Opening the Doors to Package Printing

How five companies are making their mark.

At first glance, package printing isn’t the most obvious use for a digital printer. The advantages of these machines-variable data, cost-effective short-run printing-wouldn’t seem to be much use in a market where run lengths can easily be in the millions (just think of how many aspirin boxes Bayer needs in a year). But while digital-printing isn’t making many inroads into big-run production of packaging materials, it is finding some packaging-related niches in which savvy digital-printer operators can flourish.

And yes, those niches exploit the same digital-printing advantages as the more familiar applications. As it turns out, there is a place in the packaging world for economical short runs. Some shops involved in digital-package printing turn out dozens of special-purpose packages on lightweight chipboard, while others make one-off prototypes on heavy corrugated plastic. Some make a handful of samples, while others produce hundreds of final packages.

To get a better idea of the opportunities and challenges involved in digital-package printing, let’s listen in on the experiences of five print-shop operators.

Opening up new market segments
St. Hart Container (www.sthart.com) in Fullerton, CA, is the American distribution and corrugated manufacturing unit of Amcor Sunclipse, a global packaging company based in Melbourne, Australia. Alan Hornick, the division manager, describes St. Hart as "a high-end sheet plant focusing on custom corrugated display."

St. Hart operates with three folder/gluers, three die cutters, two presses, and other production systems, including a Hewlett-Packard Scitex FB6700, installed in May 2006. A flatbed industrial digital inkjet press, the FB6700 can print in 6 colors at 600 dpi on rigid sheets up to 63 x 126 in. and up to 0.39-in. (12-mm) thick. According to Hornick, the most common substrates St. Hart runs on the machine are standard corrugated cardboard, Sintra foamboard, Gator board, Coroplast, and other familiar rigid substrates.

"We’d been looking at digital printing for 4 or 5 years," says Hornick. The company waited, however, because until recently, it didn’t consider the speed and quality of digital printing to be up to its standards. That changed with the FB6700, and, he says, the acquisition of Scitex by HP "sweetened the pot because of the support of HP."

"We wanted the printer to open up a new market segment for us," Hornick says. "Our customers were moving toward producing more graphics with shorter lead times, smaller numbers, and with no inventory." The Scitex has both enabled them to serve those existing customers and allowed them to find new ones. "It opened up our sales portfolio and took us into new markets," says Hornick. For example, previously St. Hart would have had to set a minimum order of 500 for a label job. Now, however, they don’t ask for a minimum. "Digital printing really opens the door for your salespeople," Hornick continues.

At St. Hart, a packaging job begins with a structural file designed in a CAD program. The resulting template is sent to the customer, who brings it into a design program such as QuarkXPress or Adobe Illustrator and overlays the package art. The customer then sends back the native application file.

At that point, St. Hart may still have a lot of prepress work to do-convert PMS colors into process colors, manage fonts that are embedded (or aren’t and should be), layer the art in the file so that it separates correctly, and so on.

"The biggest learning curve is the prepress operation," says Hornick. For anyone thinking of getting into this business, "having a color-management person on-site is a huge advantage."

A significant closure rate
Vertis Communications (www.vertisinc.com), with locations in Irvine, CA and elsewhere, calls itself a "full-service communications firm"-plain old printing is just one of the many services it offers, which range from marketing concept and strategy through design and media planning. For some of its clients, Vertis creates packaging prototypes on a digital printer.

"Our customers’ customers are the big-box retailers," explains Tom Mattingly, Vertis director of creative services. "What that means is that companies that actually make a product come to Vertis to get a package design that’ll convince the retailer to carry it. We then do the packaging or point-of-purchase sales display."

He continues, "Our offering of this creative service came around the same time as the arrival of large-format printing, so we’ve always had that capability. Before that, presentations were done on flat art."

"From a conceptualization side," he says, "we’ll still use flat copies to get the process developed. But when we’re pretty far along, ultimately we show 3-D mockups-‘live samples.’ We present the total package."

