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Pack It Up

How wide-format digital printers are finding their place in the packaging world.

Since its earliest days, digital printing has always seemed a logical solution for producing one-off packaging mock-ups and prototypes. The instant set-up, easy revision, and quick turnaround has equipped designers and marketers with an affordable way to review and refine packaging concepts before committing to a full production run.

As the quality and speed of wide-format presses have improved and the range of media has expanded, those same benefits have helped establish digital as a short-run solution.
Small businesses that could not use or afford a large-volume order of cartons or bags can now order packaging in the exact quantities needed. Larger companies, too, are starting to discover how to tap digital’s short-run capabilities to test new design concepts in stores, or produce custom packaging for specific markets or seasonal promotions.

These early rumblings could be the sign of a coming trend. As more consumer product manufacturers understand digital printing’s benefits and applications in packaging, their suppliers will increasingly push these print services, which means that digital printing will play a more certain role in how products of all types are packaged and presented, wherever the customer encounters them.

Building the case for digitally printed packaging
If large-format digital has a future in production-length package printing, Heritage Paper (www.heritagepaper.com) is helping to build the case. Located in Livermore, California, the company specializes in the design and manufacture of corrugated containers.

“We’ve done runs of as many as 25,000 pieces – wine packaging and header cards of around 10,000 pieces, and a lot of runs between 2000 and 3000 pieces,” reports Michael Musgrave, the company’s vice president and chief operating officer. “This is absolutely where packaging is going.”

The company is so confident in the future of digital printing as a packaging solution that Musgrave just placed an order for his company’s third flatbed printer: Hewlett Packard’s Scitex FB10000. It’s a response to accelerated demand from clients who have discovered multiple advantages to digital printing. “We’re starting to see some large-scale adoption by some of the major brands we serve,” he says.

Musgrave cites a combination of factors driving that shift: the color quality achievable with his printers, the speed with which packaging can be designed and then delivered digitally, and the creative possibilities – and marketing opportunities – that digital empowers.

“You can have a production run of one. Only digital allows you do that,” Musgrave says. That gives design teams the ability to quickly test and revise packaging concepts as they work toward the best design.

Digital’s short-run capabilities also allow marketing teams to easily and affordably test different packaging concepts in stores to see which is most effective. “With digital, a company can lead with the packaging design they think will win,” Musgrave says. “But they can also try slightly different versions, put them in the market, and see what happens.”

The technology also makes it possible to produce special versions of a package for local markets or seasonal promotions, without additional expense. “It gives them a lot more flexibility,” he says.

Clients are also responding to the perceived “greener” qualities of digital printing. He says many of his company’s larger corporate clients want to run more sustainable operations and look to suppliers with a comparable commitment. They consider digital printing a more environmentally friendly solution, eliminating the waste and chemicals generated in traditional printing.

Despite these advantages, though, Musgrave reports that many companies within the flexographic printing industry are still a little wary of digital’s potential for production runs of corrugated packaging. “Our company may be the extreme example, on the leading edge,” he admits.
In fact, Heritage’s digital venture was not an immediate success. An initial investment in another brand of flatbeds proved disappointing when the press couldn’t reliably perform as expected. A switch to HP’s Scitex FB7600 in 2011 brought the technology Heritage needed, but not the workflow.

“The real investment is in the commitment to learn how to design and manufacture for digital,” he says. “Traditional packaging printers don’t understand the prepress aspect of digital printing.” It took his company a year and a succession of prepress specialists before it could confidently exploit all the capabilities of its flatbed printers.

Now that it has, Heritage Paper and its clients continue to pioneer digital’s future in corrugated packaging. “We’ve never had a single company take something digital, then take it back to traditional printing,” says Musgrave.

Digital’s versatility allows company, clients more options
For Peek Packaging (www.peekpackaging.com ) in Carlsbad, California, digital-printing technology is proving to be a game changer. The company specializes in custom packaging solutions and uses the capabilities of Roland DGA’s VersaUV LEC-540 printer/cutter to offer clients whatever their project requires. The 54-inch UV LED printer “gives us the ability to do so much more for our clients,” according to Peek Packaging’s national sales manager Ed Heller.

Whether the company uses the printer for proofing, prototypes, or small production runs, Heller notes that Roland’s white ink capability is a critical feature. “We lay down white to make colors appear at their true tone,” he explains. “In addition, for printing flexible packaging on metalized or clear film, it has to be laid down first.”

Peek Packaging has successfully printed every type of media it has tried on the machine to date, including chipboard, corrugated materials, labels, and films. The company prints and cuts films on the Roland, while paper substrates are cut and scored on the company’s Graphtec CAD table after printing.

