes, at least until digital becomes suitable for longer runs. Work is being done on digital printing units for wider webs and higher speeds, and HP Indigo Presses have come a long way on speed, but there have been no breakthroughs on the limitations of width. The most innovative ideas are coming from hybrid technologies, which combine the best of analogue and digital. There are combinations of inkjet and flexo processes, which will push both analogue and digital approaches to deliver faster results. Hybrid solutions interest me a lot."
Personalisation is certainly a driver that will have more power in the future, which suggests that digital printing will become the dominant force. Yet France points out it is not the only trend in the market.
For example, supply chain issues may make the customisation of products suitable for some markets, and more customised products mean more stock-keeping units (SKUs) to handle, which has an impact on cost and complexity.
"You can now order M&Ms with your own messages on them, and there is definitely a trend towards more customer involvement in product design, which suits digital printing," notes France. "We could also customise products for retailers as well as customers, so there are many levels to it. Online commerce drives customisation, and digital printing is a global process that can be the same everywhere. But the challenge is how to handle complexity in the supply chain. For every trend there is a counter-trend, such as simplifying choices at the shelf and reducing the number of SKUs. It is a careful balancing act."
An eye for innovation
P&G does not rule out the use of analogue technologies now or in the future.
However, it is open to innovation from its printing partners and recognises that digital is likely to become increasingly important.
"We are the largest consumer goods packaging company in the world, so we must innovate in many product categories," says France. "Technology drives us in certain directions, and although digital printing can't be used for some products because of the width issues, and technological capability does limit some choices, we will always keep up to speed with the market, the manufacturers and the early adopters. We welcome any supplier who has a new idea. Most of the time we leave it up to our printing partners to decide whether they use analogue or digital technologies. Analogue may mean lower cost in some cases, but digital means more customisation and personalisation. In some situations, analogue technologies will still play an important part, but digital is where we want to go."
This decision to embrace a digital future is a result of P&G's business strategy, which is constantly looking ahead to see where the market will be in the years ahead. France draws an analogy with ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky, whose unrivalled reading of the game made him one of the all-time greats, even though he was never regarded as the fastest or the strongest player.
"Gretzky would never chase where the puck was at any time," says France. "He would position himself for where the puck would end up. Printing technology is becoming more digital, so like Gretzky, we are positioning ourselves for the future."