With the overall package print sector only growing at around two per cent/year, widespread adoption of digital print technology appears to be temporarily on hold, reports Des King

According to Pira International – organizer of this year’s Digital Packaging World Conference (London, July 1-2) – the global packaging print market was valued at around €274 billion in 2001. Putting digitally generated output into perspective, its €0.3 billion share – of which an estimated 75 per cent came through Europe – currently compares with that of the predominant flexo generated output valued at €99 billion.

Flexo applications are expected to grow by around 24 per cent over the next five years. Digital’s progression is less straightforward to assess. Pira’s industry consultative research indicates it could be anything from 36-188 per cent over the same timeframe.

In prepress terms, digitization is already an accepted driver towards reduced makeready times and better utilization of existing conventional capital equipment, now increasingly capable of producing cost effective short runs. Front end systems, however, were conspicuous by their absence on a Pira conference platform largely dominated by toner based and inkjet output device users and developers – with each technology staking its primary application claim to self adhesive labels for the former, and wide format POS for inkjet.

Speaking on behalf of HP Indigo, industrial division business manager Danny Dams estimated that for every e1 spent on actual print, between €5-8 is accounted for by other factors, including creatives, warehousing and inventory obsolescence. HPI hopes to complete 80 plus installations of the ws4000 dedicated label press across Europe within the next five years. Around 50 per cent of these could go to the UK: the first of which is now installed at Amberley Self-Adhesive Labels, specialist supplier to the cosmetics and toiletries sector.

Although there are no immediate plans to extend HPI’s current offer, the ws4000 engine is being upgraded to address flexibles and small carton applications. Leading Netherlands label printer Eshuis has been selected as beta site for the next generation press, with installation planned for early next year. Eshuis extended its existing Arsoma seven colour flexo and Drent eight colour litho production facility into digital last year and, according to commercial manager Koen Pit, is already anticipating as much as 25 per cent of its current €17M turnover to come from the ws4000 by year end.

Emergent inkjet

With its suitability to a wider range of substrates including corrugated, inkjet continues to be viewed as the digital technology most likely to succeed. Having now entered the packaging sector through Indigo, it has to be a matter of speculation as to how long it might take Hewlett Packard to turn its attention in this direction.

In the meantime, equipment suppliers such as Scitex Vision are establishing an early lead in developing the inkjet packaging market. According to marketing product manager Ronen Zioni, 42 per cent of Scitex Vision’s $70 billion global turnover is derived within the packaging industry. Incorporating Aprion DoD piezo print head technology, SV’s Corjet device outputs at around 160m/hour and is claimed to be cost effective across runs from 500-1,500m2, with media thickness up to 10mm.

Spanish corrugated packaging manufacturer Cartonajes Santorroman installed the Corjet engine in November, 2002, and has recruited a non print industry sales team to sell its potential directly to marketeers. Running speeds could achieve 1,000m2/hour within two years; still a long way removed, however, from a comparable flexo rate of 10,000m2/hour.

Inca Digital’s marketing director Heather Kendle noted that whilst leading packaging suppliers such as SCA and Smurfit were now adopters, there was a direct interest amongst brand owners in the possibilities afforded by digital inkjet technology. With continuous inkjet for coding and marking already fully integrated in packing/filling lines, familiarity with the technology is well established, she said – paving the way towards adoption of systems offering more ambitious application potential. In the meantime, Domino Printing marketing manager Mike Hurst estimated that inkjet would virtually eliminate hot contact in secondary packaging applications by 2010.

Inca’s main impact to date has been within the POS sector through specialist VARS such as B&P Light Brigade, who’s md, David Burton, told the conference that digital inkjet is now a mature technology. However, future Inca plans include the development of a single pass option within the next two years to handle a 1,500 x 1,000 sheet size with a running speed of up to 90m/min, compared with current levels of 118m2/hour. There is also a clear intent to extend beyond the existing capabilities of the recently launched Columbia (list price €530,000) into the high end application market, with Heather Kendle now confidently predicting the death of screen printing within the next 10 years.

Additional speakers focusing upon emerging inkjet technology included Paul Ewing, of specialist inks supplier Avecia, who noted that whilst metallics continued to pose a challenge, steady progress is being made towards achieving faster curing and drying properties to accelerate existing running speeds.

The route to full integration

Whilst the conference was short on product innovation, it served as an interesting signpost towards the longer term supply chain objective of full integration. Most speakers referred to the ‘knowledge gap’ between printers/converters and their customer base. Indeed, Koen Pit, of Eshuis, believes it to be “important that the end user doesn’t see any difference between the different printing techniques”. It’s an observation reflected in part by Sainsbury’s print services manager Keith Brackenborough, who said: “It doesn’t really matter what the technology is as long as you get the product to market quickly and on time”.

Pira conference chair Ann Stirling-Roberts also concurred that the over-riding factor was “to identify where in the supply chain to establish the lowest logistical cost”.

Pira flexo consultant David Atkinson demonstrated a fully integrated Hapa Romaco ‘white line’ pack and digital flexo print system currently running at around 30m/min and handling up to 1,000 different labelling variants at pharmaceuticals manufacturer Hoffmann La Roche’s Swiss plant.

“The real issue is in finding the optimum solution for the scenario presented,” he concluded. “If you can identify the supply chain solution that achieves the most cost savings, it doesn’t matter if it’s 100 per cent digital or just digitally driven.”

Whilst full integration is still the exception rather than the rule, turnkey and next-door facilities management is becoming more prevalent – as indeed is the centralized workflow and colour management service offered by global suppliers such as Fort Dearborn. The need for core competence cannot be dismissed lightly. However, the most interesting aspect of an emerging digital print technology is not in determining its potential market share, but in how its adoption is likely to impact upon the structure and future role of the packaging print industry itself.


Pira International
Tel: +44 (0) 1372 802042

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