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Smithers Pira Digital Print for Packaging Summit: Hosted in London

Smithers PIRA Digital Print for Packaging Summit.

UK Delegates from the world of package printing gathered in London recently to hear speakers from across the spectrum present their ideas on how, and where, and when, and why digital printing will impact on the growing global marketplace.  The variety of speakers outlined every aspect of digital technology from the initial client brief, through the conceptual artwork and pre-press stages, to full implementation of test marketing on a continental basis.  There was, as they say, something for everyone.

Perhaps the clearest message to emerge from all of the speakers was the way in which digital printing should be viewed.  The phrase ‘more complementary than competitive with analogue technology’ highlighted the fact that, while digital can do things that offset, flexo, gravure, and screen processes can’t, there remains a fundamental need to choose and use the most appropriate technology for each job.  This is particularly the case where, because it is often more expensive, digital print is rejected on cost grounds.  More than one speaker stressed the importance of seeing printed packaging as adding value rather than cost in the supply chain, with year round exposure of the product to the consumer.

What digital print does offer is the ability to personalise each unit of each job.  Granted that, at present, web widths are relatively narrow and running speeds relatively slow, digital printing is capable of giving unique shelf-appeal to many products, as was evidenced by the highly successful ‘Share a Coke’ campaign that was test marketed in Australia before taking Europe by storm last summer.  Planned and executed like a military operation, the soft drinks giant had to adopt various print technologies to achieve the desired effect – but in essence, it was the personalisation capability of digital, and its ability to respond so rapidly to daily changes in demand, that made the difference.  If anyone had any preconceived ideas that digital was suitable only for short runs and small jobs, the Coca-Cola presentation changed their minds!

Robert Monaghan, Director at Air Innovation, said that innovation was the key to breaking price stagnation on existing brands.  Citing the example of the traditional Christmas tin of chocolates, he said that despite being a firm favourite with consumers, and volumes holding up, prices had flat-lined some five years ago, and that without a new approach, he could see no improvement.  Diversification holds the key, with established brands needing to adapt their images to suit local or seasonal variations in demand – playing with the ‘Holy Grail’ it may be, but sustained success requires a degree of both lateral and joined-up thinking.  And, if Nutella and Heinz Soups are prepared to experiment with their images, nobody should be too shy to try.

Sean Smyth, speaking on behalf of the organisers, Smithers-PIRA, outlined the market share of digital in the printed packaging market.  Currently a very small percentage overall, compared with analogue processes, digital is weak in cartons and flexible packaging, but strongest in labels, where inkjet goes from strength to strength.  From an approximate 25% share against toner technology in 2006, it has grown to 40% now, and is projected to take 50% by 2016.

Interestingly, this trend proved contrary to the experience of Coca-Cola, who when selecting a digital process for its ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, opted for the toner technology manufactured by HP-Indigo, because they believed it offered better image quality, more colour accuracy, and shallower print thickness, and had a larger installed user base.  In the event, HP was commissioned to create a special ‘Coke’ red that required a double hit.  This was overprinted on the reels of substrate that had been pre-printed on a nine-colour gravure press, and were subsequently over-varnished with a solvent based lacquer.  To maximise the production efficiency of the slower digital lines, the conventional converters were required to deliver the pre-printed reels to an exact timetable, which highlighted the need for the two technologies to work in harmony.

Leading international brewing group, SAB Miller, suggested that digital is ‘no longer a technology, but more a culture’.  Douglas Hutt, from the company’s Global Packaging Development department, said that digital was now an intrinsic part of the interactive world in which we live.  All printing techniques are under pressure to provide increased individuality, greater differentiation, and more variety, at a time when JIT deliveries of smaller batch sizes with reduced waste levels are considered ‘a given’.  If you add in the growing need for anti-counterfeiting measures, trace and track capability in the supply chain, and the two-way interface that connectivity requires for multi-function packaging, you begin to see the mountain that digital has to climb.  Matching consumer expectations with the reality of production costs is seen as one of the major problems to be solved, especially with demand being driven hard by social media.  According to Hutt, brand owners are looking for a single solution to their printed packaging, and with digital’s current weakness in cartons and flexible packaging, it has some way to go.  But, he was quick to say ‘watch this space!’

Shaun Jones, Realisation Director at Pearlfisher, told delegates that digital ‘was a matter of perception’ – and that with regard to print technology, old equalled bad, and new equalled good.  But, he said the situation was more complex, because digital can connect people, things, and ideas in a way that analogue cannot.  Where analogue is seen as slow to change, digital offers the here and now of real time.  Digital equals everyone, everywhere, and everything, he added as a sweeping statement, which he qualified by saying that it is not enough to show how clever the technology is, if it is not performing a useful function.  The challenge is to maximise its uniqueness, and the growth of online shopping offers an ideal opportunity to put this into practice.  Digital has the power to ‘talk to you personally and create emotional desire’ he claimed – it is not that it is digital, but more that it is printing now!

