Why Is There So Much Buzz About Digital Packaging?

Companies from startups to global brands have learned what digital printing can do for labels and packaging.

If customers haven’t yet asked you to produce small runs of labels or boxes along with their signs, displays, and marketing collateral, they soon might. Many companies now realize that digitally printed packaging should be part of their marketing mix. Plus, a lot of experimentation is underway to improve the functionality, creativity, and sustainability of packaging and to make products less costly to ship.

For many online shoppers, the corrugated mailing box in which their order arrives may be the first tangible representation of an online retailer’s brand. Does the box look and feel special? Or is it plain and cheap-looking? In a 2016 survey of online shoppers by Dotcom Distribution, 40 percent of shoppers said they would be more likely to purchase from a retailer again if the package came in a gift-like or premium box.

In addition to creating different products, labels, and packages for demographically diverse markets, digital printing enables just-in-time production of packaging. Manufacturers don’t have to waste money discarding stockpiles of pre-printed labels, boxes, and packages whenever regulators change labeling requirements.

Packages can also become part of the “Internet of Things.” When printed with special codes or conductive inks, package graphics can confirm the authenticity of the product, warn if the package contents have spoiled, or connect to online product reviews. Interactive packaging can help shoppers use mobile phones to gather additional information at the point of purchase.

If your company already prints brand graphics and marketing collateral, automated workflow and collaboration tools can ensure everyone on the production team is always using the correct brand assets to digitally print labels, cartons, boxes, signs, and displays.

The following examples show how some businesses are already capitalizing on the growing interest in digitally printed labels, folding cartons, and corrugated and flexible packaging. In these stories, you’ll see some synergies between printing signs, displays, and custom packaging.

Short-Run Label Production
ColorZone is a full-service imaging and exhibits business in Benicia, California. Their clients include wineries, boutique food companies, and high-tech firms. When ColorZone opened in 1997, its largest revenue source was providing color copies. Now, they offer tradeshow displays, signs, banners, and vehicle wraps. The company has a reputation for quality, color matching, and innovative products.

Recently, wine-business customers wanted to leverage ColorZone’s design talent and printing versatility to produce prototype labels. (Market research shows that eye-catching labels have a powerful impact on wine sales.)

After ColorZone used their Vutek GS3250LX Pro LED superwide inkjet printer and Zünd cutter to create some prototype labels, they bought an EFI Jetrion narrow-web inkjet label press so they could deliver the relatively small runs of labels that winemakers need when bottling different varieties of wine each year.

The label press includes inline finishing modules, so ColorZone entered the label business with a single hardware installation. The printer takes blank substrates in one end and delivers complete die-cut, slit, and back-scored rolls out the other end.

Although the label business is new for ColorZone, Joshua Feller, president, sees lots of potential for new clients. He recalls that when he entered the large-format graphics market 10 years ago, he didn’t have a background in the business then: “Yet, I was able to build a successful offering.”

Ingram Express Services
Corrugated Boxes, Displays, and Retail Graphics
Ingram Express Services in Nashville, Tennessee, offers printing, finishing, graphic design, and fulfillment services to national retailers and local businesses. They also get jobs from print brokers and partner with offset printers and sign shops who need help with wide-format printing, pick-and-pack fulfillment, and custom short-run boxes.

For its first 16 years, Ingram Express Services was a fulfillment house for offset printing companies. One specialty service they provided was mounting printed sheets onto corrugated packaging materials.

The company expanded into large-format printing in 2011 when a retail customer they had provided packaging for asked them to acquire digital printing equipment to make prototypes. Today, the shop has five wide-format printers: two flatbeds, two hybrids, and one roll-to-roll. Their most recent purchase was the EFI Vutek HS125 Pro hybrid printer for higher-speed production. Ingram also has two Esko Kongsberg digital cutting tables.

Company owner Adam Ingram says many small-business customers are happy they no longer have to buy 10,000 or more boxes at once or pay $5000 to produce cutting dies and printing plates. Now, any business can order as many boxes as they need, whether it’s 10, 50, 500, or 1000. When they re-order boxes, the graphics can easily be modified with holiday greetings, an updated logo, or seasonal images.

Esko software includes templates for displays and packaging.

Ingram doesn’t need a structural packaging designer on staff because Esko’s ArtiosCAD software includes templates for hundreds of boxes. An on-staff graphic designer can download a template and adjust the dimensions to fit the customer’s requirements. Before approving the design, they can hold and inspect a sample of what the full print run will look like.

