Digital print for corrugated applications – The future condition of things

Despite the relative infancy of technology, the choice of any digital printer is already so widespread that you have to understand every detail of what you are buying before making a decision. Getting it wrong is likely to be very costly! In this respect, Nick Kirby looks into the insight of digital print for corrugated applications as the future condition of things!

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From smart phones to the internet and Amazon, we have witnessed dramatic change in the last 25 years or so as a result of digitised technologies. Buying a digital printer is not like buying early cars where the choice in 1896 was very limited. Manufacturers, brave enough to invest the vast sums required for the R&D to develop the latest digital print technologies, have been met with trepidation from potential buyers of their equipment due to a history of failed or unstable installations. This has not been good for the future confidence of digital in the corrugated sector, but the tide is turning. So, which digital print machine do I buy? Consequently, let’s start by looking at the platform technologies in brief.

Multi-pass systems

These machines were developed specifically for the large-format signage and POS sectors and they have played a big part in the demise of new ultra large format litho machine installations. Typically, the most modern multi-pass machines will happily run at between 500 and 1,000 sq m/hour using UV inks at very high quality.

Single-pass systems

These state-of-the-art high-volume production machines use single pass technology where the sheet passes under the printheads once and is finished. More suited to packaging and long run POS specifications, the print quality is slightly lower than their multi-pass brothers, but with output at between 5,000 to 7,000 sq m/hr, it is good enough to challenge mid-quantity, high-quality post print (HQPP) and litho laminated alternatives. These machines are available with UV, water-based or hybrid inks.

Wide web digital

Wide web digital (2.8m) is the Formula 1 for digital print output at over 25,000 sq m/hr, but maybe controversially, I do not see pre-printed web digital reels being aligned with the corrugating process. Using water-based inks, this impressive marvel of innovation meets its nemesis when introduced to a corrugator where the manufacturing principles have ostensibly remained the same for over 100 years.

Sustainable inks

Sustainability will be the focus for generations to come, but how does this influence which machine you should purchase? UV ink facilitates a more stable control of the equipment during printing but it is carcinogenic and not suitable for direct food contact packaging, although in some cases it is food compliant for secondary packaging. There is also an inherent odour with UV ink, it is glossy and I’m not so sure these factors will be tolerated in the market for the long term. UV ink for display products is widely accepted and does not pose the same concerns.

Value addition

Having purchased your new asset, requiring the forethought and vision to upsell digital capabilities are fundamental to success. Make no mistake; digital is not a replacement for your existing HQPP or litho processes, rather a complementary addition to your sales weaponry that will give newfound opportunity. More often than not, multiple prints for traditional corrugated packaging, e-commerce packs, personalisation needs, print-on-demand and greater consumer interaction are all areas that can be serviced by digital more efficiently than traditional analogue.

Sales know how

Knowing your target markets and understanding the foibles of digital are fundamental to the successful development of hitherto untapped opportunities. An analogue mind-set has no place in the digital world, so understanding where each technology prevails is a good place to start, but never discount analogue from being a positive contributor to your digital journey. Mixing analogue and digital technologies can often provide the ultimate solution; for instance, an e-commerce box could have litho lamination on one side and then the personalised, interactive or topical subject matter digitally printed on the inside. Voila! The best of both worlds is working in harmony to provide a value-added solution

Power of consumer

Notwithstanding the above considerations, do not underestimate the power of the consumer. The need for sustainability, waste reduction, greater product knowledge, interaction, convenience and brand recognition in packaging are all demands that we see being driven by the consumer. Digital print on corrugated satisfies all of these trends and it is here to stay!

(Nick Kirby is a 40-year veteran of the corrugated packaging industry forging a career that encompasses production, sales and general management.)