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The Rise of Inkjet in Packaging

(April 2017) posted on Mon May 15, 2017

A deep dive into single-pass digital inkjet printing onto corrugated packaging.

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By Mark Hanley

On the rise of drupa 2016, the industry highly anticipated a mass coverage of inkjet solutions for packaging on the show floor. Yet it was a surprise to some – those who had been expecting more of an emphasis on folding carton packaging – to see a lot of the action centered on corrugated materials. Why the sudden interest in a new breed of printers? Will the systems currently in development fill a hole in the market? What needs are yet to be met? To answer these questions, we have to understand the “how.” 

Understanding the Corrugated Market

Traditionally, corrugated packaging has been, and still largely remains, a secondary type of packaging designed for structural strength in bulk packaging of large products or batches of smaller products within the supply chain. All corrugated packages are printed, though in the past, most of the work was functional, low-coverage line-art work in one to three colors. However, in the last 20 to 25 years, about 30 percent of corrugated print has come to be printed at a range of quality levels referred to within the industry as “high color.” That encompasses line art in graduated tones up to full offset quality when laminated to corrugated board.

This demand for higher quality is being driven by two factors. First, large consumer goods and bulk quantities of those items are now sold in modern retail environments in a way that requires the structural strength of corrugated packaging. But anything that’s sold at retail has to advertise and communicate product information and brand identity – which means having offset-style quality on the packaging. Second, there’s been a strategic move – principally in the food retailing industry – to Retail Ready Packaging (RRP), which is a way of simplifying the need to re-pack bulk goods from the distributor into retail-sized quantities in separate primary packaging. If you design the secondary packaging well enough to fit physically and visually into the retail environment, it can be placed straight onto the retail shelf and become primary consumer packaging. This means print on corrugated has to rise to the standards of primary packaging. About one-third of high-color print is accounted for by the shift in retail, and two-thirds by RRP. (RRP is, at this time, considerably more advanced in Europe than in the US.)