One of the leading manufacturers of digital technology for the printed packaging market is Hewlett-Packard, so the presentation by Francois Martin, Worldwide Marketing Director, Graphics Solutions Business, Imaging and Printing Group, attracted keen interest from the converters in the audience.  Stating that brand owners are keen to integrate consumer experience (both virtual and actual), he stressed the need to see packaging as a medium that sustained a message.  Recent trends in the industry have played into the hands of digital printing, especially the shorter product life cycles, which demand shorter run lengths.  Add to this, the change in the supply chain that has seen a switch to on-demand fulfilment as companies seek to reduce working capital, and it is easy to see why sales of digital presses have been strong.  To date, labels has been the prime target market, but HP is on the point of moving into flexible packaging, cartons, and even corrugated with its new series of presses.

Another hardware manufacturer to capture the attention was Volker Till, CEO of Till-Tech, the German company that has designed and developed a modular inkjet system that is only 140mm wide, can accommodate up to 48 stations, with eight-colour capacity to extend the CMYK gamut.  Developed in response to the way the company sees digital technology playing an increasingly important role in consumers’ lives, with the Internet and smart phones being an intrinsic part of everyday life.  The challenge, he said, was to make the change from production being product orientated (currently) to consumer orientated (in the future).  Digital inkjet works across many substrates including glass, metal, board and plastic, and a variety of shapes from bottles and cans to trays and tubes, but nevertheless has its challenges, notably the quality issue associated with the distance from the head, which varies with different shapes.  Till-Tech has developed special software to deal with this, and claims that direct printing offers a significantly better quality image than a label.  With the latest inkjet heads offering the reliability and productivity that only an industrial process can bring, along with the print quality that comes with precision resolution and colour matching, Till can validate its inks for use in 3D printing on glass, metal, PET, and PE.  The only limitation, it would seem, is the customer’s imagination.

From machine manufacturer to converter, the summit moved on to hear how Ultimate Packaging, one of the UK’s leading printers of flexible packaging, had embraced digital technology alongside its bank of wide web CI flexo presses.  Chris Tonge, Sales and Marketing Director of the family owned business used the opportunity to demonstrate first-hand interactivity with the delegates.  ‘Selfie’, the term for taking a photograph of oneself on a smart phone and uploading it to a social media site, (and also the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of 2013’) was used to encourage those in the audience to take and send a ‘selfie’ to a specially created website, which then produced a personalised package.  Not the first to state that brand owners and their suppliers are now catering for the social media generation where two-way communication is everything, and instant, Tonge said that all companies need to view future technology investments as potential major influences on the marketplace.  The ‘Pic on the Pack’ campaigns that are growing in popularity among brand owners are ‘just the beginning’ he said.  It would appear that we are on the verge of a revolution in what the public demand and how converters go about supplying it.

Simon Edwards, VP Sales and Marketing at Tonejet, claimed that the true value of digital technology is not the printing but the marketing opportunities it provides.  Highlighting customisation (for limited editions), personalisation (for my-product), variable information, product differentiation, and localised/regionalised campaigns, he stated that the flexibility to tailor products to meet specific requirements of price, season, and location can bring innovation into an otherwise stagnant market.  Opining that if the smart phone is now the accepted second TV screen, it is also the secondary packaging that provides additional product information at point of selection.  He questioned whether consumers were really driving the market, or whether the pace of technological development was in fact driving expectation.  Whichever it is, he believed that companies should drive consumer behaviour, not vice versa.

Jan de Roeck, Director of Solutions Management at Esko Graphics, said that the best way of increasing market share is to add sustained value to a product or service.  Acknowledging the trend towards more frequent changes of packaging (35% changed at least every 12 months), he added that with new product launches hitting 40,000 each year in the USA, the opportunity for converters were plentiful.  Examples listed included 95 different labels for one range of salad dressing, and 64 varieties of one yogurt on the supermarket shelf.  What mattered, he said, was the whole package that was on offer to customers, and colour management and consistency, especially to global brands, was critical.  The creation of Pantone-LIVE, which is effectively a DNA for colour that can be spectrally defined, combined with Colour in the Cloud, offers high-performance colour reproduction anywhere, at anytime, and on any substrate.

The other critical area, according to de Roeck, is regulatory copy management, with its potential for error.  With more files, more languages, and new regulations to accommodate, there is a need for a universal management system like GS1 XML, which means everyone from studio to converter and end user is ‘speaking the same language’.  By incorporating copy from multiple systems, and managing it, the GS1 significantly reduces the risk of copy error.

So, what conclusions can one draw from the two-day event?  All speakers concurred on the degree to which consumer demand is changing because of the influence of the Internet and social media, and that packaging needs to respond to this.  That digital print technology offers many advantages in terms of fast make ready, short run efficiency, and personalisation capabilities, makes it an obvious candidate for future capital investment.  Significant, however, was the fact that brand owners and digital press manufacturers alike suggested that it is best seen as a complementary technology, rather than as a replacement for analogue printing.  The key point, they said, is choosing the right technology at the right time.

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BONUS Special discount –> save 15% by quoting NWPE15AD whilst registering your place for the event online.

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Nick Coombes
e-mail coombes@gk-techmedia.com

Nick Coombes

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