Digitalization of packaging: a great opportunity at Drupa


Drupa is finally back . With less than a year to go until its celebration, the expectation is growing. After eight years and the impact of Covid, it is difficult to determine what the theme of the fair will be.

The drivers of sustainability, automation and workflow, as the world continues to digitalise, dominate most printing and packaging operations. Recruiting and retaining qualified staff is becoming increasingly difficult for many companies, as baby boomers retire and digitally native younger generations demand a different approach to their work lives.
Advances in digital printing will take center stage across all printing, industrial and packaging sectors, with further announcements at drupa this year. Digital packaging offers many opportunities to commercial printers looking to enter new sectors, as many traditional printing applications continue to decline. The same dynamic is encouraging more equipment suppliers to offer digital printing systems for labels, corrugated cardboard, cartons, flexible packaging, rigid plastics, glass and metal packaging.

The figures show how suppliers of digital printing equipment for labels and packaging have evolved since this technology map was first drawn up in 2019. There has been a constant flow of new entrants, from established suppliers of analogue printing equipment and new suppliers that take advantage of their experience in digital printing.

Added to these are digital overprinting systems and sophisticated custom integrations, some functioning as part of the manufacturing and filling lines. Although there has been consolidation on the supply side, it is striking that there have been few exits from the sector, the high number of players that now compete in the wide range of packaging applications, offering new capabilities and functionalities, with productivity constantly increasing and lower costs.

Well, the good news for us printing technicians is that this year, this diagram will become even more crowded. Smithers follows the development of this sector, publishing reports and organizing conferences on digitally printed packaging. The European, American and Asian events bring together hundreds of brands, retailers, packers/fillers, converters, agencies and designers, along with equipment, substrate and ink/toner suppliers, with workflow and logistics companies also participating. These are excellent forums and, over the years, the discussion has moved from technological issues to the tangible benefits and business process improvements of adopting digital printing and, increasingly, digital finishing. .

Today, quality, reliability and productivity are no longer issues for inkjet and electrophotography packaging presses. At drupa there will be sheetfed inkjet machines offering the equivalent of process color sheetfed lithographic printing at speeds of 11,000 B1 sheets per hour, while web presses offer speeds in excess of 400m per minute up to 2. 8m wide. These are alternatives to lithography, flexography and gravure.

Printhead and press manufacturers are developing methods to eliminate inkjet artifacts by compensating in real time for nozzle exits and drifts, extending head life and machine uptime. . Inkjet will be the real winner, with faster machines, especially in flexible packaging. Ink technology is improving, with the use of UV and water-based inks for specific applications. There will be more pigmented formulations that will help reduce ink film thickness and reduce total cost of ownership, further driving the share of digital printing.

It’s not just about printing. Some suppliers will demonstrate highly automated single-pass systems to print and finish corrugated, carton and flexible boxes in a single pass. The key factor is the combination of digital printing with digital finishing. These are automated control systems that control the press, measure and check the print, and then perform finishing, which can consist of varnishing, laminating, cutting, creasing, folding and gluing, along with a wide variety of embellishments. Digital front-end controllers are becoming more powerful, automating and controlling the digital printing unit while measuring and controlling quality, then adjusting and controlling finishing technology. This approach helps replace the traditional skills of press operators and journeyman finishing operators, which is important as skilled labor resources become scarce.

Although the new digital presses are grabbing the headlines, even more important is the workflow software. The only way to make money with a digital press is to produce salable products, so a powerful workflow is vital for preparing design files and keeping your print queue well stocked. At drupa, many companies will offer solutions that integrate with management information systems to automate the administration required to manage many short-run jobs. The workflow will become increasingly collaborative, with new designs produced and approved, then uploaded to work queues for automated color management and imposition without manual intervention in the converter. The information management system is linked to substrate ordering and production planning at the printer and finishing to meet customer needs and optimize converter capacity.

Digital workflow can be daunting for packaging converters used to handling a few large jobs, but it’s the way of the world. Companies can explore solutions at drupa to simplify supply chains that will be key to future success in packaging and label supply. Market leaders offer a wide variety of creative software. They will show new methods to automate the repetitive processes involved in packaging design, approvals and prepress, reducing time and costs from the process. Others will offer specific solutions for the integration and optimization of color management, imposition and variable data.

Ultimately, all of these packaging developments are driven by the expectations, or rather the demands, of end customers. In an increasingly connected world, these demands and expectations are changing, with greater engagement and interaction to improve the consumer experience with the brand. Digital printing allows brands to make content decisions later in the supply chain, closer to the consumer, helping packaging offer additional valuable functions. These additional functions take the packaging beyond the traditional functions of containment and protection, with information and promotion. A unique digital print can connect to the cyber world, opening new opportunities for logistics efficiency and greater consumer engagement.

Drupa is the most important print fair, because exhibitors (and all the important ones will be there) show what they have, while taking advantage of the event to show what they are working on to get feedback. And digital packaging printing (plus finishing) will be very present. There will be more machines for labels, corrugated cardboard (post and pre-press), litholam substitutes, folding boxes, flexible packaging, metal and direct printing machines on cans, aerosols, plastic and glass. Established companies will show improvements in quality, speed and formats, and new inks and toners will expand the types of packaging they can produce.

I’m looking forward to seeing the newcomers, who have already announced what new features they will present, and I know of several potential developments that, unfortunately, are under confidentiality and I cannot mention, which is a tech correspondent’s nightmare. That will change when Drupa opens.

So let May 2024 begin!


About the Author

Sean Smyth is an experienced Smithers analyst and consultant who brings a wealth of experience. With a keen eye for detail and a passion for data-driven insights, Sean helps his clients make informed decisions and overcome complex business challenges. His extensive knowledge spans various sectors, such as market research, strategic planning and project management. Armed with a strong analytical mindset and excellent problem-solving skills, Sean has a knack for uncovering hidden opportunities and optimizing business operations. His commitment to exceptional results and his ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and concisely make him a valuable asset to Smithers and his clients.