Vertis’s package designs mostly originate in Illustrator, and they convert to PDF for printing. Depending on the size of package that’s needed, Vertis has several options for producing prototypes, says Dave Brewer, director of operations. The company utilizes its Leggett & Platt Virtu36 to print directly on corrugated and various other substrates, which are then cut, scored, and folded using an MGE i-Cut XL 24 router. In addition, Vertis has an Oce LightJet, which prints continuous-tone photographic images, making it the best choice for prototypes used in photo shoots, says Brewer. Plus, Vertis has an HP Indigo 5000 and a Xeikon digital press for smaller boxes, such as the ones it recently produced for playing cards. And, to top off its equipment tool box, the company has created its own Vertis Color Communicator proprietary solution, built on a common wide-format printer, which outputs contract proof-quality versions of the final product.

Mattingly gives an example of a typical job: "Let’s say I was the manufacturer of a healthcare product that will be packaged in a lightweight chipboard box. In the preliminary stages, we might go to the HP printer (Designjet 5500) for proof output, then laminate it to the substrate. As we get toward the final version of the creative, we would go to the Vertis Color Communicator or even to the LightJet, and then laminate this output to the chipboard substrate. On the other hand, if we’re providing a creative concept for a set of golf clubs, now we are talking big packaging and corrugated substrate-now we need to start thinking of the type of final printing process, flexo versus litho laminate. If it’s determined that due to printing costs that flexo is the process of choice, we’d provide the client with a prototype utilizing the L&P Virtu, which prints directly on corrugate."

"Once our customers have a final order from the retailer," Mattingly continues, "we send prep files and proofs all over the world."

And getting that order is easier because of the quality of the prototype, according to Mike Wardle, vice president of sales for the Southwest. "The reason it’s successful," he says, "is that it is a real live product-it looks and feels like the real product will."

Long drive off the tee
You can hear the pride in the voice of John Roberds, co-owner and president of Odyssey Digital Printing (www.odysseyprint.com), when he describes his Tulsa, OK firm: "Odyssey uses the latest in digital-printing technology to deliver cutting-edge digital-printing options to both large and small businesses." Odyssey’s six digital presses can produce prints as small as business cards to as large as billboards.

"We started in 1996 with a Xeikon press," Roberds recalls. "There were just three of us. We wanted to find anybody who’d pay us to print. We thought we’d go after corporations, ad agencies, business like that."

The company gradually morphed into a point-of-purchase display printer, and that still makes up about 85% of their revenue. "Along the way, we added some large-format machines and other equipment," Roberds continues. "We now have 15 machines spanning 11 technologies and employ 57 people. We have three Xeikons-including a DCP/50-SP, a 5000, and an Agfa Chromapress 50i-as well as two Heidelberg Quickmaster DIs, a couple of high-speed black-and-white copiers, and seven large-format printers: an EFI Vutek UltraVu 3360 and Vutek PressVu 200/600, an Oce Arizona 180, a Gandinnovations Jeti 3150, a Seiko ColorPainter 64s, and an HP Designjet 5500 and HP/Scitex TJ8300."

The packaging business came about through customer requests. "Around 2000 or 2001, we began getting inquiries from local companies that did VHS tape packaging and had some short-run needs. And Xeikon was introducing its DCP/50-SP machine, specifically engineered for packaging"-for example, it has a strong enough motor to pull carton stock through the press.

"We developed a business plan," Roberds recalls, "and decided to get the machine and go after short-run packaging. We committed to buying our Xeikon SP in 2001 at the Print ’01 show."

At about the same time, the Acushnet golf company (makers of the Titleist and FootJoy brands, among others) was looking to expand its custom packaging choices. Acushnet then accounted for about 75% of the promotional golf balls in the US market. It offered custom packaging as well, but a customer needed to order 2000 dozen balls to get a custom package; as you might guess, Acushnet wanted to be able to offer custom packaging for smaller amounts, and the Xeikon enabled Odyssey to meet that request.

Using its Xeikon SP, Odyssey now sometimes does just 48 or 96 dozen balls for a company golf outing. "We’ve done as small a run as a single ball sleeve," says Roberds. "We run 70 to 100 orders a week, just for golf balls. The SP is engineered to print on heavier stock than are the regular printers-up to 18 pt. We print on 16 pt. C1S folding carton board for the golf boxes."