The shop also uses templates from ArtiosCAD to create 3D P-O-P displays for retail customers. In addition to using the Kongsberg cutter to make boxes and displays, the company uses it to create hanging signs and floor graphics in eye-catching shapes.

Ingram loves the versatility and quick turnaround capacity that his up-to-date fleet of inkjet printers and digital cutters provides. He credits the shop’s success to being 100-percent committed to digital printing. They don’t treat it as an add-on to higher-run printing services.

Ingram believes custom packaging represents a huge opportunity for digital printing firms because it opens the door to serve small- to medium-sized local businesses who couldn’t afford branded shipping boxes before. This includes mom-and-pop shops that sell products through Amazon or eBay and ship about 20 orders a day.

Folding Cartons, Boxes, and Displays
ThePaperWorker.com was launched in 2011 by The Colad Group, a Buffalo, New York-based company that has been providing custom binders, sales kits, P-O-P easels, and presentation folders to graphic designers, ad agencies, and marketing groups for more than 60 years.

Visitors to ThePaperWorker.com can design and order short runs of folding cartons, mailing boxes, and gift boxes. The site features more than 225 styles of packaging that can be created from paperboard, rigid stocks, or corrugated materials. Customers can use the 3D preview feature to see how their 2D designs will look when the panels are folded to form the finished box.

ThePaperWorker.com offers 100-plus box styles, plus packaging for USB drives for press kits or sales presentations.

According to The Colad Group President Todd Anson, the company launched ThePaperWorker.com after realizing how much potential business they were turning away from people who only wanted about 50 boxes instead of Colad’s 250 minimum order for printing on their 40-inch offset press.

So, Colad took steps to reduce their minimum orders. With the mix of digital, flatbed, and offset presses they operate today, they can handle orders from one to 1 million custom boxes and folding cartons.

About two years ago, ThePaperWorker.com started offering large-format signs and displays. Options include P-O-P display easels, easel signs, banners, banner stands, chipboard P-O-P displays, and standees/cut-outs.

“A good number of customers order signs and displays when they order promotional packaging,” says Anson.

The Colad Group operates ThePaperWorker.com as a “company within a company.” According to Anson, “Everything we use to produce orders from ThePaperWorker is unique to the business – from the job tickets to the machinery. We also have a team dedicated to this segment.”

A fully automated workflow sends jobs to either a Xeikon 6000 digital press or an Océ Arizona flatbed printer followed by Esko or Zünd cutting machines. Traditional die-cutting machines from Bobst and Brausse Group are available as needed.

The Colad Group’s five structural package design engineers primarily work with the company’s sales team on prototypes for larger orders. But they can also create custom designs for online customers or double-check their designs before production.

Along with shorter run lengths, some Colad customers were seeking more targeted messaging. Designers use Esko’s Deskpack software to add dynamic bar codes and other variable data to their package designs.

The Colad Group will consider partnerships with graphics firms that want to offer shorter or longer runs of custom packaging and presentation products. Getting into the short-run packaging business can involve ancillary investments well beyond adding printers and putting up a website, says Anson. “It has taken Colad and ThePaperWorker.com many years to get to where we are today.”

Custom Mailers and Cartons
Like many shops that digitally print custom T-shirts, apparel, accessories, and gift items, Packlane is a haven for creative entrepreneurs.

Packlane is an online storefront through which people can design and order everything from small folding cartons to large shipping boxes. Each type of box can be sized so the product fits snugly inside.

The website was founded by web designer Miriam Brafman. When she looked online for a company that could print custom packaging, most of the options looked “old-school” in terms of design. And, she had to call a salesperson to get a quote.

After learning more about what’s possible with digital printing, Brafman built the Packlane e-commerce website with a custom design lab, live preview, and the ability to get instant quotes. Some of Packlane’s first customers were entrepreneurs she worked with at the WeWork collaborative workspace in Berkeley, California.

For example, Packlane made custom shipping boxes for a producer of limited-edition T-shirts and apparel. Another startup sends subscribers a curated selection of Paleo-friendly snacks each month. The founder of the subscription box startup says, “A professional image is extremely important to startups. Custom packaging set us up for success from the very beginning.”

Packlane’s online store allows customers to design and order small folding cartons to large shipping boxes.

“The success of a packaging design is really determined by the quality of the graphic design,” says Brafman. “It’s important to work with a talented graphic designer to get the most out of an investment in custom packaging.”