Some clients now embrace digital as part of their design process, ordering affordable mock-ups of a packaging concept as they work toward the final version. They experiment with the design and easily change colors or placement of graphics, then see how the concept translates to a printed box or flexible package.

“We’re able to provide them samples they’re not used to getting,” Heller notes. “We can show them the actual structure, with their graphics on it, so they can approve it before we go into full production.” Monster Cable, for example, worked with Peek Packaging’s team to perfect the packaging design as it prepared to launch its new line of N-Tune headphones.

On projects where the goal is to approve a design before committing to a high-volume production run, Heller says it’s important to make clients aware of where the results between analog and digital printing may differ. “The inks used on a [traditional] press are different than digital inks,” he says. “We can get a close match, but it may be only 85- to 90-percent close on some colors. As long as you explain that well, people understand.”

For others, variations from traditionally printed pieces are not really an issue. They’ll tap digital’s ability to produce a package in runs as a few as a dozen as an effective sales tool. Whether meeting an account at a trade show or during a sales call, salespeople are able to show a sample that looks and feels like the finished version. In fact, some companies with specialty product lines will use digital for short runs of as many as 50 pieces of the actual packaging to fill in as needed.

Heller sees Roland’s ability to accurately print on flexible films as another advantage that will mean more opportunities in the future. “The flexible match is good, and flexible packaging is an important part of our business,” he notes. “The ability to provide a printed bag is huge.”

Designing and delivering all the details in sample packaging
When consumer product manufacturers turn to Wild Blue Technologies (www.wildbluetech.com), located in De Pere, Wisconsin, for help developing their packaging, they get one-stop service.

“We’re a design agency working with some of the larger consumer-product companies to communicate with their customers at retail,” says Wild Blue’s product development manager Dennis Rockhill.

Since packaging speaks loudest to potential customers at point-of-sale, prototypes are a key component of Wild Blue’s services. The shop is well equipped with a selection of Roland wide-format printers to suit a variety of needs, including the VersaUV series LEC 300 and 330 printer/cutters; Hi-Fi Jet Pro FJ540 aqueous printer; and the Soljet Pro II SJ-745 and Soljet Pro III XC-540MT solvent printers.

“Many packaging comps that we work on require multiple materials or ink treatments that have us switching between printers quite a bit – making color management and registration key factors for success,” he reports.

“When you’re making prototypes, you don’t want the client to have to fill in any blanks in their perception. You want to give them every detail,” continues Rockhill. “The closer you can make it to how the packaging will actually look and feel, the better.”

With this mix of printers, Wild Blue is able to choose an output solution based on specific goals for the product and how it will be displayed in store. “We’re covered pretty well for whatever substrate they choose,” says Rockhill. The printer used depends on the client’s choice of media, volume they are looking for, and strengths of each particular device.

If the client is thinking of using a flexible bag or pouch, for example, the company typically uses one of its solvent printers. When printing flexible prototypes with solvent machines, the company usually prints JetComp System films purchased from distributor ChromaSpec Systems.

The JetComp line includes films specifically developed for producing prototypes and short runs of flexible packaging on solvent inkjet printers that have white ink capability. “There are make-shift ways to prepare films for digital printing, but [JetComp films] make it more efficient because they come prepared and ready to use.”

That’s important because achieving the right package can be an evolving process, with several rounds of mock-ups before the client is satisfied with the design. Digital’s quick turnaround and easy revisions add creative efficiency.

“Sometimes clients come in with a design and we’ll adapt it to multiple types of packaging so they can see how it will look,” he says. “Other times, they’ll come to us before they’ve really decided on a design or what type of packaging they want to use. We’ll produce different examples until they are comfortable with the design.”

One recent project required several rounds of samples and revisions. “The number of iterations would not have been possible outside of a digital production,” Rockhill points out. “The ability to output multiple variations in different graphic treatments, then line them up to compare – all within a day-or-two turnaround – brought huge opportunities for exploring options and revisions.”

Until clients can hold a physical rendering, they may have no real idea of how a design translates into the finished product. Only with that physical prototype can they see how fold lines impact the design, or how placement of a clear window does or does not work.

Rockhill says that digital printing gives clients confidence that a design has been fully vetted. “There’s a huge advantage to holding a prototype and knowing it’s as close to the finished product as you can possibly get,” he says.

Because of that, he expects to see even more use of large-format digital printing at the front end of the packaging workflow. “I think flexographic printers are getting wise to using a proofing method that allows customers to approve something that’s close to what they’ll see on the shelf,” he says. “Digital can save time and money, and really bring design and production much closer together.”

