Corrugated boxes are the lifeblood of the economy. They are the packaging for transporting goods, displaying goods, and surrounding products. If you ever been in a big box store early in the morning you may have seen dozens of corrugated boxes in the aisles as the shelves are stocked. Your kitchen and home appliances likely arrived in slightly upscale corrugated box, and you may have plucked a package from a corrugated shelf or standing display while shopping. From brown kraft to shiny white, completely blank to graphically enriched, corrugated boxes are everywhere.
Companies that create corrugated boxes invest in corrugating, cutting, folding, and gluing technologies, but they also need some print capabilities. At a minimum, most boxes have some indication of where they were made and may include regulatory information. In the US there are certificates and barcodes on the bottom of many boxes, and elsewhere in the world you may see indications of where the box was made, its capacity, or other specifications printed or encoded in barcodes. Some boxes include logos, product images and other graphics, but majority of that print is created with flexographic technology. Digital printing has not been a part of the story. When you see barcodes and other variable information, it is usually printed on a label that is applied as an additional process, adding touchpoints and costs.
While most box plants have access to analog printing technologies to print the material that becomes the outside (and sometimes the inside) of the box, inkjet printing is growing as an option to augment print options. It is the ultimate solution to adding variable content as part of the primary process. Inkjet printing eliminates the need for plate changes and other costs associated with analog printing, opening the door to ganging print jobs, eliminating waste, and adding efficiency. One way to start is by adding inkjet modules to corrugated box production lines. This is the path taken by Acme Corrugated Box Company in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.
Acme Corrugated Box has been in business for more than 100 years, constantly innovating by adding new options to their product lines and looking for production technologies to help them differentiate their offerings. Ten years ago they brought Jeff Bittner on board as the Business Development manager to look at ways to streamline production and offer customers new options. Jeff brought a history in commercial printing and variable data printing into the business, so he began to look for ways that inkjet solutions might be a viable technology to inject into the business. His idea was to apply VDP techniques to the produce the needed barcodes and certificates, eliminating the need for plate changes and permitting ganging of jobs. Jeff wanted to streamline, reduce the waste from starting and ending jobs, and expand capacity, ultimately expanding the profit margins. To do that he needed a partner with the right inkjet technology.
DPi Print Heads on the ACME Corrugated production line.
This is where Digital Print Inc (DPi) comes into the picture. Since 1986 the DPi team have been building freestanding inkjet solutions as well as retrofitting inkjet modules onto web presses and sheet-fed presses. Since 2018 they have been offering inkjet solutions for converting machines using water-based or UV inks and print heads that can run up to 1000 feet per minute. Their specialty is working with innovators and visionaries to design the perfect system, build it, get it installed, and make it productive. Stu Brownell of DPi began working with Jeff to identify options, while Jeff began discussions about the possibilities an inkjet enhancement to a corrugated line could bring.
In November 2020, the installation began, with a quick upgrade added in January 2021. While DPi could configure print heads across the entire width of the corrugator, the ACME installation uses two of DPis narrowest heads to give them 8.5” of printable area. That gives them what they need for barcodes and certification, and even a logo. By eliminating the need for flexo printing, ACME can streamline the time it takes to get into production and combine jobs for efficiency.
The inkjet heads are built by DPi using OEM print modules surrounded by their own technology. They also sell the ink, but not as the primary source of profit. Their model is based on competing with flexo print, so they keep their head and ink costs moderate. The value proposition is the ability to produce up to 18,000 boxes per hour with variable barcodes and certificates, all in a footprint that is smaller than typical flexo environments.
Jeff’s VDP background comes into play as part of the solution. He has expansive plans to offer more color and more variation but starting with the ability to vary barcodes and certifications, he has built an efficient production. Using QPress, the DPi Controller, they can take advantage of built-in step and repeat functions, merge CSV or fixed format files to inform barcodes and certificates, and even add overlays or variable graphics.
Those last two are part of the long-term plan. Jeff and the ACME team are using a crawl, walk, run approach to build their expertise and grow their offerings. Today they run weekly practice to understand how they can combine projects in a single run, how to gather customer specifications, how to leverage the power of the QPress environment, and how to support a new world of inkjet-based variable printing inline with their converting. Leveraging a champion in production as well as Jeff, ACME has built the infrastructure to ensure that a job will be correct at every step of production.
With customers in the pipeline interested in trying what ACME envisions, and even growing into new options, both DPi and ACME have a great story to tell.