Packlane has introduced a free course on the Skillshare online training platform called “Packaging Design for Creatives and Entrepreneurs.”

Digital Printing for Flexible Packaging
Flexible package production uses plastics, films, paper, and aluminum foil to create lightweight bags, pouches, liners, and overwraps for a vast array of products. About 60 percent of flexible packaging is used for food, according to the Flexible Packaging Association, but it’s also used for consumer products, medical and pharmaceutical products, and industrial products.

Printing flexible packaging can be tricky because it often requires printing brand colors and fine text on thin plastic films. Packaging converters for food products must deal with toxicity issues and FDA regulations.

While many digital printing firms might regard 1000 to 25,000 pieces as a long-run job, these volumes are short runs to companies that make tens of billions of flexible packages each year.

Flexible packaging converters know that marketers of consumer goods will continue to develop and test multiple new products within their brands, create shorter runs of packaging for each variation, and use sales data to promote different products regionally and globally. All these trends favor the increased use of digital printing.

So, while flexible package printing is often discussed as an avenue for growth among digital printing firms, it’s wise to understand the challenges before making the leap. However, some investors that understand flexible packaging view digital printing as a game-changer for an industry that’s based on long lead times and runs.

In May 2016, ePac in Madison, Wisconsin, became the first flexible packaging company in North America based exclusively on digital printing. EPac offers digital printing, laminating, and pouch-making services for all sizes of consumer packaged goods companies, converters, and contract packagers. The company is a joint partnership between Emerald Packaging, a flexible packaging converter that was a beta test site of the HP Indigo 20000, and Arion Partners, a strategic investment consultancy to the packaging industry.

Using the HP Indigo 20000 wide-web digital press for flexible packaging, ePac will help sellers of coffee, natural and organic foods, pet foods, snacks, cheese, and lawn and garden supplies produce short runs of packaging graphics for testing and roll-out marketing promotions. For small- to medium-sized businesses, it’s an attractive solution to today’s packaging challenges.

EPac is already gaining customers. A global brand leveraged ePac’s variable data printing capabilities to produce personalized snack bags tied to a social media promotion. For Just Born Quality Confections (makers of Peeps and Mike & Ike candy), digital printing allows them to produce actual packaging samples (instead of mockups) for sales presentations to retailers.

What’s Next?
Slowly but surely, digital printing is erasing the boundaries that previously existed between offset, flexo, gravure, and screen printing. Instead of hiring several printing companies to make hundreds of thousands of copies of a single product, more clients are expecting a single digital printing company to produce shorter runs of many different types of printed materials.

The key to profitably serving these changing expectations is to automate all phases of your workflow so you can produce a much greater variety of print materials without hiring too many additional people.

After studying how wide-format graphics companies handle short runs of multiple types of products, Esko introduced Automation Engine Avant, a dedicated wide-format workflow bundle that can help companies enhance file management and communications with customers and make overall throughput more efficient. It can be bundled with Device Manager, a tool for gathering production data directly from Kongsberg tables to create accurate estimates and invoices. With Automation Engine Connect, the data can be fed into MIS systems, including the homegrown systems that some sign and screen-printing shops have developed.

“The automation and integration needs of sign and display shops are different from those of the companies that produce high volumes of packages and boxes,” says Greg Stewart, strategy business development manager at Esko. “But sign and display printing is rapidly moving from being a craft to being a manufacturing process.” As graphics production becomes more automated, all types of printing businesses will be able to accomplish more types of work (including package printing) with the same number of employees.

Packaging is a massive, multifaceted business with many niches and specialized requirements. At tradeshows such as Pack Expo, manufacturers and packaging converters are eager to find ways to make packaging more sustainable, functional, creative, and cost-effective.

Companies equipped with digital presses can help packaging designers test new concepts and game-changing innovations.

Over the next few years, some high-volume converters of labels and packaging will integrate industrial inkjet printers into their production lines.

Right now, plenty of opportunities exist to produce short runs of labels, corrugated boxes, and folding cartons for e-commerce entrepreneurs, micro brands, retailers, and local manufacturers.

In marketing lingo, packaging will always be a key touchpoint in the overall customer experience. But the role of packaging will evolve with changes in how products are manufactured, promoted, and purchased.

Some futurists envision a time when products aren’t centrally manufactured in batches and shipped to multiple warehouses. When manufacturing is fully automated, products can be manufactured and customized on demand and shipped directly to the customer. What type of packaging will customers expect then?

Read more from Big Picture's November/December 2016 issue.

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