Industry experts have told Inside Packaging that increased automation in label production will result in increased efficiencies, especially for major food and beverage companies

British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) head of the Labels Special Interest Group Simon Mitchell, told Inside Packaging: “We see automation making real progress in the labels market and expect to see investments in the technology growing.”

He added:  “Within the label finishing production, the manual process is costly and time consuming. Automation can therefore improve throughput and reduce lead times and the converter will reduce manufacturing costs.”

BPIF CEO Charles Jarrold agreed digital printing is becoming an effective production method, notably due to the ability to produce short-run work and greatly reduce downtime between different production runs.  

Jarrold said: “It’s also giving new and varied options for security printing and its ability to personalise means that the number of different steps a label may need to go through can be reduced, as this can now be done as part of the print process.”  

However, he emphasised that digital production was “very much complementary to existing printing methods, which remain highly effective and economical, particularly slightly further up the volume scale.  

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“There may be sustainability benefits (relative to existing methods), through reducing waste and the ability to cut the number of different processes, but overall, modern, well-invested production facilities are generally highly efficient with a strong focus on sustainability already.”  

Pros and cons of digital printing

Indeed, one UK packaging expert emphasised that digital printing “was just one method that will only fit in for short run specific designs and personalised packaging.” For example (Ferrero) Nutella’s recent promotion where jars featured drawings of Belgium’s tourist towns.

The expert said: “I can see its value for special offers and possibly digital deposit return systems, but I cannot see it transforming standard food and drink packaging like cans or cereal packets,” particularly as conventional printing technology is cheaper.  

Although costs have fallen, according to GlobalData global packaging services director Dominic Cakebread, digital printing is “nevertheless a relatively expensive form of printing compared with traditional analogue methods such as offset, gravure and litho printing which are often also much faster for high-volume print runs.

“In volume terms, its share of the global packaging print market remains quite low (less than 5%), although in value terms it has reached 18-20% of the total and remains the fastest growing sector.” 

Indeed, nearly all major international packaged goods brand owners – such as PepsiCo, Unilever and Coca-Cola (whose ‘Share a Coke’ campaign with first names printed on labels and cans was one of the first major digital printing successes) – now use digital “for on-pack promotions and greater consumer interaction and engagement,” Cakebread said, explaining they can do so “as the higher volume justifies the additional or higher investment costs.”    

Digital printing is also particularly suited for designs enabling the end product to be perceived as more individual or artisan in areas such as craft beers and ciders, the GlobalData analyst added.  

Meanwhile, digital printer companies such as Hewlett Packard (HP), which dominates the digital label printing market, claim a market share of more than 60%. Epson also unsurprisingly praises digital printing and argues that firms are shifting away from plate-based analogue printing.  

HP Indigo head of labelling and printing marketing Eli Mahal said: “Using HP’s digital printing technology, converters can save on inventories, obsolescence and waste when they print only what they need, when they need it.

“With HP Indigo’s PrintOS Suite and workflow partners, converters can print dozens of jobs per day with end-to-end (E2E) automation, integrating business and production management tools.”   

Epson Europe head of product marketing, business systems and manufacturing solutions Gareth Aconley, told Inside Packaging: “On-demand inkjet colour label printing is now the most sustainable and operationally efficient choice. It eliminates the traditional problems of thermal overprinting with no more delays, disruption, waste or inconvenience.”   

The company says its micro piezo inkjet technology accommodates “demand fluctuations and rapid turnarounds” and “reducing waste ink and water use by eliminating the need to clean printing plates and limiting the amount of space needed for storing work in process.”   

Energy, material and ink savings

Aconley cites research from consultants Smithers detailing how on-demand inkjet labelling could make huge energy, material and ink savings. For instance, if such a switch in Europe took place: “Energy savings of 28.7 million kWh could be achieved each year, the equivalent of lighting 95,960 homes and a reduction of 6.7 million tonnes of CO2 (2),” he said.

The pandemic also highlighted digital printing opportunities as Silvia Lofrese, senior manager of public affairs at the European food industry association FoodDrinkEurope, said to Inside Packaging: “In 2020 and 2021, food and drink companies experienced supply chain disruption due to the sourcing of sunflower oil, that translated into a sudden need to shift supply and adapt consumer information accordingly.   

“This reinforced the belief the time is right to open up to digital labelling solutions, as we reiterated in a joint stakeholder letter to the European Commission.”

Sent on 27 March 2023, the stakeholder letter argued: “Digital solutions for labelling… can help to reduce packaging waste… provide more detailed and tailored information to consumers, decrease production costs and incentivise innovation.”  

Digital printing is also making waves outside Europe. Label Traxx president of label specialists in the US Rob Mayerson added: “Online ordering is often a critical element of successful digital innovation.”

He told Inside Packaging: “It’s not just digitising print, we see successful companies transforming digitally from the beginning to the end of the value stream.

“Digital print production surrounded by analogue workflows is a limiting mindset.”