Converters may operate in customers' plants, writes Pira's John Birkenshaw

Imagine you walk into a processed food factory. Ready-to-eat items are being packed and sealed into containers by the application of an attractively printed film. The graphics on the packaging depict the winning moment from last night’s football game shown on national TV, and have a ‘today’s special offer’ flash for a particular store in a supermarket chain. As the pallet at the end of the line becomes full, the graphics entirely change. Nothing stops, but now the design is different and the text has changed language – the next pallet is destined for export.

The packaging is being printed on the fly from raw materials, and of course, being printed in the food manufacturing plant as part of the overall production and packing process. The employees of the plant all wear their special overalls with the company logo emblazoned back and front, but one stands out as different. This person is responsible for the printing of the packaging, and employed by ‘Inplant Converters’, a newly formed subsidiary of the converting company the food manufacturer uses to produce packaging for some of its other product lines.

‘Inplant Converters’ owns, maintains and operates the digital printing equipment in this factory and a number of others. It is a growing business for the company, as batch sizes continue to reduce and marketing departments are requiring ever more topical graphics, and seeking ways of managing the rate of sales nearly in real time. The graphics department of ‘Inplant Converters’ works closely with the packaging design agencies used by all of its customers to ensure that digital artwork is always available for down- loading from their central digital asset management system to the individual food packing lines at a moment’s notice. Since there are now so many different graphics designs for every different food product, rigorous checking procedures have been implemented to ensure that all the graphic elements that should be on a pack are present, and that the correct graphics end up on the appropriate items.

The future?

This scenario does not quite exist yet (although in limited cases it is getting close), but it illustrates the changes that potentially face the converting industry. Digital print technology in particular will enable this vision to become a reality but needs further development. However, in the meantime, conventional print technology provides an intermediate stepping stone to much of what is described above.

So, now is clearly an appropriate time for converters to be asking themselves a number of significant strategic questions about the nature of their business, the structure of the supply chain within which they operate, the equipment and premises they own, the services they provide and their competitive position.

Against this background, Pira International is holding The 4th Annual Digital Packaging World conference on July 1-2, 2003, at the Thistle Tower Hotel, London. Emphasis will be given throughout the two-day event to the latest technologies in digital print packaging, their applications and the potential in future packaging markets. Digital print packaging and its role in improving supply chain management, creating added value, handling variable information and as an alternative to traditional printing techniques will be addressed specifically.

The programme includes 17 presentations from leaders in this area, such as API Foils, Craig & Rose, Sainsbury’s, Fort Dearborn, B&P Light Brigade and Eshuis. A Digital Workflow/Prepress for Packaging Workshop will also be available to delegates in the morning on Thursday July 3, 2003.

Pira International Tel: +44 (0)1372 802042