The 12th Digital Print for Packaging US event was held in Santa Monica June 6-8, attracting some 100 physical attendees to discuss a wide range of topics, plus additional on-line attendees (meaning I had to remain at the podium rather than moving around when presenting.) Inkjet was firmly at the centre, as ink and equipment suppliers related their experiences, together with converters and brand owners explaining how they used the technology. This is a business rather than technology conference, and a great forum for sharing good experiences, and tips to avoid bad ones.
The recurring theme was the role of digital in supporting the sustainability aspirations of retailers, brands, and most importantly, consumers, by reducing waste and cost in the production of packaging. Inkjet has a key role to play in meeting new targets and reducing the environmental burden. Eliminating plates and cylinders with their associated chemistries helps, along with not using press chemicals and water. Digital press set-ups are faster and generate less waste than in flexo or offset. Ink formulations and the use of primers and surface treatments lower the energy burden for drying. But the major benefit is reducing waste in the supply chain – printing what is needed rather than over-ordering and throwing away the unused packs and labels. Identifying and eliminating this waste gives significant cost savings, as well as reducing the cash tied up in inventory, which brands are very happy about. There are many anecdotal claims of inkjet providing benefits, but what is needed is good, unequivocal, scientific proof of inkjet’s advantages, published by a reputable independent source that inkjet users can share to promote to their customers.
The other trend that is clear is that inkjet is now firmly positioned as a mainstream alternative to analogue printing in mainstream pack and label production. There are more high performance machines for labels, corrugated, cartons, flexible packaging, rigids and metal decoration, with inkjet steadily increasing its share in all sectors as more technology arrive. Smithers sizes the overall value of digital pack and label output at around $25 billion in 2022 with growing to more than $40 billion globally by 2027.
The presentations and panel discussions, with good input from the audience, debated the business and market topics. Many new campaigns were showcased, with converters explaining how new business models are being adopted, together with changing business processes necessary to succeed with inkjet. Digital enables just-in-time manufacturing rather than just-in-case which is helping many brands contain some of the additional costs resulting from the 2022 printflation pressures. Ted Samotis at HP estimated the installed base of high performance single pass machines in corrugated at 115, with more being commissioned all the time across the world. As converters understand these new tools they are using them to help their customers. Bob Miller of EFI shared how one of their Spanish customers use their Nozomi C18000 inkjet to print the boxes when needed at the start of the picking season for fruit growers. As they don’t know when the season will start, and how good the drop yields will be, inkjet is used to give them flexibility. At peak, the high demand is flexo printed then at the end they go back to inkjet to make sure the waste is minimised. Previously the growers had to forecast demand and could easily over or under-order, paying for boxes they did not use or worse not being able to meet demand. Bob Seay, Director of Digital Business at Georgia-Pacific Corporation, explained that the start-up of the HP PageWide T1170 in Phoenix has provided nationwide coverage within two days for printed rolls. The greatly reduced time-to-market is proving hugely useful to their customers. This was echoed by Greg Tucker, CEO at Bay Cities who explained how the conversation has developed from purely cost comparison against litholam and flexo into considering then overall cost of a project.
The challenges of attracting and retaining great staff was also discussed. Many companies are using automation in prepress and administration to streamline their business processes with slick web-to-pack systems being adopted. Then Brett Kirkpatrick, Director of Trade Business at The BoxMaker explained that they employed six full time programmers to improve the customer experience, making it more intuitive and taking out manual steps at the box plant to smooth the workflow and get the jobs to press. There was a similar story from Bay Cities who use flatbed inkjet with two single-pass postprint machines (Barberán JetMaster and an HP C500) for displays and boxes. Greg Tucker, CEO at Bay Cities said they counted up 66 workflow apps in the business, and they expected to invest almost a million dollars on software to further streamline the workflow in the coming year. The boom in e-commerce is greatly boosting inkjet box printing, many also decorated on the inside to provide improved consumer engagement.
The sponsors – DuPont Artistri, EFI, Fujifilm, GIS, Heubach, HP and Zund – showcased examples of their, and their customer’s, output. And there was interaction and networking during the breaks throughout the duration of the event. It was great to be back in a room again with real people living and breathing inkjet print.