Digital print has positioned itself as the antidote to pressure in the supply chain but its major achievement in fact might have been to send a wake-up call to the competition. Des King reports on other routes opening up for packaging suppliers in getting to market faster and in volume

Digital print has been astute in focusing upon supply chain issues in establishing a role within the packaging industry and, on paper at least, its on-demand credentials certainly appear to support the maxim of come the hour, cometh the technology.

In terms of stripping out waste and cost from the production process, it is impossible to tie down run lengths any more accurately than to a factor of one.

Adoption to date has been relatively slow going. Digital print has been around for the better part of 10 years so surely it should have earned its spurs by now? Not yet, says Kim Phillips, category manager for print and packaging at Safeway.

“I’m disappointed that it’s not there as a fully blown production alternative to traditional methods,” says Kim. “Buyers like us will play to tremendous over-capacity so pricing has basically collapsed.

“Digital has created its own level of cost. It’s become specialist and it’s become bureaux – it’s actually quite expensive and has limited its options.

“If I want to get to the market quickly and just create awareness to Safeway, then I’d maybe elect to do it digitally to get a small volume into a number of stores and be up and running.”

Safeway is by no means alone in expressing impatience with the contradiction in digital print’s slow development.

A strong synergy with self-adhesive labelling aside – and markedly so for pharmaceutical applications – the technology is arguably in danger of boxing itself into a corner, largely characterised by pre-production sampling.

The quality gets better and better but actual delivery is short of the mark in terms of both run lengths and revenue.

Eric Connolly, production director at PI3 Innovation, believes that the early innovators missed a significant trick from the outset. “The great potential benefit offered by digital print within the supply chain is speed of response.

“But the industry has failed to deliver its early promise, especially in relation to printing on substrates other than paper. The major players chose not to focus upon flexible materials.

“The engine manufacturers have obviously hived off a large amount of cost down to the developing companies. The industry seems to be aiming itself at the printers, even though the great benefit long-term is surely to the manufacturers.”

There’s been no real dialogue with design consultancies either, says Eric Connolly – a view endorsed by Sean Fortune at Siebert Head.

“Developers have never really approached us,” comments Sean Fortune. “They’ve been caught up in technology-based solutions rather than answering market needs.

“It’s about creating awareness. It needs someone to look at a bank of piezo heads that are horizontally arranged so that they’re printing downwards and say we must try those vertically on a bottling line.

“Suddenly you’d have an injection stretched blow-moulding line with an integrated digital print facility. Sooner or later, someone – probably an end-user – will grasp that nettle.”

Integration may well prove to be key with which digital ultimately unlocks its share of the packaging market.

In the meantime, flexo is proving itself to be no slouch when it comes to furthering its claims as the industry’s preferred mode of delivery. Pira’s John Birkenshaw, a long-time champion of digital print, is not alone in recognising flexo’s gathering potential as an in-line solution.

“If we’re thinking in terms of on-demand production and the integration of print processes into the manufacture and filling operation then digital fits much better than some of the traditional processes. But we need volume and the conventional print processes excel at producing quantity.

“It is now possible to produce turnaround times and economic quantities that would not have been considered viable 18 months ago. Conventional processes have improved so that it has become possible to produce quantities of 200 or 300 economically.

“Think in terms of UV flexo which I could envisage working in integration with an in-line packing set-up. It has good stop and start characteristics with almost no waste. You can produce a flexo plate in say 45 minutes now and it’ll get even faster.

“It just takes a little imagination to build that into a packaging line and the advantage is that it’s on demand. Users are printing from a generic substrate, they really can do the small batch thing, and they’ve integrated the processes so they’ve taken time out of the equation. There are lots of wins built around that concept.

“The window of opportunity for digital print systems is being compressed downwards into ultra short-run. It has a place but it’s not the only way of tackling supply chain issues.”

If digital print technology has done nothing else, it has certainly focused attention upon the need to accelerate the overall process of delivery. But is that going to be its sole achievement?

Mike Englander of Data Science concurs with John Birkenshaw’s view that the actual print process itself is almost becoming incidental.

“Up to now people have been too single minded: it’s either all traditional or all digital. Digitisation as a concept is the key. Once the marketplace has got itself into a position where all the information flow from asset management to computer to plate is digital, then in reality the actual output device is just a printing mode at the end of the network.

“Everybody has to be more versatile because in the end it’s the business that is going to dictate the types of applications. Users are going to have to put together a new solution each time.

“The traditional processes have come up with ways of diminishing set-up time from one job to another, with the end result of having the press available for the next job as quickly as possible. There are already a growing number of hybrid printing techniques whereby users marry the advantages of conventional with digital.”

An even greater number of hybrids are dovetailing alternate conventional processes. Heidelberg recently introduced its Speedmaster CD 102 Duo press that incorporates flexo units before and after six offset units in-line, allowing for the addition of metallic and pearlescent finishes in a single pass.

Heidelberg is claiming this development as an industry ‘first’ in the sheetfed sector and will be targeting users within the cosmetics and confectionery industries.

Arguably, the development of customised output devices is not so much new as rarely publicised. As a stock item – and developed prior to the link-up with Gallus – a press designed to integrate different processes is a sure indicator of a manufacturing trend towards taking flexo closer to litho quality and sensitive to time to market criteria.

Heidelberg’s newly stated intentions in respect of the packaging industry presage further developments in due course. However, with a likely installation cost of around £2.5M, the combination Speedmaster represents a serious chunk of investment. Flexo users might well find the addition of computer to plate imaging a more affordable way of reducing cost and time.

Like Heidelberg, Creo is another technology developer rooted in the commercial print sector that is now turning its attention towards the packaging industry.

According to Amnon Shalev, segment market manager, Creo is targeting flexo in the short term as its fastest route into the packaging sector. The digital pre-press workflow specialist is launching a computer to plate sleeve system at Flexo in March but has plans to extend into offset and folding cartons later in the year.

“What people want is to be able to do is produce flexo-printed cartonboard images that compete with offset computer to plate; in other words to hit litho standards. Conventional computer to plate won’t do it, but flexo computer to plate can achieve as low as 15% dot gain. A flexo press with our system will compete with any system, not just with the Speedmaster,” claims Shalev.

In addition to achieving faster running speeds, Creo’s new sleeve device cuts considerable time off plate mounting.

One particular job using between four to six colours could take between four to eight hours to mount a set of plates; with a sleeve the changeover time from one design to another is 15 minutes per colour.

“There are serious limitations for digital printing,” says Amnon Shalev, “not least because you’re changing a very critical link in the production supply chain: the printing itself.

“The packaging is complex enough as it is. But once one component of the chain is changed for another, one is hit with issues of compatibility. For example, once the inks for packaging are changed it becomes necessary to double check that the FDA regulations and EU legislation with regard to contact with food are still being maintained.

“Heat-sealing doesn’t work anymore. Over-printing with spot colours and varnishes is no longer straightforward. The substrates are changing.

“There are other limitations including availability of spot colours, metallic colours and varnishes that have to be done off-line. Also, the cost per page is still quite high so long runs can not be easily justified.

“Flexo is the accepted technology. There’s also a significant existing investment in it. It’s catching up very fast. The new machines are performing very well in terms of quality and add a lot of value by reducing production time, increasing stability and quality.”

Digital print is undoubtedly finding its own level. In the meantime, there is clearly plenty of scope for improvement within already established technologies.