Besides the regular golf packaging business, "We do a little comp work and some software boxes," Roberds recounts. "But that’s spotty, it’s not real steady. We’re also talking to a company about doing custom coffee cup sleeves."

At this point, Odyssey is not using its wide-format printers for its packaging work, but that may soon change. "We plan to pursue packaging prototypes with the Gandi printer," says Roberds. "We just installed it last month, so we aren’t ready yet to go after the business," but he certainly sees integrating that machine into the packaging workflow in the future.

To anyone thinking of entering the packaging market, Roberds has a cautionary tale: "Our salesperson called on all the big names in the packaging business, and we were surprised at how little interest there was in digital printing. I can’t tell you why, they just wouldn’t talk to us." To get a company to agree to do business with you, Roberds says, you need to get a champion inside the company to push the idea.

Prototypes for consumer goods
In the practiced words of Rex Jobe, chairman and CEO, The Color Place (www.thecolorplace.com), his Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX company is a "digital manufacturer of graphics, using a cross-section of production methods" including grand-format printers, photographic techniques, and others. "Our clientele ranges from consumer-product companies to retailers," Jobe continues. "We do signs, banners, vehicle graphics"-the company has even done wraps for bass boats.

"I started The Color Place 35 years ago as a traditional color lab," Jobe recalls. "We figured out about 10 years ago that the photo business was going to end and film was going to go away."

"When the direct-to-substrate presses came out around ’01," he continues, "we knew it was a direction we wanted to go. We’d been putting together some products by making photo prints and laminating them to a substrate, for P-O-P and so on. We’d also had a couple of situations where we’d done packaging by hand. When we bought our digital router, packaging software came with it. So we told clients, ‘We have this new capability now-if you need custom packages, let us know.’"

"Most of what we do is prototype work for sales-promotion agencies working with large consumer-product companies," Jobe continues. "We get digital files that are all already laid out. We might consult with our clients on how their job might best be done or how to plan it, but they do the design." The files could be produced in any common design software, from Illustrator to XPress to Adobe InDesign. "We have to be knowledgeable about all of them," says Jobe.

The prototypes are mainly printed on the company’s Inca Eagle H and its EFI Vutek QS2000 direct-to-substrate presses using UV inks. After coming out of the presses, the sheets are put through a digital die cutter running the box-making software that came with the MGE router. The system has enabled The Color Place to make at least one all-metal box and a couple of all-plastic ones. "We can print on just about anything these days," says Jobe.

Tackling the creative short run
"We’ve been in the service printing business for 20 years," says Errol Doris, Jr., assistant general manager for Digital POP Solutions (www.digi-pops.com) in Bellwood, IL. "As technology changed, we changed with it. In 1991 or ‘92, we were using airbrush printers." Now, the company’s primary machine is an HP Scitex FB6700 flatbed digital printer, which they use to print on "pretty much anything that’s rigid," says Doris. "We run a lot of Sintra and other foam board, and the majority of our work is on corrugated sheets and Coroplast."

"We do a lot of display and P-O-P work," says Doris, "but we do packaging as well. We’ll do boxes, displays, headers. It’s all digitally die-cut, so there’s no tooling costs. As long as it’s 3-D, we can do it."

The files come to Doris from the product manufacturers in a variety of formats, such as PDFs and TIFFs. "But I prefer to get my files in Illustrator format," says Doris. "It makes for a crisp printout." Digital POP then uses Esko Graphics’ ArtiosCAD software to set up the box structure and cutting pattern. Scitex’s proprietary RIP handles the color-management tasks, he says.

Digital POP’s packaging jobs represent several different parts of the market. For instance, for a company that needs a product sample, "It’s not always cost-effective to run out samples with traditional methods. We get a lot of work from those people," says Doris. Other jobs are bigger: "A lot of our stuff gets placed at stores like Best Buy or Wal-Mart. They’re big chains, and they might take 500 of something and put one in each store as a test." And some jobs weren’t even theirs to start with: "We also do a lot of makeup work," recounts Doris. "People run 3000 of a job that they really needed 3500 of-they come to us, and we run the extra 500."

The packaging work has proven a boon to Digital POP in other ways, too. "It can throw you into other parts of the business as well, because there are so many different people you deal with. It really helps you to break out."

Jake Widman is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, CA.

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