Trucking in opportunity
SupplyOne (www.supplyone.com ) is a national specialty packaging company with 17 locations throughout the country. At the company’s Oklahoma City facility, packaging design manager Perry Walton provides the digital prototyping services for clients of the company’s two flexographic printing plants in Oklahoma.
His office recently installed a ValueJet 1617H printer to replace an older Mutoh, following the recommendation of local Mutoh distributor, Digital Media Warehouse.

“What we do with our flatbed is create actual mock-ups for our customers so they can have a sample of their packaging in hand,” Walton says. That was his goal when he ordered his first digital press a few years ago. “Originally, our intention was to use that press to produce prototype samples to show customers the capabilities of our flexographic press,” he recalls. While the color was acceptable for prototypes, the inkjet’s dot pattern could not mimic the 63-line screen of the company’s flexographic presses for an accurate representation of finished products.

Walton says that’s been resolved with the upgrade to the 1617H. “We had to have a custom profile built, based on the capability of our flexographic press,” Walton adds. “Now we’re working on getting a more accurate color match.”

Most of the prototypes he has been printing so far have been on corrugated material, though he has also done some work on vinyl and bond paper. Often, the prints are just digital proofs to check for accurate trapping and bleeds before approving the full production run. His typical short-run project requires a run of 20 pieces or less.

The company and its clients are starting to discover other ways to tap into digital printing, too. For one national fast-food account, the company uses the digital press to create structured displays and unique packaging for an annual convention.

“Our digital capabilities have really been a good tool for our salespeople,” Walton adds. “When they walk into a customer’s office and show them a carton with their logo printed on it, instead of another brown box, they really perk up.”

Digital mock-ups and prototypes are still new concepts to many of the company’s long-time customers, however. To make them aware of digital’s versatility and get them thinking about how they might incorporate it, Walton and his staff designed, printed, and built a mini tractor trailer, adorned with the company logo, that they distributed at an open house.

“Some of our bigger customers told us they didn’t realize we had the capability to do things like that,” he recalls. “And some asked if we could print a version of the truck, with their logo on it, for their use.”
That, in essence, may be the power of the digitally printed prototype: only when you can hold a package in hand, and see how the colors work with the shape and folds, can you really begin to contemplate the possibilities.

A practical solution for prototypes and short runs
Custom Midwest Corporation in St. Louis, the digital printing division of Riverside Packaging Corporation (www.riverdalecorp.com/services/custom-midwest-corporation-cmc/) specializes in prototypes and limited runs that aren’t possible or cost-effective on high-volume flexographic presses.

“Any salesman will tell you that in the old days, you’d walk in with a white sample box and a picture of how the packaging would look,” says Custom Midwest general manager Mark Gray. But today’s sales reps can carry digitally printed mock-ups and prototypes for greater impact. “Now, with digital, they can show a sample and say, ‘This is what’s its going to look like.’”

Digital printing’s ability to produce only the quantity needed – without the make-ready expenses of traditional printing – also makes it the more practical alternative when only a limited run is needed. “I always recommend going digital for smaller projects to save the costs of dies and plates,” reports Gray. The cut-off for digital is about 1000 pieces, he says; beyond that, the economy of high-volume flexography comes into play.

Regardless of how the final product will be produced, more and more packaging is being perfected on a digital printer first. “With a digital mock-up, you can catch a lot of mistakes you wouldn’t see until you have the actual package in your hand,” Gray notes. “Another advantage is that you can easily make changes on the fly, even try different versions of the same basic design.”

Gray uses Mutoh’s ValueJet 1617H hybrid flatbed/roll-fed printer to provide these services. The 64-inch wide press delivers production speeds of 300 square feet per hour. Gray says it’s a little slower than the wide-format printer it replaced, but delivers much better quality. “There’s always a trade-off between print speed and quality with digital printing,” he notes.

Gray says the ValueJet printer and Mutoh’s MP inks provide results comparable to UV printing. “The biggest advantage is that the MP inks soak into the substrate, as opposed to sitting on the surface,” notes Gray. “When UV ink sits on the surface, it leaves a texture and can crack when folded.”

For prototype production, the company prints most work onto roll-fed, adhesive-backed vinyl or paper, which is then applied to the media of choice. This flat piece is then scored and digitally die cut on the company’s Kongsberg XL22 cutting table prior to assembly.

For short runs, “the substrates we use are usually E-flute or B-flute corrugate for displays and C-flute and double wall for shipping cartons,” says Gray. “We use SBS quite a bit for folding cartons and packaging.”
Some of those shorter runs figure prominently in the launch kits and sales kits clients use to generate interest in new products or packaging, prior to launch. When the samples work, they feed volume business to Riverdale’s flexographic presses.

“We like those short runs to turn into large runs,” says Gray.

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